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Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

So Close, Yet So Far

The ruins of Armenia’s ancient capital of Ani are a stone’s throw from Ani Pemza village. Prosperity, however, is a long way off.

Sixty feet from where I stand in this lonely region of Armenia, voices are heard speaking Turkish. Turkish tour buses have brought tourists to Ani, the former capital of an Armenian kingdom that once stretched from the Caucasus to eastern Asia Minor. Walls encircle the remains of churches, palaces and inns that once hosted the caravans passing through this “city of a thousand and one churches,” located on the East-West trade route linking Asia and Europe.

The Akhurian River separates ancient Ani from the modern nation state of Armenia; the ruins of Ani are located in Turkey and are inaccessible, thus intensifying Armenian loss and nostalgia.

In the early 1990’s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenians could swim in the river, but now it is off limits. In order to enter the area overlooking Ani, which is surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by soldiers, authorization must be obtained from the headquarters of the Russian Federation in the nearby Armenian city of Gumri.

Looking at the ruins – which resemble movie sets – it is not difficult to believe that, at its peak in the 11th and 12th centuries, Ani was once a prosperous city with a population of 100,000. Ani declined rapidly after the Mongols sacked it in 1237; today, uninhabited for 400 years, the city is a crumbling ghost town.

Though in ruin, the majestic monasteries and churches of Ani can be clearly seen from Armenia. The Turkish military, which administers Ani, restricts visitors from certain sites such as the Hripsimian, the Monastery of the Virgins. Made of volcanic stone, the beautiful monastery sits isolated from the rest of the city, perched on a pinnacle of rock overlooking the Akhurian River.

Although Ani has escaped serious damage due to its isolation and fame, it has suffered from neglect and ill-advised restoration. “Restoration” in Turkey often means destruction followed by crude rebuilding, such as the Merchant’s Palace and the ancient walls. An attempt at wall restoration was halted after universal condemnation of the results.

Several times the Scientific Academy of Armenia has expressed its desire to negotiate with Turkey for the preservation of the ruins of the ancient Armenian capital. The center of attention is the cathedral, a masterpiece of medieval Armenian architecture that suffered from the 1988 earthquake.

But some sites in Ani have been deliberately destroyed. The campaign to eradicate any trace of an Armenian presence in northeastern Turkey – historical Armenia – first began during the second decade of the 20th century, when an estimated 1.5 million Armenians were massacred and hundreds of thousands of survivors were deported. Churches were destroyed while others were plundered for building material or left to ruin. Today, surviving Armenian monuments, including Ani, are often presented as of Byzantine or Turkish origin.

Having lost their beloved Ani, Armenians, perhaps through nostalgia, have baptized the frontier village on the Armenian side Ani Pemza. Established in 1926, Ani Pemza is located 33 miles west of Gumri in the Shirak region and about four miles from its ancient namesake. Ani Pemza was off limits during the Soviet regime – residents of the village carried a special stamp in their passports allowing them to enter the area; until 1988, all visitors required special authorization to visit.

Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, the village prospered – more than 300 people were employed in the mines that extracted volcanic stone. Monthly salaries as high as 800 rubles ($800 at the time) were paid to specialized miners. Today, the village is impoverished, even forgotten: The mine all but closed its doors in 1994 and residents who lost their jobs now live in misery.

“I don’t know if God is angry with us or if nature has punished us,” says Mariam, a resident of Ani Pemza.

“The village was allotted 350 acres of land for cultivation, but that land is located within barbed wire. Despite authorization, we are often unable to cultivate our land. Each time we try to go, we are told the territory is closed because someone tried to cross over or there is a military inspection.

“We have planted barley,” she continues, “but have no means of irrigation. We hope it grows by itself, irrigated by rainfall. But God must be angry with us – he does not even send us rain.”

Ani Pemza does not even have a reliable source of drinking water. In the past, when the village mine was in operation, water was pumped from the Akhurian River. Today the mine is closed, so no water flows into the village.

“Besides having no work, we have no water – we receive drinking water every two weeks from cistern trucks provided by the Armenian Church,” says another resident, Ladik Mouradian.

“Most of us have not been able to bathe for over six months. Everyone has forgotten there are people living here. Everyone who can leave does so. Forty years ago, Ani Pemza had 2,500 residents. Today we are left with 380 residents and only two cars in the entire village. We are virtually cut off from the rest of Armenia – the last bus drove through here six months ago.

“Although we have not received our pensions for the past three months,” Ladik continues, “we always receive our electric bills at the end of each month! We have to fetch water from a basin located about a half mile from here, but the water is dirty and is full of small insects.

“Ani Pemza’s post office is closed and throughout the village there are only two working telephones – the others have been turned off because people cannot pay their bills,” he adds.

Ladik’ family of 10 lives on his monthly pension of 4,700 drams (about $9.40). They eat dry pasta every day and rarely any vegetables, meat or fish – fishing in the Akhurian River is forbidden to the public, as the fishing industry is monopolized by the state.

“We just want to survive. Here, there is only one hope left and that is to leave,” concludes Ladik.

Today, only 10 residents out of 380 are lucky enough to hold regular employment at the stone extraction factory.

Not far from the ruins of Ani Pemza’s fourth-century Yererouyk Church, one of the oldest churches of Armenia, children dig for cables and pieces of aluminum. They take their treasures to a nearby center, which pays 170 drams (about 30 cents) for a little more than a pound of aluminum. Others pull carts in which they have placed buckets filled with water from the basin. Otherwise, the village looks as sad and ghostly as its namesake.

“Our village has a yearly budget of 500,000 drams ($1,000), which is insufficient to meet our needs,” says Meroujan Haroutounian, chief of Ani Pemza village.

“Canal construction for drinking and irrigation water, financed by Caritas, has just begun; it is supposed to bring water to our village next year. When that happens, our living conditions will improve, but the economic problems are still very serious.

“Due to unemployment, villagers have sold most of their possessions. If conditions do not improve, they’ll be forced to leave. Every month at least two or three people try to cross the frontier and are arrested.”

The situation in the nearby villages of Jerarpi, Bagravan and Kharkov is as desperate as that in Ani Pemza. Some villagers drink water pumped from a well, while others receive drinking water through existing canals for an hour and a half every two days. Some have access to contaminated water every four months. Despite such difficulties, villagers cultivate their lands and plant barley and wheat, which they will barter for other food.

“We cannot plant other vegetables, as we do not have water,” says Petros, as he picnics next to the Akhurian River.

“I probably have more land than both my father and my grandfather, but I have no money to plant or water to irrigate. In order to survive, each family keeps at least one cow, pigs and hens. We are perhaps among the lucky ones – we have five sheep and seven cows.”

Petros lives in Haikatzor village, six miles from Ani and the frontier. While Petros expresses his grievances, an elderly, rather exhausted-looking man approaches.

“This is my father,” Petros tells me. “He is 71 years old. Although ‘retired,’ he still works – he has not received his pension in three months. I used to be a nationalist, but I must admit that I have lost much of my nationalistic enthusiasm.

“But I regret that Ani is in Turkish territory. I would have preferred to see Ani still as the capital of Armenia – then our village would have prospered.”

Also participating in the picnic, Gevork Sarkissian, chief of Haikatzor, has obtained special authorization from the frontier soldiers to allow villagers to attend liturgy at St. Grigor Loussavoritch Church, located on the other side of the barbed wire.

Petros continues. “I cannot stay indifferent with regards to Ani and its history. In 1915, my father walked from the village of Mouche, in eastern Turkey, to Haikatzor village. He thought he would return to his native village, but of course he never did. Although I did not live through the exodus, I feel it in my soul and being Armenian is this: we have to understand the history and the life of our forefathers.

“Hopefully, one day, we will be able to picnic on the other side of the Akhurian River – in Ani.”

Armineh Johannes is a frequent visitor to CNEWA’s world.

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