So Close, Yet So Far

The village of Ani Pemza on the Armenian frontier reflects a land’s turbulent past.

text and photographs by Armineh Johannes

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Sixty feet from where I stand in this lonely region of Armenia, voices are heard speaking Turkish. Turkish tour buses have brought tourists to Ani, the former capital of an Armenian kingdom that once stretched from the Caucasus to eastern Asia Minor. Walls encircle the remains of churches, palaces and inns that once hosted the caravans passing through this “city of a thousand and one churches,” located on the East-West trade route linking Asia and Europe.

The Akhurian River separates ancient Ani from the modern nation state of Armenia; the ruins of Ani are located in Turkey and are inaccessible, thus intensifying Armenian loss and nostalgia.

In the early 1990’s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenians could swim in the river, but now it is off limits. In order to enter the area overlooking Ani, which is surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by soldiers, authorization must be obtained from the headquarters of the Russian Federation in the nearby Armenian city of Gumri.

Looking at the ruins – which resemble movie sets – it is not difficult to believe that, at its peak in the 11th and 12th centuries, Ani was once a prosperous city with a population of 100,000. Ani declined rapidly after the Mongols sacked it in 1237; today, uninhabited for 400 years, the city is a crumbling ghost town.

Though in ruin, the majestic monasteries and churches of Ani can be clearly seen from Armenia. The Turkish military, which administers Ani, restricts visitors from certain sites such as the Hripsimian, the Monastery of the Virgins. Made of volcanic stone, the beautiful monastery sits isolated from the rest of the city, perched on a pinnacle of rock overlooking the Akhurian River.

Although Ani has escaped serious damage due to its isolation and fame, it has suffered from neglect and ill-advised restoration. “Restoration” in Turkey often means destruction followed by crude rebuilding, such as the Merchant’s Palace and the ancient walls. An attempt at wall restoration was halted after universal condemnation of the results.

Several times the Scientific Academy of Armenia has expressed its desire to negotiate with Turkey for the preservation of the ruins of the ancient Armenian capital. The center of attention is the cathedral, a masterpiece of medieval Armenian architecture that suffered from the 1988 earthquake.

But some sites in Ani have been deliberately destroyed. The campaign to eradicate any trace of an Armenian presence in northeastern Turkey – historical Armenia – first began during the second decade of the 20th century, when an estimated 1.5 million Armenians were massacred and hundreds of thousands of survivors were deported. Churches were destroyed while others were plundered for building material or left to ruin. Today, surviving Armenian monuments, including Ani, are often presented as of Byzantine or Turkish origin.

Having lost their beloved Ani, Armenians, perhaps through nostalgia, have baptized the frontier village on the Armenian side Ani Pemza. Established in 1926, Ani Pemza is located 33 miles west of Gumri in the Shirak region and about four miles from its ancient namesake. Ani Pemza was off limits during the Soviet regime – residents of the village carried a special stamp in their passports allowing them to enter the area; until 1988, all visitors required special authorization to visit.

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Tags: Armenia Poor/Poverty Village life Employment Soviet Union