In visiting eastern Turkey, it is impossible to ignore the issue of the genocide of the Armenians by the Ottoman Turks 100 years ago. Eastern Turkey was once home to Armenians, and some of the area’s most captivating sights are Armenian. (Now the area is largely Kurdish.) One of the most stunning — and controversial — is the 10th-century Church of the Holy Cross on Akdamar Island on Lake Van. The church is now a museum, a point of contention for some Armenians who believe that it should be reconsecrated as a church. The church’s setting is made for posters. The small, rocky island is surrounded by the sparkling blue waters of the lake, and from certain vantage points, the church is framed by snow-capped mountains in the distance.
The church itself is known for its extensive and detailed exterior bas-relief carvings of scenes and people from the Bible. One particularly vivid series shows the tale of Jonah and the whale, although in this depiction the whale is more of a strange sea monster. Inside, the frescoes depict saints and biblical characters in a highly individualized style.Less well known is the ancient city of Ani, just a few miles from Kars, and straddling the Turkish-Armenian border.
More than 1,000 years ago, Ani, sometimes called the city of 1,001 churches, was the capital of the kingdom of Armenia and home to more than 100,000 people. Damaged by an earthquake in the 1300s, it was finally abandoned in the mid-18th century. Until 2004, visitors needed a special permit to tour the site because of its proximity to the border. Today, this onetime stop along the Silk Road is easily accessible, but like many of eastern Turkey’s astonishing sights, it is relatively empty of many visitors.
It’s a shame because the city is breathtaking. The first thing you see are sections of the intact city walls stretching across the horizon. Entering through an old city gateway, a strange and eerie ghost town emerges out of a sea of grass. Various paths wind through this surprisingly large site to the major sights, which are at some distance from one another. Perhaps the most beautiful is the Church of St. Gregory because of its setting overlooking the river and the frescoes inside the church. It was strictly a matter of luck, but three Georgians were visiting the church at the same time we were. One, a historian, engaged our guide — and us — in a discussion of the various saints depicted on the walls and their importance. But there are also a cathedral, a mosque, a caravansary, an impressive citadel and even the remains of a Zoroastrian temple to see. […]