By AMBERIN ZAMAN, SPECIAL TO THE TIMES
ANI, Turkey — Towering above a bleak, wind-swept plateau near Turkey’s border with Armenia, the red stone cathedral of Ani has defied wars, earthquakes and time.
But today, one of the holiest sites of Armenian Christian Orthodoxy is facing what an archeologist here calls the biggest threat of its millennium-old existence: dynamite blasts from four stone quarries less than a quarter of a mile away in Armenian territory.
The stone, ironically, is being mined to build a Christian Orthodox cathedral in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, that will look similar to the one in Ani. Turkish officials say the deafening explosions have shaken the area for two years despite their pleas to Armenia for the quarrying to stop. The United States, France and the United Nations have backed Turkey’s appeal.
“Not only the cathedral but most of the monuments here will soon collapse,” said Beyhan Karamaragli, a Turkish archeologist who has been leading excavations here since 1988. “This is cultural genocide.”
Genocide is a particularly loaded word here. Armenians often use it to describe how they say the Ottoman Turks killed 1.5 million Armenians during World War I. Turkish officials today acknowledge that as many as 600,000 Armenians died but portray them as victims of civil disorders, exposure and starvation as they fled southward to escape the conflict.
The dispute over those deaths still stands in the way of diplomatic and trade relations between Armenia and Turkey, as does Armenia’s continued occupation of territory claimed by Turkey’s closest regional ally, Azerbaijan.
Gagik Gurjan, head of the cultural heritage department of the Armenian Culture Ministry, said geologists at the quarries had been consulted and that they had reported that the quarrying of stone there could not be damaging the cathedral in Ani.
“I think some people in Turkey are using this situation for political ends,” he said. “If the Turks hadn’t destroyed these monuments themselves over the centuries, they would have nothing to complain about now.”
“What’s more,” he added, “there is a gorge between them, and the shock waves from the explosions could not reach or in any way affect any building or monument in Ani.”
Trying to break the ice, retired diplomats and academics from Turkey and Armenia have set up a commission to promote cooperation in educational and cultural projects. At their first meeting last month, in Geneva, they reportedly discussed a joint effort to preserve the ruins of this walled medieval town.
Until the early decades of the 20th century, at least 2 million Armenians are believed to have lived in Turkey, mostly in the east. Today, about 60,000 Armenians remain in Turkey; most of them live in Istanbul.
Nowhere are traces of the Anatolia region’s Armenian heritage more visible than in Ani, 27 miles northeast of the Turkish town of Kars.
Ani rises above the emerald green waters of the Arpa River, which separates Turkey from Armenia. Stubby pillars that once supported a 14th century stone bridge between the two countries remain as a symbol of the neighbors’ stormy ties.
Armenians and Turks tell different versions of Ani’s history.
Turkish historians insist that Ani holds greater significance for Turkey because it was one of the first Anatolian cities to be conquered by the Seljuk Turks when they swept in from Central Asia in the early 11th century. Armenian rule, they say, did not last more than 50 to 70 years before defeat by the Seljuks.
According to Armenian accounts, Ani was ruled for much of its history by a succession of Armenian kings, and it was their capital for at least two centuries. In the 10th century, Ani was glorified by the Armenians as “the city of a thousand and one churches,” with the cathedral as its centerpiece.
“If so, why are they [Armenians] willfully destroying it now?” asked Karamaragli, pointing to a 30-foot-long crack in the southwest corner of the cathedral, which she says widens with the tremors from the quarries.
The septuagenarian archeologist says she has records of every blast and every crack and hole resulting from each explosion. The nearby Menucehr, the oldest Seljuk mosque in the region, has suffered some of the worst damage.
In this earthquake-weary country, residents of the neighboring village of Ocakli often mistake the tremors for quakes. “Our children are terrorized. Our cows have stopped producing milk,” said Muhammad Sevcan, a local farmer.
In an embarrassment for the Armenian government, an ear-splitting explosion rocked the site in mid-June just as a group of Armenian Americans had gathered to pray at the cathedral. They were part of a 150-member group of Armenian Americans on a pilgrimage through Turkey to retrace the steps of St. Gregory.
“They were terrified–they thought it was a bomb,” recalled Mehmet Kinacioglu, a Turkish tourist who was present.
Pilgrims reportedly sent letters of complaint to the Armenian government. So did the Istanbul-based Armenian patriarch, Mesrob II. No explosions have been heard here since mid-July.
Turkish officials, though, say they doubt that the respite will last long. They point to a May 5 report from Russia’s Interfax news agency quoting an Armenian Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying the quarrying would stop by the end of that month. “In June, the explosions were continuing,” said a senior Turkish diplomat, “so who is to say they will not resume again?” Gurjan, the Armenian official, said the blasts have stopped. But it wasn’t because of complaints from Turkey, he said, but because workers are now using different quarrying methods.
Staff writer Robyn Dixon in The Times’ Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.