In 1064, in a fit of imperial expansion, the Seljuk Turks overran Armenia and Georgia before going on to conquer Anatolia. In the shape of things to come, Armenia’s fabled capital of Ani was pillaged and destroyed.
Of all Armenia’s cities, Ani was the most celebrated in its time. The last independent Armenian kingdom on traditional lands – ruled by the ancient Bagratuni dynasty – moved its court here in the year 971 C.E. Construction work attracted huge numbers of skilled people and the city soon developed into a regional hub for trade. In the following decades, its population rivalled Baghdad and Constantinople and surpassed that of London and Paris.
Ani soon acquired the sobriquet “city of a thousand and one churches”, whose architecture – in particular that of its famed cathedral – influenced the development of the Gothic style, which spread throughout Europe after the 13th century. But in 1064, a large Seljuk Turkish army, headed by Sultan Alp Arslan, attacked Ani, captured the city and slaughtered its population. The Arab historian Sibt ibn al-Jawzi recorded an eyewitness account of the disaster:
“The army entered the city, massacred its inhabitants, pillaged and burned it, leaving it in ruins and taking prisoner all those who remained alive…The dead bodies were so many that they blocked the streets; one could not go anywhere without stepping over them. And the number of prisoners was not less than 50,000 souls. I was determined to enter city and see the destruction with my own eyes. I tried to find a street in which I would not have to walk over the corpses; but that was impossible.”
The ruins of Ani gradually crumbled into dust. In the first half of the 19th century, European travellers discovered them, publishing descriptions in academic journals and travel accounts. In 1878 the Kars region, including Ani, was incorporated into the territory of the Russian Empire. In 1892 the first archaeological excavations were carried out, sponsored by the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences and led the Georgian historian and linguist Nicholas Marr (1865-1934).
Marr’s excavations at Ani resumed in 1904 and continued yearly until 1917. Large sectors of the city were professionally excavated, numerous buildings uncovered and measured, findings published in academic journals, and guidebooks to the monuments written. Emergency repairs were also undertaken on those buildings that were most at risk of collapse.
During that period, a museum was established for the tens of thousands of items found during the excavations. Armenians from neighbouring villages and towns began to visit the city on a regular basis, and there was even talk of building a school for educating local Armenian children, creating parks, and planting trees to improve the site.
However, in April 1918, the armies of the Ottoman Empire fighting their way across the territory of the newly declared Republic of Armenia captured the city of Kars. At nearby Ani, attempts were made to evacuate the museum’s artefacts as Turkish soldiers were approaching. About 6,000 of the most portable items were removed and reached Yerevan’s State Museum of Armenian History. Everything left behind was looted or destroyed.
At the end of World War I, Armenia briefly regained control of Ani, but a resumed offensive against the Armenian Republic in 1920 resulted in Turkey recapturing the territory, which was incorporated into the Republic of Turkey in 1921 under the Treaty of Kars.
Clearly visible from the banks of the Akhurian River that forms the border between Turkey and Armenia, the ruins of Ani (like Mount Ararat, the mythological home of the Armenian gods visible from Yerevan) lie just out of reach. Part of Armenia’s lost heritage, Ani remains off-limits – a symbol of the erased past with which Armenians are all too familiar.