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Ani, the sacred city of memories: A photo story

September 18, 2019

In pictures

By Sarine Arslanian

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New Ani, the sacred city of memories: A photo story

Located in the Western Armenian province of Kars (which lies within Turkey’s borders today), the medieval city of Ani, also known as the “City of 1,001 churches” and the “City of forty gates,” lies in ruins. Nonetheless, its remainsincluding the magnificent frescoes painted inside its old churchescarry the memories of the sacred city’s glorious past and abundant beauty. Strolling around Ani, I could not help but wonder what these ancient stones would tell us. If only they could speak… What memories and stories would they share? 

Founded over 1,600 years ago, Ani once served as the thriving capital of the Armenian kingdom under the Bagratuni dynasty (961-1045). It was then a noteworthy religious and cultural center as well as a trading hub, until its gradual decline. In the 13th century, the city was plundered, then a century later, devastated by an earthquake. Before long, Ani lost its influence, and by the 17th century, it was completely abandoned. Yet, it never sank into oblivion in the collective memory of the Armenian people. Girls are still named after the city and a number of folk songs and poems have been dedicated to it. Surely, this fortified city would have many tales to recount.

Not just awe and wonder

It would be a lie to say that all I felt in Ani was awe and wonder. The sight of the Turkish flag and description boards welcoming us at the northern gate of this medieval Armenian town without a single mention of the Armenians made me want to cry out: “You’ve already tried to wipe us out! Can you at least leave our memories in peace without attempting to Turkify them?”

Back to presence

But walking in silence, ahead of the group I was traveling with, toward the Church of Saint Gregory of Tigran Honents, overlooking the Akhurian River and the breathtaking Armenian steppe, every step I took brought me back to presence.

Illuminating walls

With a sense of aliveness, I entered the place of worship, which was built in 1205 and commissioned by the affluent Armenian merchant Tigran Honents. A true revelation! The finest frescoes, bringing to light various scenes from the life of Christ and Saint Gregory the Illuminator, covered its walls and its dome.

Mesmerized

As substantial fresco cycles are rarely found in Armenian churches, I was mesmerized by this unusual sight. Before me were magnificent works of historical and artistic value, which had stood the test of time.

A highlight preserved

The Church of Saint Gregory of Tigran Honents, the city’s best-preserved structure, was my architectural highlight by far. Not only for its remarkable interiors, but also for the detailed frescoes painted on its exterior walls. 

Halved

From the Church of the Redeemer, only half remains. Yet, this monument featuring a large central dome and 19 archways built out of pink lava rock is of crucial importance, as it testifies to the artistic prowess of the Armenians under the Bagratuni Dynasty.

A pause for reflection

It was outside the cathedral, surrounded by the vastness of nature, when I stopped for a moment. Listening to the whispers of the wind, the fresh air caressing my skin, I could feel my ancestors’ presence all around me.

Mystic nature

The natural sceneries in and around this walled city, which counted over 100,000 inhabitants by the 11th century, were not only awe-inspiringthey also added to the mysticism of the place.

Blue skies from pain

In the imposing cathedral also known as the Church of the Holy Mother of God, I gazed up at the bright blue sky from where its conical dome used to stand before it collapsed in the 1319 earthquake.

Crossing common paths

Crossing paths with two fellow filmmakers who had come from Istanbul searching for traces of a common past, filled my soul with joy. We connected instantly and deeply. With song and laughter, we continued our walk, which was in and of itself very healing.  

River of delimitation

How convenient and ironic, I thought, that after having offered natural protection to the city over the centuries, the deep ravine with the Akhurian river flowing along its bottom now offered a natural delimitation. Indeed, to the left of the river is modern-day Turkey, while modern-day Armenia is on the right.

'As a song, as a city of roses'

Before long, I remembered the words of the Armenian poet Hovhannes Shiraz, who had once expressed his longing to see Ani before he died—this historic city listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2016.

Carved out

Just outside the fortified city, we spotted a cave village carved into the surrounding cliffs. We were told this “underground city” was inhabited until the early 20th century and that flocks of goats and sheep benefit from the caves’ cool interiors today.

For beauty

The last monument we saw that day was the 10th-century Church of Saint Gregory of the Abughamrents—a 12-sided private chapel with a beautiful dome. Its precious arches were designed solely for aesthetics.

A volcanic welcome

It was with a sense of fullness that I bid farewell to this ancient city in ruins, where majestic places of worship—all built out of tuff, the local volcanic stone in different shades of pink—still welcome visitors. 

Check out Shiraz' poemin song!

Check out two song versions of Hovhannes Shiraz' poem «Տեսնեմ Անին ու նոր մեռնեմ» ("Tesnem Anin u nor mernem" | "Let me see Ani before I die", composed by Istanbul-Armenian composer Majak Toşikyan). Below is the original poem (in Armenian). Would you like to take a stab at translating it into English? Submit your translation to h-pem. We would love to publish it!

Do you know of any other songs, poems, or other pieces dedicated to the storied city? Send us a message today!
 

Կարօտ (Տեսնեմ Անին ու նոր մեռնեմ)
Խօսք`  Յովհաննէս Շիրազի

Դեռ մի կարօտ ունեմ անյագ՝ հասնեմ Անի ու նոր մեռնեմ,
Բանամ ճամբիս դռները փակ, տեսնեմ Անին ու նոր մեռնեմ:
    
Բալասանուեմ իր բաց Վէրքին, մանուկ ծնեմ մեռած մօրից՝
Ախուրեանի օրօրի տակ, փրկեմ Անին՝ կարօտս առնեմ:
    
Օրոցք դնեմ իղձերն հայոց՝ հայոց յոյսերն օրօրելով,
Որպէս որդուն իմ երկուորեակ՝ երկնեմ Անին՝ կեանքն օրօրեմ:
    
Ախուրեանի ջրերի պէս մօրս փէշերն համբուրելով՝
Լցուած կեանքով հազարազանգ՝ գրկեմ Անին, վերածնուեմ:
    
Կրծքիս սեղմեմ Անիս աւեր, բուերի տեղ սոխակ դառնամ,
Դառած երգ ու վարդի քաղաք՝ երգեմ Անին ու նոր մեռնեմ:
    
Վանայ ծովի ու Վանի հետ ու Ղարսի հետ ու Մասիսի՝
Իմ Սեւանի լոյսերի տակ զուգեմ Անին՝ օջախ վառեմ:
    
Ծաղկեցնեմ շիրիմն անգամ արքայաշուք իմ պապերի,
Որպէս անտառ կաղնեպսակ՝ տնկեմ Անին՝ Վանին խառնեմ:
    
Աւեր թողնեմ միայն Քեօշքը թուրք չարայուշ բռնակալի,
Գլխին հայոց արեւաթագ՝ ոսկեմ Անին, բերդն համբուրեմ:
    
Հազարազանգ զարթնեցնեմ հազարամեայ իր խոր քնից
Արագածի պէս անխորտակ բուրգեմ Անին՝ վեր պարսպեմ:
    
Վեր փիւնիկեմ հազար ու մի տաճարներով իր աւերակ,
Մայր տաճարի գմբէթի տակ խնկեմ Անին, կեանք բուրվառեմ:
    
Թագադրեմ սրտիս թագով մանուկ Գագիկ թագաւորին, -
Հազար ու մի զանգով՝ յստակ զանգեմ Անին՝ վեր ղօղանջեմ:
    
Մայրաքաղաք Երեւանին Անին դարձնեմ մայրաքաղաք,
Պալատներով իր նորաթագ վէմեմ Անին՝ կեանքի կոչեմ:
    
Վերաշինեմ շիրմի մատուռն սպարապետ Պահլաւունու,
Վէմեմ բուրգերն ու աշտարակ, ճեմեմ Անին ու նոր ննջեմ:
    
Բանտից հանեմ մեծ Հայաստանն՝ այս ազատուած փոքրիս խառնեմ,
Գրկելով հողն իմ բովանդակ՝ հայկեմ Անին ու նոր մեռնեմ:
    
Հայոց թագի շափաղն հասնի Վանայ ծովի մութ վահանին,
Առագաստեմ ծովերս անտակ, թագեմ Անին, թագաւորեմ:
    
Հազար տարուայ կարօտ ունի իմ երազը հազարաթեւ
Ա՜խ, թէկուզ լուռ, դեռ աւերակ, տեսնեմ Անին՝ ու նոր մեռնեմ:
    
Որպէս ոսկի վաղուայ գուշակ, որպէս Մասիսին իմ անուշակ,
Գլխին հայոց մի դրօշակ տեսնեմ Անին… ու չմեռնեմ:

Video

  • "Tesnem Anin u nor mernem" by Sibil Pektorosoğlu

    (Video: Vak Karapetian YouTube page)

  • "Ani" by the St. Vartanants Choir

    (Video: Ossi Müzik)

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