By Armen Manuk-Khaloyan
Tue, Nov 29 2011

A Revealing Look at the Former Medieval Armenian Capital of Armenia
at the Turn of the 20th Century

The city of Ani occupies a special place today in the popular
imagination of Armenians and non-Armenians alike. The celebrated
metropolis was proclaimed the capital of the kingdom of Armenia in
961 by the ruling Bagratuni sovereigns, who lavishly endowed it with
countless churches, monasteries, palaces, and inns, and transformed
it into a thriving cultural and trade center that rivaled its
contemporaries Constantinople and Baghdad. Its status as the preeminent
city of the region remained unchallenged even after it was captured and
sacked by the Seljuk Turks in 1064. But in the following centurie,s
Ani's fortunes began to fade with the Turkic-Mongol invasions and
the interminable wars waged between the Ottoman and Safavid Empires,
and in the 17thcentury the city was abandoned as an inhabited site.

IMG 4336 300x225 The God Borne Days of Ani

The Ani Cathedral

Anyone who has visited or glanced at photos of Ani, which now lies
tucked inside the border of Turkey opposite Armenia, knows that the
city is a shadow of its former self. Desolated and in ruins, little
has survived from the medieval period save for the double-line of
walls that once enclosed the city, a few churches, a mosque, and the
citadel. There is, likewise, little sign of human presence, with the
exception of the few tourists and local villagers who occasionally
visit the site. But it would be misleading to think this is a situation
that has consistently prevailed over three centuries.

Though life became impossible to sustain along the volatile
Ottoman-Safavid border, Ani's prospects dramatically improved when
the sanjak (district) of Kars, where Ani was located, was annexed
by the Russian Empire after the conclusion of the Russo-Turkish
war of 1877-78. Though Russian imperial rule over Eastern Armenia
was not entirely beneficent to the Armenian subjects of the tsar,
it did bring a measure of stability to the region. One of the most
notable cultural developments that took place was the Russian Imperial
Academy of Sciences' decision in 1892 to inaugurate the first of
over a dozen archaeological expeditions to Ani, which were headed by
Nikolai Y. Marr, a renowned Russian archaeologist and historian.

The imposition of Russian rule provided a greater degree of security
to the Armenian villagers and the revitalization of Armenian cultural
life is poignantly captured by Artashes Vruyr (b. 1897) in his book
In Ani, a semi-biographical work published in in 1964. Along with
his father Aram Vruyr (1863-1924, ne Mak'ashchyan), a photographer
in the employ of Marr, Artashes Vruyr, who later pursued a career
in acting in Soviet Armenia, visited Ani on a regular basis and
observed not only the excavations but also a city that had once been
pronounced dead suddenly coming back to life. His account of his
childhood years in the former medieval capital is a rich compendium
of personal stories and encounters with towering figures of Armenian
society. It is blended with humor as well as mourning, as the author
laments on the expulsion of the local Armenian population and the
new destruction that was wrought against the fabled city after it
was taken by Turkish forces under Mustafa Kemal in 1920.

IMG 4312 225x300 The God Borne Days of Ani

Ruins of Ani.

What follows then is a translated excerpt from Vruyr's memoirs on Ani
during what he calls the "God-borne days" (Astvatsatsnats orer). In
the space of just a few paragraphs Vruyr provides a sweeping look of
Ani's rebirth and all the hopes and expectations that the Armenians
projected upon the "city of a thousand and one churches." Although
his language is, at times, repetitive, his attention to detail is
remarkable. It is hoped that his description of Ani will not only
allow readers today to reimagine the city and its people at the turn
of the 20th century, but hearten them to seek out and reclaim other
little known stories from the pages of Armenian history.


In the God-borne days, Ani's quiet was disturbed: the ruined
city received breath and spirit and was infused with a sense of
liveliness1. You could say that the dead city was reawakening.

Peasants from distant and neighboring villages rushed to Ani. Even
pilgrims from Alexandropol visited2. They would arrive in carriages,
carts, on horses or on foot, fulfilling the word of their holy vow
at Ani's Cathedral of the Holy Virgin3. Some also came to celebrate
and pass the time.

Shops were opened near the northern fortifications of the city,
where all kinds of fruits and drinks were offered. The zurnas blared
under the rhythmic beating of the drums while the Armenian shurjpar4
dancers formed a perfect circle in front of the sturdy monuments
of the historical city. And so there, on the square near the Mother
Cathedral, brides and girls, garbed in attire of varying hues, danced
the shurjpar together with the youth, the boys and girls singing one
after the other. There was excitement and joy everywhere one looked.

And the blast of that music and songs and the exuberant sounds
and noises pierced the eternal recesses of the ancient's city's
half-ruined temples, its striking palaces, stout walls, valleys and
caves and cliffs, creating a wonderfully charming and elegant harmony.

In front of the Mother Cathedral, the pilgrims sacrificed lamb and
sheep so that their longings and supplications would be received
kindly. The bonfires crackled and the cauldrons sizzled-the aroma of
the offerings to God permeated all around. Here and there, groups of
men and women and young girls roamed the revered city's ruins. They
wandered past the magnificent monuments of their ancestors one more
time, past the remains of these miraculous works. And there, sitting
atop a tower, was someone who was wailing and weeping, and at the
same time singing:

Ani k'aghak'e nste kula,

Chka usogh mi lar-mi lar.

Ay hay tgha khghtcha indzi,

Tes, t'e k'o Anin inchpes e...

(The city of Ani sits down, weeping

There's no one to say, Don't cry, don't cry.

Oh, Armenian lad, pity me,

See in what state is your Ani...)5

Some listened intently to the singer, their hearts drowned in grief
and sorrow... Some, with bitter tears rolling down from their eyes,
passionately kissed the polished stones and inscriptions, mourning the
demise of the structures their ancestors had built. It did not escape
the attention of the more astute observer the grey-haired elder, far
from the crowds, praying while kneeling at the front of the great and
holy stone of this or that ruined temple; nor the anguished mother,
her pleading eyes directed toward the firmament above, imploring for
mercy and penance.

During those days, the Marr6 archaeological museum was filled to the
brink with curious visitors. Captivated, they observed the various
excavated artifacts that had been delicately placed behind a glass
display. Behold the metal water pipes that were discovered when the
palace bath at the citadel was excavated. There were colorful dishes
and metal bracelets, pottery and bronze jugs, great jars, arrows,
coins, the small bronze chandelier that was found at the circular
Gagkashen Church7, silver vessels, and many, many other objects. A
little girl's dress, which was discovered near the ancestral tomb of
Tigran Honents'8 in the cave network below Ani, was seen on display:
the fine fiber, the beautifully and elegantly woven thread of the bib,
the belt of the virgin. And standing under the decorated columns of the
hall was the statue of the great peace-loving philosopher King Gagik
I, which had been sculpted out of tufa stone. The visitors observed
the great sovereign with fear. Unpleasant sighs originated from the
hearts of some; some looked at the sculpture with admiration; with
bitter hearts, some paused for a moment as they plumbed the depths of
history, imagining the glorious past of their forbears while recalling
the present.

And then, at approximately 11 o'clock, the great bell of Ani's Holy
Virgin Cathedral began to toll, striking in heavy but even intervals.

Its pealing reverberated across the city, inviting the faithful to
participate in the Holy Liturgy and prayer.

On that day, priests and sarkavags9 from the neighboring villages
arrived at Ani. The religious ceremony began. The people had filled
the church to the brim. They had brought the warm yearnings and
beautiful desires that had accumulated in their hearts so that
supplications and entreaties may be heard. Some were clinging
onto the dress of the compassionate Holy Virgin, appealing to her
assistance and for the soothing of their sorrows, their torments,
their pains. Many had come with their sinful souls, seeking mercy
and absolution. Everyone-everyone-with honest hearts and great faith
had fallen to their knees in fear and were praying in the cherished
temple of the Holy Virgin, under the light of hundreds of candles
and burning censers. The liturgy concluded. The entire mass of the
spiritual procession, with their crosses, banners10, and censers, filed
out of the temple. Under the chanting of sharakans11 the procession
solemnly circled the great temple. It paused for a brief moment in
front of the inscription that Queen Katranide had commissioned on
the south facade of the Mother Cathedral and move eastward.

There, not far from the ancient eastern wall of the temple of the Holy
Virgin, the remains of the pious Queen Katranide, the consort of the
powerful King Gagik, lay in repose. A chapel stood over her tomb,
which is now in ruins. The procession stopped at the foot of those
ruins and the spiritual leaders delivered the Requiem Mass. Numerous
candles were lit and incense was burned on the exquisite, polished
rocks of those ruins, their scent carried off in four directions.

Everywhere, hearts were moved, tears slid down from the eyes, and
fervent prayers were heard from murmuring lips in memory of the
pious queen...

And the images of these heartrending scenes pressed against my soul
with an inexplicable, heavy force...a perpetual grave, covered by
a pile of stones and by the ruins of the chapel-mausoleum... Just a
single line from the pages of history... And thousands upon thousands
of souls were bending down on their knees in front of the tomb of
the Armenian queen...

I Katranideh, Queen of the Armenians, daughter of Vasak, King of
Siunik, entrusted myself to the mercy of God and, by order of my
husband Gagik shahanshah, built this holy cathedral, which the great
Smbat had founded...12


1. Artashes A. Vruyr, Anium (Yerevan: Haypethrat, 1964), pp. 41-44.

For the sake of continuity, some of the shorter paragraphs have been
integrated to form a single paragraph. I have tried in the translation
to remain as faithful to the original text as possible.

2. Soviet Leninakan, modern-day Gyumri.

3. The construction of the Mayr Kat'oghike, or Mother Cathedral Church
(named the Holy Virgin by some commentators), began in 989, in the
last year of the reign of King Smbat II. Queen Katranide, the wife
of Smbat's brother and successor Gagik I, saw the completion of the
cathedral in 1001.

4. Traditional Armenian circle dance.

5. These are the opening lines from a lament titled "Ani k'aghak'
nster kula," dedicated to the ruined city. Composed by Vardapet
Alexander Araratian in the 19th century, it gained popularity among
all classes of Armenians. The version found here differs slightly from
the one recorded by the historian Ghevond Alishan in the 1880's. For
a brief discussion, see T'adevos Kh. Hakobyan, Anii patmutiun (The
history of Ani), vol. 2 (Yerevan: Yerevan State University Press,
1982), pp. 389-90.

6. The "Marr museum" refers to Ani's mosque of Manuche, which was
located near the Wall of Ashot III in the southern section of the city
and converted into a makeshift storehouse by the archaeological team.

7. The Gagkashen, or Church of St. Gregory, was completed in about
the year 1000, probably by the hand of the architect Trdat, during
Gagik I's reign. It was built on the model of the 7th-century church
of Zvart'nots', although its overall design and construction differed
somewhat. Within 10 years after its completion, however, emergency
repairs were made to the Church of St. Gregory because it was on the
verge of collapse. Whether this was due to it being built on unstable
ground or the unwieldy design structure is uncertain, and by the time
of the Seljuk capture of Ani it had completely collapsed.

8. Tigran Honents' was a wealthy merchant from Ani. In 1215, he
completed the construction of the church (dedicated to Saint Gregory
the Illuminator) in Ani that still bears his name.

9. Deacons.

10. The khachvar, alternatively translated as the gonfalon or khorugv
(used by the Eastern Orthodox Church), was a processional banner that
was brought out during religious ceremonies.

11. Hymns.

12. This is part of the opening lines of the dedicatory inscription
found on the south wall of the Mother Cathedral. The translation
is taken from Paolo Cuneo et al., Ani, Documenti di architettura
armena/Documents of Armenian Architecture 12 (Milan: Edizioni Ares,
1984), p. 75.