One million Armenians—some say more, some say less—were killed a century ago in the Ottoman Empire, the predecessor of modern Turkey.
A stone cenotaph in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, commemorates this tragic event: the Medz Yeghern, or “great catastrophe,” of the Armenian people. Each spring—on April 24, when the pogroms started—many thousands of pilgrims climb an urban hill to this shrine. They file past an eternal flame, the symbol of undying memory, to lay a small mountain of cut flowers. Just 60 miles to the northwest, and a few hundred yards across the Turkish border, lie the ruins of an older and perhaps more fitting monument to the bitterness of the Armenian experience: Ani.
What is Ani? Ani was the medieval capital of a powerful, ethnically Armenian kingdom centered in eastern Anatolia—the sprawling Asiatic peninsula that today makes up most of Turkey—and straddling the northern branches of the Silk Road. It was a rich metropolis that hummed with 100,000 souls. Its bazaars overflowed with furs, with spices, with precious metals. A high wall of pale stone protected it. Renowned as the “city of 1,001 churches,” Ani rivaled the glory of Constantinople. It represented the flowering of Armenian culture. Today it crumbles atop a remote, sun-hammered plateau—a scattering of broken cathedrals and empty streets amid yellow grasses, a desolate and windblown ruin. I have walked to it. I am walking across the world. I am retracing, on foot, the pathways of the first ancestors who abandoned Africa to wander the world. I have seen no place on my journey more beautiful or sadder than Ani.