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 east 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.
The minibus leaves out the front of Antik Cafe at 10 am sharp (corner of Faikbey cd & Gazi Ahmet Pasa cd.) This has been confirmed with the proprietors of the cafe. It costs 18tl for a round trip. You will be given approximately 2 hours to explore the ruins before the minibus goes back. As of the time of writing there is no word of there being a second minibus available, though this might reflect the decreased demand in winter. Note that hotels might deny this minibus option exists; you can go to the cafe to confirm for yourself.
During summer season, the minibus has two scheduled trips: 9am departs 11:30 back, and 1pm departs 3:30 back to Ani. 2 hours are just enough to see the Cathedral, the Church of the Redeemer, the Apostles Church, the mosque of Minuchihr, the King Gagik's statue, the Georgian church, and the Church of Saint Gregory. If you want to explore the whole place, it is recommended is to take the first minibus and let the driver know that you will take the 3:30 schedule, or take a taxi (do not pay more than 120 Lira) and be clear that you will take 3 hours in the ruins to your driver. Opening hours during summer are 9:00-19:00, and winter 9:00-17:00.
If you arrive by plane (summer schedules) from Istanbul, Ankara or Izmir, you can take a taxi from the airport to Ani and spend 3-6 hours there, and sleep in Kars.
Remember to bring cold water, soft drinks and some snacks, or a picnic if you want to visit the ruins all the day.
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.
There is a road from Kars to Ani, a four lane highway that leads directly to Ani (almost to the city walls), about 42 km long. The road is in very good condition and is marked with the brown signs.
If you are coming through Kars Airport, you can make arrangements with a rent-a-car agency (there is one which has an 24/7 office at domestic arrivals part). From Kars Airport to Ani it took nearly 30-45 minutes by car.
On many maps there is a road to Ani marked about half way between Diğor and Kars, this road does not seem to exist and if comıng through Diğor you're better off taking the new road rıght outside Diğor (not signposted to Ani but is immediately after the sign to Kars when heading NW out of Diğor.
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.
The border is clearly marked by a fence. I you pass the border to Armenia by a hole in the fence, you know what you are doing.
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.
There are limited choices so one is best to bring their own snacks and drinks. The Ani Cafe & Restaurant is a new eatery with clean western style bathroom facilities. There is also a little general store close to the main gates into Ani. 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.