Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Beautiful Ruins

The Beautiful Ruins

by Sean Williams
Ani, a national emblems for Armenia, remains achingly out of reach to modern Armenians.
Ani, a national emblems for Armenia, remains achingly out of reach to modern Armenians. Photograph: Sean Williams for zenith
Located within binocular-viewing distance of the Armenian border, the Turkish historical ruin of Ani stands as a site of possible reconciliation between two bitter foes. But politicization and preservation suggest otherwise, discovers Sean Williams.
Vedat Akcayoz, smartly dressed and smiling, parked his white Ford pickup beside the ruins of Ani. It was early morning, around six-thirty, but there was no such thing as too early for his latest ambitious project, which involved rock dwellings, a surly assistant and around a dozen pigeons, which cooed and flapped in coops tied to the Ford’s dusty flatbed.

Vedat hopped out of the truck and shook my hand. He squinted under the already hot Anatolian sun. His mood was buoyant but the wrinkles that curled around his eyes hinted at a lifetime here, miles from anybody, researching and writing and pulling stunts like this.

Until now, they’d made little difference to the crumbling old city. But the birds would be different, he told me. In moments he’d drive off, release them among Ani’s caves and film their escape across the Armenian border for a documentary to be premiered a thousand miles away in Istanbul. Its showing would reignite interest in Ani and, he said, bring archaeologists flocking to save it.

“I hope this becomes a place of scientific research,” he added, scratching his salt-and-pepper moustache. “Then people will come here, and see my work.” He jumped back in the flatbed and spluttered off to grant the birds their freedom.

Another stunt. Lovingly crafted, perhaps, but a stunt nonetheless. Ani has been blighted by such follies throughout a difficult modern history – some innocent, some unimaginably dark. Less than a fortnight after my visit, it was inscribed on UNESCO’s prestigious World Heritage List. But even that move, momentous for many, may have added to its decline.

Amid tumultuous domestic politics, capped by the attempted coup in July, Turkey appears further than ever from making its mind up on Ani, one of the world’s most endangered and febrile heritage sites. For millions of Armenians that adds to a collective trauma stretching back centuries. “He has so much passion,” my guide, a student named Yilmaz, said of Vedat. “But it’s just one guy against so much.”

So much is an understatement.

The beginnings of the ruin

Ani is an ancient city on the easternmost edge of Turkey. Its first buildings appeared in the fifth century, but Ani’s renaissance began in the 10th century, when King Ashot the Merciful, of the Armenian Bagratid Dynasty, moved his capital 45 kilometres east from Kars. Under the Bagratids, Ani became a jewel of worship, trade and architecture. At its peak the city was home to around a hundred thousand people, making it one of the biggest cities in the Caucasus. It was known as the City of 1,001 Churches.

Sunrise over Ani. At its peak in the 10th century CE, it was one of the biggest cities in the Caucasus.
Sunrise over Ani. At its peak in the 10th century CE, it was one of the biggest cities in the Caucasus.Photograph: Sean Williams for zenith
Today Ani is a ruin, its rust-red monuments strewn across a rolling landscape like scattered chess pieces. To one side snakes the Akhurian River, which forms part of the border between Turkey and Armenia. In 1993, Turkey reacted to Armenia’s war with Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region by closing the border. Now Ani’s edge is dotted with raised, black sentry posts – the Turkish Army still occupies its citadel. Conflict has rolled by throughout history. In 1045 Byzantines kicked the Bagratids out of Ani, themselves overrun by Seljuk Turks, a precursor to the Ottoman Empire, in 1064.

The following six centuries saw further death dealt by Kurds, Georgians, Mongols and Safavid Persians. A brutal earthquake in 1319 did little to help either, and by the middle of the 17th century the city was largely abandoned. Silk road traders stopped in other, bigger locations. Less than six hundred years after its heyday, Ani was a relic.

When I visited in July it was easy to see why Ani has remained largely untouched. To begin with, there is its isolation. It took me two days and three bus journeys to get there from northern Georgia, and almost as long to get out. Disneyland it most definitely is not. But as I, Yilmaz and a local taxi driver sped towards the site at 3:30am on day three of my adventure, the result was worth it: Kars Province, a land where Asia and Europe flirt, is spectacular. Its deep green land warps, whips and kinks like a badly-laid tablecloth. Scale is hard to fathom. Features are far and cloyingly close all at once.

Add Ani, and the view is breathtaking. Each surviving building is constructed with classic, multi-coloured stones that soak up the light and throw it back in deeper shades of red and brown. It takes about an hour to walk from one end to another, and monuments rise up from the scrubby, overgrown brush like oases. It reminded me of Egypt’s Valley of the Kings: hidden, and grander for it. Unlike Egypt, though, Turkey hasn’t been that thrilled to promote Ani. Perhaps that’s because it was built not by Turks but almost entirely by Armenians. And in modern Turkey, that’s still a problem.

I first met Vedat at his printing store in Kars, a city with its own history of conquest and trade along the Silk Road. It was once Armenian too, but like much of the region it was ceded to Turkey by the USSR in 1921, having been captured from the short-lived Republic of Armenia a year previously. Now there is little to indicate its Armenian heritage. Even Kars’ grey-bricked cathedral, built by Ashot the Merciful’s predecessor Abas I, was made a mosque in 1993. That, many believe, is part of a systematic effort to eradicate Armenian culture in Turkey, a century after the Armenian Genocide.

Vedat himself was warm and kindhearted towards Armenians, but even he expressed uncertainty about whether the genocide was committed, echoing the Turkish state line. There is still, Yilmaz told me, systemic hatred of Armenians in the region. “When someone does something bad here,” he said, “you call them an Armenian.”

“Turkish and Armenian people aren’t fighting,” insisted Vedat. “But the politicians are turning it into political rot. We must give our hearts to the Armenian people.” Good wishes are welcome, but Armenians would rather have Ani.

An Armenian icon

In Armenia, Ani is far more than a ruin. When I visited Yerevan, Armenia’s compact capital, shortly after my trip, I saw taxis named Ani, Ani sweet shops, restaurants and even Ani-branded gas repair services. The city’s largest hotel is the Ani Plaza. Not far away is the Rio Ani Beauty Salon. Ani has become one of two national emblems that remain achingly out of reach to modern Armenians. The other, Mount Ararat, hovers above Yerevan and is widely speculated to be the final resting place of Noah’s Ark. (Its name is everywhere too, from beer bottles to cigarettes and the national coat of arms; Armenia’s most popular football club is FC Ararat Yerevan.)

But Ararat, like Ani, is inside Turkey, an emblem of Armenian irredentism but also of power and pride lost, subjugation and, of course, the genocide. Last year the world commemorated a century since enormous numbers of Armenians (Armenia claims 1.5 million; Turkey says 300,000; most scholars agree on a figure around a million) were killed in massacres, famines and death marches orchestrated by the Young Turk movement, during the First World War.

Many of the structures at Ani are judged to need significant conservation work.
Many of the structures at Ani are judged to need significant conservation work. Photograph: Sean Williams for zenith
Turkey fiercely denies it committed the atrocities, saying the deaths occurred in the general chaos of war. It has committed to suppressing the issue ever since. “Our attitude on the Armenian issue is clear from the beginning,” Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan said this June. “We will never accept the accusations of genocide.”

The denial has extended to Ani. At its entrance, beside a ticket booth – unmanned when I visited – there is a timeline chronicling the city’s history. There is not one mention of Armenia. The Church of Saint Gregory, a small, well-preserved spot overlooking the Akhurian River, has an information board noting that its king “wore a Muslim turban”. 

“I don’t know why they did that,” Yilmaz said, shaking his head.

These microaggressions form part of what Peter Balakian, an Armenian American writer, academic and recipient of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for poetry, described to me as the “genocide mentality”. That, he added, “is not just about killing people. It’s about killing their history, their monuments and forms of expression, which are important for so many cultures. What has happened at Ani is a willful eradication of Armenian identity. And the disallowing of the word ‘Armenian’ on the signage is a primary example of the attack on Armenian identity.”

“It’s an Orwellian kind of situation. You’re being lied to about things that declare their truth in their very appearance. You see Christian churches and Armenian writing, but there are no signs telling the viewer what they are looking at.”

Trauma flows thick through the Armenian id. Horror, death and anger have migrated down family trees, among Armenia’s three million inhabitants and the roughly seven million in its far-flung diaspora, the spyurk (‘spread’). Ani has come to embody that anger and expropriation. It’s a crime scene; it’s a mental block. It is a crime “done with impunity”, Balakian told me.

To see that scene today, most Armenians must travel to their side of the border, take binoculars and hope for a clear day. They see a different Ani, some buildings barely visible, others hidden altogether. It is a poor substitute for being among the ruins on the Turkish side. Those who do make it there, which isn’t many, are often overwhelmed. The phenomenon of Jerusalem Syndrome, when people visiting the Holy City experience a religious mania, is well known. Throughout my visit I was told similar tales of Ani. 

The state of decay

Perhaps for that reason, it draws a wide array of protagonists. Some, like Vedat, are enthralled amateurs. Steven Sim is another Ani obsessive. A Scot and self-described outsider who has been visiting the city annually for 15 years, Sim has created VirtualAni, the largest online repository of knowledge about the ancient city. He told me in a phone conversation how disgusted he has grown with efforts to restore it.

Sim has railed against everything from an Armenian mine that operated nearby to shoddy restorations carried out by the Turkish state in the 90s and current work at the Church of the Redeemer, one of Ani’s most iconic structures. It has been sliced in half by earthquakes and ill repair, and is in the process of reconstruction by the Washington, DC-based World Monuments Fund (WMF).

To see Ani today most Armenians must travel to their side of the border, take binoculars and hope for a clear day.
To see Ani today most Armenians must travel to their side of the border, take binoculars and hope for a clear day.Photograph: Sean Williams for zenith
The WMF travelled to Ani in 2013 to hold a workshop in Kars, called Ani in Context. The trip aimed to assess the structural decay of the city’s most prominent buildings, and to extend archaeological focus beyond the city to other important sites in the region. Much of the report makes grim reading. Of the 28 sites the group examined, ten were placed in the Group 1 category, requiring immediate action. A further ten were evaluated as needing “possible eventual action”. 

“As in many parts of the world with rich and abundant cultural heritage, the challenges are considerable,” wrote team member Carsten Paludan-Müller. “Preservation and sustainable management are not easily extended to every object that one would wish to preserve, and much has already been damaged beyond affordable repair.”

Ani may elicit a religious experience among its admirers. It could require a miracle to survive deep into this century. I spoke to several members of the 2013 WMF team for this story. Their general mood was one of frustration – at the state of Ani, at poor restoration work and at politics, which is all but inescapable.

This wasn’t always expressed negatively. Stephen J. Kelley is an American architect and engineer who has worked on restoration jobs at Ani alongside the WMF, on and off for 20 years. He explained to me his hope that Ani would bring Armenians and Turks together. He said, “I felt like it had a bigger role than the conservation [alone].”

Kelley recently led an international team of archaeologists to the city. The first time he pulled them all together, he said, it was “fairly uncomfortable…all Armenians have the Armenian Genocide on their sleeve. And no Turks really know about it because it’s forbidden in schools. So the Armenians were hurt, and the Turks were like, ‘What’s the problem?’”

“Then as we talked, everyone became best friends,” Kelley added. “We went to Kars, drank some beer, had a dance. And they really started to like each other’s company. They share so many things.”

Rebuilding history?

As with most ancient sites, debate on whether to allow Ani to fall into disrepair, or to build it back up, have been fierce. Turkey has restored Armenian monuments before. In the years following the Armenian Genocide, the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, on an island in Lake Van, 150 miles from Kars, was badly damaged and vandalised. The Turkish Ministry of Culture rebuilt it in 2006, but the results were contentious. Permission to build a cross on the cathedral was denied, the church became a museum rather than a place of worship, and the word ‘Armenian’ was rarely used. Many commentators called it little more than a publicity stunt.

Ani appears no different. Heghnar Watenpaugh was part of the 2013 WMF team and has studied the site for years. She witnessed first-hand, at a recent conference, what Turkish officials call “Ani diplomacy”. “The point of the conference was how to counter the Armenian diaspora allegations of genocide,” she told me.

Attempts to inscribe Ani on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, ongoing for years, finally paid off this June, just days after I visited, at a ceremony in Istanbul. Watenpaugh was there. After the listing was announced, “The Turkish state party gets five minutes to say thank you, and during these five minutes he talks about Ani as a means of reconciliation,” she said.

Before the area was cordoned off to locals the churches were a prime make-out spot.
Before the area was cordoned off to locals the churches were a prime make-out spot.Photograph: Sean Williams for zenith
“But he said that ‘other groups’ – unnamed – have shown much rancour, but Anatolia is home to many cultures,” she added. “I saw that as an allusion to deploying Ani as a site to counter accusations of genocide against Turkey. That’s my view. He didn’t use the word Armenian to describe anything, and this is something I find very difficult, that [for] the Ministry of Culture it’s very rare to use the word Armenian, even when speaking about the Armenian script.”

“Then afterwards it was all kumbaya, and the Armenian and Turkish ambassadors shook hands. This is Ani diplomacy put into practice.”

An uncertain future

“The historical integrity of Ani has been destroyed to such an extent that Ani should no longer fit the criteria for inclusion on the [UNESCO] World Heritage List,” Sim told me. “So the listing is political and it is not to do with preserving Ani or acknowledging its history. The twin purpose is to silence criticism of Turkey’s treatment of Armenian monuments and to peddle spurious claims that Ani was some sort of multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multicultural civilisation.”

The concept of the World Heritage Site, according to UNESCO, the United Nations Organisation for Education, Science and Culture, was adopted in 1972. It aims to catalogue locations that are “of outstanding cultural or natural importance to the common culture and heritage of humanity”. To date, 994 sites have been inscribed on the list.

It is unclear for many what UNESCO status really does for a site other than raise its profile. Almost all of those I spoke to said it was a positive move in Ani’s case. A couple, however, were concerned that it would give the Turkish state carte blanche to do what it wishes, emboldened by the listing.

Neither is Turkey the only state playing politics with Ani: the US has pumped over $600,000 into the site as part of its Ambassador’s Fund, an effort in archaeological conservation and soft power. The US is home to almost 400,000 Armenians but has for decades been a close military ally of Turkey. It seems Washington sees Ani as a chance to please both.

Toward the end of my visit to Ani I met some shepherds from the adjoining village of Ocakli. The sun was fully risen and the clangs of the bells around their cows’ necks rang around the ruins. Up until the 1950s it was common for locals to build their homes from Ani’s ancient masonry. Others lived in the city’s hillside cave dwellings.

Back then the border was open and trade flourished. Now, with the border shut, hundreds of thousands of people have left the region. One of the shepherds, who would not tell me his name, didn’t care much about Armenia or the ruins. He told me, “We gave some opinion to them [the Armenians]. We said, ‘Please be Muslim.’ But they denied our religion. And our religion, one day, if you’re not Muslim it will be a crime. Then this city will suddenly be destroyed and our god, Allah, will rule.”

Yilmaz told me his reaction may have had more to do with the fact that, under the UNESCO proposal, Ocakli will probably be razed to build more tourist infrastructure. Sim says he even saw buildings being demolished during his latest visit, though I drove past the village and saw nothing.

Whether anything happens at all at Ani, given Turkey’s precarious state, is debatable. On July 15, the same day Ani was being inscribed on UNESCO’s list, Turkey’s government survived a coup d’état in which over 300 people died. Meanwhile, despite its World Heritage status, plenty of cash and the people fighting for its survival, Ani remains under threat and out of reach to Armenians. To them it is a paradise lost – stolen, they would suggest.

Vedat still thinks his film will change everything at Ani. But he admitted things will get tougher before progress is made. “There are two governments here,” he said, leaning on the Ford. “But first of all they are man. Ani is a perfect way for Armenians and Turks to speak to each other.”

Perhaps. As we left him, Yilmaz beckoned me inside the Church of Saint Gregory. Scrawled on its thousand-year-old coal-black walls were hundreds of hastily etched love notes. The church was cordoned off to locals, along with the entire site, by the Ministry of Culture in 2005. Before then it was a prime make-out spot.

Across the hills, Yilmaz added, there are rumours of gold, of buried Bagratid treasures that lure bounty hunters. And, he said, turning to point at the city’s ruined palace, there is a monster that stalks the city by night.

People will always search for wealth, love and legend. At Ani it is no different. But there, while people continue to fight, squabble and mistrust, the buildings themselves crumble and fall into the earth. For Armenians, Turks and the world, that will be a disaster. The biggest treasure the Bagratids ever left is in real danger of being driven into the ground.

Sean Williams is a British journalist living in Berlin. His work has appeared at newyorker.comEsquireThe GuardianVICE and many others. He has written about topics ranging from drug addiction in Somalia to corruption in Russian football.

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