Though currently situated within Turkey’s borders, the ancient Armenian capital of Ani is one of the region’s most interesting archaeological sites. Once home to 100,000 people, Ani was among the medieval world’s most magnificent cities. Now, in stark contrast, the site is a somewhat eerie ghost town. But Ani’s impressive architecture remains an inspiration to this day. In this Ani guide, we’ll be covering the history of the site, a rundown of each significant landmark, and practical tips on how to get there.
Ani: A Brief History
Ani was named after Anahita, the Persian Mithraic goddess who was worshipped in Armenia before the adoption of Christianity. But the city first rose to prominence in the 5th century AD, near the beginning of Armenia’s Christian era.
Ani started as a hilltop fortress, but it was also strategically located on trade routes between the east and west. As such, it quickly grew prosperous.
In the 10th century, it was designated capital by the Bagratid dynasty, to which many of Armenia’s most prominent rulers belonged. They moved their administration there from nearby Kars.
While Armenia has had up to 12 capitals throughout its long history, Ani was the center of the kingdom during its most prosperous periods. Dubbed ‘The City of 1,001 churches,’ it was once considered one of the world’s most splendid capitals.
The Byzantine Empire briefly took hold of Ani for a couple of decades from 1045. But eventually, the Seljuks, the first Turkic empire to control parts of Anatolia, invaded in 1064, committing a bloody massacre of the Christian population. And not long after, they sold Ani to the Shaddadids, a Sunni Kurdish dynasty who acted as Seljuk vassals.
Muslim rule came to an end in the early 1200s with help from the Georgian branch of the Bagratid dynasty, then ruled by the legendary Queen Tamar (Trabzon’s Kingdom of Trebizond also formed at this time).
After over a century of Georgian and Armenian rule, Ani was sacked by the Mongols in 1236. Later, a devastating earthquake struck the city in 1319. And after that, it saw further raids at the hands of Tamerlane. The once-glorious capital was ultimately abandoned.
During the Ottoman years, Ani remained forgotten and mostly untouched – even by the Armenians themselves, many of whom had resettled in cities like Istanbul and Tbilisi.
It wasn’t until the 1800s that European travelers rediscovered the city while touring Anatolia and the Caucasus. And then in 1878, the region fell under the control of the Russian Empire.
After the Russians improved the infrastructure and living conditions of nearby Kars, Armenians started returning to the region. And they started taking great interest in their abandoned ancestral capital. Ani’s splendid architecture would directly influence new constructions in cities like Kars and Gyumri.
The Russians also carried out excavations at Ani up until the Russian Revolution of 1917. The land then switched back and forth between the Ottomans and the newly declared Republic of Armenia.
It was around this time that the Ottomans began purging Armenians from their empire, a series of events known as the Armenian Genocide. Between 1914 and 1923, an estimated 1.5 Armenians were killed, with many more displaced.
The Ottomans justified their actions by claiming the Armenians had been colluding with the Russians. This stance is still maintained by the Republic of Turkey today, and the two countries remain bitter rivals. Notably, the informational signboards at Ani today leave out the words ‘Armenia’ or ‘Armenian’ from their descriptions.
Armenia (or what the Armenians called Eastern Armenia) was eventually taken over by the Soviet Union in 1920. And the following year, the Soviets signed the Treaty of Kars with Turkey (then in the midst of Ataturk’s War of Independence).
They decided that the Arpaçay (or Akhuryan) River which surrounds Ani would mark the border between the two nations. To this day, Ani remains literally a stone’s throw out of Armenia’s reach.
The land borders between Armenia and Turkey remain closed, and one must travel through Georgia to visit both countries. As difficult as it may be, a visit to Ani would be complimented by a trip to the History Museum of Armenia in Yerevan.
Many important artifacts were evacuated from Ani in the early 20th century (though many more were lost), and this is where most of them are now kept.
Ani Guide: Touring the Ruins
There’s a lot more to see at Ani than first meets the eye. While most people arrange for two hours at the site, you’ll thank yourself for spending at least three. In the following Ani guide, we’ll be covering each of the significant landmarks in the order most visitors approach them.
Ani is open daily from 8:00-18:00, and at the time of writing, costs just around 15 TL (less than $2) to visit. Your biggest expense for the day will be transport, which you can learn more about down below.
The Lion Gate
Arriving at the ancient capital, visitors first encounter the imposing Lion Gate, the only surviving gate of four. Locally known as Aslan Kapısı, the walls once encompassed the entire city.
While the walls were built during the reign of Armenian king Smbat II (977-989), many of the artistic motifs were added during the Seljuk period.
Stepping inside, look out for the small lion relief, from which the gate takes its modern name, in the upper portion of the inner wall.
Passing through the gate, the vast ruins of Ani immediately come into view. But don’t forget to turn around and admire the long, elaborate wall and its multiple towers. Note that this is also where you’ll finish your tour of the ruins, so don’t feel pressured to explore it fully just yet.
Past the gate, you now have the choice of either heading left or right. As you can visit all of the ancient landmarks by walking in a circle, it doesn’t really matter which direction you choose. But the following Ani guide will introduce the attractions as if you’ve headed left.
At first glance, the deserted capital appears rather sparse. And the surviving buildings don’t seem terribly impressive from such a distance. But as you make your way around the ruins, you’ll soon discover that there’s a lot more to Ani than first meets the eye.
One of the first landmarks you’ll encounter is a 12th-century oil press. But given Ani’s elevation and climate, some scholars believe it was more likely used for wine.
Just behind it is the Church of the Redeemer. Originally constructed in 1034, it miraculously survived up until it was struck by lightning in 1957. Now only half of the tower remains. It’s under renovation at the time of writing and can only be viewed from afar.
Its original purpose was to house a fragment of the True Cross, or the cross on which Jesus was crucified. This could possibly be the same wood fragment currently on display in Etchmiadzin, Armenia.
Moving on, the next landmark is the Small Hamam, or bathhouse. It was built by the Seljuks in the 13th century and contains separate rooms for changing and bathing.
Church of St. Gregory
Situated just along the edge of the ravine, the Church of St. Gregory is one of Ani’s best-preserved structures. It was named after Gregory the Illuminator, also known as Grigor Lusavorich, the man responsible for converting Armenia to Christianity in the 4th century (Learn more here).
Armenia, in fact, was the very first country in the world to adopt Christianity as its national religion.
Commissioned by a wealthy merchant named Tigran Honents in 1215, the church was built in a rectangular shape with a tall central dome in the center. Around the exterior, you can see intricate carvings of animals along with writing in the Armenian script.
Inside, the Church of St. Gregory contains Ani’s best-preserved frescoes. The colorful scenes depict various events from the life of Jesus and also from that of St. Gregory himself.
Another highlight of the church is the clear view it offers of the Arpaçay River (or Akhuryan) river. While the gorge can be seen from all over Ani, this point is the closest you can legally get to the Armenian side.
Cathedral of Ani
Walking uphill and back on the main path, you’ll soon see the Cathedral of Ani in the distance. The largest intact structure at Ani, it’s also one of the oldest, having been built in the 10th century.
Commissioned by King Smbat II, it was designed by a famous Armenian architect named Trdat. Aside from this cathedral, he also famously rebuilt the dome of Constantinople’s Hagia Sofa after it was destroyed in an earthquake.
Another of his famous constructions is Haghpat Monastery in northeastern Armenia.
The rectangular structure, which stands at 38 meters high, features a central dome (now missing) and three naves.
While there are no frescoes to see inside, the imposing scale of the cathedral is awe-inspiring – especially for something built over a thousand years ago. This is also one of the first cathedrals in the world to utilize ribbed vaulting.
When the Seljuks took control of the area, they converted the cathedral into the Fethiye Mosque. Fortunately, they seem to have left the core structure largely intact. There’s also archaeological evidence of additional chapels having been built outside.
From the cathedral, you have two options – a more scenic route running parallel to the gorge, or another trail through the center of the city. Either will take you to the mosque in the distance, but the latter takes you past the Fallen Minaret and the old bazaar.
The Complex of Emir Ebu'l Muammeran
The Complex of Emir Ebu’l Muammeran is also known as the ‘Fallen Minaret for obvious reasons. Built in the 12th century, hardly anything remains of the structure today. But it’s easily worth a stop see the octagonal minaret and its spiral staircase from such a unique perspective.
The Bazaar & Main Street
Ani, of course, was not merely a religious center, but a thriving city where people lived, worked and shopped. Though largely in ruins, the remains of old shops and houses can still be made out today.
They largely date back to the Seljuk period from the 10th-13th centuries, though there were undoubtedly older structures here that preexisted them.
The Menüçer Mosque is a rare structure at Ani to have been built as a mosque from the outset. It was constructed by the Seljuks in 1072, just a year after they defeated the Byzantines at the Battle of Manizkert. In fact, this was the very first mosque the Seljuks built in Anatolia!
Situated just at the ravine’s edge, it can be seen from all over Ani thanks to its tall octagonal minaret. Once inside, enjoy the spectacular view of the gorge from the mosque’s four arched windows. Menüçer Mosque also features a fountain and a tomb.
Ani’s ancient citadel has been off-limits to visitors until fairly recently. While not a whole lot remains, it’s definitely worth the trek up for the excellent views in all directions. But if you only have two hours at the site, you likely won’t have time for a visit.
As the highest point of Ani, this was the logical place to establish a fortress. While originally completely surrounded by walls, only some small sections remain today.
But the citadel wasn’t only used for defensive purposes. It was also where the Bagratid rulers built their elaborate palace. And as if Ani didn’t have enough churches already, they added a few up here for their personal use.
Over in the distance, you’ll spot a narrow peninsula in the middle of the river. And on top of the steep hill is a small former convent known as Kızlar Sarayı.
It’s unclear if the hike over there is allowed, though there don’t seem to be any fences or barriers blocking the way. If you’re daring enough to try, expect the hike to add at least an additional hour to your trip.
Church of Grigor Pahlavuni
The Church of Grigor Pahlavuni, or the Polatoğlu Church, is one of the best-preserved structures of Ani. Viewed from a distance, it almost appears as a solitary desert cactus – a rare sign of life on this desolate plane.
It was built in the late 10th century by the Pahlavunis, a noble Armenian family that rose to prominence during Bagratid rule.
While the structure appears almost circular, it’s really a 12-sided polygon, or dodecagon. Outside, you can find inscriptions and a sundial, a common feature of Armenian churches that helped determine prayer times.
The interior, meanwhile, no longer contains any visible frescoes, only traces of paint.
Church of the Holy Apostles
Heading back in the direction of the Lion Gate, you’ll next encounter the Church of the Holy Apostles. Despite being in pretty bad shape, this is easily one of Ani’s most interesting attractions. It was built in 1031, also by the Pahlavuni family, a few decades before the Seljuk conquest.
The main church was square-shaped with a four-apsed interior and four additional chapels in each corner. It’s entirely collapsed, however, and the structure we see standing today was a narthex just south of the church.
The Seljuks later changed it into a caravanserai, or roadside inn. As such, you can see an interesting combination of architectural motifs. Note the muqarnas, or ornamented vaulting common in Islamic architecture.
Church of Gagik I
The last church you’ll encounter at Ani is the Church of Gagik I, one of Armenia’s most unique. While little of it stands today, its rare circular base remains intact.
Built in 1001, it was commissioned by King Gagik (r. 989 – 1019) and designed by Trdat, the same architect behind the Cathedral of Ani. It was directly based on the design of the legendary 7th-century Zvartnots Cathedral, located near Etchmiadzin, Armenia.
Zvartnots was the first and one of the only circular churches ever built in Armenia. And it was also unique for being three stories high.
But this particular design clearly has a weakness for earthquakes, as that’s what caused the demise of both Zvartnots and the Church of Gagik I. It nevertheless makes for a fascinating visit.
Walking inside the church, you can find the remains of toppled-over columns which were once arranged in a circle. After all these years, they still maintain their intricate engravings.
The Seljuk Palace
Heading back toward the entrance, note the interesting series of cave dwellings dug into the canyon below. Cave towns are quite common throughout the Caucasus and Anatolia, and people may have even settled here before Ani’s foundation. In fact, there’s said to be an entire underground network beneath the city itself.
Amazingly, some families continued living in the caves up until the 20th century!
The final landmark (or first, if you originally headed right) to see at Ani is the Seljuk Palace, built between the 12th and 13th centuries.
Something immediately feels off about it compared with the other structures at Ani. It’s been hastily and cheaply restored, and hopefully the other nearby buildings don’t end up suffering the same fate.
It’s possible to walk around inside the palace, though it’s almost entirely void of decoration. Structurally, the palace was two-stories high and consisted of various rooms built around a central open courtyard. There’s also a small basement that was likely used for storage.
From here, if you still have some time left over, you can explore the other sections of the Lion Gate. And if your time at Ani has sparked an interest in ancient Armenian architecture, there are a few noteworthy structures still standing in the center of Kars.
The nearest city to Ani is Kars, itself a former Armenian capital. Ani is about 42 kilometers east of the city, right on the border with present-day Armenia.
There are normally two options to reach Ani: bus or taxi.
Getting to Ani by Taxi
I arranged a taxi to Ani through my hotel and I paid 250 TL for roundtrip transport, including three hours of wait time. I was originally offered a cheaper price for just two hours, but I’m glad I went for three instead, as there’s just so much to see and explore around the site.
At the time of my visit, in the summer of 2020, 250 TL was a little over $30 USD. With the Turkish lira currently in free fall, online information about prices in Turkey can be misleading. Before my visit, I found some online source that said ‘Don’t pay more than 100 TL.’ But this was written in 2017, and after doing the calculations, I discovered that it’s roughly equivalent to what I paid in 2020.
Getting to Ani by Bus
At the time of my visit, given the low tourist numbers due to the coronavirus pandemic, bus services to Ani from Kars were entirely cancelled. And I wouldn’t be surprised if they don’t run again for awhile.
In normal times, there’s a bus stop outside of Antik Cafe (the corner of Faikbey & Gazi Ahmet Pasa streets). While in the area, I stopped to check the signs and saw both 9:00 and 9:30 as listed times. But I’ve also read online that they normally leave at 10:00.
In any case, if buses are running again during your visit, you’ll want to check locally about departure times. If your hotel doesn’t know, try asking at the Antik Cafe itself. Also be sure to confirm the times of the return buses.
There are a few different ways to reach Kars. The city even has its own airport with flights from Ankara
Kars is also accessible from Ankara via Doğu Express trains. The 24-hour journeys are wildly popular, as one of the main appeals is the cozy train ride itself. From what I’ve heard, they tend to sell out very quickly.
But few foreign tourists visit Ankara to begin with, so most will be coming by bus.
There are direct buses in between Kars and Trabzon, with the journey lasting around 9 hours. Almost all of the buses on this route are night buses.
You could also spend some time in Erzurum, which would be several hours closer. Some people also visit Kars from Hopa, situated right near the border with Georgia.
Many travelers visit Kars from Doğubayazıt, the town closest to Mt. Ararat, or Ağrı, as it’s known locally. Unfortunately, there are no direct buses and you will have to transfer at a city called Iğdır.
From Doğubayazıt to Iğdır (about 1 hour), you will need to take a dolmuş, or minibus. The bus onward to Kars is not at the same dropoff point, but several minutes on foot down the same street. Be sure to check the Maps.me app, as they have accurate info on exactly where you need to go.
Buses between Iğdır and Kars (around 3 hours) leave every hour or so. Coming from Iğdır, you will likely end up at a small but central bus terminal which is labelled ‘The Village of Kars Bus Terminal’ on Google Maps.
But if you’re on a large coach bus coming from farther away, you might end up at the main Kars Otogar (bus terminal) which is several kilometers from the city center. From there, your only option into town may be taxi, unless the bus company offers some kind of free shuttle service.
In my case, on the journey from Trabzon, I noticed that we were taking the main road through the city center and just asked the conductor to stop the bus for me. I then walked to my hotel, and I’m not sure where the bus ultimately ended up.
When searching online, there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of hotel options in Kars. But as I’d later discover throughout my travels, most hotels in Turkey don’t even bother listing themselves online at all.
I ended up staying at Hotel Kent Ani, which I booked through Booking.com. Despite the website being banned in Turkey, I was able to make the booking using a VPN (more below).
The hotel was a bit pricier than what I’d pay on average throughout my travels in Turkey, but I still recommend it. Even though I arrived very early, around 6:30 in the morning, they were kind enough to let me check in.
The room was clean and comfortable and the hotel price includes breakfast. The manager speaks good English, and it was easy to arrange transport to Ani through him. And he also gave me good suggestions on hotels to stay at in other cities I’d be going to, like Doğubayazıt and Van.
My main complaint was the constant smell of cigarette smoke seeping into my room from the rooms across the hall. Annoyingly, even in 2020, smoking is allowed in almost all Turkish hotels.
While the Turkish government isn’t quite as extreme as China when it comes to online censorship, you’ll probably want a decent VPN before your visit.
I’ve tried out a couple of different companies and have found ExpressVPN to be the most reliable.
Booking.com is currently banned in the country (at least when you search for domestic accommodation). However, there are actually quite a few Turkish hotels listed on there anyway. And many them don’t even appear on Hotels.com, which hasn’t been banned.
Over the course of my trip, I ended up making quite a few reservations with Booking.com and was really glad I had a VPN to do so.
Another major site that’s banned is PayPal. If you want to access your account at all during your travels, a VPN is a must.
While those are the only two major sites that I noticed were banned during my trip, Turkey has even gone as far as banning Wikipedia and Twitter in the past.