A Great Christian City Abandoned— The Story of Ani

The drive to the medieval city of Ani was along a two lane road to nowhere.  The road simply stopped when you got to the castle entrance to the city ruins.  Along the way you felt already there was something strange— the landscape was beautifully green but there were no trees—- anywhere to be seen.    My friend Mark Fairchild assured me that this place was well worth the drive from Kars and I took his word for it.  It was a drive to the river separating Armenia and Turkey.  There is no traffic between the two countries.  It is not allowed, though there has been some recent talk about changing that.  But old wounds die hard, for Ani had been once a great capital city of a great Armenian empire, an empire based on Christian values and Christian faith in various ways.

Ani today is a ruins, but what a magnificent ruins it is, spanning many square miles.  I could not walk all over the site as there were not enough hours in the afternoon and it involved a lot of climbing up and down substantial hills near the river itself.  Once the Armenian kingdom covered all of present day Armenia and much of eastern Turkey.  Those days are long in the past.  Once there were between 100,000 and 200,000 people living in Ani.  Now you would be hard pressed to find 500 living near it.   Once this city was on the silk road, a great center of commerce and a capital rivaling Constantinople itself.  Unlike Constantinople  after the Muslim conquest,  Ani did not morphe into something else.  It simply died and was abandoned.

First references to this city come in the 5th century A.D. but it would not reach its peak of influence until well into the Middle Ages, around 1000 A.D.   But like the Biblical tragedy of Israel, the two sons of the great king King Gagik I quarreled and the kingdom was divided between them.  Eventually Ani fell into the hands of the Byzantines but it was sacked by the Selchuck Turks in 1064 and the story goes downhill from there.  In 1236 it was captured by the Mongols and then it became a part of the Ottoman Empire in  1579. But its population declined and by the 17th century it had very few residents and little political or commericial importance.   It was tourists who rediscovered it in the 19th century.   But to see its ruins is to see what a great fall this once proud city had over time, a reminder that it can happen to great cities, great nations, great empires, great cultures, and with great speed as well.

Let us go inside the walled city and see what lies in wait and in waste.  The sheer scope of the place and the beauty of the landscape contained within the walls is overwhelming.  For example take a look at this next picture of the palace of the ruler by the river towards the back of the walled city. The tower in the foreground is a Muslim tomb shrine.  When one reads the guiding signs one realizes this was a place of vast religious life— there are more churches, and monasteries and nunneries than there are ordinary buildings.   For example consider the great Church of St. Gregory by the river.  Or the nunnery a little further along the river.

There is a drop of some 300-400 feet down to these locations from the plain evident above on which the palace and many other buildings are situated.    You can also see the ancient ruins of the bridge across the river that led right into the city bringing all the trade of the silk road this way (see a couple of pictures below).

Here is another of the great cathedrals of the city.   Some of these cathedrals still have their original magnificent acoustics since the roof is still on the building a thousand years after their heyday.  There is so much more to show and to tell, but perhaps here we could just suggest a meditation on Revelation 18.  While Ani did not fall in single day or even a single year, it is not just the Babylon’s of this world that rise and fall.  So do the most Christian of cities as well.  Think on these things.  God’s kingdom is not coterminous with any particular nation, any particular city, any particular ethnic group, for it is the kingdom of God, and it alone will never fall.

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