In this destination guide, we make a day trip from Kars to the ruins of the ancient Armenian city of Ani.
Kars day trip
The biggest reason why I travelled from Georgia to Kars and not to any other Turkish city such as Erzurum or Trabzon was its proximity to a absolutely unique sight: The ruins of the ancient Armenian city of Ani.
Ani, which is located around 50 kilometres outside of Kars right on the border with Armenia, is most easily visited as a (half) day trip out of this Turkish city.
Through my hotel I arranged a taxi for a half-day trip to Ani, which at €25 was perfectly reasonable in costs.
Reportedly, there is some kind of shuttle bus from Kars to Ani, but given that precise information about this service was hard to find and I heard stories of it being unreliable, it was a no-brainer to go by taxi.
Just like the drive into Kars the day before, the road to Ani took me across a highland plateau with grasslands as far as the eye can see.
Ani city walls
The Kars-Ani road terminates right after the dusty little village of Ocaklı just a stone throw away from the Turkish-Armenian border, which has been firmly closed since 1993 when relations between the two countries deteriorated during the First Nagorno-Karabakh War.
Even before you reach the end of the end of the road you can already see the great city walls of ancient Ani looming up in the distance.
In front of the ancient walls is a parking lot with a little snack bar, a couple of souvenir stalls and a ticket kiosk where you have to buy an entrance ticket for a minor fee to visit Ani.
There was hardly anyone around when I arrived – and I guess I might have only encountered five or six other people when walking around the grounds during my entire visit.
About Ancient Ani
Ani used to be the capital of Armenia during the Middle Ages and one the largest cities of the region.
To be precise, between 961 and 1045 Ani was the capital of the Bagratid Armenian kingdom which at the time covered much of present-day Armenia and eastern Turkey.
Ani was an important city, being located on ancient trading routes and a having a huge cultural and religious significance.
There were so many churches inside Ani that it was called the “City of 1001 Churches”.
Given that ancient Armenia was the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as its state religion, this doesn’t come as much of a surprise.
At its prime, Ani might have easily had some 100,000 citizens – making it one of the biggest cities of the world at the time.
The decline of Ani
Apart from a small stretch of the city walls and a couple of churches and other buildings, there isn’t that much remaining of Ani as most of the city now lies in ruins.
Ani was sacked a couple of times, first in 1046 by the Seljuks and later in 1236 by the invading Mongols.
A devastating earthquake in 1319 also greatly damaged the city and Ani fell into a long decline over the next centuries.
It never recovered and was slowly abandoned and all but forgotten by the early 18th Century when the last people moved out of town.
As during my visit there was hardly another soul around the site, it really was an eerie feeling to walk between the ruins.
Ani, which has been placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, really is a giant site which takes at least half a day to explore.
If you visit in the summer, you are well advised to bring plenty of water and sunscreen as there is almost no shade on the plateau and temperatures really soar to extreme heights.
Ani was basically built in a triangular shape and its big city walls can be found at one side only.
This is because of the unique geography and location of Ani, as there are steep canyons on the other two sides of the city which made for a natural defence barrier.
The Akhurian River which runs at the bottom of the canyon marks the current border between Turkey and Armenia.
You can easily see that the area is a highly sensitive area.
At the edges of the canyon you can see barbed wire fences, watchtowers and soldiers at both the Turkish side and across the border at the side of the modern-day republic of Armenia.
Needless to say, Armenians are quite proud about their country’s history, but also melancholic given how so much of their ancient might and greatness has been taken away from them in more recent history.
Just like Mount Ararat, an important Armenian symbol which is clearly visible from everywhere in the modern-day capital of Yerevan but located right across the border in Turkey, also Armenia’s ancient capital of Ani lies beyond reach across a sealed border.
Sights of Ani
Ani is a sprawling site and there are quite some old churches, mosques, walls and other important buildings to see.
However, these buildings are all in varying states of decay and ruin.
Although some buildings have stood the test of time fairly well and a few important landmarks have been renovated, most of them aren’t more than a pile of bricks.
I started off my exploration by visiting the Mosque of Manuchihr, one of the few buildings which are still relatively intact.
From the 11th century mosque, you have some commanding views over the Akhurian river gorge and the remains of an old stone bridge.
From the mosque, I slowly wandered to the other side of Ani where the canyon was a bit less steep.
At this side, you can clearly see some caves in the rocks.
When Ani became so populated that the city grew out of its walls, people actually inhabited these cave dwellings.
Ani’s citadel was built on a hill overlooking a bend in the river and marked the furthest point away from the city walls and main entrance gate.
Unfortunately, the citadel was off-limits for visitors according to some signs.
As I didn’t want to risk getting arrested by some Turkish border guards, I could therefore only admire the citadel from afar.
Of all the churches you can find at Ani, the Church of Saint Gregory is perhaps the best preserved and the one with the most stunning location.
Especially when seen from a distance this church is an awe-inspiring sight as the contrast between the lone structure and the desolate grassland of the plateau is absolutely striking.
Pictures just don’t do justice how amazing the feeling is to walk to such a historic sight in such gorgeous terrain.
The 10th century Church of Saint Gregory was reportedly commissioned by the wealthy Pahlavunis, one of the noble Armenian families which played a prominent role at the time of the Bagratid kingdom.
The Armenian alphabet above the entrance is immediately recognisable and from the inside you can still get a glimpse of the former glory of this church despite the fact that none of the frescoes have survived.
Church of the Redeemer
Another famous church in Ani is Surp Prkich, or the Church of the Redeemer.
This church managed to survive in a largely intact state until 1955 when half of the building suddenly collapsed during a severe storm.
As the church was being renovated during my visit and fenced off, I could not get up close to it.
Ani’s Cathedral was also being renovated when I visited the site.
This church is also known as the Surp Asdvadzadzin in Armenian, or the Cathedral of the Holy Mother of God.
It was built in 1001 AD by Trdat, the chief architect of the Bagratid Armenian kings.
Although I was able to approach the church and walk around it, I wasn’t able to enter it due to the scaffolding on both the outside and inside of the structure.
Although there are many more sights to see around Ani, most of the other buildings are completely in ruins and require quite some imagination to understand what you are seeing.
As there aren’t many signs around the site, it pays off to look up some information in advance and download a map so you know what is what.
The Gagikashen, King Gagik’s circular church, was certainly one of my favourite ruins in Ani.
You can clearly see some of the toppled columns of the church with their magnificent engravings scattered around the site.
Back to Kars
Having explored most of the site, it was time to finish my half day trip to Ani and return back to Kars.
Although I could have easily stayed for quite a while longer, I also wanted to make sure I still had enough time to visit some of the sights in Kars itself.
On the way back to the parking lot, I had a last look at Ani’s formidable walls and its defensive towers and two entrance gates.
The ancient Armenian city of Ani is a truly spectacular sight and made for one of the highlights of my trip.
Although most of the buildings lie in ruins, some structures such as the defensive walls, churches and mosque still give a great impression of the Ani’s former might and beauty.
It’s easy to visit Ani on a half-day trip from Kars, although given that this is a remote corner of Turkey to begin with not many other people manage to get here in the first place.
Chances are that you have Ani almost entirely to yourself when you visit, which only adds to the adventure.
Walking across the bleak but stunning landscape and exploring the scattered ruins of Ani really makes for an unique travel experience which is not unlike a visit to more famous abandoned cities such as Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
Trip report index
This article is part of the ‘Khachapuri & Kebabs: A Summer Trip to Georgia and Turkey‘ trip report, which consists of the following chapters:
1. Review: Wizz Air Bucharest to Kutaisi (Airbus A320)
2. A Day in Kutaisi, the Charming Capital of Imereti
3. Caves, Churches and Monasteries – A Kutaisi Day Trip
4. Review: My Warm Guest House, Batumi, Georgia
5. Beautiful Batumi – The Pearl of Georgia’s Black Sea Coast
6. From Georgia to Turkey: Batumi to Kars by Bus
7. Review: Kars Konak Hotel, Kars, Turkey
8. A Day Trip From Kars to the Ancient Armenian City of Ani (current chapter)
9. Goose, Cheese and Russian Remnants: A Visit to Kars, Turkey
10. Review: Dogu Express Night Train Kars to Ankara, Turkey
11. Review: AnadoluJet Ankara to Izmir (Boeing 737-800)
12. Review: Ege Palas Business Hotel, Izmir, Turkey
13. Izmir: Turkey’s Most Liberal and Liveable City
14. Ancient Ephesus: An Easy Day Trip From Izmir
15. A Visit to the Hilltop Wine Village of Sirince
16. A Beach Trip From Izmir to Cesme and Ilica
17. Foça: A Beautiful Seaside Town to Visit From Izmir
18. Flying Back Home With Atlasglobal and TAROM