Frontline: Struggle for soul of a closed city

Frontline ANI, TURKEY
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A SOLDIER sits smoking on the wall of a half-ruined church. Huge battlements rise across the empty plateau. This is Ani, once the fabled city of a thousand churches, now a military border post. The ruined bridge that once carried the Silk Road here cannot be repaired, because one half is in Turkey, the other in the former Soviet Republic of Armenia.

"Nobody took care of Ani. It was being ruined more and more every day," says Sarkis Seropyan, a greying former technician who writes for Agos, the weekly newspaper of the 70,000 Armenians living in Turkey. In its 10th-century heyday, Ani was the capital of an Armenian empire. The few buildings left, their walls patterned in red and black stone, show the city must have been magnificent. By the 12th century it had street lighting, drains and an underground fresh-water supply.

But Ani spent most of this century on the tense border between Turkey and the Soviet Union, and nothing was done to protect the ruins. Situated on a high plateau where winter temperatures can fall to -39C, the buildings suffered severe frost damage.

Ani is still under Turkish military control. "There are far too many restrictions on visiting Ani," Mr Seropyan says.

Though the site is advertised as a tourist attraction, visitors have to obtain permits from the tourism office, police and museum in nearby Kars before entering the site. On arrival, they are briefed by an armed soldier on where they may go. Troops patrol the site and use the ruins of a mosque as a look-out post. A ban on cameras was lifted recently, but photographers are not allowed to point their cameras at Armenia. Offenders are escorted from the site.

Turkey's long neglect of the Armenians' most important cultural monument embittered the country's tiny Armenian community. But restoration work and excavations begun since the break-up of the Soviet Union have not satisfied the Armenians. "Restoration is about preserving the existing structure; what they're doing is ruining it," one of Mr Seropyan's colleagues says. The restoration was started by the culture ministry but has ground to a halt after being unanimously condemned by Turkish and foreign archaeologists.

The dispute over the excavation is more complicated. The archaeologists, headed by Professor Beyhan Karamagali, are working hard to preserve the site and were instrumental in stopping the restoration work. Professor Karamagali has uncovered houses in Ani that she says are the earliest houses still standing in Turkey. It was she who discovered the underground drains, the water pipes and the street lighting. With the help of a French architect, she has taken emergency measures to keep aloft a church on the verge of collapse.

"It's very difficult working in a military site," says the professor, a short, stern woman with a scarf tied round her head to keep the sun off. "We have very little funding. We can only work in summer, when there's no rain, and then the heat is very bad. And when we first arrived we had problems with the Kurdish terrorists."

Professor Karamagali has set up foundations in Turkey and the United States to pay for the preservation of Ani. But she says funds have been slow to arrive. "For the first two years we got nothing," she says. She wants to see a museum set up at Ani, to attract paying visitors. "With a museum Ani could be saved."

But the Armenians are unhappy about her work. "She doesn't know whose culture Ani belongs to," Mr Seropyan says. Professor Karamagali says Ani is the work of several races and cultures. Other peoples lived in Ani under the Armenians, and the city was later conquered. The professor says these other races contributed to the city. For instance, she says, the city's mosque was built by Seljuk Turks. Mr Seropyan insists it was an Armenian building,converted later into a mosque.

"I was interested in Ani because it was not only an Armenian settlement but also a Muslim and a Zoroastrian one," the professor says.

Challenging the Armenian heritage in Anatolia is a sensitive subject: most of the region's Armenians were massacred by the Ottomans in the First World War. To this day Turkey denies that this genocide took place.

Professor Karamagali insists politics has nothing to do with her work. "We are not interested in religion or race. We are only interested in monuments, and in restoring them. Ani was a place where three different cultures, Christians, Muslims and Zoroastrians, lived together in peace and friendship as long ago as the 7th century."

Justin Huggler