Ani – some call it the City of 1001 Churches, others the City of Forty Gates. Yet no one has called it home for more than three centuries.
Abandoned by its once prosperous and powerful inhabitants, it is situated on the Turkish side of a militarised zone between the border of Turkey and Armenia.
The city of Ani is no stranger to death, destruction and desertion.
It is a ghost city today but once its Armenian inhabitants numbered close to 200 thousand. In its heyday it was a metropolis which rivalled Constantinople, Cairo or Baghdad as a center of culture and enterprise. Although it was never on traditional trade routes its sheer size and power commanded visits by merchants from all directions. Yet what happened to reduce this once magnificent and regionally dominant city to virtually dust?
The city is the victim of a colossal and centuries old struggle for power between various factions in the region. Founded in the fourth or fifth century AD the following millennium saw Armenians, Kurds, Georgians, Mongols and Turks struggle for and ascend to power in the city-state.
Almost each time a faction rose to power the city was ransacked almost to the point of obliteration. Ani finally wheezed its metaphorical last breath by the middle of the eighteenth century, exhausted to extinction, as it were, by the constant struggle for supremacy over its dominion.
The city was originally Armenian and the territory on which it stands is still disputed between modern day Turkey and Armenia. It was first mentioned in the annals of the Armenian Kamsarakan dynasty in the fifth century AD. They were one of the seven great houses of Parthia and their origins went back to the Persian Arsacid – a major Iran based power.
The name of the city seems to have come from Ani-Kamakh, an Armenian fortress but was also known as Khnamk though historians do not really know why. The best suggestion is that it comes from the Armenian for to take care of. Certainly, the city was designed for just that – to protect and shelter its citizens. It is situated on a triangular plain. At its height it must have been an extraordinarily visually striking sight for approaching visitors. Chosen for its naturally defensive situation, to the east it is protected by a ravine and river, to the west a steep valley.
The early ninth century saw the decline of the Kamsarakans and they were replaced by another Armenian dynasty, the Bagratuni. Their leaders referred to themselves as ishkhan or princes and they ruled over perhaps the most peaceful period of Ani’s history. A pivotal point for the success of the city came in 992 when the head Bishops of the Armenian Church moved their sear to the thriving city state. Its population doubled within a century, which while not remarkable in modern terms must have seemed like a golden age of growth for the Bagratuni.
A pair of quarrelling siblings would start Ani’s protracted but inexorable decline. When King Gagik I died in 1020 neither of his sons would defer to the other and so the kingdom was split apart. The older, Hovhannes Smbat took over Ani and the younger, Ashot, the rest of the Bagratuni principality.
Hovannes Smbat wanted and needed peace in his time so struck a deal which meant just that but would have terrible long term consequences for the city. He knew that the neighboring Byzantine Empire regarded his lands with envious eyes and that slowly and surely they were drawing plans against him. So he did something quite remarkable. To avoid invasion he promised his kingdom after his death to the Byzantine Emperor, Basil, and made him his heir.
When Hovannes Smbat died in 1041, Basil’s successor, Michael IV, obviously wanted what had been promised and claimed sovereignty. The new King of Ani, Gagik II, was having none of this and managed to fight back no less than three armies sent to capture the city. However, the still living Ashot was captured and although he had never been king of Ani, this final humiliation led to the surrender of the city.
The city was ‘rediscovered’ by archaeologists during the next century. Several excavations took place but further damage would be done after the First World War. Turkey and Armenia continued to militarily fight over territory until 1921 when Ani, much to the chagrin of the Armenians, was contained within the borders of Turkey.
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