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The Sacred Ghost Town of Ani, City of 1001 Churches: Deserted By Man, Destroyed By Nature

The Sacred Ghost Town of Ani, City of 1001 Churches: Deserted By Man, Destroyed By Nature

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First mentioned in the 5th century by Armenian chroniclers, the “Ghost City” of Ani was described as a strong fortress on a hilltop that was a possession of the Armenian Kamsarakan dynasty. From this point on and throughout its occupation, the site had a turbulent history: changing hands multiple times, withstanding sieges, massacres, earthquakes, and looting - which led to its eventual abandonment. Despite this, the site has been seen as a place of extreme beauty, architectural marvel, and rich history for both the Turks and Armenians. While it remains a point of contention between these two nationalities, it is currently being restored, and conserved as an important piece of world history which may lead to it being named a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Ruins of the Cathedral of Ani and the church of Redeemer in Ani, an ancient capital of Armenia in the 10th century. ( CC BY 2.0 )

The Growth of an Armenian Capital

In the 9th century, Ani had been incorporated in the territories of the Armenian Bagratuni dynasty. At this time, the capital of the territory moved from Bagaran to Shirakavan, and then Kars. Finally, the capital was moved to Ani in 961. It was during this time that Ani began its rapid expansion, and in 992 the Armenian Catholicosate, the hierarchical see of the apostolic church, moved its seat to Ani. By the start of the 11th century the population of Ani was well over 100,000 and it gained renown as the “city of forty gates” and the “city of a thousand and one churches.” Ani also became the site of the royal mausoleum of the Bagratuni kings of Armenia. In the middle of the 11th century, King Gagik II opposed several Byzantine armies and was able to fend them off for a time. However, in 1046, Ani surrendered to the Byzantines and a Byzantine governor was installed in the city.

Church of Saint Gregory (King Gagik) ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

Captured and Contested City

In 1064, a large Seljuk army attacked Ani, and after a 25 day siege the city was captured decimating its population. In 1072, the Seljuks sold Ani to the Shaddadids, a Muslim Kurdish dynasty. At this time, the Shaddadids employed a conciliatory policy towards the city’s predominantly Armenian and Christian populace. However, the people found their new rulers too intolerant and they appealed to the Christian kingdom of Georgia. Between 1124 and 1209, the city moved back and forth between the Georgians and the Shaddadids numerous times until it was finally captured by the Georgians. In 1236, the Mongols captured the city and massacred much of the population. By the 14 th century, the city was under the control of local Turkish dynasties and soon became part of the Ottoman Empire. An earthquake devastated the site in 1319, reducing the city to a mere village. In 1735 the site was completely abandoned when the last monks left the monastery.

The religious landscape of the medieval Armenian city of Ani, now in Turkey, as viewed from Armenia. (CC BY SA 3.0 )

Religious Remains

Called the “city of a thousand and once churches”, archaeologists have found at least 40 churches, chapels, and mausoleums, all designed by the greatest architectural and artistic minds of their time. The Cathedral of Ani stands above the city, despite its collapsed dome and destroyed northwest corner it remains imposing in scale. It was completed in 1001 by the Armenian King Gagik I, at the peak of prosperity in the city, and designed by Trdat, the renown Armenian architect who also served the Byzantines by helping them repair the dome of Hagia Sophia.

Two people sitting inside the Cathedral of Ani just a hundred metres from the border of Armenia. Large parts of the roof have fallen down, allowing daylight to find its way into the building. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

The Church of the Redeemer stands today as half a church propped up by scaffolding. However, in its time it was an architectural marvel featuring 19 archways and a dome, all made from local reddish-brown volcanic basalt. This church also housed a fragment of the true cross, on which Christ was crucified. In the 10 th century, the Church of St. Gregory of the Abughamrentists was built as a 12-sided chapel that has a dome carved with blind arcades. In the early 20 th century, a mausoleum was discovered buried under the church’s north side, likely containing the remains of Prince Grigor Pahlavuni. Unfortunately, like many of the sites at Ani, the prince’s sepulchre has been looted.

The supported ruins of The Church of the Redeemer (CC BY SA 3.0 )

Under the control of the Shaddadids, buildings such as the mosque of Manuchihr were erected. The minaret still stands, from when the mosque was originally built in the late 11th century, perched on the edge of a cliff. The rest of the mosque’s features are likely later additions. The original purpose of the mosque is contested by the Armenians and Turks. Some believe that the building once served as a palace for the Armenian Bagratid dynasty and was later converted into a mosque. The other side of the argument maintains that the structure was originally built as a mosque, and thus was the first mosque in Anatolia. Both sides hold that the mosque is more important to their nationality.

The ruins of Manucehr Mosque, an 11th century mosque built among the ruins of Ani. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

A Struggle for Preservation

In 1892, the first archaeological excavations were conducted at the site of Ani, sponsored by the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences and supervised by Nicholas Marr. From this excavation, numerous buildings were uncovered, documented in academic journals, and presented in guidebooks, and the entire site was surveyed. Emergency repairs were undertaken on the buildings that were most at risk of collapse, and a museum was established in the Minuchihr mosque and a purpose-built building housing thousands of items found during the excavations. In World War I, about 6000 artifacts were moved from the museum to the collection of Yerevan’s State Museum of Armenian History; what remained in Ani was eventually looted or destroyed. Turkey’s surrender at the end of the war lead to the restoration of Ani to Armenian control. But, in 1921 Ani was incorporated into the Republic of Turkey.

Today, Turkish-Armenian tensions leave the site hotly contested. Despite this, there is an ongoing effort by archaeologists and activists to preserve the ruins. Historians have long argued for the historical importance of Ani as a forgotten nexus, as a result Ani is now on a tentative list for recognition as a Unesco World Heritage Site. Restoration efforts began in 2011 by the World Monument Fund in partnership with the Turkish Ministry of Culture, and they may be able to preserve what is left of the ghost city.

Kizkale Church viewed from the citadel ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

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