Of Medieval Ghosts and Forgotten Territory: A City of 1,001 Churches
The Turkish town of Ani looks like a museum to the most beautiful ecclesiastical ruins in history.
Perhaps because they’ve managed to conquer time and to remain, or because remote architecture retains its charm, that charm generally projected onto ruins is also universally appreciated. On the Turkish-Armenian border, close to the Arpa River, one can see the remains of a medieval city, a wasteland whose ruins speak through ghosts. The memory is of the ungovernable town of Ani, “the city of 1001 churches.”
The legendary city of Ani, founded during the Bagratuni dynasty, found its place on the maps between the historic metropolises of Constantinople and Cairo. The population ranged between 100,000 and 200,000 inhabitants. Like any great, audacious, imperial city, Ani was built in a strategic area, on a triangle superimposed over the top of a hill. This gave the city strength over a hundred year period until the Byzantine conquest in 1045. Since then, the skyline of the ambitious metropolis went to seed: persistent conquests and looting forced the population to finally convert it to a full ghost town by the mid-eighteenth century.
What couldn’t be taken from Ani were precisely the greatest of it treasures: its precious religious architecture. In 992, the Armenian Catholic Church chose Ani as their principle patriarchal seat. Architecture in the Sassanian, Arabic, Armenian and Seljuk styles was erected, primarily in churches built from volcanic basalt. Today, more than a millennium after its founding, among its tireless hills, the medieval monuments for which it was called the city of 1,001 churches still survive.
The history of Ani, the history of the territory, has always been that of a wasteland under continual assault. A century after the city’s abandonment, it was rediscovered by archaeologists and European travelers who dedicated a museum to the artifacts found there. This too was destined for looting and abandonment once Turkey seized the territory after the first world war. As the region that currently divides Turkey and Armenia, it’s a region of endless exploitation, vandalism, inadequate restoration and unfavorable conditions from nature itself.
Despite all this, Ani, with its legion of 1,001 churches, continues to defy time, and will, perhaps forever.
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