Located on a triangular site, visually dramatic and naturally defensive, Ani is the name of a ghost city. Protected on its eastern side by the ravine of the Akhurian River and on its western side by the Bostanlar or Tzaghkotzadzor valley, Ani once had a population of 100,000 to 200,000 people and was the rival of Constantinople, Baghdad and Cairo. Known as the city of 1001 churches and the City of Forty Gates, the city-state first rose to prominence in the 5th century AD, as a hilltop fortress belonging to the Armenian Kamsarakan Dynasty. Once renowned for its pomp, prominence and magnificence, Ani fell to successive invasions and was devastated in a 1319 earthquake. For about thousand years Armenians, Byzantines, Kurds, Georgians, Mongols, Turks and the Russians struggled to capture it. It was conquered hundreds of times and almost each time a faction rose to power, the people of the city were brutally massacred, the women were indiscriminately raped, the city was ransacked and then razed almost to the point of obliteration. By the 1300s, Ani had lost its past glory and was in steep decline, and finally abandoned by the 1700s.
In 1918, during the latter stages of WW I, as the Turkish soldiers were approaching the site of Ani, attempts were made to evacuate the excavated items from the museum. Accordingly, about 6000 of the most portable items were removed, which are now a part of the collection of Yerevan's State Museum of Armenian History. Everything that was left behind was later plundered or destroyed. After Tukey’s surrender at the end of World War I, Ani came under the control of Armenia. However, Turkey recaptured the city of Ani and in 1921 it was incorporated to the Republic of Turkey, as per the Treaty of Kars and the government minister Riza Nur ordered the commander of the Eastern Front to wipe out the monuments of Ani from the face of the earth. Fortunately, the order was not carried out. However, gradually the region became an abandoned, desolate and remote no-man's land.
The recent history of Ani is also a sad story of continuous and increasing destruction. Apart from natural erosion and a series of earthquakes, Ani is a helpless sufferer of negligence, vandalism, quarrying, cultural cleansing, amateurish restorations and unscientific excavations.
Though the medieval Armenian city of Ani was encircled by walls, it was well protected by the nature with rivers or ravines on its three sides, except the north. Along the vulnerable northern side, a line of massive double walls were constructed and the much taller inner wall was studded by numerous large and closely spaced semicircular towers. According to contemporary accounts, the walls were initially built by King Smbat (977–989) and the subsequent rulers strengthened them by making them substantially higher and thicker, and by adding more towers. The northern walls of the city were equipped with three gateways, named as Lion Gate, the Kars Gate, and the Dvin Gate. The Dvin Gate is also known as the Chequerboard Gate, as it consisted of a section of red and black stone squares over its entrance. The wall began to turn towards the south-east, from the eastern side of the Chequerboard Gate.
Constructed with local volcanic basalt, the structures of Ani are of vibrant colours, form pale yellow, pinkish red to pitch black. Among the unspecific number of ruins, the surviving structures include: the Cathedral, the Church of St Gregory of Tigran Honents, the Church of the Holy Redeemer, the Church of St Gregory of the Abughamrents, King Gagik’s Gagik's Church of St Gregory, the mosque of Manuchihr and the Citadel.
Designed by Trdat, the famous architect of medieval Armenia, the construction of Church of the Holy Mother of God, also known as the Cathedral, started in 989, and was completed in 1001 or 1010. Though originally it was a domed basilica, its dome collapsed in 1319.
The church of St Gregory of Tigran Honents, commissioned by the wealthy Armenian merchant Tigran Honents, was completed in 1215.The exterior walls of this domed hall was artistically decorated, while the interior was adorned with spectacular frescoes, relating the annals of Saint Gregory the illuminator and the life of Christ.
The Church of the Holy Redeemer, situated at the heart of the archaeological zone of Ani, was completed in 1035 by Prince Abulgharib Pahlavuni. It was specifically constructed to house a fragment of the True Cross, upon which Jesus was crucified. The architecture of the church is geometrically unique and well executed. Unfortunately, it was critically damaged in 1930, when a lightning hit the church and ripped it in half. Consequently, one side of the building collapsed, leaving the other side.
Situated at the edge of a steep slope overlooking the Tsaghkotsadzor valley, the church of St Gregory of the Abughamrents is a strange rotunda-shaped church, topped by a conical roof. Possibly dated back to the late 10th century, it was built as a private chapel for the wealthy Pahlavuni family. The plan on the outside of the structure is twelve sided and each side alternates between having deep niches and small windows.
The church of St Gregory was possibly erected by King Gagik between 1001 and 1005, with the intention to make it to be a copy of the cathedral of Zvartnots in modern day Armenia. The structure is said to be not very stable from the beginning. Despite fruitless attempts to make it stable, it collapsed not long after. When excavated in 1906, many objects of worship, including a bronze candlestick holder and a chandelier were recovered from the spot, along with the plan of the church.
It is considered that the mosque of Manuchihr was founded by the emir Minuchihr, the first of the Shaddadid dynasty that ruled Ani from around the year 1072 onwards. It is also believed that the minaret of the mosque is the oldest surviving part of the mosque, which predates the present structure. It was repaired and renovated in 1906, with the intention to transform it to a public museum and house the objects found in the site during the excavation. Unfortunately, the little museum was plundered at the end of the First World War.
Once known as ‘Midjnaberd ‘(the Inner Fortress), a flat-topped hill, at the southern end of Ani, had its own defensive walls that date back to the 7th century AD. When excavated the Citadel hill in 1908 and 1909, it uncovered the extensive ruins of the palace of the Bagratid kings of Ani. Ruins of three churched and several unidentified buildings were found inside the citadel. One of the said churches, known as ‘the church of the palace’ is considered as the oldest surviving church in Ani, dating from the 6th or 7th century.
It is interesting to note that after years of negligence and vandalism, the archaeological site of Ani was finally declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site on July 15, 2016.