The ancient Armenian capital Ani: what secrets are hidden in the underground city?

Ani, the city of 1001 churches, was the capital of the Ani Kingdom of the Bagratids from 885 to 1045. It was reported in ancient manuscripts that there are many tunnels and caves beneath it. What secret do the ancient underground cities hold?

Armenian historians Yegishe and Lazar Parpetsi first mentioned Ani in the 5th century. They described it as an impregnable fortress of the Kamsarakan family (Armenian Կամսարական), an Armenian noble family, on a hill. The city got its name from the fortress and the pagan settlement of Ani-Kamakh, located in the Karin region of Daranagi (Armenian Դարանաղի). Chroniclers called it Daranakhya Ani, in the Erznka area of Greater Armenia. It was near the sources of the Euphrates, not far from Erzerum, in modern-day Turkey.

Ani, the capital of the Bagratids, is located on a hill above the Akhurian River gorge near the modern border of Armenia with Turkey. Historians believe that the settlement appeared on this site 5,000 years ago, and the city reached its peak in the 10th-11th centuries when it became the capital of the Armenian kingdom. The ruins of Ani with hundreds of ancient churches, Zoroastrian temples, and other buildings continue to decay today without restoration and care.

In total, 823 underground structures and caves are known under the city of Ani and in the canyons around it, including: dwellings, tombs, monasteries, chapels, mills, stables, and reservoirs. Old-timers said there were even underground tunnels under the Araks and Akhurian rivers, which could be used to cross peacefully from Eastern Armenia to Western, but they were blown up during Soviet times. There is information about underground structures under other Armenian cities. It turns out that many of them, if not all, were built first underground, and then in the aboveground form, which everyone knows.

For the first time, the “Underground Ani”, as the local residents call it, was discovered in the 1880s by the future philosopher and traveler George Gurdjieff, who spent most of his childhood and youth in Kars.

Three decades later, in 1915, an Italian team of archaeologists conducted excavations and confirmed that there was an underground monastery here.

The first study of stone-cut caves in Ani was done in 1915 by D. Kipshidze, a member of the expedition of the famous archaeologist Nikolai Yakovlevich Marr, who had been conducting excavations in Ani since 1892.

In 1915, the discovery of such a huge underground network was perceived as a kind of novelty. However, hardly anyone could draw conclusions at the time. This only became possible half a century later, as many interesting things happened between 1915 and 2015, which made the whole world learn about and talk about underground cities.

Underground cities of Cappadocia

In 1963, a resident of the small village of Derinkuyu (Turkish Derinkuyu – “deep well”) in Cappadocia, Turkey, decided to renovate his basement. The man started to disassemble the wall stone by stone. Soon the wall collapsed and, as happens in fairy tales, revealed the entrance to a real underground kingdom. It wasn’t a bunker or a basement, but a passage leading to a huge underground city. Today, the underground city of Derinkuyu is considered one of the largest in the world.

The city is located on 8 tiers or floors, the lowest one is at a depth of about 60 meters. All rooms are connected by tunnels and passages, and fresh air is supplied through a very well-designed and cut through dozens of meters of rock (tuff) system of 52 ventilation shafts. On the lowest floor, access is provided to groundwater in the form of underground streams and springs.

In ancient times, the city could accommodate up to 20,000 people along with food and livestock. To date, only 10-15% of the entire city’s area has been explored.

It had all the necessary amenities found in other underground complexes in Cappadocia: living spaces, ventilation shafts and wells, stables, kitchens and dining rooms, bakeries, presses for squeezing oil and grapes, granaries and wine cellars, churches and chapels, and workshops where everything necessary was produced. It’s said that the underground city even had a cemetery.

Derinkuyu also had a school, a church, warehouses with huge supplies of food, and weapon rooms. Scientists were greatly surprised to discover that city dwellers kept herds of large domestic animals underground.

All precautions were taken: in case of danger, entrances were closed off with huge boulders. A complex system of traps and barriers, similar to those in Indiana Jones movies, securely protected access to the city.

According to one version, the residents of Derinkuyu went to the surface only for farming, according to another – they lived in the ground settlement and hid underground only during raids.

The reason for building such a city remains a mystery and a subject of debate among scientists. Initially, it was believed that the city was built by the first Christians. Then it turned out that the Greek historian Xenophon described such a city as early as the 5th century BC. It was then assumed that the construction dates back to the 8th-7th centuries BC, and the city was built by fire worshipers. This version is confirmed by the mention of underground cities in the holy book of Zoroastrians, the “Vendidad”. During the Persian dominion (6th-4th centuries BC), the city first became a refuge for refugees. And only a thousand years later, in the 5th century AD, Christians began to use underground cities to hide during times of religious persecution. Then it turned out that there are many such cities in Cappadocia.

Beneath the hill of Nevşehir Castle, in 2013, an underground city was discovered where about 20,000 people could also hide during the attacks of nomads and conquerors. A random find by Turkish builders led to one of the most significant archaeological discoveries of recent years. The passageway found by the builders led researchers to an underground city that existed 5,000 years ago. Studies continued for about a year. The city’s height difference exceeds 100 meters, and its area reaches half a million square meters. It is a third larger than Derinkuyu, located nearby. It has been established that it was inhabited over several millennia – from the early Bronze Age to the Ottoman rule. This is the largest underground city in the world, with the second-largest underground city, Derinkuyu, located 29 km from Nevşehir. Together with the neighboring city of Kaymakli, these are three of the best examples of underground constructions.

The underground cities of Cappadocia were first discovered in the 19th century by the French priest Father Jerphanion. Around the same time, the underground city of Ani became known. So why did they build cities underground in ancient times?

Iranian Noah in “Vendidad”

Among the many versions of why underground life was needed, why passages were dug in stone, and cities were built by ancient civilizations, the most realistic and justified is to cope better with the pole shift and climate changes. These versions are the most justified for Derinkuyu, Nevşehir, and others, where tens of thousands of people could live. The same applies to Ani. Indeed, if winter becomes longer and lasts half a year, without having heating or enough fuel, it is easiest to endure it underground, where warmth is easier to maintain. The presence of underground streams and wells clearly indicates that people lived underground for a long time. This is also mentioned in ancient written sources.

In the “Vendidad” – one of the four parts of the sacred book of ancient Iranians “Avesta” – the construction of Vara (Avestan for “fortress, estate”) is described. Ahura Mazda informs Yima (Jamshid), a king from the Pishdadian dynasty, that the world is threatened with destruction, as a terrible winter and cold will first come, which will kill two-thirds of the cattle, and then the melting of the snow will cause a flood. The god advises to build a vara, where supplies will be hidden: “seeds of small and large cattle, people, dogs, birds and red burning fires”, as well as plants (all this “in pairs”), bring water there, build houses and animal enclosures. But according to our current data, such global and radical changes in climate occurred 12,000 years ago. Then there were cooling periods and floods. This means that these cities of Cappadocia, like the underground Ani and the dungeons under other Armenian cities, were built not 3,000 and even not 5,000 years ago, but most of them, if not all, are twice as old.

Many modern scientists are skeptical of the biblical tradition of Noah. They argue that it was impossible to build such a large ark in ancient times that it could accommodate thousands of animals. But Iranian traditions speak of underground cities where all these thousands of animals could easily fit. And today it is almost completely confirmed that they were built in ancient times. It turns out that the traditions of the Sumerians, from whom the Jews borrowed the story of Noah, only talk about the flood, since in Mesopotamia, as archaeologists have found out, such floods occurred repeatedly. But today we also know that global changes are not limited to floods and lead to changes in climate zones. It is not difficult to understand that from all this, ancient peoples were saved precisely on the Armenian highlands (heights of 1500-3000 m) and in neighboring Cappadocia (1000 meters above sea level), as these are the highest places in the region. So the tradition of Noah, even though skeptics consider it a fairy tale, and in the mention of thousands of saved animals, is not a fiction at all, but actually reflects real events of deep antiquity. And the more humanity explores its history, the more it finds confirmations of the truthfulness of ancient legends, which helps it better understand what is happening today.

by Armen Petrosyan

Translated by Vigen Avetisyan

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