Jrapi & Anipemza
Heading southwest from Gyumri and parallel to the Turkish border, the road crosses the only rail link between Armenia and Turkey at a level crossing. This rail link was opened in 1898 to provide a connection between Tiflis (present-day Tbilisi, Georgia) and Kars (in present-day Turkey) at a time when both cities were in the Russian Empire. By the latter days of the Soviet Union there was only one train each week across the border but even this has been suspended since 1992 because the border is officially closed. Continuing southwest and very close to the border the nests of white storks can be seen on top of telegraph poles: the storks have only a limited distribution in Armenia but there are several pairs here. The military significance of the area, the frontier between the former Warsaw Pact and NATO, can be judged from the continued presence of Russian soldiers. Until a few years ago the markings on one stretch of road which enabled it to be used as an emergency runway could still be seen but much-needed resurfacing has eliminated the markings along with the pot-holes.
After about 25km the ruins of 10th—11th-century Jrapi caravanserai can be seen on the left. There is also a small 7th-century church and the ruins of another 7th century church, rebuilt as a castle in the 11th century. The road continues through pleasant hilly country and as it starts to descend again to the plain there is a small picnic spot with a natural spring on the east side. An early summer lunch break here might be enlivened by nesting crag martins, Isabelline wheatears and black-I leaded buntings.
Continuing south past the village of Aniavan a road branches off right Anipemza whose Yereruyk Church, though roofless, is one of the most architecturally important in Armenia and often features in collections of photographs of the country. Its significance rests with its early date (5th-6th century) and the idea it gives of early Armenian church architecture which was modelled on the style of churches in the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire. The basilica-style building is erected on a large plinth approached by steps. The porches are framed by elaborately carved pediments of Graeco-Roman style, contrasting with the different style of the carved window arches and the plain pilasters. There were galleries on three sides, north, south and west, constructed between the eastern and western corner rooms which project beyond the nave. Unusually, the eastern corner rooms are elongated along a north-south axis. The whole site covers an enormous area. To the north are natural caves and pits carved into the rock, some of which may have been for storage: others are coffin-like. Even the name Anipemza' has particular significance for Armenians since it reminds them of their inaccessible capital Ani; the 'pemza' part of the name refers to pumice which is mined locally.
The Turkish border is only a few hundred metres from the church and, on a clear day, both Mount Aragats, the highest peak in present-day Armenia, and Mount Ararat, the highest peak in historic Armenia, can be seen. From Aniavan a road goes west to Norshen (Karkov) near to which is a specially constructed viewpoint over the abandoned capital of Ani which is immediately over the border in Turkey. However, advance permission to go into this sensitive area has to be obtained from the Foreign Ministry in Yerevan and a small fee paid. It is quite easy to secure the permission but several days' notice is required. For Western visitors it may be more satisfactory to visit Ani itself via the Turkish city of Kars. Even then it is necessary to seek police permission in Kars. That the Armenians are cut off from their historic capital is a consequence of the Soviet-Turkish treaty of 1921 which ceded to Turkey areas including Kars and Ani even though they had been under Russian control since 1877 and had even been awarded to Armenia under the Treaty of Sevres in 1920. The possible return of Ani to Armenia in exchange for two Kurdish villages further north was raised in intergovernmental talks in 1968 but nothing resulted.
The southern tip of Shirak marz includes the restricted border zone around the viewing point for Ani, across the Akhuryan on the Turkish side of the border. You need to pass a Russian-run checkpoint to reach the achingly beautiful view over Ani, the 10th century capital of Armenia. The ruined city occupies a promontory above the river, an undulating sea of green sprinkled with the bare stones of old churches. The city was captured by the Seljuk Turks in 1064, and abandoned after the Mongol invasions. Its position on the old front line of the Cold War between NATO and the USSR has preserved its isolation. People of Armenian descent can often schmooze their way past, but foreigners usually need to arrange a visit through a travel agency. It’s no particular hassle to visit with permission. It’s utterly haunting at sunset in late summer or autumn, when the Kurdish herders return to the rough little village outside the city walls. There’s a quarry on the Armenian side for the nouveau riche who want buildings made of Ani tuff. Some of the villagers in the vicinity are descended from genocide survivors, so every year on 24 April there’s a tradition of lighting bonfires along the border as a reminder to Turkey. If you only get to see Ani from afar, it’s possible to take a virtual tour at www.virtualani.org.
To reach Anipemza from Yerevan the quickest way is probably via Armavir and then continue on the H17 which follows the railway from Armavir to Gyumri. The road mostly has a good surface. The alternative route via Ashtarak, Talin, Tatul, Hatsashen, Tsamakasar, Suser and Bagravan, where one turns left onto the road from Gyumri, is good until Tsamakasar. From there to Bagravan it is decidedly not good; in particular, Nor Artik to Bagravan would be difficult in a car without high clearance. However, it is a scenic route which passes through several very rural villages with village ponds, donkey carts and an interesting cemetery at Bagravan.
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