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An artist’s conception of Ani during the reign of King Gagik I (ca 1000 AD) at the height of its power and success

One of the unexpected things I learned about when studying Byzantine history was the existence of Ani, “the city of 1001 churches.”  At its zenith, around the the beginning of the 11th century AD, Ani was one of the largest cities in Central Asia. Ani was the capital, ecclesiastical center, and chief city of the Bagratid Kingdom of Armenia.  During the long reign of the gifted King Gagik I (989–1020 AD), Ani supported a population of more than 100,000 inhabitants.   The great stone city of churches, monasteries, bridges, and shops was located on a naturally protected triangular elevation with the ravine of the Akhurian River on one side (providing abundant water) and steep valleys on the other two sides.  Some inspired artist made this astonishing map of Ani at its heyday (here is a link to a high-res image).  Not only does the image illustrate the opulent beauty and sophistication of Ani, the decorative map also shows how it was nestled beautifully in its protected location.


The Kingdom of Armenia was likewise admirably situated between the Byzantine Empire to the west, the Abbassid Caliphate to the south, the Georgian kingdoms to the north.  To the east were riches! Ani was near the western terminus of the famed silk road which runs through Central Asia.


Today though, Ani is known (insomuch as it is known at all) for being an uninhabited ruin. It is a disconsolate city of the dead, despised and ignored by its Turkish overlords as a hateful symbol of medieval Christian Armenia.  A few empty cathedrals and ruined churches sit in the wasteland like the sad bones of a feast devoured a thousand years ago.


What happened to destroy this thriving city?  Well, as you might imagine, it was conquered again and again by meddling potentates and invading armies from all of those various states around it.  The most serious of these invasions was in 1064 when a Seljuk army under the command of Sultan Diya ad-Dunya wa ad-Din Adud ad-Dawlah Abu Shuja Muhammad Alp Arslan ibn Dawud (to use his full name) sacked Ani after a 25 day seige. Here is a description of the occasion from Sibṭ ibn al-Jawzi, the famous Baghdad-born scholar and historian:

Putting the Persian sword to work, [the Seljuk invaders] spared no one… One could see there the grief and calamity of every age of human kind. For children were ravished from the embraces of their mothers and mercilessly hurled against rocks, while the mothers drenched them with tears and blood… The city became filled from one end to the other with bodies of the slain and [the bodies of the slain] became a road. […] The army entered the city, massacred its inhabitants, pillaged and burned it, leaving it in ruins and taking prisoner all those who remained alive…The dead bodies were so many that they blocked the streets; one could not go anywhere without stepping over them. And the number of prisoners was not less than 50,000 souls. I was determined to enter city and see the destruction with my own eyes. I tried to find a street in which I would not have to walk over the corpses; but that was impossible…

But what left the Kingdom of Armenia so weakened and unable to defend itself that the Seljuks were able to do as they pleased?  Division and ruinous factionalism! King Gagik had two sons who bitterly fought over the succession.  The favored elder son controlled Ani and its cosmopolitan wealth, while the other son controlled the countryside.   So greatly did the brothers despise each other that they set the country folk and city folk against each other and invited outsiders into Armenia hoping to secure a political advantage. The Byzantine Emperor Michael IV, claimed sovereignty over Ani in 1041. The Byzantines hollowed out Ani’s wealth and strength for their own ends leaving it defenseless against the Seljuks.  After the 1064 sack described above, the Seljuks sold the decimated city to the Shaddadids, a Muslim Kurdish dynasty, which was largely tolerant of Ani’s Christianity. Yet the Shaddadids fought with Georgians. The Georgians fought with Mongols.  Mongols fought with Persians.  By the time, the Turks took over in 1579, all that was left was a small town nestled in the rubble and even that was abandoned by 1735.


Undoubtedly Ani’s location at the edge of the Central Asian steppe did it no favors; yet a clever historian or political theorist might be able to draw other important lessons from Ani’s fate. One wonders what other cities will look like Ani a thousand years from now…assuming there even are any cities.  These days, humankind’s mistakes are coming in whole new orders of magnitude from those of a thousand years ago when a city the size of modern-day Peoria was considered one of the largest cities in all of Eurasia.



The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew (Jusepe de Ribera,  1634, oil on canvas)

The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew (Jusepe de Ribera, 1634, oil on canvas)

Saint Bartholomew was one of the twelve apostles of Christ… Yet, considering the exalted company he kept, we do not know very much about Bartholomew.  Bartholomew means “son of the furrows” in Aramaic, which suggests he was possiblya ploughman…or at least descended from farmers (it is also funny to think that Bart Simpson’s name is originally Aramaic).  Bartholomew shows up by name in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (the “Synoptic” gospels, which give roughly the same account of events) but he is replaced by Nathaniel in the enigmaticand iconoclastic gospel of John.


Whatever the case, sources (such as they are) place Bartholomew at the Ascension–the Greek-myth style apotheosis of Christ, when the risen savior ascended bodily into heaven to assimilate with the divine.  Bartholomew’s story gets a lot more interesting thereafter.  While other apostles went west and north to spread Christianity to the Roman Empire, Bartholomew headed East, right out of the boundaries of the known world. Along with Saint Thomas, he is credited with bringing Christianity to India.  Along the way he is alleged (by varying sources) to have stopped to spread the faith in Mesopotamia, Parthia, and Lycaonia.

Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew (Stefan Lochner, 1435)

Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew (Stefan Lochner, 1435)

However Bartholomew is most affiliated with Armenian Christianity.  Along with his fellow apostle, Saint Jude, he is credited with bringing the faith to Armenia in the 1st Century and the two are the Co-founders of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Armenia was also the site of his thrilling martyrdom.  According to popular tradition,Bartholomew converted Polymius, the king of Armenia, to Christianity. This infuritated the king’s brother Astyages, a devout pagan who thought that getting rid of the proslytizer would get rid of the faith.  Astyages had Bartholomew seized, crucified and flayed alive–which seems like overkill.  In some accounts the holy man was drowned or beheaded (maybe Astyages feared a Rasputin type situation and had Bartholomew crucified, flayed, drowned, and beheaded).  Armenia is not necessarily the center of the world in contemporary times, but it was a thriving society in the early medieval world.  There were huge cities filled with great cathedrals to Saint Bartholomew   Whatever the case of the real Bartholomew, popular imagination seized on the flaying aspect of this tale.  This death of Saint Bartholomew became favorite theme of artists  Michaelangelo even painted himself as Saint Bartholomew’s nightmarish skin in the last judgement.  There he is between heaven and hell in the saint’s flayed hand.  Will he be cast down and discarded of ascend as a saint?

Detail from "The Last Judgment" (Michelangelo Buonarotti, ca. 1535-1541, fresco)

Detail from “The Last Judgment” (Michelangelo Buonarotti, ca. 1535-1541, fresco)

Some scolars have noted a deliberate similarity between Bartholomew and the Greco-Roman demigod Hercules. Churches to the saint were often located on former sites of cult centers to the strongman. Additionally the two shared iconongraphy: Bartholomew frequently holds of wears his skin like Hercules wears the Nemean lion’s skin. There are even certainly weird parallels between the figures. Hercules transcended death through physical strength: excellence at fighting and a divine pedigree allowed him to rise to heaven.  Saint Bartholomew a normal man–a farmer–transcended mortality by spiritual strength–he shrugged off the most terrible death possible and joined Jesus in heaven (and in working miracles here on Earth).  Barthomew and Hercules even shared a doom caused throught the skin.  Barthomew was flayed, while Hercules was poisoned intracutaneously and ripped his own skin off.  It is a good theory, but it overlooks the even more straightforward Christian message of Bartholomew. He transcended his mortality through his association with Jesus. He shrugged off his human flesh and became part of the divine.  The raw power of the tale is instantly recognizable in the beautiful & horrible art.

Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew (unknown artist, 17th century, oil on canvas)

Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew (unknown artist, 17th century, oil on canvas)

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March 2023