Once upon a time, Ani, the capital of the Armenian Empire under the Bagratid Dynasty, rivaled the Middle East's most powerful cities. Now, the city exudes the eerie ambiance of a ghost town surrounded by the remote landscape of the rolling Turkish steppe, the heavy weight of tragic history, and a nearby contested border; it has been made a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Ani is a truly unique, must-see destination for any traveller to the Turkish East.
Try to visit in June, if possible, because this is when the vast, flat plains are teeming with wildflowers.
Ani's first rise to prominence was in the 400s AD. At this time, it was a hilltop fortress that belonged to the Armenian Kamsarakan Dynasty; by the 800s, however, the Kamsarakan possessions in Eastern Anatolia had merged with the Bagratid Dynasty. In 961, King Ashot III moved the Armenian capital to Ani, and Armenian Catholics followed. Consequently, the city became the undisputed center of Armenia, and it grew rapidly until, by the eleventh century, there were more than 100,000 citizens. At its height, the city became known as the City of Forty Gates and the City of a Thousand Churches.
However, following the death of King Gagik in 1020, Armenian power was split between two sons and the golden age ended. The son who controlled Ani, attempting to prevent invasion, named the Byzantine Emperor his heir; eventually, though, the Byzantine Emperor stated his claim upon the city. The new king of Ani tried to keep his city independent, but after three years of military defeats and a pro-Byzantine uprising, Ani surrendered and the Byzantines established control.
The Byzantines, however, had wasted their time and effort, as in 1064 the Seljuk Turks took the city and massacred the populace. The city of Ani survived for another 650 years, but it was now a provincial town at the edge of competing empires. The Seljuk Turks passed possession of the city to Kurdish Shaddadids; they were attacked repeatedly by the neighboring Georgian Empire at the behest of Ani's unruly Christian population. The Shaddadids were conquered in 1199 by Queen Tamar of Georgia, and the Zakarid Dynasty of Ani was established. The city prospered once again, but was devastated this time in 1236 by the invading Mongol Hordes. The Zakarids continued to govern the city as the vassals of various Turkic and Persian Empires, culminating with the Ottomans, but Ani gradually faded into uninhabited ruins.
In the late 1800s, the Russian Empire took control of the Kars and surrounding areas. The Saint Petersburg Academy of Sciences oversaw a large archaeological and restorative effort until 1917, when the Russian Revolution took place. Russian scientists succeeded in setting up a huge museum on-site, principally in the Minuchihr Mosque.
After the Russian Revolution and the founding of the Republic of Armenia, the Ottoman military drove east into former Russian territories with the intention of seizing the region and cleansing it of ethnic Armenians. The Russian-led archaeologists did what they could to salvage remains of the ancient city and fled to modern-day Armenia. During the Turkish War of Independence, the Grand National Assembly of Turkey ordered the Eastern Front commander that the "monument of Ani be wiped off the face of the earth." The commander did not obey, fortunately, so the monuments of Ani remain. On the other hand, however, Russian excavations and repairs were undone, and the site languished under what can be most favorably described as neglect.
Since the Ottomans seized Kars Province in 1585, Ani has been on the edge of one of the most hostile borders in the world: Turkey and the Soviet Union (and since 1991, Armenia). Ani has been within a Turkish military zone that precluded tourism. However, things have cooled down between Turkey and Armenia in more recent times, and militant Turkish opposition to acknowledging the ruins as a major tourist point of interest has subsided. There is a sign outside the main city gate that lists all of the approximately fifteen empires that have controlled the region; however, it does not mention the Armenians who built the city and are at the center of its history. The border remains tense and is visible from the ruins, but anyone can visit Ani without any sort of permit, and photography restrictions are a thing of the past. Although the Turkish government makes friendly noises about preservation, restoration, and excavation, it still receives low marks from international NGOs.
Ani's climate is hemiboreal, with short and mild summers but extremely harsh winters.
Summers (Jul-Aug), which have warm daytime temperatures, are the best time to visit, although they still have chilly to cold nights. Winters (Nov-Mar) are frigid and snowy. Spring and fall are both short and cool. Rain and snow are both frequent, with rain showers being especially frequent through spring, regularly bringing hail.
For more detailed information, the nearest city, Kars, has a similar climate and more information on its page.
By public transport
As of February 2023, a bus left from Kars in front of the Gazi Ahmet Muhtar Paşa Konağı at 10:00 and returned at 13:30 in summer. In winter, departure is at 9:00. Staff there can confirm the correct departure time (but only in Turkish). Round trip 150TL.
If you want to hire a taxi for the day, ask at your hotel in Kars; expect to pay 500 TL (four people - February 2023) for a five hour trip, including two hours' driving time and 2 hours and a half to 3 hours at Ani. If you're not staying the night before in Kars, just look around downtown early in the morning for any backpacker or ask in hotel lobbies—virtually all travelers visiting Kars go to Ani, so you shouldn't have any trouble finding a ride in summer. The rides often leave from the small parking lot with shuttle rides to/from the main bus station.
There are virtually no tourists in Kars during the winter, so you may have to charter a taxi alone.
On many maps, there is a road to Ani marked about half way between Diğor and Kars; this road does not seem to exist and if comıng through Diğor you're better off taking the new road rıght outside Diğor (not signposted to Ani but is immediately after the sign to Kars when heading NW out of Diğor).
Even more preferable is the road from Kars to Ani, a four lane highway that leads directly to Ani.
If you're on a tight budget, you can try hitch-hiking from Kars. You will need to walk about 2 km out of Kars to the cross section where the road heads toward Ani. (There are sufficient street signs to find it.) There is limited traffic going in the direction of Ani, but eventually a local will stop for you. There is, of course, a matter of luck, but roughly 1 in 12 cars will give you a ride—don't hitch-hike if you're short on time, as it could take you four hours to get from Kars to Ani!
Entrance fee: 50 TL (2022). Be sure to ask for a ticket, otherwise your money may never reach the government, and hence may not be used to improve Ani's conservation.
Ani covers a small area and is easily traversed on foot. However, access to certain areas is often restricted due to the proximity to the Armenian border and ongoing tensions between Turkey and Armenia. So make sure to ask your driver about current restrictions.
Since 2018 the citadel was open without any restriction; there was no sight of any military or border control.
Pinkish stone ruins of Armenian cathedrals, churches, homes, fortresses, and palaces float eerily across the desolate grassy landscape. Most of the well preserved Armenian churches date from the late tenth century to early eleventh century. The most distinctive is perhaps the church of Christ the Redeemer, split perfectly in half by lightning, but still standing. Additionally there are smaller structures, which were once homes, the remains of the cities castle walls, and a fortress overlooking the ruins. Other sites include the (relatively hard to find) ruins of a Zoroastrian fire temple and a small Ottoman fort. From the area near the fort, look carefully across the ravine to see a collection of Karst caves that once served as home to troglodytic Anatolians.
- 1 Ani Cathedral. (As of August 2022, this structure is partly surrounded by scaffolding, but you can still view it up close and go inside)
- City walls.
- 2 Lion Gate. So named after the Bagratuni Kingdom lion on the wall by the gate.
- Kars Gate.
- Checkerboard Gate.
- Church of Ashot.
- Church of Bagarat-Arkaun.
- 3 Church of the Holy Apostles.
- 4 Church of the Holy Redeemer. (As of August 2022, this structure cannot be viewed up close and is surrounded by scaffolding)
- Church of Saint Elia.
- 5 Church of Saint Gregory of the Abughamrents.
- 6 Church of Saint Gregory of Tigran Honents.
- Georgian Church.
- Karst Cave Village.
- King Gagik's Church of Saint Gregory.
- 7 Mosque of Minuchir.
- Virgins' Chapel.
- 8 Silk Road Bridge.
- 9 Monastery of the Virgins.
In 2016, the fortress was closed to tourists. However, if the fortress is open, it is worth scrambling up the rocky path for excellent views of Ani, the river gorge, and the steppe rolling towards Armenia's mountains.
Eat and drink
There are limited choices so one is best to bring their own snacks and drinks. The Ani Cafe & Restaurant is a new eatery with clean western style bathroom facilities. There is also a little general store close to the main gates into Ani. There is a teahouse in the small village outside Ani, but absolutely do not forget to bring bottled water on a trip to Ani. The climate is very arid and seeing all the sites here will take a good deal of time; you will get badly dehydrated if you don't bring some water along. In winter, everything is closed, so be sure to bring food and water. There is a public toilet on the left of the main entrance.
There are no accommodations in Ani, and there are only a smattering of homes surrounding it. The nearest major city is Kars, from which Ani is an easy day trip.