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The unexpected treasures of Eastern Turkey

Turkey is no stranger to tourists but not many explore the far east of the country. Archaeologist Christine Winzor gives us a personal tour of the many churches at the ancient site of Ani

Cathedral at Ani, Eastern Turkey

Overwhelmed by the renowned attractions and bright lights of Istanbul and by the astonishing ruins of classical marble scattered along the hundreds of kilometres of stunning coastline on three sides, few travellers penetrate to the far east of Turkey, where a completely different historical landscape awaits the intrepid visitor.

The starting point for this exploration is Kars, immortalized as a remote, bleak and depressing frontier city in Orhan Pamuk’s novel, Snow, which explores some of the deeper political and social themes facing modern Turkey. The protagonist, poet and journalist Kerim Alakusoglu, abbreviated simply as Ka, is sent to Kars by an Istanbul newspaper to write an article about the municipal elections in Kars and to investigate a spate of suicides by young girls in the city. Three days of unremitting snow cut off the city completely from the outside world.

Kar is the Turkish word for snow, and local scholars say the city takes it name from "karsu" (snow-water). Kars is undeniably one of the coldest places in Turkey due to its altitude of 1770 m, with temperatures dropping to -35 degrees centigrade in winter. Snow remains on the ground for up to four months, and for all but the very hardiest of travellers the best time of year to visit this far eastern region of Turkey is from May through to October. By late Spring the expansive steppe leading out from the city is lush and verdant, and grazed by enormous herds of fawn coloured cattle. Large flocks of noisy geese saunter through the ponds and puddles left by the retreating snow.

From the airport at Kars (where just one car rental company operates), it is a forty-eight kilometre drive to the spectacular ruins of Ani, an abandoned medieval city nominated for recognition as an UNESCO World Heritage site. As it overlooks the closed border between Turkey and the Republic of Armenia, it was formerly necessary to obtain a permit to visit this sensitive location, but this condition has been waived and photography is no longer prohibited. The road east from Kars undulates across the treeless plain, and at the turn-off to the village of Subatan there is a monument commemorating the Turkish villagers killed by retreating Armenian soldiers during the first World War - an unexpected reminder that there are two sides to every conflict. Finally, from a slight rise in the road, the formidable city walls of Ani come into view, with scattered monuments beyond, reminding this writer of her first glimpses many years ago of Palmyra rising from the desert.

The site of Ani

From its foundation as the capital of the Armenian Bagratid dynasty in AD 961, Ani flourished for over four hundred years due to its location on key trade routes. At its peak, Ani was larger than any contemporary European city, with a population of over 100,000 by the 11th century: early Christian sources describe the city as having some fifty city gates, one hundred palaces, 10,000 houses and the fabled “thousand and one” churches.

In 1319 Ani was devastated by a severe earthquake and residents began to desert the city; no inscription later than the middle of the 14th century has been found at the site. Final abandonment had occurred by the middle of 18th century, only for the forsaken city to be rediscovered by European travellers the following century. Western interest in Armenian architecture was particularly aroused by the ten large engravings of Ani published by Frenchman Charles Texier in his "Description de l'Armenie" after a visit to Ani in 1839.

Sponsored by the St Petersburg Academy of Scientists, excavations were first conducted at Ani by the Russian archaeologist Nikolai Marr in 1892 and 1893, and continued from 1904 until 1917. Between 1989 and 2005 excavations were undertaken by Turkish archaeologists under the direction of Prof. Beyhan Karamagaralı and more recently restoration work has been carried out by the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

The ruins of Ani extend across a 162 hectare site at the confluence of two rivers, the Arpa Çay (the Harpasus of antiquity) and the Alaca Çay, and at least three hours are needed to see the city properly. Visitors should wear sturdy footwear and are recommended to carry water and snacks with them as there are no facilities within the city walls. Protection against the sun is also highly recommended as there is no shade on site.

The mighty double city walls are entered via the Lion Gate (Arslan KapÄ), named for the large bas-relief of a lion set high into the nearby wall, and from within the walls the vast extent of the city becomes apparent, with scattered stone monuments rising from the desolate, rock-strewn plateau ahead. Buildings – including baths, inns, workshops, warehouses, shops and houses - once covered the entire flat area within the city walls, but in comparison with the religious architecture, most of these vernacular buildings were economically/affordably constructed and have collapsed almost without trace into the field of rubble that covers most of Ani. The city is best toured in a clock-wise direction, so continue along the path to the left.


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