One of the highlights of my trip to Turkey’s eastern Kars province was the ancient city of Ani. Even though I read a number of articles and did my research before going there, the glory and beauty of the ancient ruins absolutely mesmerized me.
Located around 42 kilometers (26.1 miles) away from the Kars city center, Ani is known as "the world city" or "cradle of civilizations,” and was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2016.
Located on the Turkey-Armenia border, Ani is one of the greatest historical and cultural gems in the country. Ani was home to Urartu, Scythian, Persian, Macedonian, Seleucid, Arsaguni, Sasanid and Kamsaragan civilizations until it was conquered by Muslim armies in the year 643.
Ani was ruled by the Bagrationi dynasty in 884-1045 and by Byzantines in 1045-1064. It was conquered by Seljuk Sultan Alparslan on Aug. 16, 1064.
The site spanning 85 hectares (210 acres) was home to many civilizations and languages throughout history, including Armenian, Greek, Turkish, Arabic, Georgian and Persian from 970 to 1320. Muslims and Christians lived side by side in Ani for centuries.
Ani has been home to at least 23 civilizations, and there are many historical mosques, churches, cathedrals and cultural treasures that have been preserved. All the structures in Ani were built using local volcanic basalt, which is easy to carve, serves as a functional insulator and comes in many vibrant colors, such as rosy red and jet black. One of the biggest and most prominent buildings of the ancient city is the Cathedral of Ani.
A rather Gothic-looking structure with novel features such as pointed arches and a now nonexistent dome, the cathedral is an impressive piece of Armenian architecture. Its importance as a house of God was preserved even when it changed hands throughout history, becoming the first place where Muslim prayers were held in Anatolia after the Seljuk’s momentous victory in the Battle of Manzikert (1071), which opened up the gates of Anatolia to the Turks.
The cathedral, however, was greatly damaged in a devastating earthquake in 1319 as well as during the Mongol invasion, events that marked the beginning of the great city’s decline. By the time the 17th century rolled around, the city was left desolate.
One of the most popular structures in Ani is the church of St. Gregory of the Abughamrents. Photos of the church surrounded by an endless white landscape have been circulating all around social media in the past few years. The church is thought to date from the late 10th century. It was built as a private chapel for the Pahlavuni family. Their mausoleum, built in 1040 and now reduced to its foundations, was constructed against the northern side of the church. The church has a centralized plan, with a dome over a drum, and the interior has six exedra.
Another building that will definitely catch your attention is the mosque of Manuchihr. The mosque is named after its presumed founder, Manuchihr, the first member of the Shaddadid dynasty that ruled Ani after 1072. The oldest surviving part of the mosque is its still intact minaret. It has the Arabic word Basmala ("In the name of God") in Kufic lettering high on its northern face. The prayer hall, half of which survives, dates from a later period (the 12th or 13th century). In 1906, the mosque was partially repaired in order to house a public museum containing objects found during Nicholas Marr's excavations.
The church of St. Stephanos, another historical structure of Ani, is thought to have been built in 1218, the same year the Georgian Catholicos Yepipan inscription was engraved on one of the walls of the already existing church.
The church was planned as a rectangle on the outside and single nave on the inside. Under the nave, there was a long barrel vaulted room. It was partly underground and may have served as a crypt. On the south wall, there are two figurative sculptures carved in bas-relief. These depict the Annunciation and the Visitation.
While strolling around the ancient city you will also see remains of a 1-kilometer-long (0.62-mile-long) bazaar street with shops that were built between the 11th-13th centuries. Every inch of the ancient city has its own story and Turkish archaeologists are still working on unearthing more structures. One of the latest buildings unearthed was the first Turkish bath (hammam) built in the Anatolia region. The excavations stop during the winter season when snow covers the ancient city, but work picks back up as soon as the weather gets better.
A line of walls around 6 kilometers long that encircled the entire city defended Ani. The most powerful defenses were along the northern side of the city, the only part of the site not protected by rivers or ravines. Here the city was protected by a double line of walls, with the much taller inner wall studded by numerous large and closely spaced semicircular towers. Contemporary chroniclers wrote that King Smbat (977–989) built these walls. Later rulers strengthened Smbat's walls by making them substantially higher and thicker, and by adding more towers. Armenian inscriptions from the 12th and 13th centuries show that private individuals paid for some of these newer towers. The northern walls had three gateways, known as the Lion Gate, the Kars Gate and the Dvin Gate (also known as the Chequer-Board Gate because of a panel of red and black stone squares over its entrance).
There are many other minor monuments at Ani and some of them are still waiting to be unearthed. These include a convent known as the Virgins' chapel; a church used by Chalcedonian Armenians; the remains of a single-arched bridge over the Arpaçay (Akhurian) River; the ruins of numerous oil-presses and several bathhouses; the remains of a second mosque with a collapsed minaret and more.
If you are planning a trip to Kars I would recommend sparing a day for Ani as it will take a while to walk around the whole territory and explore all its historical structures. The atmosphere, history and beautiful nature around the city will definitely leave an impression.