My book Why Religions Work explores religious tolerance issues. It could not be more relevant at the moment with the world in its present state.
This blog has concentrated recently on the wonderful pilgrimages I have been on - to the Holy Land and to Turkey and more recently to Holy Georgia , Greece "In the Steps of St Paul" , Ethiopia and most recently my experiences in Iran.

"If I was allowed another life I would go to all the places of God's Earth. What better way to worship God than to look on all his works?" from The Chains of Heaven: an Ethiopian Romance Philip Marsden

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Pilgrimage to Eastern Turkey: the Road to Ani

Snow was again falling when we woke up the next morning in Kars, and the day looked grey and cold. We started with a celebration of the Eucharist in a hotel meeting room from where we went off to breakfast; spiritual nourishment for the soul, food nourishment for the body, although this first meal of the day was a distinct disappointment after the lavish spread in the previous hotel just 24 hours before. The food was distinctly 3 star fare at this hostelry in Kars, and our room smelt vaguely of stale cigarette smoke. Anyway, we were not sorry to be packing our bags again and setting out on the road, this time to Ani with its spectacular setting on the Aras river.

Ani was once the huge capital city of the Armenian kingdom, which covered much of what today is Armenia and Eastern Turkey, and anyone visiting this part of Turkey really should make sure they see this historic site. This vast medieval ruin is full of reminders of the glories of Armenian Christianity and much else besides. But first we had another scenic coach journey.

The first hint of more fertile and workable soil on this volcanic plateau was the enormous black mole hills dotted over the fields soon after we had left Kars. There had also been attempts at tree planting along both sides of the road – perhaps to break the winds that must blast across this flat landscape? Anyway the trees looked decidedly sickly and I’m not sure the planting program, for whatever purpose, had been a success.

Again we saw huge herds of cows; and for the first time on this trip I noticed that they were being confined by long stretches of brand new barbed wire fencing along the edge of the road – perhaps to keep cars, lorries and cattle safely apart rather than because of any need for boundary marking? There were army sentries positioned at high points along the route, again in towers protected all around by sandbags; signs of the time and the tensions still in this area. There was plenty of fly tipping at Kars and indeed everywhere in this region: it's so very sad to see beautiful countryside despoiled in this way. Domestic rubbish just seems to get dumped anywhere as long as it is away from the houses themselves.

Neither guide, guide book nor the rather dull albeit imposing entrance to the site could prepare us for the wow factor when we walked through the portal and surveyed beyond us and into the distance the ruins of this amazing Armenian capital city that is Ani.

outside the walls of the ruined city of Ani
The area covered is simply vast and the snow dusting the distant peaks added to the mystique, wonder and indeed the photogenics of this fabulous site. The whole site is protected on its western side by the Bostanlar valley and on its eastern side by the ravine of the Akhurian river, a branch of the Araks or Aras river which forms part of the current frontier with Armenia; it all makes for a very dramatic setting.

Ani, from the entrance portal
The old houses, the churches and mosques, and all the various ruins spread across this vast panorama all beckoned us and we were in no mood to listen to history lessons from our knowledgeable and long suffering guide; rather we all seemed impatient to savor everything the site had to offer us. It has to be said also that the keen photographers among us were anxious to get pictures before the rest of the group surged eagerly ahead along the well made path towards the first of the ruins.

Views of people’s backs in the foreground do not tend to enhance the interest of pictures of ancient ruins!  

It was sometimes difficult to remember on this trip that we were pilgrims first, not tourists. We were urged regularly by our long-suffering leaders that the first thing we should do at each place visited was to be quiet, reflective and prayerful. Photos could follow later.  It has to be said that we didn’t always remember this advice.

Tomorrow I'll share much more about this amazing place...

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