Monday, April 15, 2013

Armenia's City of Ghosts

Situated at the far-flung reaches of eastern Turkey, just metres from the border with Armenia, is the ghost city of Ani. The ruins of this once stately medieval capital - home to over 100,000 Armenians at its apex in the 11th century – sprawl across an undulating steppe land and hint at a civilization said to have rivaled Cairo, Baghdad and Constantinople. 

Armenian builders and masons, once famed throughout the Middle East for their ingenuity and mastership, reached the pinnacle of their craft at Ani, building magnificent structures of which only a few remain today. Although the city’s 5th century founders chose a site as defendable as any in the region, nothing could compensate for the fact that Ani - and Armenia in general - was parked in the middle of an ancient autobahn used by armies to cross continents.

The city was pummeled time and again by waves of marauders; its residents slaughtered repeatedly, only to re-populate the town and face fury of the next interloper. The Byzantines, Seljuk Turks, Mongols, and the warriors of Tamerlane each dealt Ani heavy blows in succession, bleeding it of its vitality until it became a dusty, ruinous shell in the possession of the Ottoman Turks. 

A visit to the ruins of Ani today is something of a poignant affair. Though nearly finished off by earthquakes and the ravages of time, the city emits the haunting emanations of a place still - somehow - occupied. Winds blowing into the site from Central Asia and the Caucasus carry Ani's forlorn whispers. 

Its great 11th century cathedral, gutted and empty, stands solitary amid the vast expanse of ruins with tufts of grass growing on its roof, looking like a titanic 19th century European cottage. The circular Church of the Redeemer, seen fulsome and intact from one side, becomes a half-circular shell when looked at from the other – a full side of the building was blown to smithereens by a massive lightning strike in 1955. Kurdish shepherds and their flocks move quietly through the site, with the sheep’s bells ringing to the sound of the wind and the enduring silence.

The kind of charged politics that led to Ani’s demise also endures. Atop an ancient castle, off-limits to tourists sits a garrison of the Turkish army. The soldiers face the adjacent border posts of the Republic of Armenia, situated across a deep ravine of the Akhurian River. 

Despite recent attempts by both sides to let go of their historical and political differences, the border between the countries remains closed, and both governments are still not talking. So stubborn and vitriolic is the hatred that the tourist billboards at the entrance to Ani don’t even mention the words “Armenia” or “Armenians” in conjunction with the site’s history.

Blood, trauma, ghosts, and layers of misperception and misunderstanding have created a politics of obduracy - and an invisible and unnecessary wall between peoples and cultures as thick and solid as the great stone wall that encapsulates Ani and its ghostly lamentations.

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