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.

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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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Ayutthaya

Buddha statue at Wat Mahathat, Ayutthaya. Pre-flood.

Ayutthaya was the capital of a Thai state for over four hundred years before it was destroyed by the Burmese in the eighteenth century. Just north of Bangkok, it is an attractive melange of tilting stupas and headless Buddha statues scattered around a rather tatty, low-rise Thai town centred on an island in the middle of three rivers. In its heyday it must have been an extraordinary place; I always forget that Europeans had been in contact with Thailand for the best part of half a millenium, and Ayutthaya was the Venice of the East, and always full of Dutch and Chinese and French and Malay and Portugese and Japanese and British traders, and generally wildly cosmopolitan. Lucy and I spent a peaceful weekend there ten days ago, ambling around temples, admiring nineteen-metre-high gold-plated Buddhas (size matters) and filling up on palm sugar roti. We did comment, as we were crossing the river, that the water levels seemed pretty robust, and a brisk trade in sandbags seemed to be going on around some of the larger temples.

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Wintertime in the city of love

And you thought the gold statues were tacky.

Of all the odd countries in Central Asia, Turkmenistan is perhaps the oddest. It is known (inasmuch as it is known at all) for Akhal-Teke horses (I have to confess that this means nothing to me and here I must turn to my friend Duncan, my go-to guy on all things equine, who reports that these creatures are liable to transport you to Venus should you attempt anything beyond the most gentle of walks; this, apparently, is a good thing) and, perhaps more widely, for the excesses of its former president, Saparmurat Niyazov. Clearly a firm believer in the maxim that if a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing properly, this gentleman fully embraced all the possibilities independence had to offer when it came twenty years ago: he promptly christened himself Turkmenbashi (“father of Turkmens”), renamed the months of the year after members of his family, elevated his writings to the level of the Qu’ran, sprinkled the country liberally with large golden statues of himself, and enthusiastically promoted a personality cult that Kim Jong Il might have balked at. This combined with an official attitude of deep suspicion towards outside influences (all tourists must be accompanied by an official guide, the exception being those, like myself, transiting across the country within five days) gives rise to its reputation as one of the more peculiar countries in this part of the world.

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