The sequence of things can catch you, trap you in your predispositions. Here in eastern Anatolia, there’s a kind of excitement about being so close to the Iranian border and, simultaneously, the Armenian border. On one side, the supposed enemy; on the other, the nation of survivors of a genocide the Turkish state claimed for decades never happened. Now, certain curtains have been lifted. Last summer, I rode the train from Berlin to Rostock with an Iranian businessman who served as liaison to the American Air Force until the ayatollah returned, stripped him of his rank and dismissed him from the Iranian military. Our friendly conversation gratified several hours. This summer, our urbane and frank guide openly discusses Armenia, the genocide, the alternating revenge stories of Kurds and Armenians, Turks and Armenians, Turks and Kurds.
Nevertheless, you feel something like a historical perspective settling down on the mountainous landscape because you have just visited a fortress built by a world power from the 9th century BCE that has essentially vanished from the modern consciousness: the Urartians. When the topography so swallows a civilization, the rediscovered human artifacts, languages, fireplaces, grape presses take on a cool, if not cold, relationship to our own minds. What’s a Urartian to you except perhaps a story teller who passed a flood tale to a Babylonian traveler who carried it to a scribe who wrote the scroll later read by a Hebrew slave who. . . . ?
And so you drive over the ever-greening mountains and come to Ani on the banks of the Akhurian River, which serves as a natural moat protecting the city on three sides, and as the current border between Turkey and Armenia. All along the route to Ani, military bases dot the valleys; guard towers from both armies punctuate the mountain ridges. The Iranians are invisible; the Kurds are largely pacified; the Armenians are helplessly weak, but there has been war here for three thousand years. Even now the border is closed. Armenians must enter Turkey via a third country, and vice versa.
Nevertheless, the plateau is as green as any jungle canopy; the sheep, goats, horses, cows graze under the protective eye of the powerful-shouldered Anatolian sheep dogs; the shepherds pass the time collecting stones and building small cairns, piles of rocks two or four feet tall that make the pastures resemble cemeteries for long-forgotten civilizations. In the farmyards, women and children shape piles of dung into bricks that will just fit through the grate of the stove. As long as the sun shines, the bricks bake; then they are covered with a blue plastic tarp to wait for winter. The turf roofs of the low-slung one-level houses also store the extra tarps, stretched across the roof and held down by buckets, stones, kindling wood, and the weight of the satellite dish. In the distance, the walls of Ani rise above the greenery. Further along and across the river, an Armenian watchtower looms. Our guide, given to capricious digression just to see if we’re paying attention, points out that two soldiers were always posted, one in the tower, one on the stairs below. Now, he says, the figures are cardboard cutouts, like Eisenhower’s plywood tanks and aircraft in the green English countryside. One of our group has binoculars, but they are not quite powerful enough to confirm the story.
I emphasize the greenery, the pastoral scene, the spaciousness of the valley, and river’s ravine, the impassive mountains in the far distance because all this space separates the imagination into a reverence for two incommensurate places: Ani and Ephesus. Who can fail to love Ephesus, the memory of a cosmopolitan place with its library, the grand theatre where Paul preached, the terrace houses recently discovered on the hill beside the library? Three hundred thousand people; an eye turned to Greece and Rome; a unifying Biblical connection; a church mentioned as one of the seven; the brilliant white sun refracted by the endless clouds of dust; the proper white and gray we associate with antiquity. Two million visitors a year ensure that you will never be alone in Ephesus.
In Ani, even with busloads of tourists descending on the place, you can be—you are—alone with a vast sky, a green world that doesn’t need you, doesn’t want you, but is beautiful nonetheless and for its own sake. And if the ravine protects you against distances you don’t wish to contemplate, it’s nothing to the place.
Of course, I’m creating an entire fantasy to explain why, inexplicably, I find myself preferring Ani to Ephesus. Having originated ages before Christ, Ani was a capital city for centuries for the Armenian Christians who, now, can look across the border at this former glory, but cannot cross. Once, it was the city of 1001 churches. When the Seljuks conquered Ani in 1064, they converted the cathedral to what is now called the Cathedral Fethiye Mosque. Christians persevered: in 1215 a new church dedicated to St. Grigor was built on the cliff beside the ravine. In the main sanctuary the Old and New Testament frescos are still visible. In the vestibule, a different theme appears: the torments suffered by the Armenians, the massacres, the mourning women.
The river almost encloses the city, surrounding it on three sides. The flow has done its work, and the ravine is some hundreds of feet deep. On one side of the city, the grassy trail from the northeast runs down a slope to the ruined bridge that crossed into the lowest level of the town. Here, Ani serves as a commercial center along the Silk Road. On the other side, cliffs walls are dotted with caves, the graveyard for Ani’s dead. Standing on the high cliff on the Ani side, cool in the shadow of the Church of St. Gregory, you look across the deep ravine at the Armenian land of the dead. From our vantage point, Turkey surveys Armenia as a kind of symbolic landscape garden. The Akhurian becomes the River Styx, the genocide stares back at the Turkish city, itself laid waste in 1319 by an earthquake that ended a civilized world.
As we’re leaving, my eye is caught by a sudden movement, a small lovely bird settling on the fragile branch of a bush growing unassumingly out of a stone. I take its picture. It comes out beautifully, I think. The mountains are so far behind that they can frame the particularity of the bird but cannot themselves be in focus. The bird is utterly itself without reference to all this landscape and its history and its watchtowers. Somehow, this makes me happy.