Scarcely a half-dozen churches remain of the medieval Armenian capital of Ani, all in various states of disrepair, but even so, the sprawling site is breathtaking—crumbling majesty amid stark, sweeping countryside, tiny Kurdish settlements, and fields of wildflowers. There is a haunted, yet strangely meditative, feeling at the site, with an open-air museum holding what are considered some of the finest examples of religious architecture of its period.
Ani has little
shade and can get quite hot in summer, so be sure to bring a hat and water. You should plan on spending two or three hours at the site if you want to see the highlights, although you could spend an entire day exploring the ruins. The city was built on an easily fortified triangular promontory bounded on two sides by steep river gorges; the third side is closed by the mighty walls, which stretch for more than 8,200 feet and are 32-feet tall, raised in AD 972 by the Armenian king.
Enter through the Aslan Kapısı (Lion's Gate), one of three principal portals. Take the path on the left to the Church of the Redeemer. This circular church was built in 1035 but hit by lightning in the 1950s, slicing it neatly in half, leaving a surrealistic representation of an Armenian church with the rubble of its former half in the foreground. Next to it is the bezirhane, a former oil press. Beside the walls is the best preserved of three churches in Ani dedicated to St. Gregory, the Armenian prince who converted his people to Christianity. Built in 1215 by a wealthy Armenian merchant, it is the most impressive ruin in Ani, not least because it's at the foot of a ravine with a view over the Arpaçay River. Inside, note the remarkable cycle of murals depicting the lives of Christ and St. Gregory. If you follow the path into the gorge, you will come to the striking Kusanatz (Convent of the Three Virgins), on a rocky outcrop.
At the center of the site is the former Cathedral, built in 1001 by the architect Trdat. It was once topped by a large dome that fell in an earthquake in 1319. During periods of Muslim rule the structure served as the Fethiye (Victory) mosque. A short distance away is the Menüçehir Cami, which clings to the heights overlooking the Arpaçay River and was originally an Armenian building, perhaps a palace; the minaret, added in 1072, is thought to be the first Turkish building within the country's modern borders.
Return to the walls along the excavated main street, past the shattered ruins of another minaret. Soon you will reach the Church of the Holy Apostles. The church itself is in ruins, but its large Narthex, erroneously called a Seljuk Caravansary, is well preserved with impressive stone work. From here head west toward the second gorge, and find a path backtracking to another small but well-preserved church dedicated to St. Gregory. Continuing back beside the gorge to the walls, you will pass the foundations of the massive round Church of King Gagik.