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Volume 18, Number 5September/October 1967

In This Issue

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Written and photographed by Keith Carmichael

The fragments of Ani stand in poetic desolation on a great cliff on the frontier between Turkey and the Soviet Union. In the ghostly silence, cold winds howl through empty arches and ruffle the mane of a single stone lion that has stood guard for centuries over the remnants of ancient Armenia's fleeting glory.

Few people have visited Ani recently—for military reasons the frontier region has been more or less closed to visitors for about 20 years. Many have never heard of it at all. Yet Ani was a thriving community as early as the first century, served as a buffer between the Byzantine Empire and the Baghdad Caliphate and, as a center of Christianity, was graced with so many churches that it was named the "city of a thousand and one churches."

To tell the story of Ani is to tell the story of Armenia—that unfortunately obscure mountain kingdom whose chief role for many centuries was to offer a battlefield to the warring armies of Byzantium and Persia. In the ninth century, however, during a 200-year period when the Arabs were in power, Armenia began to emerge as an independent kingdom ruled by a great local dynasty called the Bagratids. The Bagratids, according to tradition, traced their ancestry back to David and Bathsheba and called the Virgin Mary their cousin. They came to power on the slopes of Mount Ararat, where Noah's ark supposedly came to rest, and established themselves as leaders over many rival rulers in the valleys and mountains of Armenia. In the 10th century they ousted the Arabs and ushered in what was to be Armenia's short-lived golden age.

One of the first kings in the Bagratid line, King Ashot the Meateater, bought Ani for Armenia in the first half of the ninth century. It is a strategically placed city on one of the trade routes running from present-day Iran to the Black Sea. In the 10th century, when wars between the Arabs and the Byzantine Empire made the trade route along the Euphrates unsafe for caravans, the route via Ani became vital. From the sudden increase in income the Bagratids were able, during the reigns of only three kings, to turn a simple fortress into a splendid royal residence and a small village into the capital of a kingdom.

In 922 the Arabs, recognizing the new importance of the Bagratid kingdom as a buffer state between Baghdad and Byzantium, conferred on Ashot II, the "Iron King," the magnificent title of Shahanshah, "King of Kings." Successful and rich, the Bagratids enlarged their city to an area of about 4,000 acres, built a series of outer walls to protect it and spanned the Arpa-Chai River with bridges' to help the caravans plodding between Trebizond and the East.

These few glorious years, however, were all there were. With Gagik I, who reigned from 990 to 1020, completed the Great Cathedral and established the seat of the Patriarchus in Ani, Armenia reached its zenith. After that, decay set in—a decay that was never arrested. The next king, Gagik II, was deposed by the Byzantines who decided, in 1044, to take over Armenia as a buffer against the Seljuk Turks. And 20 years later, under Sultan Alp Arslan, the Turks swarmed over Ani after a 25-day siege and massacred everyone in sight. The few survivors fled and by 1071 the Kingdom of Armenia was no more. Ani itself suffered through successive waves of Georgian and Shaddadid rulers, revived for a time during the rise of the Trebizond Empire, but succumbed finally in 1239 to the Tartars of Genghis Khan and to an earthquake 80 years later.

Like the ruins of all great cities, Ani today is a sad and silent place. In winter, the stark wind-and-snow winter of Turkey's high mountains, it suggests somehow that man, not nature, has destroyed it; it looks rather like a village in France after the shelling had stopped and the troops had moved on.

What is left of Ani—some crumbling walls and towers and the soaring walls of the churches—occupies a triangle of rock nearly 4,000 feet high and overlooking the gorge that separates Turkey from what today is Soviet Armenia. On two sides cliffs drop off to ravines and on the third the remains of a massive wall, 40 to 50 feet high in places, cut the city off from the flat tableland of a plateau. Within the walls and near the cliffs are the shells of two churches. One is the Great Cathedral and the other is the Church of Saint Gregory' the Illuminator. On the west side is the Chapel of Saint Gregory of Apughaments. Together they make up an impressive reminder that if the political impact of Armenia was slight its contribution to architecture was not.

Armenian architecture is something of an enigma. It has its own virtues and its own character, to be sure, but in addition it may well have been the original model for Gothic architecture. That, at least, is the theory of the redoubtable Joseph Strzygowski, who believed that Armenian architecture had an empire far greater and more durable than the political domain of the Bagratids—extending as far afield as north Italy and into the high renaissance evolution of the Gothic style.

Mr. Strzygowski, in 1918, put forth the view that it was the Armenians who first solved the problem of putting a dome over a square space. There are two ways: first, by the use of the squinche—a triangular-shaped section of a dome which fills up the comer of the square and so transforms it into a circle; second, by the pendentive—a small arch spanning the corner of the square, and so converting it into an octagon, onto which the circular base of the dome could be conveniently fitted.

The pendentive found great favor throughout Europe and Asia. When the possibility of placing a dome over a square had been realized, a variety of alternative elaborations became possible to architects. The square, for instance, could be extended in one or more of four directions, permitting a plan of much greater interest and significance than a mere rectangle, and leading at last to the basilican and cruciform plans, and sometimes a synthesis of all three. And the pendentive, according to Mr. Strzygowski, was developed by the Armenians.

At Ani there is ample evidence that in the Church of Saint Gregory the Illuminator the Armenians at least used the pendentive. This church is perched on the side of a cliff, which breaks away by a series of black crags to the murmuring river curving through a gloomy ravine of gray rock to the south of the city where it is joined by the Alaja Chai (Valley of Flowers). For the church, with its echoes of a golden age of style, romance and faith, it is a romantic location. The striking conical dome stands out against distant Mount Ararat reaching for the sky. Its unbroken walls are decorated with delicate, beautifully sculptured arches and doubled columns and with stone tracery of birds and flowers. Inside, dramatic frescoes, 700 years old but as fresh as flowers, cover the nave, apse, the ceilings and all the walls with scenes from the Bible and accompanying legends in Greek. The apse is to the east end of the nave, a trend apparently started by the Armenians and said to be based on the pre-Christian sun cult beliefs of the people. Above the nave, on four piers, sits the dome, lit by a circle of windows that throws light onto the small arches spanning the corners of the square. It is a perfect example of the pendentive.

Nearby, in the Great Cathedral there is more evidence of a different kind: the presence in the cathedral of the pointed arches and clustered piers considered to be one of the hallmarks of Western Gothic architecture.

The cathedral will surprise any traveler. The extreme simplicity of design lends it a particularly stately kind of beauty: four almost unbroken walls of delicate rose-pink stone; false arcades rising almost to the roof and embracing niches on three walls; the tall arches of the arcades curving gracefully to form a delicate horseshoe.

The design of the cathedral is on a cruciform plan, with a dome over the central crossing, and a three-apsed east end. The dome is supported by four massive piers of coupled pillars with plain capitals and spanned by bold pointed arches. At either end of the building stand four similar piers, a pair at the entrance and one on each side of the apse—all "Gothic" features designed by the Armenian architect, Tiridates (who also designed the present dome of the Santa Sophia in Istanbul) in 989-1001, more than 100 years before the style made its first appearance in Western Europe.

At the same time the cathedral was under construction, it is believed that King Gagik built the Chapel of St. Gregory of Apughaments on the west side of the city. The chapel, a circular building with a drum-shaped dome and a conical roof, rises above the ravine of the Alaja Chai in full view of the city. Like the cathedral, it blends elements of Armenian and "Gothic" art. Its twelve-sided base, of which six sides are recessed, has niches framed by ornamental arches with classical cornices and oriental motifs. Although the inside diameter is not more than about 30 feet, an impression of space and height is created, for the rather plain exterior conceals the six-lobed interior and a dome of great depth. This chapel is, in many ways, similar to that of the Holy Savior, standing like a broken eggshell on the other side of the city.

Despite the evidence in Ani itself and other parts of ancient Armenia, Mr. Strzygowski's theory has not gone unchallenged: one source, for example, argues that since there are earlier examples elsewhere in the Middle East, Armenia's claim to developing the placement of the dome on a square is unfounded. But all hypotheses aside, the ruins of Ani are still indisputably works of manifest beauty and variety which, despite the ravages of man and seven centuries of silent cold winds, still reflect the glory of their builders' short-lived golden age.

Keith Carmichael, a regular contributor to Aramco World Magazine, is a free-lance writer formerly based in Beirut, now working in Kuwait.

This article appeared on pages 9-13 of the September/October 1967 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1967 images.