City of 1001 Churches, City of 40 Gates
To get to Ani you first must travel to Kars, the biggest city in the far east of Turkey. Kars came into the global consciousness a few years ago when Orhan Pamuk, a renowned Turkish novelist, wrote a book called Snow set in the city (kar is the word for snow in Turkish). For that work he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Snow doesn’t make Kars seem like the most inviting place (it’s actually a really pleasant town), but we mushed on because our destination awaited.
Outside Kars about 50 kilometers is the former capital of an Armenian kingdom, a city built up in the 10th century called Ani. The ruins of Ani perch along a gorge and below flows the river that divides Turkey and Armenia. This is a tense border and it has been for some time. It was once the edge of the Soviet Union as Armenia fell under communist control. The border continues to be closed for a number of reasons, depending on who you ask. Conflicts abound: the violence between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the early 90’s, the Armenian genocide by the Ottomans in the early 20th century, continued Russian military presence in Armenia.
These border tensions have led to all kinds of tragedies, one of which is the decay of one of the world’s architectural and archaelogical treasures. Up until ten years ago, Ani was a very difficult place to visit. According to hearsay, if you could get yourself to its gates, you would hand over your passport and your camera and commence a tour with an armed border police at your side. Things are a bit more relaxed now, but there are still areas that are off limits. Signs like this indicate when you need to turn around:
As I said, Ani was the capital of the Armenia staring in the 10th century and it bounced between Christian and Muslim control over the next few hundreds of years. I read that its nickname was ‘The City of 1001 Churches,’ but today only handful still stand. You can read more in this helpful piece by UNESCO containing info about Ani’s location, the ruins, and its cultural value: http://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/5725/
We have been graced with many special experiences this year, and this visit to Ani is up there on the list. What’s the best way to describe it? Ani is certainly eerie as you walk from church to church, things falling down, rock swallows flying in packs and screeching. On the other hand, wildflowers brighten up all of this crumbling in their reds, yellows, whites, and purples. In these flowers you sense the continuity and endurance of creation. Human empires like Ani struggle and disappear but these wildflowers have been blooming in early summer since God knows when. Finally, I am struck by the overwhelming tragedy of the place. Religious faith inspired the design and construction of these beautiful churches for worship. And yet, religious faith, both Christianity and Islam, also had a hand to play in the conflict that Ani has known over the centuries and the continuing disagreements along this contentious border.
As we walked through Ani I got to thinking about the way cities are talked about in the Bible. Some are wicked and get into trouble. Some are places of exile. Some are hometowns no longer welcoming. In Ani’s ruins I wondered about Revelation’s symbolic vision of the New Jerusalem and God’s promise to make all things new. One verse sticks out about that new city: “On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. (Rev. 21:25).” The verse sticks out because Ani had another nickname, “The City of Forty Gates.” I imagine that Ani’s forty gates have had to be closed and even barricaded many times over the years. And in our present day the border between Turkey and Armenia at Ani’s edge remains a closed gate. These are reminders that things are far from perfect in this part of the world. Gates continue to be shut both day and night.