The first time I saw Ani, it was grey-wet with rainclouds and bursting at the seams with wildflowers, and I felt like I had walked into a dream. Most of this medieval Armenian capital has either been destroyed or remains hidden under rolling grassy mounds. Only a few churches and a mosque punctuate the angle-less landscape. In the rain, seeking shelter in a ruined cathedral – the caved-in dome letting in a cylinder of rain – we were alone with the landscape and the swallows in the eves. We could have been the last people on Earth.
I came back to Ani again in clear morning sunshine, expecting some of that magic to wear off, burned off by the clear blue glare, diluted by the shuffling groups of tourists. But walking along the riverside cliffs, looking across to Armenia over the heads of a monastery chapel and a crumbling bridge, or brushing against the columns of a Zoroastrian fire temple – that feeling was back again. It hits me in the gut, squeezes my ribs. This place used to be filled with markets, children, religious festivals, weddings, funerals, construction, commerce, military processions. And now there is only the broken geometry of grudgingly restored buildings.
How can a city go from a bustling trading center of 100,000 residents to a forgotten ruin, from the City of 1001 Churches to a leveled plain of broken churches? I can see the spiraling steps of a minaret lying queasily on its side. The market stalls are stone outlines filled with poppies. The frescoes are fading. The rust and black checkered walls cave in. I close my eyes and imagine I have retro-X-ray vision – the hillocks are now houses, the churches stand side by side with palaces, the city walls are unbroken, the bridge is restored and the streets are busy with Silk Road traffic. I open my eyes and it is full of ghosts.
I can’t say why this place affects me so strongly, after all the ruins I’ve seen. Maybe it’s the vastness of it, or the isolation; or perhaps it’s the contentious history, its years of neglect. I watch the swallows burst through the narrow clerestory windows, strobing through light and shadow in the high nave. I want to be alone with the ruins, retreating to the past, both fearful and relieved about how everything changes.