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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Armenia's Ancient Ani

Mist rosefrom the deep gorge that separates Turkey from Armenia on the day I toured the ruins of an ancient city that has nearly slipped from historical memory. Once this was the capital of a great empire and home to kings, bishops and 100,000 prosperous citizens. Today it is eerie and abandoned, the shells of its great churches and palaces conveying a sense of the impermanence of grandeur.

This city was Ani, which 10 centuries ago was the seat of Armenian royalty. For years it has been off limits to visitors because it was close to regions that were caught in the war between the Turkish army and Kurdish rebels. Now the war is all but over, and Ani is once again accessible. I made it the centerpiece of a thrilling trip through eastern Turkey.

Ani had been long forgotten when French and British explorers rediscovered it in the 1830s. One of them wrote that he found "something impressive and almost awful in the sight of a Christian town, built in a style so peculiar to itself, and unknown to modern Europe, now nearly in the same state in which its destroyers had left it eight centuries ago.''

Another was even more poetic, declaring that "the deserted yet still standing city resembles the corpse whose breath had fled, but which still retains the semblance of life.''

No houses remain in Ani, though with a bit of imagination one can pick out foundations or patterns of stones that suggest where neighborhoods might have stood. A single paved avenue, undulating through what was once the center of town, hints at the original street pattern. Rising from this desolation are the regal remains of a dozen great buildings that testify to Ani's former glory. They are as breathtaking today as they were when European outsiders first reached the site a century and a half ago. Stone churches are covered with inscriptions that are still clearly legible to anyone who can read Armenian. In some of them, frescoes depicting biblical scenes are still vivid. Windows are surrounded by intricate geometric patterns chiseled into white stone. Fallen columns that litter the landscape are decorated with star and spiral designs. The remains of massive walls, stately arches and carved domes testify to the audacity of the people who built this place.

Ani's golden age began in the 10th century, when Armenian kings of the Bagratid line, who claimed descent from Kings Solomon and David, made it their capital. Invasions and family feuds weakened their kingdom, but it was later revived under Georgian protection. In 1319 Ani was struck by an earthquake, and the last inscriptions date back to 1348. A few stubborn survivors remained, but soon the place was abandoned.

Today visitors to the site, which covers several wind-swept square kilometers, are assigned young Turkish soldiers as guides. Each speaks a foreign language and carries a few sheets describing the site, but they are more friendly than informative. Their main job is not to guide visitors but to make sure they don't rummage for souvenirs.

After passing through the main gate, I walked to the ruin of one of three churches dedicated to St. Gregory the Illuminator, a fourth-century missionary who is one of the most revered saints in the Armenian pantheon. It was once a 36-sided edifice centered around a statue of Gagik, one of the great Armenian kings. Today it is open to the sky, but parts of its thick walls still stand. Huge chunks of the columns that once supported the dome litter the bare ruined choirs inside.

King Gagik's wife, Katramide, was the patroness of a nearby church built in 1001. It is perhaps the most impressive of all the structures at Ani and looks as if it could have inspired Gothic architects in Europe. Four thick columns support the roof, much of which is intact. Rectangular windows look out over the gorge below.

As I walked through the ruins of Ani's churches I could almost hear Gregorian chants and smell incense. In some ways I found it more affecting than famous, crowded ruins like those at Ephesus, on the other side of the country near Turkey's Aegean coast. At Ani, my three companions and I were just about the only visitors. Our solitude, combined with the extraordinary Armenian and Georgian-style architecture that soars so gracefully above the treeless plateau, gave this place a deeply moving, otherworldly aura.

The logical base for a trip through this region is Van, a richly historic city on the shore of Lake Van, Turkey's largest lake. Since I had already seen Van, I chose a different route. Our flight from Istanbul landed in Mus, and from there we made our way along the less-known north shore of the lake. Our first stop was Ahlat, a modest town that has fallen far from the days when it was a center of Urartian, Azeri and Armenian kingdoms. Its main attraction is a huge Ottoman cemetery, opened in the 15th century, that is full of tall headstones carved with intricate Arabic inscriptions.

From Ahlat we drove a few hours along the lake shore, which is dotted by neat villages and hillsides where peasants herd sheep and goats. After a while we turned toward our next destination, the 18th-century Ishak Pasha palace, about 80 kilometers to the north.

Other buildings in Turkey are as fascinating as this one, but probably none are so dramatically situated. It sits on a rocky crag near the Iranian border and commands a spectacular view, which explains why it was chosen as a Silk Road observation post as early as the 12th century.

The palace served as both fortress and pleasure dome, with a harem and a dining room that was equipped with tilted mirrors so servants could see what dishes needed replenishing without bothering the revelers. I walked down a narrow staircase to the dungeon, which includes a "death room,'' an eerie dark chamber into which prisoners were thrown from a hole above.

Ideally one should take at least a full day to absorb Ani's spiritual power, but we had one more spot to visit. From Ani we drove west for several hours to the town of Yusufeli, which is likely to disappear under water in a few years if plans to build a new dam nearby come to fruition. The town's main attraction is a roaring tributary of the wild Coruh River, a dream destination for white-water rafters.

Ten centuries ago, the region around Yusufeli was part of a Georgian kingdom and it is dotted with churches that testify to the heights that this civilization once reached. Far apart and off main roads, the churches take time to find. We chose three. One, known as Osvank or Oski, is adjacent to a village. It was part of a monastery dedicated to St. John the Baptist, and carvings of angels dominate the main entrance.

We also visited Ishan, which was a religious center as early as the seventh century. According to an account by Georgian monks, the present church, which is constructed of great stone blocks and decorated with ornate carvings, was built by two holy men in the ninth century after "God revealed to them the original greatness of this site.''

Both churches were memorable, but neither compared to the awe-inspiring monastery called Dortkilise. Far up on a remote mountainside, the stately church commands a spectacular view over a deep forested gorge that bears only one sign of human habitation: a tiny stone hut once used by ascetic monks. The surrounding countryside has barely changed since the church was built more than 1,000 years ago. On the walls inside, faded paintings depict the prophets, the Virgin Mary and the enthroned Christ.

As I stepped outside, I tried to recall where in the dozens of countries I have visited I have seen a place that was at once so physically grand and so spiritual, so remote and so welcoming. I could think of none.

Travel Tips:

Turkish Airlines flies daily between Istanbul and Kars, the closest city to Ani. The flight stops in Ankara, and the round-trip fare is $169. The best hotel in Kars is the Karabag, 84 Faik Bey Caddesi, telephone (90-474) 212-3480, fax (90-474) 223-3089. Doubles are $60 with breakfast. The staff can help arrange permits to visit Ani, which are free and easily available at the local government tourism office.

There are no buses from Kars to Ani. Taxi drivers will make the 40-minute trip for about $10.50 each way.

Travelers who want to begin their trip in Van can fly there from Istanbul on a daily Turkish Airlines flight, which costs $169. There is an Avis car rental office at 1 Hastane Sokak in Van, telephone and fax (90-432) 214-6375. One-day car rentals begin at $68. The Avis office is near the Buyuk Urartu Hotel, where a double costs $100 with breakfast; telephone (90-432) 212-0660, fax (90-432) 212-1610.