Ani was the closest I have come to my Armenian roots. When my mother was in Istanbul, Turkey on a grant, I came to visit her. I am an eighth Armenian and I never thought much of it all until I came to Turkey. Now I look at my Armenian heritage this way: if I were to live eighty years, an eighth of that time would make up ten years of my life…
On my first few days in Istanbul I got lost several times. I would stop in the middle of a crowded bazar and listen to the call to prayer fill the streets (a sure sign I was a tourist). One day around sunset I ended up exploring an old 4th century byzantine wall and met a homeless beekeeper. He invited me to tea and we sat in silence watching ships enter the Bosphorus.
And then we went to Ani. Ani was the ancient capital of Armenia. Settled sometime around the 5th century Ani rose to glory in the 11th century before being invaded by the Turks, Byzantines, and Mongols. By the 15th century it was abandoned. When we arrived we were the only ones there -just my mother and I in a giant abandoned medieval city. We walked around the city for hours. We had picnic on top of an old 13th century mosque. The city was known back at its peak as “the city of a thousand and one churches.”
Two canyons from the West and East protect the city. In one canyon the Akrhruian River acts as the modern day border that separates Armenia and Turkey. Right over the canyon an imposing Armenian guard tower reminds you that tensions still flare. The other canyon known as the Bostanlar valley is much wider and the location of an amazing cave city outside of Ani. Down at the River we found a different world. Several hawks glided overhead their shadows passing in front of me. Here my mother and I sat down and she told me about my great great grandfather’s poem about this very same river. It was difficult to imagine that this peaceful river represented the violent history of a border.
We made our way back up the canyon and through another opening in the fence. We were still alone and everything around us was still and cool, the way an old cathedral feels. We approached the Church of the Holy Redeemer a half standing domed church not far from the canyon. The church had only recently lost its other half when it collapsed in 1955. The city was originally named Khnamk, which is rooted from the Armenian word khnamel and translates: “to take care of.” Most of the rubble in this church had Armenian scripture carved into the rocks. On the ceiling I could just make out the faint outlines of icons, one of which portrayed the last supper. The sun was setting and we had spent a whole day in Ani. There was complete freedom in being able to walk anywhere we liked in Ani, running our fingers along the ancient scripture, crawling into one of the caves, and climbing the tower of the mosque. There was only one guard at the entrance charging a dollar to enter, he must have gone back to sleep after we left.
Walking through Ani with my mother I realized that it was very possible that a distant ancestor of mine had lived in this city at one point. Next time I go back I’m going to sleep in the caves and explore the city for a week under a full moon!