The ruins of the ancient Armenian capital of Ani are haunting, and haunted. On what is now a windblown patch of grassland enclosed in colossal walls and dotted with ancient cathedrals, there was once a great city. You can still see the ghosts of its streets outlined in the turf, and inside the granite churches you can make out the fading faces of saints and kings painted on the ceilings more than a millennium ago. On one side of the city, a dramatic single-span bridge, now ruined, brought the Silk Road across the gorge of the Akhurian River. On the other, the road wound on across the Anatolian plains to Constantinople and the great trading cities of the Mediterranean. Once, Ani was close to the center of the world. Today, it feels like the end of the earth.
Only a few determined tourists make it to this remote patch of borderland on Turkey's frontier with Armenia (it's just four years since it became possible to visit the site without special permission from the military). In its heyday, being at the crossroads of empires made Ani as large and as wealthy as Venice. But for most of history, that crossroads has also been a cursed place. The Seljuk Turks took Ani from the Armenians in the middle of the 11th century. After that, it's hard to name an Asian conqueror who didn't stop off at Ani—the Mongols, Tamerlane, the Persians, the Ottomans, and the Russians all tramped through.
But the ghosts I'm talking about are much less ancient than the medieval walls and churches—and less serene. The Anatolian plateau around Ani witnessed some of the worst slaughter of World War I. On the orders of a megalomaniacal commander, 90,000 Ottoman soldiers froze to death fighting the Russians in the snowy passes. Meanwhile, Ottoman troops and vigilantes were deporting the region's Armenians for allegedly sympathizing with the Russians. More than a million died on forced marches to Syria. Today, no Armenians remain in what was the cradle of Armenian culture since pre-Roman times.
I don't believe in ghosts. But maybe I believe in the spirit of a place. And in Ani, and all over ancient Armenia—now eastern Turkey—there's something missing. There's a feeling that the place has been abandoned by history, and by the people who made the place's history. Lately, though, the governments of both Turkey and Armenia have been feeling their way toward reconciliation. Turkey's refusal to acknowledge the 1915 massacres as genocide matters less to the Armenians of Armenia than it does to Armenian expatriates. The locals care much more about cross-border trade, cheaper electricity supplies, tourism—the nuts and bolts of daily life. And the elements of diplomacy have been falling into place: a friendly soccer match, an equally friendly return match, and presidential visits.
A few soccer matches don't efface the murder of a whole population from memory. But perhaps Ani supplies a clue as to how the future world might look. Ani's two greatest cathedrals served Christianity for less than 70 years before being converted to mosques by the Seljuks. But the Turkish conquerors left most churches as they were, side by side with new mosques. Like all the great trading cities of the medieval world, Ani was a promiscuous mix of faiths and peoples—a crossroads, a meeting point, a place of equal footing. Perhaps with the opening of the border, this corner of the world could start to become a crossroads again, instead of a lonely dead end.