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Caucasus: Ancient City of Ani Is So Close, Yet So Far

  • Jolyon Naegele

Ani, Turkey; 28 July 1998 (RFE/RL) - Ani, the ancient, walled capital of the kings who ruled Armenia and Georgia, was in its heyday a millennium ago the rival of Constantinople, Baghdad and Cairo.

Despite earthquakes and Mongol raids, much of Ani's immense, fortified walls, as well as the city's citadel, caravansary, cathedral and six churches still stand well preserved, their stone facades a testament to a well-developed level of craftsmanship.

Today Ani is a ghost town, deserted except for the presence of Turkish border guards and the occasional tourist.

This is the end of the road -- a military base, the Kurdish village of Ocakli and the remains of Ani. Below the great walls is the winding canyon of the Arpacay river; Akhurian in Armenian. To the west are the rolling grazing lands of eastern Anatolia. To the east, virtually within shouting distance, is Armenia, with 4100 meter-high snowcapped Mount Aragats looming in the distance.

Turkey closed its border with Armenia five years ago, declaring it would only be reopened once ethnic Armenian forces withdraw from Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan's territorial integrity is reestablished.

For the inhabitants of the grass-roofed stone huts in villages like Ocakli, this means dreams of higher living standards through new jobs in tourism and the transit trade have no chance of coming true any time soon

Due to the proximity of the border, just as in Soviet days, visitors to Ani must first visit the district capital of Kars, 40 kilometers to the west, to obtain permission from the tourist office and the police and buy an entrance ticket for Ani.

Turkish border guards collect the passports and cameras of visitors entering Ani and escort them through parts of the ancient capital, ensuring that no one ventures too close to the border or takes pictures.

This frontier was established by the Treaty of Moscow in 1921, without Armenian participation at a time when Red Army forces had encircled Armenian (Dashnak) forces in Yerevan. In negotiations at Kars later the same year, the Soviet side urged Turkey to give back Ani on the grounds that it was "wholly devoid of any military, economic or geographical significance." But Turkey refused, arguing that handing over Ani would violate the Moscow treaty.

The Soviet delegation leader, Yakov Hanecki, expressed "deep sorrow" at the Turkish intransigence, noting "Ani means so much to the Armenians from the national, historical and artistic point of view."

Soviet-Turkish discussions in 1968 raised the possibility of restoring Ani to Armenia in exchange for two Kurdish villages to the north but nothing came of it. Ani received a small surge in visitors from Armenia six years ago during the brief period after the disintegration of the Soviet Union and before Turkey closed its border with Armenia. But Ani's significance and its location on Turkish territory, like Armenia's state symbol, Mount Ararat, so close yet so far, remain a virtually sacred issue to many Armenians.

Construction at present of a paved road to an outlook on the Armenian side of the canyon directly opposite Ani suggests that Armenian authorities intend to enable their citizens to capture a glimpse of their ancient capital even if visiting it remains out of the question for most. The nearest border crossing is on the Georgian-Turkish border, requiring a 450 km detour. Historic tensions and animosities being what they are, Armenian vehicular traffic continues to be exceedingly rare in Turkey.

(This part of a continuing series of reports from an RFE/RL correspondent who recently traveled throughout Turkey)