Ani exudes the eerie ambiance of a ghost town surrounded by the remote landscape of the rolling Turkish steppe, the tension of the adjacent contested border, and the heavy weight of tragic history. If you can, visit in June, when the vast flat plains teem with wildflowers. It is a truly unique and must see destination for any traveler to the Turkish East.
Ani first rose to prominence in the 5th century A.D., as a hilltop fortress belonging to the Armenian Kamsarakan Dynasty. By the ninth century, the Kamsarakan possessions in Eastern Anatolia had merged with the Bagratid Dynasty, and in 956, King Ashot III moved the Armenian capital to Ani. Shortly thereafter, the Armenian Catholicos moved here as well, establishing the city as the undisputed center of Armenia. The city grew rapidly, and by the eleventh century, the city boasted more than 100,000 citizens. At its height of power and wealth, it became known as the City of Forty Gates and the City of a Thousand Churches.
Ani's golden age ended with the death of King Gagik in 1020, when Armenian power was split between his two sons. In a series of political events that define the word Byzantine, the son who controlled Ani named the Byzantine Emperor his heir, in an attempt to prevent an invasion. Upon his death, the Byzantine Emperor stated his claim upon the city, but the new King of Ani reneged on the deal and repulsed the Emperor's armies. But a mere three years later, following a series of Armenian military defeats and a pro-Byzantine uprising in Ani, the city surrendered itself to Byzantine control.
All these machinations, however, were rendered moot in 1064 upon the arrival of the Seljuk Turks, who took the city in 25 days and massacred the populace. Though the city lived on for another six and a half centuries, it remained a provincial town at the edge of competing empires for the rest of its history. The Seljuk Turks passed possession of Ani to the Kurdish Shaddadids, who were attacked repeatedly by the neighboring Georgian Empire at the behest of Ani's unruly Christian population. In 1199 the Georgia's Queen Tamar conquered the Shaddadids, and established the Zakarid Dynasty of Ani, under which the city again prospered and rebuilt. Only to be devastated in 1236 by the invading Mongol Hordes. The Zakarids continued to govern the city as the vassals of various Turkic and Persian Empires, culminating with the Ottomans. Ani gradually faded into uninhabited ruins.
The Russian Empire took control of Kars and the surrounding areas in the late 19th century, and the Saint Petersburg Academy of Sciences oversaw a large archaeological and restorative effort until the Russian Revolution in 1917. The Russian scientists set up a huge museum on site of the artifacts excavated, principally in the Minuchihr mosque.
Following the Russian Revolution, and the founding of the short-lived Republic of Armenia, the Ottoman military drove west into the former Russian territories, seeking to seize the region and to cleanse it of its ethnic Armenians. Archaeologists from the Russian-led team scrambled to salvage what they could and fled to what is modern-day Armenia. During the Turkish War of Independence, the Grand National Assembly of Turkey ordered the commander of its Eastern Front that the "monuments of Ani be wiped off the face of the earth." Fortunately, he didn't fully comply with this order, and the monuments remain. But the Russian excavations and repairs were undone, and the site has languished under what can be most favorably described as neglect.
Ani, from the time the Ottomans seized Kars Province, has sat right upon the edge of one of the world's most hostile borders (between Turkey and the Soviet Union, and later Armenia), and has been situated within a Turkish military zone that precluded tourism. Fortunately, things have been cooling down between Turkey and Armenia, and militant Turkish opposition to acknowledging these Armenian ruins as a destination of major tourist interest has subsided in recent years. (Although, you'll notice the sign outside the main city gate, which lists all of the fifteen or so empires that have controlled the region, doesn't ever even mention the Armenians who built the city and wrote its history.) The border, visible from the ruins, remains tense, but anyone can visit easily without any sort of permit, and photography restrictions are a thing of the (recent) past. The Turkish government now makes friendly noises about preservation, restoration, and excavation, but still receives low marks from international NGOs on the job it's doing.
At the moment there is no public transportation to Ani. As of June 2008 a major highway was under construction running past Ani towards the Armenian border, possibly in anticipation of the border opening, which could allow for new bus routes. However, it is easy to hire a taxi for the day, ask at your hotel in Kars and expect to pay around 100 Lira (four people) for a five hour trip, including two hours driving time. If you're not staying the night before in Kars, just look around downtown early in the morning for any backpacker or ask in hotel lobbies—virtually all travelers visiting Kars go to Ani, so you shouldn't have any trouble finding a ride. The rides often leave from the small parking lot with shuttle rides to/from the main bus station.
Ani covers a small area and is easily traversed on foot. However, access to certain areas is often restricted due to the proximity to the Armenian border and ongoing tensions between Turkey and Armenia. So make sure to ask your driver about current restrictions.
Pinkish stone ruins of Armenian cathedrals, churches, homes, fortresses, and palaces float eerily across the desolate grassy landscape. Most of the well preserved Armenian churches date from the late tenth century to early eleventh century. The most distinctive is perhaps the church of Christ the Redeemer, split perfectly in half by lightning, but still standing. Additionally there are smaller structures, which were once homes, the remains of the cities castle walls, and a fortress overlooking the ruins. Other sites include the (relatively hard to find) ruins of a Zoroastrian fire temple and a small Ottoman fort. From the area near the fort, look carefully across the ravine to see a collection of Karst caves that once served as home to troglodytic Anatolians.
If the fortress is open to tourists, it is worth scrambling up the rocky path for the excellent views over Ani, the river gorge, and the steppe rolling towards the mountains of Armenia.
Eat & Drink
There are no restaurants, so one is best off bringing some snacks and drinks. There is a teahouse in the small village outside Ani, but absolutely do not forget to bring bottled water on a trip to Ani. The climate is very arid and seeing all the sites here will take a good deal of time—you will get badly dehydrated if you don't bring some water along.
There are no accommodations in Ani, and there are only a smattering of homes surrounding it. The nearest major city is Kars, from which Ani is an easy day trip.