The thrill of finding an undiscovered ancient site has no match. Visiting Ani, the long forgotten capital of the ancient Armenian Kingdom, offers the same feeling as the site has been unoccupied for centuries.
If you were paying attention to the news this week, you may have seen the discovery of a new sunken castle in Lake Van. A team of divers in tandem with Yüzüncü Yıl University found the site, more than a square kilometer of ruins. It's not clear how large the fortress would have been, as they'd have to excavate the site, but about 3 meters of stone wall just above the lake floor. Archaeologists figure the ruins are from about 3,000 years ago, when the water level would have been much lower - not much point to building a castle underwater, after all. As part of the project, the diving team shot some eerie, beautiful footage when they found the fortress - flashlight beams filter through gentle blue water, alighting on proud blocks of stone in the deep.
It's easy to get jealous. Few people get to feel that rush of discovery, when you know that you're the first people in a long time to set foot (or in this case, flipper) on an ancient site. If the only people who get to discover lost cities have to wear scuba gear to do it, what hope do the rest of us have? El Dorado's been eaten by jungle, Atlantis has sunk; Shangri-La's just some Buddhist monk's made-up story. Even Cambodia's Angkor Wat, a wholly accessible lost city choked by vines, is also so choked by tourists that seeing it feels less like a discovery and more like a chaperoned trip to an outdoor museum.
However, you can get a taste of that feeling if you're willing to head far, far to the east in Turkey. Take a flight out to Kars, and then a two-hour drive out to Ocaklı village near the Armenian border, and then walk up the hill. That's where you'll find a lost city to discover.
Ani used to be a capital city of an Armenian kingdom in the 11th century. Its wealth and architecture rivaled Byzantine's Constantinople (modern day Istanbul). With a population of more than 200,000 at its peak, it was larger than both London and Paris at the time. It had a huge castle, battlements, a defensive wall, a thousand churches, 40 gates, and a thriving economy, and now, all that's left are its abandoned ruins on a high plateau. A stone bridge down in the gorge across a river, half collapsed. A guttered cone atop a brick church. The domes and arches of a sanctuary, fallen-in and exposed to the air. A cathedral with sturdy walls, covered with still-visible Armenian inscriptions, but with exposed, broken masonry. Walls and a gate no longer protecting anything. Emptiness.
The contrast strikes you immediately: This must have been a magnificent city in its day, and yet today, this is the middle of nowhere and nobody lives here. Ani still has a lot of things standing, including some half-crumbled churches, towers, and a wall. It's wonderful to see such amazing stone architecture of a forgotten empire, and even better is that almost nobody goes there. On a really busy day, there might be eight other tourists.
You wouldn't be the only one to observe the contrast of majesty and isolation. In researching this article, I found numerous accounts of travelers from the 1800s up through the turn of the century who describe the same impression when they saw Ani for the first time.
Here's a sample:
"On the other bank we saw basilicas, tiled Armenian domes and a complete absence of human beings. It was the ruins of the ancient Armenian capital, Ani - one of the real wonders of the world [...] What is Ani like? There are things beyond description, no matter how hard you try," Konstantin Paustovski, Russian author, in 1923"We admire these buildings in much the same state and condition as when they delighted the eyes of Armenian monarchs nine centuries ago. Such a site would in Western lands be at least occupied by a small town or village; the solitude of Ani is not shared by creations of a culture that has disappeared," HFB Lynch, British author of "Armenia: Travels and Studies," in 1901
"In the western extremity of this great town, in which no living beings except ourselves seemed breathing, we saw the palace, once of the kings of Armenia; and it is a building worthy the fame of this old capital [...] The farther I went, and the closer I examined the remains of this vast capital, the greater was my admiration of its firm and finished masonry. In short, the masterly workmanship of the capitals of pillars, the nice carvings of the intricate ornaments, and arabesque friezes, surpassed anything of the kind I had ever seen, whether abroad, or in the most celebrated cathedrals of England," English diplomat Sir Robert Ker Porter in 1817
"Before us lay extended a rocky plain about 5 miles in length, and at its further extremity was a mighty city, surrounded by walls with towers, churches and palaces - a noble pile, but devoid of animation [...] and so intense was the impression occasioned by this solitude amongst ruins, that, even later on at Babylon and at Palmyra, I did not experience so acute a sensation," Baron Max von Thielmann, German writer, in his 1872 book "Journey in the Caucasus, Persia, and Turkey in Asia."
But British army officer Maj. Gen. Charles Gordon in his letter described it best in 1857: "I feel myself unable to describe this extraordinary place as it ought to be done."
So what happened? The city's Armenian rulers made their living off of Silk Road trade - Ani wasn't a natural stop on the road, but its merchant-kings were so effective that it managed to pull travelers from the trade routes between Trebizond (Trabzon) on the Black Sea and Persia in the east. First it was little more than a castle on a hill. The Bagratid kings purchased the castle and moved their capital there from Kars in the 900s. After a century of prosperity, the city's power and reputation grew, and they hired architects and masons to expand the city's influence. It was said they had more than a thousand churches. In those days, fancy churches were the pet projects of rich merchants who had the largess to fund it - even a hundred churches would have indicated a wealthy population.
But the city was too valuable. Over the next two centuries, the city changed hands a lot. After a fight with a Byzantine army, their king Gagik II went to Constantinople to negotiate, and was promptly throw in jail. In exchange for giving the city up, he was given a palace in Kayseri as compensation. The city was then captured by an army of Seljuk Turks, who had no idea what to do with the place and sold it to the Kurdish Shaddadid dynasty. The citizens appealed to the Christian Georgians for help, and over the next few years Queen Tamar captured it and installed a government. Then it got overrun by the Kara Koyunlu Mongols in the 1300s, who moved the Armenian capital to Yerevan. Residents had had enough by that point, and began to emigrate elsewhere. The city became a town, and the town a village, inhabited by shepherds and farmers, until nomadic bandits sapped what life was left in the place. By the mid-1800s nobody was left.
But the buildings definitely remain. Visitors to Ani should hit a few key spots. The Cathedral is a massive rust-colored temple, built when the city was thriving. Its architect Trdat was so well-known that he was called upon by the Byzantines rebuilt the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople when its dome collapsed. The Cathedral of Ani's dome has now collapsed too, but most of the structure still stands. Inside, visitors can see sculpted columns, arches, and gates - this Cathedral had separate doors for the king, the Armenian Patriarch, and the laity, so it's fun to gape at the sky shining through and guess where each door would have been. Just nearby is the minaret of the Manuhcer Mosque, a reminder of the Seljuk occupiers. It's an odd hybrid, as the Turks employed Armenian architects to build a Muslim house of worship. Notable for its octagonal minaret, it's also the earliest mosque we know of built in Anatolia. You should also see the Church of St. Gregory, as the frescos inside haven't completely faded yet. It's in better condition than most of the other structures and visitors can get a cartoony Cliffs Notes of St. Gregory's deeds. The dome of the Church of the Holy Redeemer pokes above the random piles of rubble, but if you look at the other side, you'll be looking at a cutaway view. Only half the church still stands propped up by scaffolds. The other half fell down long ago. Down below in the river gorge, you can see the ruins of an ancient bridge, but don't get too close - the river is the border between Armenia and Turkey. Not that you could walk across anyways, as only a few supports now stand on either bank.
For a more comprehensive guide to the area, I highly recommend you check out virtualani.org, where they have more than 1,000 photos and 300 separate pages full of detailed information on Ani's history, architecture, and other ancient Armenian sites nearby. But that breaks the immersion that you've discovered the place for the first time, doesn't it? Perhaps, but then again, so did reading this article. Let's agree on this: Just because something has been discovered by a bunch of 19th century Europeans, that doesn't mean it's been discovered by you. Ani's still waiting for you to discover it, too.