This Is How A Medieval Metropolis In Turkey Turned Into An Eerie Ghost Town

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The city of Ani, located in the north-eastern region of modern-day Turkey, is more than likely the greatest city you’ve never heard of. In the metropolis’ 11th-century heyday, it was a booming power thanks to its location along the lucrative Silk Road trade route. With some 100,000 inhabitants, it was also one of the world’s most populous cities. Fast-forward some one thousand years to the Ani of today, however, and, incredibly, what remains of this once-buzzing metropolis is an abandoned and forgotten set of ancient ruins.

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Indeed, today Ani is an almost entirely forgotten city. Once one of the planet’s biggest metropolises, with tens of thousands of residents, Ani is no longer inhabited by humans at all. Instead, it has been reduced to a ghost town. Now, streets that once rang out with a cacophony of voices stand almost silent.

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Enough remains of the city’s former buildings to tell the tale of its past greatness, though. It may now be abandoned, but the eerie ruins of Ani serve as a latter-day reminder that, at its peak, Ani was among the world’s major cities. These isolated remnants in the Turkish countryside were created by a power to be reckoned with on the world stage.

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Situated upon highlands whose formation made them hard for enemies to attack and protected to the east by the ravines of the Akhurian river, it’s easy to see why the area attracted settlers. They subsequently constructed city walls in the 7th century AD, when the Kamsakaran family were in power. And it was little wonder that the Armenian ruler Ashot III chose the city to be his blossoming empire’s capital in 961.

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Moreover, Ashot’s choice of capital city proved to be a judicious one. Both Ani and the wider Bagratuni kingdom flourished between 961 and 1045 AD during an era famed as the “Armenian Golden Age.” In fact, at its peak, the city of Ani was a bustling cosmopolitan center of culture, art and ideas.

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The city’s location provides an essential clue to its success. Ani was situated at the intersection of a number of trade roads. In particular, it lay on the lucrative Silk Road connecting important centers of trade in Europe and Asia. As you might expect, its glory days saw Ani awash with merchants – and their money.

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It was during this blaze of glory that Ani first came to be referred to in such glowing terms as the City of 1,001 Churches and the Cradle of Civilizations. The former name came about, of course, due to Ani’s abundance of places of worship. And given the deep pockets of its rulers and city merchants, they tried to outdo one another in architectural splendor.

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Although it’s somewhat unlikely that Ani did indeed once house 1,001 churches, evidence has thus far been found of some 40 churches, chapels and mausoleums in the city. As a cultural melting pot to rival New York or London today, these architectural gems weren’t only made notable by their quantity, but also by their quality. Ani was home to some of the finest architects and artists of the day.

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Another testament to the glory days of Ani is its eponymous cathedral, built in the final years of the 10th century. Created by the famed Armenian architect Tdrat and a feat of architectural excellence, the Cathedral of Ani, even now, in its ruined state, is impressive in its size. Surveying the remnants below, this monument of Ani’s glory days serves as a reminder that the faded metropolis was once among the world’s most powerful cities.

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Also reminding modern-day visitors of the glories of Ani’s past is the Church of the Holy Redeemer, which was finished in around 1035. It was built in a singular, architecturally impressive style at the behest of Prince Ablgharib Pahlavid. What’s more, it purportedly housed a piece of the True Cross upon which Jesus Christ is said to have been crucified. Though damaged after being struck by lightning in the 1950s, half of the church remains, clinging doggedly on.

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But just how did such a bustling, booming capital fall so far – and so fully – from glory and grace? After all, modern-day Ani is an eerie and deserted place where on any given day ruined buildings likely outnumber the people who walk its streets. The tale of Ani’s decline is a sad one, involving invasions, the might of Mother Nature and the slow, ravaging creep of time. It’s certainly one worth telling as well.

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The end of Ani’s glory days perhaps began when the Byzantine Empire seized the city in the 11th century. Having initially resisted a series of attacks by Byzantine armies, the Bagratunis eventually ceded the city of Ani to their enemies in 1046. This ominous occasion was to herald the beginning of many conflicts over control of Ani.

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Sure enough, less than ten years later, a new set of rulers, the Selyuk Turks, seized the city for themselves. Moreover, these new conquerors quickly sold the city to the Muslim Kurdish Shaddadid rulers. First, though, they set in motion more of the city’s ruin, massacring large swathes of Ani’s populace during a bloody three-week siege.

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During the decades that followed, Ani remained a site of ongoing conflict. The Shaddadids were a Muslim people, which led to tensions with the city’s large – and disruptive – Christian population. The Ani Christians asked the neighboring Georgian Empire for help in overthrowing their rulers, thereby ensuring Ani remained embroiled in dispute and disintegration.

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Following continued assaults, the Shaddadids were eventually ousted by Georgia’s Queen Tamar in 1199. Thanks to her efforts, at the cusp of the 12th century, a new Zakarid Dynasty began ruling. After years of conflict, here came at last a chance for Ani to rebuild herself from the remaining vestiges of her former glory.

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Unfortunately, the Zakarid Dynasty never did quite manage to restore Ani to its position as a power on the world stage. That said, the city nonetheless enjoyed a prosperous period with the Zakarids at the helm. Testament to this period’s relative affluence is the Church of St Gregory of Tigran Honents. Built in 1215, it remains the most intact major building in the city today.

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Peace and prosperity in Ani was once again to prove short-lived, however. The arrival of the Mongols in the city in 1236 was yet another calamitous development in the complex history of the city. It was once again devastated by the mass murder of much of its population. And Ani’s disintegration into a city of ghosts looked set to continue.

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Next, nearby Turkish dynasties assumed control of the once-mighty metropolis. But although human hands might have then, finally, allowed the city the chance to rebuild, Mother Nature now stepped in to play her part in the decline of Ani. A devastating earthquake in 1319 meant that the city continued to crumble. Its population fled; its buildings collapsed.

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But while Ani may have crumbled after the 1319 earthquake, a much-diminished city still somehow survived. It came for a time under the command of the Persian Safavids before being assimilated within the Turkish Ottoman Empire in the late 1500s.

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A small population clung on within the historic walls until the 18th century. It was then, finally, that the city came to be deserted entirely. After the departure of its last living residents – a group of monks – in 1735, Ani was inhabited only by the ghosts of its glorious past.

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Having lain fallow and forgotten for many years, however, Ani was to come to the world’s attention once again. By the 19th century, the city was under the control of another new power: this time, Russia. This change of hands came about after Ottoman Empire was defeated by Russia in the Russo-Turkish War of the 1870s. And it proved to be a significant one for Ani.

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The richness of Ani’s archaeological heritage was recognized by its new rulers, who began excavations in the city in 1892. Here, again, came a chance for Ani to rise from its rubble. A chance for Ani to be restored, if not to its former position of economic and political importance, then at least to a place of cultural significance.

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Led by the Georgian archaeologist Nicholas Marr, annual excavations occurred at Ani between the years 1904 and 1917. As well as these investigations, the city benefitted from reconstruction work on its most endangered buildings. In addition, a museum was also constructed to house the many and varied artifacts that were being unearthed there. So, was this ghost town about to get a new lease of life?

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Sadly, it wasn’t to be. There would be no meaningful rebirth for the city, no harking back to the great days of former glory. Instead, Ani’s Russian-led renaissance proved short-lived. Soon, it fell foul of the territorial tensions of World War One and came under the jurisdiction of the Ottomans once again.

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However, this renewed Ottoman rule only lasted until Turkey’s surrender at the end of World War One. Symbolically, this period saw Ani returned to Armenian control. Just as in its glory days when the city was the shining light of the famed Bagratuni Empire, it was the Armenians who were now at the helm there.

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But alas for Armenia, Ani was to change hands one final – and very significant – time. This took place shortly in 1920, when the city was captured by the neighboring Turkish Republic. And that development was to prove definitive: indeed, Ani remains under Turkish control to this day.

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Nonetheless, for a place whose population today numbers precisely zero, the ghost town of Ani has played a surprisingly important role on the world stage in modern times. The city is just a stone’s throw from modern-day Armenia. But as the border between Turkey and Armenia remains resolutely closed due to disputes between the two nations, there’s no access to Armenia from Ani. Unsurprisingly, the city has found itself a focal point of these hostile relations between Turkey and Armenia over the past century – and continues to do so, even today.

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Key to understanding why is the special importance of Ani to Armenian culture. The city may be situated within Turkey’s contested borders, but it is to neighboring Armenians that it holds a significant cultural value. Separated from the country by just a river gorge, while Ani is outside Armenia’s larger geographical boundaries, it nonetheless remains close to Armenian hearts.

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The clue to the city’s cultural significance to Armenia today lies in its history as a metropolis a millennium ago. Lest it be forgotten, Ani was at one time among the world’s largest – and greatest – cities. It was the jewel in the crown of a powerful Bagratuni Empire, the cosmopolitan capital during the Armenian Golden Age.

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Ani’s impressive ruins are a testament that distant time when Armenia ruled over a powerful empire; one of the world’s mightiest, in fact. As historian Razmik Panossian explains it, Ani is one of the most visible and tangible symbols of the greatness of Armenia’s past. Unsurprisingly, it is, as such, a great source of pride.

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This cultural importance to Armenia, then, has seen Ani loom large in Turko-Armenian relations. In fact, the chief of Turkey’s Eastern Front forces in 1921, Kazim Karaberkir, claimed he was instructed to wipe the once-great city “off the face of the earth.” While this affront to Armenians wasn’t actually executed, Ani was nonetheless subjected to a degree of damage at the hands of the Turkish troops.

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The advent of the Cold War again put Ani in a delicate position. Indeed, the city found itself on the border between the Soviet Union and NATO-member Turkey, placing it squarely along the infamous Iron Curtain. Once the intersection point of a mix of cultures and creeds, Ani was now a dividing point along which cultures and countries were bitterly separated.

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During the 1950s, Ani was among the Soviet Union’s attempted claims on Turkish territory. The following decade, during negotiations between the two nations, it was suggested that Ani might be returned to Armenia in exchange for two Kurdish villages. This proposal failed to lead to any action, though, and so the city that speaks most of Armenia’s glorious past remains firmly entrenched in Turkish lands.

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Ani’s contested ownership explains why, until as recently as 2004, visitors needed to obtain a pass from the authorities in Turkey before being allowed to visit its stunning ruins. During the 20th century, in fact, the city found itself in a wasteland under the control of the Turkish military. Little wonder, then, that Ani disintegrated still further into the eerie ghost town it is today.

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The spat between Turkey and Armenia over the ancient city of Ani rumbles on. The Economist has reported that Armenians have accused Turkey of purposefully neglecting Ani, as a symbolic gesture against the Armenians to whom the city is so important. Turkey’s response has been to claim Ani has been damaged by work in a quarry on the Armenian side of the border.

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But despite this constant controversy and the continued disintegration of Ani, could there be a glimmer of hope on the horizon for the once-great city? Could a metropolis devastated, as the Landmarks Foundation states, by “earthquakes in 1319, 1832, and 1988, army target practice and general neglect” be resurrected from its decaying glory once more? Could new life be breathed into what is now a ghost town?

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Perhaps. The city has benefited from a number of recent developments that recognize its cultural and historical significance – and its economic potential as a tourist attraction. Most important of these may be the city’s designation in 2016 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This has given Ani’s remarkable ruins the belated recognition they deserve.

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Also giving a new lease of life to this ghost town is an initiative by the Turkish government that was launched in 2018 to restore Ani’s ruins and promote tourist visits to the site. An army permit is no longer required to walk Ani’s hallowed streets, for example, and the city has been winning increasing attention as a must-visit tourist destination. The Lonely Planet has described its ruins as “an absolute must-see.”

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So it seems that Ani’s future may lie in its ancient origins. By harking back to its beginnings as a medieval metropolis, new life might just be breathed into this ghost town. Could Ani be set to once again welcome, as it did with merchants and traders during its Silk Road heyday, a mix of visitors of many cultures and creeds – this time armed with selfie-sticks and smartphones?

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Watch this space: it just might. As Ani’s cultural, historical and archaeological significance – and tourism potential – come to be recognized, its day might come once more. For this once-great city – a medieval metropolis – the page might just have turned on a new chapter in its history.

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