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.


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 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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In which I have a Byronic moment

Former dictator was a big fan of building bunkers. Everywhere.

Following my usual habit of taking to the hills in case of temperatures above 25 C for long persids of time, come August and sick and tired of temperatures which resemble the outer reaches of the Sahara, I retreated for a long weekend to Albania.

Sometimes, the only thing to do is leave town

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Uninvited proselytism usually doesn’t end well.

Seventeenth century Portuguese attempts at coloniolisation via infrastructure; didn't really take off.

Ethiopia was famously the only part of Africa to resist European colonisation (with the exception of brief Italian and British occupations during the 1930s and 1940s). The Portuguese did have a go in the 17th century when some Jesuits stopped by the Emperor Za-Dengel and suggested how nice it might be if he and his subjects converted to Catholicism, and incidently, here are some soldiers to help with your armed raider problem on your eastern borders. This went about as well as these sort of arragements usually do (civil war, coup d’etat, thousands dead) and ended up with all foreigners being banned from Ethiopia for the next 150 years. So not a resoundingly positive result for anyone, but the Portuguese did leave this very nice bridge for anyone wishing to cross the Blue Nile near Bahir Dar.

Medrassas, marriage and mulberries: Bukhara

All thousand-year-old tombs need a bonus big wheel.

At the moment I am passing my time with my attempts to navigate my way through the forest of suffixes and particles which is the Uzbek language, picking up on the way jolly little sentences such as “Malika and Karima are silkworm breeders” and “Does your elder brother labour in the cotton fields today?”. I cannot but seriously respect a language which not only contains a “future tense of doubt” but also a “past tense of hearsay”. It is also full of sounds that English-speakers (well, me, anyway) appear to be quite incapable of producing (mostly extremely guttural variants of the letter K) that leave one with a very sore throat after a two-hour lesson. I am however in no position to complain to my friends here about the quirks of Uzbek, since they communicate with me primarily in English or French (now there’s a language the knowledge of which I did not think would come in handy in Uzbekistan, but the most plentiful breed of tourist here is indeed French, which make it popular for Uzbeks to learn) which in many cases is their fourth language (the other three generally being Uzbek, Tajik and Russian). Apparently I need to man up and reach for the strepsils.

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