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Ani

 
  - darkometer rating:  4 -

A city of ruins in the far east of Turkey. Ani is a place of great antiquity, namely in that it was the former capital of Armenia about a thousand years ago. Now it is largely a ghost town in ruins, but these are very alluring ruins indeed. Add to that the historically and politically charged location (even still today), and you have a pretty unique dark tourism destination. 

>More background info

>What there is to see

>Location

>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations

>Photos

 

More background info: given it's so ancient should it really qualify as a dark site? Not normally (cf. the concept of dark tourism) – and anyway, Turkey, like the whole Middle East, is full of ancient sites, though out of those with an Armenian background Ani is by far the most significant. However, the link to contemporary "darkness" is this: it's on Turkish territory, right on the border with Armenia, a border that is closed because of the continued animosities between the two countries (which in large part have their roots in the Armenian genocide at the hands of the Turks in the early 20th century – see Armenian genocide monument).
 
Furthermore, this used to be part of the Iron Curtain: NATO member Turkey on the one side, the Soviet Union (which Armenia used to be part of) on the other. Together with a short strip of borderland in northern Norway near (Kirkenes) the Turkish border with the Caucasus countries was one of only two land borders that the Soviet Union ever shared directly with a NATO country.
 
For a brief period after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the border was more permeable – you could even swim in the river. But that quickly changed with the war over Nagorno-Karabakh, in which Turkey sided with Armenia's enemy Azerbaijan. Today, the Armenian-Turkish border is heavily guarded once again, and tourists visiting Ani are kept from getting close to the border river by a green metal fence that encircles the entire site.
 
(On the Armenian side you can also get up close to the original Iron Curtain border fence of the old Cold War days which still stands over there – see Ani viewpoint & Iron Curtain – though to get there you'd need to take the detour via Georgia.)
 
At least it is now possible to visit Ani without a police permit and without being accompanied by a border soldier as had used to be the case not so long ago. These days you can just wander around freely – well, after having paid your few lira entrance fee at the little booth by the gate first, that is.
 
 
What there is to see: of Ani's buildings only a few parts remain standing, or half standing, even quite literary: the former Church of the Redeemer has collapsed on one side leaving more or less exactly half of the structure standing, as though the other half had been sliced off – it thus looks like a cross section.
 
Other buildings are in better shape, esp. the old Cathedral or the Church of Tigran Honents. Yet others are little more than heaps of rubble, after successive earthquakes have shaken the area over the centuries (esp. a particularly bad one in 1319, after which the town was abandoned for good … earthquakes still affect this part of the world to this day occasionally). This, combined with the extreme remoteness of the place gives it an eerie atmosphere. Definitely worth the lengthy detour …
 
And then there's the location as such, right on the Armenian border. At Ani, this border is marked by the Arpa river, which meanders in a deep canyon around the former city, perched on a plateau edging right to the cliffs. In ancient times, a single-span bridge crossed the river below – now just a ruin too. Standing on the cliffs above the bridge looking straight ahead across the canyon, you see the watchtowers of the Armenian border guards opposite. In fact, Russian border guards are still on duty there, as if it was still the Cold War Iron Curtain that it indeed once was, when Armenia was part of the USSR (see 'background' – today it's probably more about the fact that it is the border of the "Russian sphere of influence" …).
 
You can't get closer to the border (a fence prevents this, just in case) but within the Ani complex you can wander freely these days – except for a few parts around the former citadel to the south-east where "keep out" signs have been put up to stop visitors from proceeding any further. I've seen people still clambering about in the citadel's ruins, though.
 
Opposite on the Armenian side there's a quarry, which not only tarnishes the view (and on occasion the soundscape), but has apparently also been blamed as the cause of further structural damage to the fragile ruins ... after complaints to UNESCO blasting at least was suspended. Odd to think that it's the Armenians who are doing this to one of their own most important cultural treasures. Simply because it's on the Turkish side of the border now?
 
On the other hand, the signs at the site (in Turkish and English) make no mention whatsoever of the fact that it's actually a site of Armenian heritage. Furthermore, the Turks have been accused of having caused "damage" to the site themselves, namely through ill-thought out "restoration" work which actually replaced parts of the original wall with a completely re-built new "reconstruction", which naturally looks out of place – way too new, more like a film set. Further restoration plans are continuing to cause controversy.
 
You see, it's a place as historically charged as it is controversial in contemporary terms – which contrasts intriguingly with the architectural beauty of its buildings (or what's left of them).
  
[anecdote: Another contrast of a quite unexpected nature when I visited Ani in August 2007 was this: by the main gate a Japanese tour group was just leaving the site, and one woman came up to me and my wife and handed us Origami-paper cranes, bowing and muttering something in Japanese. It then occurred to me that it was the time of the anniversaries of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki … and these Origami cranes have become peace symbols especially associated with Hiroshima and its Peace Movement. This bizarre juxtaposition of being given a Japanese peace symbol in memory of one of world history's worst atrocities, which had happened at the other end of the world, and the eerie emptiness of Ani at its contested location right here added a particularly poignant layer of "darkness" to the whole experience!]
 
 
Location: about 25 to 30 miles (40 to 50 km) east of the north-east Anatolian city of Kars, which is some 550 miles (885 km) from Ankara and 750 miles (1200 km) from Istanbul.
 
Google maps locator: [40.511,43.572]
  
 
Access and costs: getting to Ani is not easy but it's feasible, and not expensive.
 
Details: the city of Kars is the closest transport "hub" … well, the train line across Anatolia ends there. There are daily long-distance trains to Kars from Istanbul and/or Ankara (see Anitkabir) via Kayseri and Erzurum – and tickets for 1st class sleeper compartments for the long journey are astoundingly cheap! (Cheaper than a night's accommodation in a basic hotel, in fact!) Internal flights to Kars are available too but are infrequent and book up early. Alternatively you'd have to get a coach (uncomfortable on longer journeys) or drive yourself – useful to get around once in Kars/Ani anyway, but it's a long, long way. I got there by train and then hired a car in Kars (I had it arranged in advance though) to travel to Ani. Leave Kars in a north-easterly direction, cross first the old rail line and then the main bypass and trunk road (965), from where signs direct you to Ani.
 
The only other way of getting to Ani independently from Kars would be to get a taxi – but you'd have to haggle over the price for the ca. half-day excursion.
 
In any case make sure you take plenty of water with you, esp. when visiting in summer – which is by far the best time to visit, as winters up here are long and harsh and access to Ani could be difficult.
   
The admission fee for entering the Ani complex is minimal.
 
For the necessary overnight accommodation, there are a couple of hotels in Kars, including the endearingly garish 1960s/70s-ish Sim'er Kars Hotel and even a small boutique hotel called "Kar's Otel" in a restored old Russian house (Kars was once part of the Tsarist Russian empire).
 
 
Time required: a half day is about the time you'll need at Ani – plus the time for getting there, so plan it as basically a day trip from Kars, with an extra day each way for getting to Kars and onwards to any next destination (such as Dogubayazit/Mt Ararat, to the south, or Rize or Trabzon to the north by the Black Sea).
 
 
Combinations with other dark destinations: in general see Turkey – from Kars, Dogubayazit at the foot of Mt Ararat is only half a day's driving away, so the two make a good combination if you're on a self-drive trip.
 
The Armenian side of the border, on the other hand, despite being so near, is inaccessible from Turkey, as the border between the two countries remains closed. However, you can get from Turkey to Armenia via Georgia without even much bureaucratic hassle (as a citizen of most Western countries at least). Once inside Armenia you could go and have a look at the same border from the other side, namely from the designated Ani viewpoints … where mainly visiting Diaspora Armenians can nostalgically gaze towards their former possession from afar – and as I did in August 2010 as well. Why, you may rightly ask, would anyone want to do that after already having seen Ani itself close up? Well, not so much for seeing it again from a greater distance, of course – but getting close to the remaining "Iron Curtain" border fence that still stands along this border has a certain thrill of Cold War era "archaeology". And Gyumri, a likely base for such excursions, has its own attraction for dark tourists too.
 
 
Combinations with non-dark destinations: in general see Turkey – Kars, the base for tours to Ani, is worth a look around too, esp. for its quirkily remote atmosphere – a feeling of an outpost at the end of the road (which is nearly true) permeates it. You'll hardly meet any other foreigners here (except at bigger hotels that may accommodate organized coach tour parties). The main sight proper is the citadel towering over Kars – from up there you get a good view over the city and the parched land around it. There's also an old dilapidated Armenian church right next to a new mosque, the former clad in scaffolding. An ancient bridge and equally ancient hamam (bath house) buildings lie at the foot of the citadel.
 
Due to the fact that Kars used to be an outpost of the Russian empire for decades, until the end of World War One, you can see quite unexpected architectural vestiges of typically Russian style town houses in between the mosques and modern concrete housing blocks. I even spotted an old Russian public fountain that featured decidedly erotic female statues – a true rarity in any prudish Muslim country, and certainly in such a remote location.
 
In culinary terms, the Kars province is famous for its high-quality honey and cheese – the latter is a hard cheese of quite an unusual type for Turkey, and definitely worth trying! And those who like their food spicy, this is the best part of Turkey to be in too!
 
Further afield, the colourful semi-arid landscape of eastern Anatolia can be very scenic. And to the north Lake Cildir provides an unusual backdrop that is almost reminiscent of Scotland in its green pastoral peace and quiet – if it wasn't for the ubiquitous mosques' minarets reminding the visitor that you're still in Turkey.
 
Even further north, the Kackar mountains are alluring with their white-water ravines and forest-covered hills. The chalets and cows with cowbells around their necks make the scenery almost look like Switzerland – again, if it wasn't for the omnipresent minarets poking out of the green … or for the humid heat. The northern coastal areas by the Black Sea are characterized by tea plantations (esp. between Hopa and Rize) followed by endless hazelnut groves further west. Here the city of Trabzon forms the main focal point of this region, which is about a day's drive from Kars.
 
  
  • Ani 01Ani 01
  • Ani 01bAni 01b
  • Ani 02 - on the border with ArmeniaAni 02 - on the border with Armenia
  • Ani 03 - halved ruines of the Church of the RedeemerAni 03 - halved ruines of the Church of the Redeemer
  • Ani 04 - Church of the RedeemerAni 04 - Church of the Redeemer
  • Ani 05 - half collapsed in earthquakeAni 05 - half collapsed in earthquake
  • Ani 06 - various ruinsAni 06 - various ruins
  • Ani 07 - Tigran Honents churchAni 07 - Tigran Honents church
  • Ani 08 - frescoes insideAni 08 - frescoes inside
  • Ani 09 - scenes of crueltyAni 09 - scenes of cruelty
  • Ani 10 - cathedral, mosque and citadel high over the riverAni 10 - cathedral, mosque and citadel high over the river
  • Ani 11 - cathedralAni 11 - cathedral
  • Ani 12 - cathedral sans central domeAni 12 - cathedral sans central dome
  • Ani 13 - open to the heavensAni 13 - open to the heavens
  • Ani 14 - border guard camp on the Armenian sideAni 14 - border guard camp on the Armenian side
  • Ani 15 - Arpa border riverAni 15 - Arpa border river
  • Ani 16 - ruins of the ancient bridgeAni 16 - ruins of the ancient bridge
  • Ani 17 - green and white waters of the Arpa riverAni 17 - green and white waters of the Arpa river
  • Ani 18 - bend in the Arpa river - opposite is the Armenian quarryAni 18 - bend in the Arpa river - opposite is the Armenian quarry
  • Ani 19 - Armenian quarry opposite AniAni 19 - Armenian quarry opposite Ani
  • Ani 20 - Russian border watchtowerAni 20 - Russian border watchtower
  • Ani 21 - Kizkale church - out of boundsAni 21 - Kizkale church - out of bounds
  • Ani 22 - oldest minaret in Turkey and very current border watchtower in the backgroundAni 22 - oldest minaret in Turkey and very current border watchtower in the background
  • Ani 23 - citadel and green fenceAni 23 - citadel and green fence
  • Ani 24 - hole in the fenceAni 24 - hole in the fence
  • Ani 25 - valley next to AniAni 25 - valley next to Ani
  • Ani 26 - cavesAni 26 - caves
  • Ani 27 - old city wallAni 27 - old city wall
  • Ani 28 - a non-Nazi swastikaAni 28 - a non-Nazi swastika
  • Ani 29 - tourist info panel - no mention of ArmeniaAni 29 - tourist info panel - no mention of Armenia
  • Kars 1 - citadelKars 1 - citadel
  • Kars 2 - view from the citadelKars 2 - view from the citadel
  • Kars 3 - old Armenian church and new mosqueKars 3 - old Armenian church and new mosque
  • Kars 4 - a rural cityKars 4 - a rural city
  • Kars 5 - Russian town housesKars 5 - Russian town houses
  • Kars 6 - hotel KarsKars 6 - hotel Kars
  • Kars 7 - Russian house and surprising fountainKars 7 - Russian house and surprising fountain
  • Kars 8 - local specialities - honey and cheeseKars 8 - local specialities - honey and cheese
  • KarsKars
  • multi-coloured East Anatolia 1multi-coloured East Anatolia 1
  • multi-coloured East Anatolia 2multi-coloured East Anatolia 2
  • multi-coloured East Anatolia 3multi-coloured East Anatolia 3
  • north of Kars - Cildir 1north of Kars - Cildir 1
  • north of Kars - Cildir 2north of Kars - Cildir 2
  • north of Kars - Kackar mountains 1north of Kars - Kackar mountains 1
  • north of Kars - Kackar mountains 2north of Kars - Kackar mountains 2

  

  

  

  

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