Translated from Armenian by Peter Balakian and Aram Arkun
(New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2018)
In the late eighties, I was teaching at the Uskudar Girls School in Istanbul, and I went on a trip with my partner at the time to Kars, the largest town on the Turkish border, which felt a little like the Wild, Wild West. We visited the ruins of Ani nearby, enclosed by barbed wire and guarded by on-edge soldiers. I saw those majestic medieval churches on the plain without much knowledge of their historical context or why they had been cordoned off by the Turkish state. More than thirty years later, The Ruins of Ani, by Krikor Balakian, translated by his grand-nephew, Peter Balakian with Aram Arkun, provides much in the way of historical perspective on the site. The Ruins of Ani is at once a sophisticated tour guide for travelers, an important archaeological document, and a blitz of resistance in the face of attempted erasures; we are all lucky that the priest and author (the elder Balakian) described the ruins and excavations at Ani in 1909 before the Armenian genocide in 1915.
Just as travelers should understand the historical context of a site they are seeing, the reader should understand the context in which a book is written. I hope the reader can permit a brief survey of the facts. In his introduction to the book, Peter Balakian explains that the journey of his great uncle with twelve other priests was organized by Matteos II, the Catholicos of the Armenian Church, who was “seated in the historic capital of the Armenian Church in Etchmiadzin.” The young priest, thrilled to be included in the official expedition to Ani, tells the story of the historical site with enthusiasm and impressive intellectual depth. He yearned to instill a sense of pride in Armenian heritage and evoke an interest in conserving the site, especially for the Armenian diaspora with this slender book, written in an accessible style, accompanied by photographs. In his Preface, Krikor Balakian hoped “that our own divisions, which have been so prevalent in the past two years, during this transitional period of Ottoman constitutional reforms would soon end…” That is not what happened. Instead, Balakian was arrested in Constantinople in 1915 and survived the Armenian genocide — his memoir, Armenian Golgotha, is a testimony of his experiences. He later became the Bishop of the Armenian Church in Southern France.
In the early years of the twentieth century, Ani was still part of the Russian Empire. and “was once a great capital city of ‘eternal monuments’ and a center of Armenian civilization.” The early excavation of the site was sponsored by the Imperial Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg and supported by Russian and Armenian scholars and benefactors, though the book is dedicated to “the memory of the Ani diggers: Nicholas Marr, Toros Toromanian, Housep Orbeli, Aram and Artashes Vruyr, Arshak Fetvadjian, and the others.” Objects recovered from Ani were collected in a small museum, a building dedicated to the Catholicos Residence. The objects — skeletons, shirts, embroidery, vessels, locks, a candelabra — were recovered and displayed. In a special case, a statue of King Kahig Pakraduni from the Kagkashen Church of St. Krikor (found in 1906) — “a beautiful example of Armenian art of the tenth century.” In one of a litany of tragedies, the museum, as Krikor Balakian describes it, did not survive the events of WWI. The political landscape shifted with Turkey wrestling control away from the Russians and then, the Armenians. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk gave the order to “obliterate” Ani to one of his commanders. The museum was destroyed, but the site at Ani remained, albeit damaged.
Translation, much like archaeological excavation, can often bring manuscripts to the surface that have been lost or ignored. In this way the book echoes its subject; it is retrieval of Armenian history: Balakian combines historical, geographical, archaeological and architectural information with the personal observations of a traveler. The Ruins of Ani is divided into four chapters: the history of Ani, the topography of the site, a description of the ruins, and a summary of the scholarship on Ani and a travelogue. In Part I, Armenian civilization is briefly summarized,
Many of the buildings in Ani were built during Sumpad II’s reign, (977-999). It is noted observed that the civilization became so prosperous that it drew the attention of neighbors, like the Byzantines. Through a series of wars, the Byzantines aimed to destroy Armenian civilization and then assimilate it. Next, invasions by the Seljuks and Tartars. Balakian includes visceral descriptions of the cruelty of the Tatars: “When Charmaghan entered it, he ordered its inhabitants to be slaughtered mercilessly; he even had suckling babes drowned in blood.” The city was finally destroyed under “Tamerlane’s terror” in 1387 and ceased to be “a living city.”
Part II is a description of the geography of the area, followed by a tour of the ruins with commentary and photographs in which Balakian observes the architectural influences of various civilizations. For example, the Cathedral, located not far from a ravine, was constructed by the famous architect, Drtad, who renovated the Haghia Sophia church in Constantinople. The Cathedral was, however, missing its dome. Near the Cathedral is the Church Krikor the Illuminator, unique because of its interior carvings. In the section on scholarship on Ani, Balakian notes that the Church Krikor the Illuminator combines both Gothic and Byzantine styles, but the door shows a strong Moorish influence. The main gate of the Palace of Pakdrunis has a door with black and red mosaics, also reminiscent of Moor architecture. He also remarks on the skill of medieval architects who built an arch bridge thirty meters over the river. Krikor Balakian also translated the inscriptions on the buildings, which are revealing. For example, the inscription on the Horomos Monastary points to the very human problem of corruption within the church:
We have decreed, (by this) inscription, that (if) any patron of this place, whoever he may be, either man or woman, lets himself be bribed to install the abbot, such (a person) should receive the anathema of Judas, who has sold God, and that of Cain, who has killed his brother.
The final part of the manuscript is a poignant travelogue, especially so when considered in tandem with the tragic events that followed. The personal observations of Krikor Balakian are engaging, as he describes the arrival of the patriarchal procession and their reception in Ani by Professor Marr and his excavation team, who greeted the patriarch with salt and bread, delivering a speech: “It is almost nine centuries since a patriarchal visit to Ani occurred and it is with spontaneous and great excitement that I speak before these ruined and empty buildings.” Matteos II, the Patriarch, then entered the Cathedral at Ani, greeted by the Armenian pilgrims from nearby villages. However, the intellectual excitement this book conjures is dampened by the bald and chilling facts presented:
The Armenian patriarch, Malachia Ormanian was asked to collect statistics at the request of the Ottoman government in 1912-13. The statistics showed that there were 2538 Armenian churches; during the Genocide all except a handful were plundered, taken over, set on fire, razed or demolished.
Peter Balakian also gives us a sense of current efforts at restoration of the site at Ani. In 1996, the World Monuments Fund named two churches at the site, the main Cathedral and Church of the Holy Savior as “endangered world monuments.” Beginning in 2006, there has been collaboration between the WMF and the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism, along with international scholars, to bring more attention to the importance of restoration and preservation of the site. He notes that a number of restoration projects like St. Gregory the Illuminator, Holy Savior, and the main Cathedral are “on hold” mainly because of “political and logistical challenges.” Turkey is interested in having Ani listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site: however, more for improving their image abroad, rather than restoring sites for their historical value. This is not surprising if we consider how frequently President Erdogan invokes the “glorious” Ottoman past.
The Ruins of Ani tells a different story. Ironically, signs at the current site at Ani do not even name the Armenian civilization. Peter Balakian’s translation of his great uncle’s book — who died in 1934 — is a work of immense care, taken on for very much the same reason that his uncle wrote the original: to illuminate Ani, and to highlight the importance of Armenian history and heritage.
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Gretchen McCullough was raised in Harlingen, Texas. After graduating from Brown University in 1984, she taught in Egypt, Turkey and Japan. She earned her MFA from the University of Alabama and was awarded a teaching Fulbright to Syria from 1997-1999. Her stories, essays and reviews have appeared in The Barcelona Review, Archipelago, National Public Radio, Storysouth, Guernica, The Common and The Millions. Translations in English and Arabic have been published in: Nizwa, Banipal, Brooklyn Rail inTranslation, World Literature Today and Washington Square Review. Her bi-lingual book of short stories in English and Arabic, Three Stories From Cairo, Trans. with Mohamed Metwalli was published in July 2011 by AFAQ Publishing House, Cairo. A collection of short stories about expatriate life in Cairo, Shahrazad’s Tooth, was also published by AFAQ in 2013. Currently, she is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Rhetoric and Composition at the American University in Cairo. Her website: www.gretchenmccullough.wix.com/gretchenmccullough