Kars and the Ruins of Ani: Day 5 of Our Black Sea/Eastern Turkey Road Trip with Kids

Day 5 of our road trip was probably my favorite. The ruins of Ani (Ani Harabeleri in Turkish) were something I had no idea existed until about a month before our trip. I had no intention of going through Kars, let alone staying two nights. And I had definitely never heard of these old Armenian ruins in the middle of nowhere, near the border with Armenia. Eastern Turkey is not somewhere that gets a lot of foreign tourists, except for a few adventurous backpackers. It’s not easy to reach with public transportation (though it is doable) and it is so far from other areas of Turkey that for a typical 1-2 week trip, most skip it. Combine that with reduced tourism numbers due to Covid, and we had the place almost to ourselves!

The DK Eyewitness: Turkey guidebook from 2016 describes Ani as “one of the most evocative historical sites in Turkey. Set on a windswept, grassy plateau along the Barley River (Arpaçay), the site contains important remnants of Armenian architecture, including the city walls protecting its northern border, parts of which are still intact.” (page 320).

Ani was the capital of Bagratid kings of Armenia starting in 961. Its height was under King Gagik I (990-1020) and was known as “the city of a thousand and one churches.” There definitely were a lot of church ruins to see when we visited in a fairly small area! The Turks sacked it in 1064, it recovered, and then was destroyed by an earthquake in 1319.

From Kars to Ani is just about a 45 minute drive. It’s one straight and flat road from the outskirts of Kars into Ani. Very easy. Ani has a large parking lot, that had only a few cars in it–and only one other car held tourists! The entry area has a bathroom with Western and squat toilets, a tiny cafe that sold only beverages and ice cream bars, and a little (but cute and well stocked) gift shop.

We arrived at 9:45 and were finished the site at 12:50, so plan on about 3 hours to see all of it. We probably could have gone even longer if it wasn’t for the kids and everyone getting hungry. When we arrived, we were one of two tourist groups (the other having 4 people). When we finished close to 1, there were a few other groups arriving. But it’s such a large space, you could go quite a while without seeing anyone.

Tickets were 15 tl for adults and kids were free. However, we got in free yet again with our MuseKart. The MuseKart is for those with a resident ID (the Kimlik) and is ridiculously cheap. I think it was 70 tl for a card that lasts a year. Considering many of our entry places were 50 tl, we saved money. There is a version for tourists, though it is not as good a deal.

The grounds of Ani are massive. There is very little shade, except those from buildings. Plan on a lot of walking. There are fairly decent paths many of the routes (though these are still dirt/small stones), but some routes require a little more uneven terrain. There are also a lot of steps to get up or down into buildings. You could probably manage with a stroller that does well on off-road conditions as long as you’re ok parking it near buildings and possibly backtracking on certain routes.

It was a lot hotter than we anticipated. Forecasts had put it at upper 30s as a low and only reaching about 50. So we had thick long-sleeved shirts, plus sweatshirts. I’d also packed hats and gloves and was worried we’d still be cold. Well. It was warmer than they forecast AND we had full sun and no shade. Also no breeze. So the kids were really hot. We ended up putting them only in their sweatshirts and removing their shirts as the sweatshirts could unzip and were a bit looser! I definitely suggest layers with a thin, shortsleeved layer for the bottom! You work up some heat doing all the walking in the sun.

Signs at each building/ruins were in both Turkish and English, so we learned a lot. A few structures are undergoing renovations and had scaffolding around them. Another interesting thing was we were RIGHT on the border with Armenia. There was a small and skinny valley between us and Armenia. The Barley River in the valley is the border between the countries. There are remnants of a bridge down in the valley.

The Church of Tigran Honents was probably my favorite-right near the valley and set down a bit. It had painted walls inside and was very beautiful. It is fairly near the cathedral, so if you get to that, you’ll then see the church (it is hidden a bit from the rest of the site). Tigran Honents is the wealthy merchant who commissioned the church. It is also called The Church of Saint Gregory. It was finished in 1215. The frescoes inside are from the same time period and focus on The Life of Christ and The Life of Saint Gregory Lusavoric.

The Cathedral of Ani was completed by around 1010. It was dedicated to Mother of God Maria. But in 1064, Seljukid Sultan Alparslan conquered Ani and the cathedral became the Fethiye Camii (Victory Mosque). The cathedral was under renovations when we were there and covered in scaffolding. However, one entrance was still open for entering it.

The Citadel Ruins were also great and worth the hike out (and up) to them. It gave a nice, sweeping view of the border and a little house way out on a high (and eroding) peninsula that my guide book calls Maiden’s Castle. It was the only structure we didn’t go up close to, other than the bridge in the valley. The route seemed fairly precarious.

Along with many churches and the citadel, there was also the bazaar area. Only foundations remained, but this area had shops between the 11th and 13th centuries. There was also a mosque that is the first mosque connected to the Seljukids of Anatolia.

After our 3 hours of exploring the ruins (which included a snack break in the shade), we headed back to the cafe. We had wisely packed lunch and were able to eat our lunch at the tables at the outside (but shaded) cafe. We ordered beverages from them (the typical water, tea, Turkish coffee) and we all got Magnum ice cream bars after eating. Definitely bring your own lunch!

While at the cafe, we talked with a guide who was hanging out hoping to find tourists who needed him. He told us an interesting story. I have no idea if it is true, as I couldn’t find verification online, but it definitely could be!

So, as I said, Ani is right at the border with Armenia. It’s also key to note that Turkey and Armenia do not get a long and therefore diplomatic talks between the countries are limited. The guide said that about 6 years ago, the Armenians had been doing a lot of dynamite blasting near the border. This was causing significant shaking on the Turkish side and causing damage to the ruins. But the Turks weren’t able to get the blasting to stop. The US Ambassador to Turkey was visiting the site when blasting was happening and was able to see first hand the shaking. He arranged for a seismograph to be installed at the site to record the shakes. These readings were by satellite to the US Embassy in Yerevan on the Armenian side. The Ambassador there then was able to talk to the Armenian government and convince them to stop the blasting so as to preserve the historic ruins.

Again, I have no idea if this is true or just a story to tell Americans! But if it is, it’s a great example of diplomacy! I do know there was blasting going on. But I could not find articles discussing why it stopped. And it is possible that it was a discrete diplomatic discussion and not something super public.

After our time in Ani, we returned to Kars. From our hotel, we decided to walk up to the top of the Kars Castle. GoogleMaps showed a route right from our hotel, switchbacking up the backside of the mountain. We attempted this and didn’t get very far before we realized that it was not a current route. If you’re walking, you need to enter from the front! There is a car route to get up to the top of the castle, as there is a restaurant there. But it would make for a long walk.

Enter the castle grounds from the red pin drop. The switch back road just north of Castle of Kars does not exist fully anymore. The road coming from the east, headed to the Castle of Kars does seem to be in existence as cars were up at the restaurant.

The Merkez Kümbet Cami (Mosque) (pictured below) was very pretty and at the base of the walk up to the castle. We did not get out to the Archaeological Museum, but the guide we talked to in Ani (who lives in Kars), said it was quite good (and the DK Turkey Guidebook agrees).

It is a fairly steep walk up to the castle entrance. It was free and had nice views. It is not a huge area and did not take very long to view.

We then walked around town some, as I chased the setting sun’s light. There were some beautiful fall trees to photograph! Dinner was at Kars Ayaz, which was a small restaurant. Good, basic Turkish food. They advertised pide, but did not have it (which was a shame, as it’s DS’ favorite food). We had Kofte and Tavuk Şiş. Walking back to the hotel at night was pretty as the castle was lit up.

PS: If you are looking for rugs or kilims, my friend recommends Yildiz Hali ve El Sanatlari on Ataturk Cd. This is the same road as Pushkin Cafe. It was the only rug place they could find in Kars.

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Practical Information:

Location: 45 minute drive east of Kars

How to Reach: Private car is the easiest. The road is smooth and straight and there is a large parking lot. Very easy drive.

Cost: 15 tl for adults; free with MuseKart

Time to Allocate: Allow at least 3 hours to see it, plus time for lunch if applicable.

Stroller/Wheelchair friendly? It is not wheel chair friendly. Strollers that handle off road well would be manageable, but you’ll need to park it occasionally as some sites are down or up stairs or more off the beaten path.

Bathrooms: There are Western and Squat toilets at the entrance between the parking lot and the ticket booth.

Food/Drink: Bring a snack to eat and pack your own lunch if needed. There is a small cafe that sells drinks and packaged bar ice cream (possibly chips too?). The seating area is outside, but covered. We were able to eat our packed lunch there and buy drinks and ice cream.

Souvenirs: The gift shop is small, but cute. We bought postcards and the kids bought little bags. There were also things like magnets, mugs, pens, keychains, etc.

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