Recent Publication Highlights Complexities of Uncovering the History of the Medieval City of Ani

Special for the Armenian Weekly

“Preserving the Medieval City of Ani: Cultural Heritage between Contest and Reconciliation,” an article by Dr. Heghnar Zeitlian Watenpaugh, was published last month in the highly competitive international “Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians.” Watenpaugh is a co-chair of the Department of Art and Art History at the University of California, Davis (UCD), where she specializes in urban and architectural art history in Islamic societies. The article, in Watenpaugh’s words, “…provides a comprehensive history of archaeology, preservation, and heritage management at Ani. It examines the current preservation campaign that is unfolding at Ani and places it in the broader context of cultural heritage preservation in Turkey, and of the challenges posed by Armenian cultural heritage sites in particular.”

The Church of St. Gregory of Tigran Honents (Photo by Nanore Barsoumian/The Armenian Weekly)
The Church of St. Gregory of Tigran Honents (Photo by Nanore Barsoumian/The Armenian Weekly)

Ani, a medieval city in eastern Turkey’s Kars Province near the Armenian border, has fascinated travelers, historians, and artists for centuries. Once a trade hub on the Silk Road, Watenpaugh describes the diversity of the city’s structures, which include “…churches, mosques, a fire temple, ramparts, palaces, and rock-carved dwellings built over the centuries by successive Christian and Muslim dynasties.”

Once known as the “City of 1,001 Churches,” Ani’s most famous landmarks are its medieval Armenian churches, and the city holds enormous symbolic significance to the Armenian identity. As Watenpaugh explains, “Ani is so symbolic, so central for Armenians, as a religious site, as a cultural site, as a national heritage symbol, a symbol of nationhood.”

Watenpaugh first visited Ani in the mid-1990’s as the co-leader of a tour for the Friends of the American Research Institute in Turkey. She recalls her first impressions of the site as “…immense, desolate. Every building is a separate object in a barren landscape.” The group was warned by employees of the Kars Museum that Armenian border guards could fire on them, though no such incident occurred. The safety of visitors to Ani has improved with the demilitarization of the area around 2004, though access is still difficult, requiring a 45-minute drive from the nearest city, Kars. The closest inhabited town to Ani is the small farming village of Ocaklı.

The city has long attracted visitors, with modern interest in the site beginning in the early 19th century. Engravings and later photographs of the city became popular among the urban elite of the Russian and Ottoman empires. After the 1877-78 war between these empires, Russia annexed Ani and the surrounding Kars region. This annexation solidified Ani’s status as an archeological site and tourist destination; early Russian excavations were led by the Orientalist Nicolai Iakovlevich Marr between 1892-93 and 1904-17, and involved the efforts of several Armenian experts who would go on to prominence in the Russian academic arena.

The Church of the Redeemer (Sourp Prgich). (Photo by Nanore Barsoumian/The Armenian Weekly)
The Church of the Redeemer (Sourp Prgich). (Photo by Nanore Barsoumian/The Armenian Weekly)

This increased publicity of Ani led to its resurgence as an Armenian cultural symbol. After his election as Catholicos of All Armenians, Matteos II Izmirlian undertook a formal pilgrimage to the site in 1909, followed by numerous religious tourists. Ani captivated the non-religious alike as a symbol of its former grandeur as the capital of the Bagratid Dynasty.

During World War I and the Armenian Genocide, Ani came under threat as a central symbol of Armenian identity. The order to destroy Ani was given in May 1921; however, the commander of the Turkish Eastern Front, Kâzim Karabekir, did not fully carry out the destruction of the city. Numerous artifacts uncovered during the Russian excavation were by now missing, whether looted, removed to safety, or destroyed.

After World War II, Turkey’s role as a NATO member made its border with Armenia especially sensitive; Ani was located on one of the only two borders between NATO and the Soviet Union. Given its militarized and remote location, Ani’s prominence declined once more, and its history was reframed as the site of the first Turkish state (the Seljuk Dynasty) and the first mosque (the Mosque of Manuchihr) in Anatolia. References to the Armenian history of the city were pointedly omitted in signage and literature.

One of the few highlights of this period is the 1965 photo by Turkish-Armenian photographer Ara Güler of the Church of St. Gregory of Tigran Honents, which defied the restrictions of the time by capturing an image of the militarized frontier. Watenpaugh explains the significance of the photo:

The interior of the Church of St. Gregory of Tigran Honents (Photo by Nanore Barsoumian/The Armenian Weekly)
The interior of the Church of St. Gregory of Tigran Honents (Photo by Nanore Barsoumian/The Armenian Weekly)

“To me, the photograph of Ani by Ara Güler…of [the Church of] Tigran Honents is so poignant because it was taken in 1965, and he is orienting—so he’s a Turkish-Armenian photographer, in Anatolia, height of the Cold War, we can only imagine the tensions—and he turns his camera at a very specific angle where…there’s a shot of the church of Tigran Honents and behind it is the Soviet Union, Soviet Armenia. So I find that angle so deeply meaningful because it defies, it goes against the photography restrictions. So…I understand that as an act of resistance and defiance on the part of Ara Güler and if you don’t know the history of the site, the history of photography, it’s just a really beautifully composed photograph. But if you know, when you realize what he’s doing, what he’s saying by adopting that point of view, to me it’s incredibly moving, it’s incredibly powerful.”

After the fall of the Soviet Union, activity around Ani resumed, and excavations and restorations at the site began again in 1991 under the auspices of the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism (MCT). The 1990’s excavations are viewed today as a period of recklessly aggressive over-restoration, often with little to no documentation. The director of excavations from 1998 onwards, Beyhan Karamağaralı, was a known member of the far-right Nationalist Movement Party, and her ultranationalist affiliations are often cited as a plausible motivation for shoddy work performed on the site under her tenure. Watenpaugh stressed the dangers of ill-conceived excavation and restoration. “If you don’t spend a lot of time very carefully considering what you’re going to add to the site, you can end up really damaging what is there…you have to balance the need for safety with aesthetic needs.”

The threat of Ani’s death by resurrection galvanized advocacy on behalf of the site, and the World Monuments Fund (WMF) became actively involved in the preservation efforts. Karamağaralı’s retirement in 2006 offered an opportunity for a change in approach and leadership. With the involvement of the WMF, various Turkish cultural NGOs, and the tentative shortlisting of Ani as a potential addition to the UNESCO World Heritage List, work at Ani is now subject to increased scrutiny and greater transparency is demanded. The publication of Watenpaugh’s article in the prestigious, peer-reviewed “Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians” will likely also increase international awareness of the situation at Ani among preservationists and architects.

The addition of Ani to the UNESCO World Heritage List would secure significant benefits in protection, research expertise, and funding, but the process is a complex and bureaucratic one.

The addition of Ani to the UNESCO World Heritage List would secure significant benefits in protection, research expertise, and funding, but the process is a complex and bureaucratic one, Watenpaugh explains. “The next step is, it doesn’t happen immediately, but the expectation is that eventually the properties on the tentative list will be nominated and some of them will be accepted for the World Heritage List. I think that would be great for Ani.”

The Cathedral of Ani (phoo by Nanore Barsoumian/The Armenian Weekly)
The Cathedral of Ani (phoo by Nanore Barsoumian/The Armenian Weekly)

Yavuz Özkaya, the restoration architect currently managing the site, has employed a more scientific approach to the restoration and has recommended that, where possible, some of the previous reconstructions be removed entirely. Watenpaugh described some of the recent changes in the work at Ani:

“I think now since the late 2000’s with the involvement of the World Monuments Fund, and so on, and the presence of a new architect, you’re seeing a different design philosophy, restoration philosophy… According to this philosophy, you don’t reconstruct the building to the way it was originally but you stabilize it, you protect it, you create shelter roofs, you address issues such as drainage, humidity, seismicity—there’s all kinds of structural reinforcements that sometimes are not even visible to the visitor. And then that’s it; you implement what they call detectable layering, where everything you add, if you have to add something, it should be visible that this is a new thing, and it should be removable without damaging the object so in the future if there’s a better way of doing something, then you can remove what you added and replace it.”

Though the quality of work on the site has improved, Ani’s future remains uncertain. While its history encompasses multiple civilizations, Ani’s politicization is inherently binary. As portions of Turkish civil society embark on an unprecedented examination of Turkey’s history and identity, there is greater hope for a fair treatment of Ani’s full historical legacy. On the other hand, Ani could fall victim to a nationalist backlash from an establishment who finds its very foundation increasingly threatened. Ultimately, says Watenpaugh, “Nothing is going to be perfect. In cultural heritage, there is no perfect thing, there’s no perfect situation. I would love to see Ani be jointly nominated by Armenia and Turkey. How great would that be, how symbolic for reconciliation, but we live with the reality that we live in.”


The full text of Watenpaugh’s paper can be viewed and downloaded online.

Katie Vanadzin

Katie Vanadzin

Katie Vanadzin is a recent graduate of Wellesley College, where she majored in political science and German studies, and where she was also involved in the College’s Armenian Students Association. A native of Winchester, Mass., she has lived in Austria and Germany as well. She writes regularly for The Armenian Weekly.


  1. I really don’t feel that it is possible that Beyhan Karamağaralı’ right-wing nationalistic leanings were directly related to the shoddy work performed at the historic church in Ani. Rather, it is the unfortunate withering state of Turkish archaeology that is more to blame. In general, Turkish archaeologists are a myopic, jealous group who spends so much time infighting and back biting that they are unable to publish their work or carry out meaningful field work. Many lack the basic archaeological skills. Dare I say, some are only interested in treasure hunting. Moreover, the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism is inept in practically everything and anything they do. I have worked with them directly on cultural heritage projects and found so many of their ‘experts’ to be uneducated, unable (or unwilling) to speak English or other languages and an altogether despotic and conceited organisation who does Turkey no favours. One only has to look at the fiasco associated with the Zeugma Mosaics and the Packard Foundation in Gaziantep to see that Turkey so often just doesn’t ‘get it’ in terms of nurturing cultural heritage. Remember the old Turkish notion: The brightest and most skilled of university graduates is easily employable by the Foreign Ministry. The bottom of the heap goes to the Forestry Ministry or the Tourism Ministry!

    Sorry, I may be a bit off topic here. I hope the church may be restored to its rightful place in historical and architectural/archaeological terms and become a hallowed place of worship, not just a museum.

    • Suzanne, Karamağaralı undertook no “restoration” work at Ani – she limited her destruction to amateurish excavations (at which she was rarely present in person). The destructive reconstructions of the city walls and the Merchant’s Palace were initiated by the Turkish Ministry of Culture, and Karamağaralı (so I have been told) actually tried to get them stopped. The idea given in the article that Ani could “fall victim to a nationalist backlash” is bizarre given that all the current threats to Ani have been AKP-generated. It is not unlikely that their local activists will propose the conversion of the cathedral into a mosque (as has recently happened to Haghia Sophia at Trabzon, and to many other churches in Turkey that had been – on paper anyway – officially preserved as historical monuments during that “nationalist”-run era).

    • This subject is not directly related to the main topic but I would be very interested to hear more about why the involvement of the Packard Foundation in the rescue and display of the Zeugma mosaics is/was a “fiasco” (above comment). I am not disagreeing but, having a particular interest in the mosaics after visiting both Belkis and the Museum earlier this year during a trip which involved visiting all of Turkey’s UNESCO sites and many of its Tentative List one’s too, I would like to know more! This both because of the particular and because of any light it might shine on the wider points you make about Turkey and its “nurturing” (or otherwise) of its cultural heritage – which I experienced both positively and negatively during our trip (For instance I would regard the “restoration” at Laodikia among the latter!). I have searched the Web and have found a number of articles on the subject indicating, for instance, conflict between Provincial and Central Government on the intended location of the Mosaics. Also a hint that the early idea was for a museum at Belkis itself. But, as yet, nothing has emerged which could justify the word “Fiasco”. Indeed we were very impressed with the way in which the new museum allowed the mosaics to be displayed
      Thanks for any insight.

  2. Watenpaugh is fundamentally wrong to state that there is now a “different design philosophy, restoration philosophy” at Ani. I have been to Ani every year since 1984 (I am cited in Watenpaugh’s report) and can state that nothing has changed – there is just the same destruction by “restoration”, but on a massively increased scale. Last year’s unnecessary “restoration” of the Church of the Abughamir’s involved tearing off all the original stone roofing slabs and replacing them with fake hollow ones made of fibreglass and having parts of the stepped foundation rebuilt using ugly, machine-cut, thin sheets of dark stone. Over the past three years the World Monument Fund has turned the Church of the Redeemer from an astonishing and unique ruin with an awesome presence into an inaccessible steel-clad construction site. It is a fundamental rule in modern conservation that you do not start any intervention unless you know how you intend to progress and finish it. Yet WMF’s destruction at the Redeemer’s Church was initiated without any masterplan being put in place – the supposed conservators simply decide on things as they go along. This is openly admitted in the private reports issued by the WMF to the paymaster and initiator of the project – the US government. In 2013 the US ambassador described that funding to me as a “small US government grant” – but it is actually a massive $625,000. It comes from the “Ambassadors Fund” – a shady something whose function is described in the book “U.S. Cultural Diplomacy and Archaeology, Soft Power, Hard Heritage” as “Archaeology forms a critical part of the U.S. State Department’s diplomatic toolkit. Many, if not all, current U.S.-sponsored and directed archaeological projects operate within U.S. diplomatic agendas”. The WMF work being done at Ani has nothing to do with true archaeological conservation – it is an exercise in “Soft Diplomacy”: inserting American influence into a region in ways other than missiles strikes or US army boots on the ground (or the mobile NATO radar stations positioned a few miles from Ani back along the road back to Kars).

    Watenpaugh has evidently also not seen the master plan by the Turkish Ministry of Tourism and Kars Municipality that involves the demolition of Ani village and its replacement with a shopping plaza and amusement park to cater for Turkish mass tourism.

    The best advice I have heard about Ani came from one of the French archaeologists from the Sorbonne who excavated there in the 1990s. “The best thing that could happen to Ani is for everyone to just leave the place alone” she told me. Not that she took her own advice – the French dug there regularly until thrown out when the Global Heritage Fund bribed their way into exclusivity at Ani by promising vast amounts from Japanese foundations. They in their turn were thrown out when, thanks to the recession, no money at all arrived, and they were replaced by the WMF serving as a proxy for the US government.

    • Great article Steven, insightful and factual. Related to money spent on the restoration of the Church at Ani, it was common knowledge that the Turkish Ministry of Tourism and Culture spent about $1.5 million (US) to ‘restore’ the church. They ensured that nobody could worship there, as they designated it a museum.

    • Thanks Suzanne. I don’t know how much it cost, but the project architect for the atrocious and destructive “restoration” of the Tigran Honents church pictured at the top of this article was Yavuz Özkaya – the very same person seemingly praised by Watenpaugh. I have been told that the apex of the conical roof of the dome was not rebuilt on instruction of the Ministry of Culture in order to avoid any Aghtamar-style controversy about whether there should be a cross placed there or not. Massive amounts of original stonework were hacked off during that “restoration”, and large sections of entirely new work constructed that matches neither the original or follows the design of the original (old photos show what once was there). Watenpaugh is out of date as far as conservation philosophy goes when she writes that “if you have to add something, it should be visible that this is a new thing”. Modern technology can easily differentiate new from old without resorting to a deliberate visual disruption. The rest of what she calls “restoration philosophy” is correct as such, but it is all utterly not the way Özkaya (a commercial architect who once specialised in designing schools and hospitals and hotels and suchlike) goes about his heavy-handed “restorations”: they involve a maximalist approach with extensive new construction work that is not reversible. The core concept of modern conservation philosophy (note I use the term “conservation” and NOT the discredited term “restoration”) is MINIMUM INTERVENTION. That core concept is completely absent from everything that has happened at Ani in recent decades, and from everything that is planned to happen there.

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