A Revealing Look at the Former Medieval Armenian Capital of Armenia at the Turn of the 20th Century
By Armen Manuk-Khaloyan
The city of Ani occupies a special place today in the popular imagination of Armenians and non-Armenians alike. The celebrated metropolis was proclaimed the capital of the kingdom of Armenia in 961 by the ruling Bagratuni sovereigns, who lavishly endowed it with countless churches, monasteries, palaces, and inns, and transformed it into a thriving cultural and trade center that rivaled its contemporaries Constantinople and Baghdad. Its status as the preeminent city of the region remained unchallenged even after it was captured and sacked by the Seljuk Turks in 1064. But in the following centurie,s Ani’s fortunes began to fade with the Turkic-Mongol invasions and the interminable wars waged between the Ottoman and Safavid Empires, and in the 17thcentury the city was abandoned as an inhabited site.
Anyone who has visited or glanced at photos of Ani, which now lies tucked inside the border of Turkey opposite Armenia, knows that the city is a shadow of its former self. Desolated and in ruins, little has survived from the medieval period save for the double-line of walls that once enclosed the city, a few churches, a mosque, and the citadel. There is, likewise, little sign of human presence, with the exception of the few tourists and local villagers who occasionally visit the site. But it would be misleading to think this is a situation that has consistently prevailed over three centuries. Though life became impossible to sustain along the volatile Ottoman-Safavid border, Ani’s prospects dramatically improved when the sanjak (district) of Kars, where Ani was located, was annexed by the Russian Empire after the conclusion of the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78. Though Russian imperial rule over Eastern Armenia was not entirely beneficent to the Armenian subjects of the tsar, it did bring a measure of stability to the region. One of the most notable cultural developments that took place was the Russian Imperial Academy of Sciences’ decision in 1892 to inaugurate the first of over a dozen archaeological expeditions to Ani, which were headed by Nikolai Y. Marr, a renowned Russian archaeologist and historian.
The imposition of Russian rule provided a greater degree of security to the Armenian villagers and the revitalization of Armenian cultural life is poignantly captured by Artashes Vruyr (b. 1897) in his book In Ani, a semi-biographical work published in in 1964. Along with his father Aram Vruyr (1863-1924, né Mak’ashchyan), a photographer in the employ of Marr, Artashes Vruyr, who later pursued a career in acting in Soviet Armenia, visited Ani on a regular basis and observed not only the excavations but also a city that had once been pronounced dead suddenly coming back to life. His account of his childhood years in the former medieval capital is a rich compendium of personal stories and encounters with towering figures of Armenian society. It is blended with humor as well as mourning, as the author laments on the expulsion of the local Armenian population and the new destruction that was wrought against the fabled city after it was taken by Turkish forces under Mustafa Kemal in 1920.
What follows then is a translated excerpt from Vruyr’s memoirs on Ani during what he calls the “God-borne days” (Astvatsatsnats orer). In the space of just a few paragraphs Vruyr provides a sweeping look of Ani’s rebirth and all the hopes and expectations that the Armenians projected upon the “city of a thousand and one churches.” Although his language is, at times, repetitive, his attention to detail is remarkable. It is hoped that his description of Ani will not only allow readers today to reimagine the city and its people at the turn of the 20th century, but hearten them to seek out and reclaim other little known stories from the pages of Armenian history.
In the God-borne days, Ani’s quiet was disturbed: the ruined city received breath and spirit and was infused with a sense of liveliness1. You could say that the dead city was reawakening. Peasants from distant and neighboring villages rushed to Ani. Even pilgrims from Alexandropol visited2. They would arrive in carriages, carts, on horses or on foot, fulfilling the word of their holy vow at Ani’s Cathedral of the Holy Virgin3. Some also came to celebrate and pass the time.
Shops were opened near the northern fortifications of the city, where all kinds of fruits and drinks were offered. The zurnas blared under the rhythmic beating of the drums while the Armenian shurjpar4 dancers formed a perfect circle in front of the sturdy monuments of the historical city. And so there, on the square near the Mother Cathedral, brides and girls, garbed in attire of varying hues, danced the shurjpar together with the youth, the boys and girls singing one after the other. There was excitement and joy everywhere one looked. And the blast of that music and songs and the exuberant sounds and noises pierced the eternal recesses of the ancient’s city’s half-ruined temples, its striking palaces, stout walls, valleys and caves and cliffs, creating a wonderfully charming and elegant harmony.
In front of the Mother Cathedral, the pilgrims sacrificed lamb and sheep so that their longings and supplications would be received kindly. The bonfires crackled and the cauldrons sizzled—the aroma of the offerings to God permeated all around. Here and there, groups of men and women and young girls roamed the revered city’s ruins. They wandered past the magnificent monuments of their ancestors one more time, past the remains of these miraculous works. And there, sitting atop a tower, was someone who was wailing and weeping, and at the same time singing:
Ani k’aghak’e nste kula,
Chka usogh mi lar–mi lar.
Ay hay tgha khghtcha indzi,
Tes, t’e k’o Anin inchpes e…
(The city of Ani sits down, weeping
There’s no one to say, Don’t cry, don’t cry.
Oh, Armenian lad, pity me,
See in what state is your Ani…)5
Some listened intently to the singer, their hearts drowned in grief and sorrow… Some, with bitter tears rolling down from their eyes, passionately kissed the polished stones and inscriptions, mourning the demise of the structures their ancestors had built. It did not escape the attention of the more astute observer the grey-haired elder, far from the crowds, praying while kneeling at the front of the great and holy stone of this or that ruined temple; nor the anguished mother, her pleading eyes directed toward the firmament above, imploring for mercy and penance.
During those days, the Marr6 archaeological museum was filled to the brink with curious visitors. Captivated, they observed the various excavated artifacts that had been delicately placed behind a glass display. Behold the metal water pipes that were discovered when the palace bath at the citadel was excavated. There were colorful dishes and metal bracelets, pottery and bronze jugs, great jars, arrows, coins, the small bronze chandelier that was found at the circular Gagkashen Church7, silver vessels, and many, many other objects. A little girl’s dress, which was discovered near the ancestral tomb of Tigran Honents’8 in the cave network below Ani, was seen on display: the fine fiber, the beautifully and elegantly woven thread of the bib, the belt of the virgin. And standing under the decorated columns of the hall was the statue of the great peace-loving philosopher King Gagik I, which had been sculpted out of tufa stone. The visitors observed the great sovereign with fear. Unpleasant sighs originated from the hearts of some; some looked at the sculpture with admiration; with bitter hearts, some paused for a moment as they plumbed the depths of history, imagining the glorious past of their forbears while recalling the present.
And then, at approximately 11 o’clock, the great bell of Ani’s Holy Virgin Cathedral began to toll, striking in heavy but even intervals. Its pealing reverberated across the city, inviting the faithful to participate in the Holy Liturgy and prayer.
On that day, priests and sarkavags9 from the neighboring villages arrived at Ani. The religious ceremony began. The people had filled the church to the brim. They had brought the warm yearnings and beautiful desires that had accumulated in their hearts so that supplications and entreaties may be heard. Some were clinging onto the dress of the compassionate Holy Virgin, appealing to her assistance and for the soothing of their sorrows, their torments, their pains. Many had come with their sinful souls, seeking mercy and absolution. Everyone—everyone—with honest hearts and great faith had fallen to their knees in fear and were praying in the cherished temple of the Holy Virgin, under the light of hundreds of candles and burning censers. The liturgy concluded. The entire mass of the spiritual procession, with their crosses, banners10, and censers, filed out of the temple. Under the chanting of sharakans11 the procession solemnly circled the great temple. It paused for a brief moment in front of the inscription that Queen Katranide had commissioned on the south facade of the Mother Cathedral and move eastward.
There, not far from the ancient eastern wall of the temple of the Holy Virgin, the remains of the pious Queen Katranide, the consort of the powerful King Gagik, lay in repose. A chapel stood over her tomb, which is now in ruins. The procession stopped at the foot of those ruins and the spiritual leaders delivered the Requiem Mass. Numerous candles were lit and incense was burned on the exquisite, polished rocks of those ruins, their scent carried off in four directions. Everywhere, hearts were moved, tears slid down from the eyes, and fervent prayers were heard from murmuring lips in memory of the pious queen…
And the images of these heartrending scenes pressed against my soul with an inexplicable, heavy force…a perpetual grave, covered by a pile of stones and by the ruins of the chapel-mausoleum… Just a single line from the pages of history… And thousands upon thousands of souls were bending down on their knees in front of the tomb of the Armenian queen…
I Katranideh, Queen of the Armenians, daughter of Vasak, King of Siunik, entrusted myself to the mercy of God and, by order of my husband Gagik shahanshah, built this holy cathedral, which the great Smbat had founded…12
1. Artashes A. Vruyr, Anium (Yerevan: Haypethrat, 1964), pp. 41-44. For the sake of continuity, some of the shorter paragraphs have been integrated to form a single paragraph. I have tried in the translation to remain as faithful to the original text as possible.
2. Soviet Leninakan, modern-day Gyumri.
3. The construction of the Mayr Kat’oghike, or Mother Cathedral Church (named the Holy Virgin by some commentators), began in 989, in the last year of the reign of King Smbat II. Queen Katranide, the wife of Smbat’s brother and successor Gagik I, saw the completion of the cathedral in 1001.
4. Traditional Armenian circle dance.
5. These are the opening lines from a lament titled “Ani k’aghak’ nster kula,” dedicated to the ruined city. Composed by Vardapet Alexander Araratian in the 19th century, it gained popularity among all classes of Armenians. The version found here differs slightly from the one recorded by the historian Ghevond Alishan in the 1880’s. For a brief discussion, see T’adevos Kh. Hakobyan, Anii patmutiun (The history of Ani), vol. 2 (Yerevan: Yerevan State University Press, 1982), pp. 389-90.
6. The “Marr museum” refers to Ani’s mosque of Manuche, which was located near the Wall of Ashot III in the southern section of the city and converted into a makeshift storehouse by the archaeological team.
7. The Gagkashen, or Church of St. Gregory, was completed in about the year 1000, probably by the hand of the architect Trdat, during Gagik I’s reign. It was built on the model of the 7th-century church of Zvart’nots’, although its overall design and construction differed somewhat. Within 10 years after its completion, however, emergency repairs were made to the Church of St. Gregory because it was on the verge of collapse. Whether this was due to it being built on unstable ground or the unwieldy design structure is uncertain, and by the time of the Seljuk capture of Ani it had completely collapsed.
8. Tigran Honents’ was a wealthy merchant from Ani. In 1215, he completed the construction of the church (dedicated to Saint Gregory the Illuminator) in Ani that still bears his name.
10. The khachvar, alternatively translated as the gonfalon or khorugv (used by the Eastern Orthodox Church), was a processional banner that was brought out during religious ceremonies.
12. This is part of the opening lines of the dedicatory inscription found on the south wall of the Mother Cathedral. The translation is taken from Paolo Cuneo et al., Ani, Documenti di architettura armena/Documents of Armenian Architecture 12 (Milan: Edizioni Ares, 1984), p. 75.