ANI RUINS & KARS
The primary attraction in Kars, however, lies on a windswept plateau 42 kilometers to the east: the magnificent tenth-century ruins at Ani that stand just across the Arpaçay Gorge from Armenia. Once the seat of the Armenian Bagratuni Empire, Ani was known as the “City of a Hundred Gates and a Thousand Churches” and, in its heyday, was said to have rivaled Constantinople, Damascus, and Baghdad in splendor. Mongol incursions, a devastating fourteenth-century earthquake, and Tamerlane led to the eventual decline and abandonment of Ani, yet from the ruins still extant today, one can easily imagine the city as a cosmopolitan hub of trade, culture, and power.
The city walls themselves form an impressive barricade; on entering through the one remaining gate, the scope and onetime grandeur of the place becomes readily apparent. Particularly interesting among the surviving structures is the Church of Saint Gregory, built in 1215 and the best preserved among Ani’s churches, filled with murals depicting scenes from the life of Gregory the Illuminator (Apostle to the Armenians). The late-tenth-century Ani Cathedral is the largest church building still standing in Turkey, while the eleventh-century Menüçer Camii is the first mosque built in the region by the Seljuk Turks. Also of note are the Kızlar Sarayı, “Girls’ Palace” or convent and the remains of a bridge that once marked the entry of the Silk Road into Turkey.
Situated in the midst of an extensive plateau at an altitude of 1750 meters, Kars boasts a long and complex history. The entire region belonged to Kingdom of Urartu from 1000 to 600 BCE. Invaded by the Scythians in 665 BCE, Kars became a part of the Pontus Kingdom at one period, subsequently coming under the rule of the Roman Empire. It passed into Sassanid hands in the fifth century CE, after which the Byzantines ruled. In 1068, Kars was captured by Sultan Alparslan of the Seljuk Turks and subsequently became part of the Sallukoğulları Emirate. In the sixteenth century, Kars and its surroundings became part of Ottoman territory. Today the city presents an eclectic mix of Turkish, Armenian, and Russian architecture, as the city and surrounding province were formally part of Russia between 1878 and 1917.
The Kars citadel looks down over the town from a centrally located hilltop, originally built in 1153 by the Saltuk Turks, then destroyed by Tamerlane, rebuilt by the Ottomans in 1579, destroyed again in 1855, and again rebuilt. Down the hill from the citadel is the Armenian Church of the Apostles, originally built in the early tenth century by the Armenian Bagratids; particularly notable are the lovely carvings of the twelve apostles on the outside of the dome that gave the church its name.