Ani

The ruins of the medieval Armenian city of Ani, eastern Turkey.

Taking a short respite from stuffing myself stupid with custard tarts and bowls of melted cheese one I left Trabzon and the Black Sea coast and headed southeast to Kars (thankfully short on both military coups and whiny poets; perhaps they only come out in winter) to chase down the thousand-year-old city of Ani.  Ani was in fact the capital of a medieval Armenian state, although the explanatory panels dotted around the site are curiously reticent about this particular fact. In the tenth century this kingdom covered parts of modern-day Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Iran, as well as Armenia, and Ani was during its brief heyday a major city on the silk road, of a size and magnificence to rival Baghdad and Constantinople.

From Kars you drive down through the gently rolling (and, in August, unbelievably hot) lowlands, perfect for galloping your invading cavalry across, which the Turks and Mongols did with great enthusiasm, and indeed, Ani joins the illustrious ranks of medieval cities across Eurasia whose most glittering historical chapters end with “and then the Mongols happened”. Ani was capital for less than a century – from 961 to 1045 – before it fell victim to the rather vigorous geopolitics of the region, being conquered in quick succession by the Byzantine empire, the Seljuk Turks, the Kurds, the Georgians (four times; apparently it was rather a hobby for the more rambunctious twelfth century Georgian nobles to capture Ani and then give it back again), during which time one can imagine its exhausted citizenry becoming very resigned to constantly erecting and dismantling minarets on all of its legendary 1001 churches. The Mongol sacking of the city in 1236 set in motion its final decline, and it was more or less finished off by an earthquake in 1319.

The ruins are dotted over a sprawling site right on the edge of the gorge which marks the Turkish-Armenian border (one of the more quarrelsome borders in a region known for these), facing off against an Armenian military base (which, despite our driver’s muttered imprecations, probably doesn’t contain Russian nuclear weapons). Accusations fly across the canyon of insufficient of respect for other people’s cultural patrimony on one side, and flagrant militarism and deliberate undermining of ancient structures through blast quarrying on the other, but the rather bored looking Armenian soldier on a watchtower occasionally giving the site a desultory sweep with a pair of binoculars didn’t look particularly threatening. Special permission used to be required to visit; these days you can just wander up to the site and buy a ticket (or not, if the booth is unmanned, which it was when I went), except that apparently very few people do. The day I visited I counted six other tourists, four of who had come in the same car with me from Kars. Despite rather arbitrary (and mostly unenforced) restrictions about where you can and can’t go, depending on how delicate the cross-border relations are that day, you can more or less wander around at leisure. So I did that, and took some pictures. Click on any of the images to open the gallery.

In which I am converted, or, How to Take a Bath in Tbilisi

Bath house district, Tbilisi

The bath house district in Tbilisi.

Some countries have a bathing culture. My German friends will happily list the huge variety of steam rooms available in any self-respecting town in their home country; the Finns wax lyrical about the health benefits of rolling in the snow in between sauna sessions, and won’t send their soldiers on UN peacekeeping missions without one. Some countries do not, and Britain is one of them; communal bathing being considered as an activity that is acceptable for Scandinavians and possibly sports teams, but otherwise frequently viewed with a degree of suspicion.This was an attitude I shared until recently, venturing into hamams and hot springs (oh God, that time in Tajikistan with the frogs) only in extremis. But the baths can’t really be avoided in Tbilisi, which has a whole gently steaming and distinctively fragrant bath house district nestling mushroom-like at the foot of the old fortress. They range in age from eighteenth century to Soviet, and in character from mildly sleazy to entirely luxurious. So in the name of cultural research, I grit my teeth, banished my cultural conditioning and allowed myself to be dragged along by some friends and yes, OK, fine, it was brilliant.

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Old Tbilisi

Today is Georgian Orthodox Christmas (and a day off, result), and to celebrate here are some of my favourite paintings and prints of Tbilisi in the 1800s.

In the nineteenth century,Tbilisi (Tiflis or Teflis if you’re being fancy) was simultaneously somewhere you could be exiled if you were causing trouble in the St Petersburg literary scene (*cough* Lermontov, Pushkin et al) and destination in its own right where you could take the waters and go into rhapsodies over Georgian women, wine and scenery. When this influx of reluctant and enthusiastic visitors weren’t bathing, fighting duels, inventing the Russian novel or comparing the size of their beards, they sketched and painted like mad. There appears to have been a general tendency to exaggerate the scenery, since of course everyone knew that the Caucasus was a land of towering peaks and dramatic cliffs and Tbilisi was damned well going to have both, from every angle.

Still, I love how recognisable the old town is – plonk a TV tower on top of Mtatsminda, and you’d get a very similar view today. Click on any of the photos above to start the slideshow.

In which I embark on a literary pilgrimage

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Hang onto your Ottoman cannon. You never know when someone might try to invade.

While under most circumstances it is traditional to greet the Black Sea for the first time with a hearty cry of “thalassa!”, it is difficult to muster the requisite enthusiasm when you first glimpse it at 4 in the morning when your bus has been delayed at the Turkish border owing to the presence in the luggage compartment of rather more cigarettes than might reasonably be regarded as acceptable for private use even by Georgians. The rain drizzled gently and persistently, my fellow passengers gloomily smoked their way through their remaining unconfiscated cigarettes, and the mist rolled down from the mountains and obliterated any view of the sea. It was all rather a long way from Xenophon.

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In which I learn where Vikings come from

Can't beat a good chandelier.

Can’t beat a good light fitting.

The village museum in Kiş, in northern Azerbaijan, is housed in the tiny, beautifully restored medieval church.The museum tells the story of Caucasian Albania (not to be confused with the Balkan variety), one of the many Transcaucasian statelets that foundered in the face of repeated Persian, Turkish and/or Mongol invasions; it has quite a good chandelier, some glass panels in the floor with skeletons underneath, and a reasonable quota of ancient pots. It also has Thor Heyerdahl.

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Being the best you can be

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The Ministry of Health is built to resemble a cobra. No, I don't see it either.

The Ministry of Health is built to resemble a cobra. No, I don’t see it either. Photo: AFP

Hot news from Central Asia:  Ashgabat has officially been named the city with the highest density of white marble buildings in the world, thus earning it a place alongside Tajikistan (world’s tallest flagpole) and Uzbekistan (world’s largest light picture made using LEDs) in the annals of the World Records You Did Not Know Existed Until Now. Still, it is good to see that the chief urban planner of Turkmenistan is receiving recognition for his work: the president has just been named “Distinguished Architect of Turkmenistan” to honour his achievements.