Scroll Top

Beatrice Spampinato

Beatrice Spampinato
Ca’ Foscari University of Venice
Carved Stones on the City Walls of Ani: An Attempt to Read the Armenian Capital in the Anatolian Visual Context

The Armenian Bagratid dynasty founded the medieval city of Ani (modern-day Turkey) in the tenth century. Over the next three centuries, Ani passed into the hands of Byzantine, Seljuk, and Georgian rulers. Written historical and epigraphic sources help us reconstruct the image of this city at the crossroads of cultures along the famed Silk Road, and the decorations on the wall surfaces of Ani public monuments serve as a fundamental source for reconstructing the complex historical coexistence of cultures in the region.

On the one hand, Armenologists increasingly feel the need to expand their research beyond the history of Armenian art and architecture by considering relations with neighboring visual cultures. On the other hand, as recent literature suggests, the time has come to study late medieval Anatolian societies by looking beyond political boundaries and considering the multiple geographies of the region.

Focusing on the decorative program of Ani’s northern city walls, Spampinato’s project seeks to demonstrate the urgency of re-reading this city in an Anatolian and no longer an exclusively Armenian, Georgian, or Turkish-historical and artistic framework.

Beatrice Spampinato

During my half-year fellowship at ANAMED, I worked on the research project “Carved Stones on the City Walls of Ani: An Attempt to Read the Armenian Capital in the Anatolian Visual Context” from three different perspectives: 1) fieldwork; 2) bibliographic research on my specific case study; and 3) new research projects on Christian-Muslim relations in medieval Anatolia. These three main implementation activities of my project research are strictly interactive.

The bibliographical research carried out between the ANAMED Library, the German Archaeological Institute, the Dutch Institute, and the French Institute for Anatolian Studies has been conducted with the aim of studying the Seljuk Anatolian civilization, especially in terms of visual, architectural, and material sources. Given the Christian (Armenian and Georgian dynasties) interventions in the multi-layered construction of Ani, the in-depth study of Rum Seljuk visual culture helped me to integrate the Islamic contribution to the design of the external decorations of Ani’s city walls.

In order to better contextualize Seljuk patronage between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, I visited the cities of Erzurum and Konya. What seemed particularly important to me to understand and define were the “eclectic exercises”[1] of twelfth-century Erzurum (e.g., Yakutiye Madrasa; Ulu Cami; Mescit Citadel), where architectural projects acquired spatial organizational settings, coverings, and domes that are particularly difficult to put in context with the more prominent Seljuk architecture of Konya and where an unexpected range and interesting bestiary appears on the carved walls of madrasas and mausoleums (e.g., Çifte Minareli Madrasa; Emir Saltuk Türbe). This trend has been considered an immature stage in the architectural and visual definition of the first Islamic architecture in Anatolia, but what if we consider it a style rather than an “exercise”? Its eclecticism would most probably enter into a dialogue with the intercultural encounters on the walls of Ani.

The surviving masterpieces in Konya give an overview of the richness of the Seljuk capital (e.g., Alaaddin Keykubad Mosque; Ince Minareli Madrasa; Sırçalı Medrese; Sahib-i Ata Mosque), both in terms of structural practices and decorative variety, and also emphasize the distances from the Central Eastern architectural trends previously defined as “eclectic.” Moreover, the fragments of the city walls of Konya provide a unique example of the dense use of decorative carved stones and inscriptions on the outer walls of a capital city and provide an interesting point of comparison for the city walls of Ani. The fragments are kept in the Konya Karatay Tile Museum where, despite the scarce evidence we have regarding their original display, the current exhibition provides an opportunity to see them up close and analyze their back sides and the still-visible traces of paint. The extensive iconographic program of the wall decoration, together with the practice of reusing spolia both on the surrounding walls and on religious Seljuk architecture (e.g., Eşrefoğlu Mosque in Beyşehir; Hoça Hasan Mosque) raised questions about the relationship with the Christian (especially Byzantine) tradition.[3]

My interest in the decoration of the Seljuk walls led me to study the walls of Bayburt in situ. Scott Redford’s research on the walls of Bayburt has made an important contribution to the study of the reconstruction of city walls in the Seljuk period.[4] Some important details, such as the use of architectural ceramic bowls, a complex program of inscriptions, and the use of tuff instead of marble for carving inscriptions, can make the case of Bayburt comparable to that of Ani. In addition, the presence of fragments of khachkar (Armenian cross-stones) on one of the northeastern wall curtains was noted at the site; many of this type of cross-stone are exhibited in the courtyard of the Archaeological Museum of Kars, testifying to the survival of material encounters between the Armenian and Seljuk traditions. The same museum also exhibits decorative fragments from the city of Ani, with a special section dedicated to carved lions from Ani. This material is interesting in comparison to one of my main research topics: the lion at the entrance to the main gate of the city. The exhibited examples, which I have never seen published before, clearly show a prominent presence of this animal, together with eagles, dragons, and bulls, but it is also important to note the extremely different iconological meanings that each carved lion can assume. In the museum, for example, we find a clear representation of Daniel in the lion’s den, together with a lion lying down as the guardian of an entrance. Moreover, in almost every museum of Islamic art I visited (Istanbul, Bursa, Iznik, Kars, Erzurum), I had the opportunity to experience the effective widespread presence of coins minted by Sultan Kay Khusraw,[5] where I see a source for the lion at the main gate of Ani. The three visits to the site of Ani gave me the opportunity to examine the entire perimeter of the walls; moreover, at the suggestion of colleagues, I took all the data necessary to further explore the relationships between the decorations and their astrological connections. Using the tools of archaeoastronomy, I am now experimenting with the relationships between the towers and their decorations and the actual positions of the stars at the time of the walls’ reconstruction. An extended stay in Ani also allowed me to observe the rapidly changing stages of excavations and the state of conservation of the Christian buildings. In order to understand eleventh–thirteenth century Anatolia, it is also fundamental to understand the rapid expansion and development of Georgian architecture at the turn of the tenth century. A first visit to the monasteries of the Tao region (e.g., Parkhali Monastery; Otkhta Church; Bana Cathedral),[6] which I had already considered and studied during my doctoral research, helped me to better understand this region, which shows interesting relationships with both Armenian and Seljuk architecture.[7]

As this report testifies, the bibliographical research has been highly enriched by the field research. I am now in the process of writing an article on the lion slab of the main gate of the walls of Ani. Moreover, the broad area explored led me on new research paths of possible exploration.


During my stay, I also prepared a conference paper to be presented during the panel “Building Identity: Architecture’s Material Significations” at the 36th CIHA Congress in Lyon, entitled “An Identity of Tuff: Materiality, Cultural Hybridity and Transmediality in Armenian Architecture,” and I worked on a monographic article on the personality of Giovanni Teresio Rivoira, who traveled to Türkiye and the eastern Mediterranean at the beginning of the twentieth century.

[1] Aptullah Kuran, Architecture in Turkey from Seljuks to the Republic (İstanbul: Türkiye İş Bankası Yayınları, 2012).

[2] Maxime Durocher, “Figures ailées et aigles bicéphales: le décor figuré d’époque seldjoukide et l’iconographie du pouvoir à Konya au prisme des échanges avec,” in Byzance Byzance et ses voisins, xiiie-xve siècle. Art, identité, pouvoir, ed. Elisabeth Yota (Bruxelles: Peter Lang, 2021), 259–77.

[3] Suzan Yalman, “Translating Spolia: A Recent Discovery of Fragments from the Wall of Seljuk Konya and Their Afterlives,” in Spoliation as Translation. Medieval Worlds in the Eastern Mediterranean, eds. Ivana Jevtić, Ingela Nilsson, and Zuzana Frantova (Brno: Brepols, 2021), 156–77.

[4] Scott Redford, Legends of Authority: The 1215 Seljuk Inscriptions of Sinop Citadel: With a Chapter by James Crow and Contributions by Oktay Özel, A.C.S Peacock, Adrian Saunders and W.M. Thackston, Jr., Arkeoloji/Sanat Tarihi 44 (İstanbul: Koç Üniversitesi, 2014).

[5] Claude Cahen, Pre-Ottoman Turkey. A General Survey of the Material and Spiritual Culture and History c. 1071–1330 (New York: Taplinger Pub. Co., 1968).

[6] В. В. Беридзе, Место памятников Тао-Кларджети в истории грузинской архитектуры =: Monuments de Tao-Klardjetie dans l’histoirede l’architecture georgienne (Тбилиси: Мецниереба, 1981).

[7] Patrick Donabédian, “Armenia – Georgia – Islam. A Need to Break Taboos in the Study of Medieval Architecture,” in L’arte Armena. Storia Critica e Nuove Prospettive, eds. Aldo Ferrari, Stefano Riccioni, Marco Ruffilli, and Beatrice Spampinato, Eurasiatica 16 (Venezia: Edizioni Ca’ Foscari, 2020), 63–122,