Churches

Coruh Valley is astonishingly rich in medieval art and architecture which holds art lovers spellbound. During the Middle Ages,the region was home to the Georgian principality of Tao-Klarjeti. From the beginning of the 9th until the first quarter of the 11th century, the rulers of independent feudal principalities constructed structures that were monumental in scale and inventive in design, testaments to the existence of a high civilisation which is now largely forgotten.

THE GEORGIAN CHURCHES

The major legacy left by the medieval Georgians are magnificent churches and Osk Vank, Ishan, Barhal, Haho and Dortkilise  are all well worth a visit.

OSK VANK (CAMLIYAMAC)

The area’s most elaborate example of Georgian Gothic architecture is the late 10th century monastery complex of Osk Vank, commissioned by King David. It was a cultural centre until the 15th century. You can visit the church of St. John the Baptist – the largest cruciform church in the region – and what remains of a refectory, a library and three chapels, all in different states of repair. The church is dome over transept and the impression, both inside and outside, is of height. The exterior is decorated: at the main entry there’s a porch topped by a scallop-shell bas-relief with archangels above. Another entry is ornate and triple-arched with a zigzag roofline, added later. Some window frames are decorated with images of lions, eagles and bulls. All the interior columns are different and decorated with bas-relief of angels or complex geometric patterns or floral designs. There are some faint frescoes of biblical scenes.

Getting there: It’s in the centre of Camliyamac, off the main Erzurum-Artvin road. There are local minibus connections to the village directly from Erzurum and from Uzundere district center.

ISHAN

The limestone walls of this church shimmer like gold against a backdrop of green foliage, contrasting with the windy road below. You can only see the church of the Mother of God and a chapel but İşhan was originally part of a 10th century monastery complex. There are Georgian inscriptions inside and outside the church, recording different restoration work in the Middle Ages. It was a cathedral until the 17th century. It’s dome over transept and the height is amazing. Most of the dome has gone but there are still good acoustics. The frescoes are badly damaged but you can see some biblical scenes. The stonework is a highlight: 22 different geometric and floral designs were used to decorate it. There’s also a bas-relief of a combat between a lion and what is either a dragon or a snake.

Getting there: It’s in the village of Ishan, 32kms from Yusufeli. There’s a minibus from Yusufeli but you have to walk down to the main road (7kms) to get back to Yusufeli. Many people go by taxi. Entrance fee is 2TL (donated to a local charity).

BARHAL

The 10th century church of St. John the Baptist is slightly smaller than Dortkilise but in much better condition. It was also part of a monastery built for King David. It was a church until the 17th century, when it became a mosque; it’s no longer in use. This church is also a basilica and very tall – blind arches on the facades emphasise its height. There are entrances on the southern and western sides, with only the southern one currently in use. There’s a great deal of stonework worth seeing on the outside. Most of the stonework is abstract work (such as geometric patterns, interlaces and crosses) but there’s also a lion, some peacocks and bearded male figures in long robes. There’s also an inscription thought to be about the architect. Locals say there’s a tunnel from the church to a chapel on a nearby hill.

Getting there: Every afternoon there’s a minibus from Yusufeli to Barhal. You can spend the night there and leave the next day. Ask at the pension next to the church for the key.

HAHO (BAGBASI)

Starting from Erzurum, the first church to visit is Haho. It was part of a 10th century monastery complex commissioned by local ruler King David. It’s in good condition and can also see the boundary wall and gate as well as three chapels. The church of the Virgin Mary has a conical-topped dome still covered in multicoloured tiles. What makes Georgian churches distinctive are their bas-reliefs and Haho is no exception. On the outside there’s a stone eagle grasping a doe in its claws. Inside – though originally on the outside – there’s a chimera and a fish resembling Jonah. Frescoes in churches in the area are no longer in good condition; in Haho you can see a small one of the apostles and angels.

Getting there: Haho is in the village of Bagbası. There are two minibuses a day from Erzurum and local connections from the Erzurum-Artvin road. Haho is now a mosque and you can visit on Fridays around prayer time. There’s no entrance fee but donations are suggested. Haho is now a mosque and you can visit around praying times every day.

DORTKİLİSE

As it is in the side of a hill surrounded by walnut trees, you could miss this church. The site is isolated but in the 10th century it was the centre of a thriving religious community. It is biggest of the Georgian churches in this area. It is well preserved but partly filled with soil from the hillside. You can also see a part-buried scriptorium, the monastery refectory and walls of other buildings. There was also a convent here, commissioned by King David. It is a basilica with a steep gabled roof. The exterior is impressive because of its size and the decoration above the roofs of the side-naves. The tiled roof is in reasonable condition and frescoes are still visible inside. Dortkilise means ‘four churches’. A second chapel is a two-hour walk uphill. A third is in the castle that guards the road into Tekkale. It is unclear whether a fourth was built.

Getting there: In summer there’s a bus every morning from Tekkale to Dortkilise but in winter you get a bus from Yusufeli to Tekkale and walk 7kms. The other option is to go by taxi.

   

OTHER HISTORICAL PLACES OF INTEREST

In the Middle Ages defence was a priority. So today there are many castles and lookout towers here. Some are in a good state of repair and some are accessible. Ispir Castle in Ispir is in a good state. Between Yusufeli and Ispir there are four castles and three lookout towers alone. The most dramatic (but inaccessible) one is Tekkale, south of Yusufeli. Nearby Peterek, near Tekkale, is more easily accessible. There are also at least three worth investigating along the River Barhal. Tortum and Uzundere districts have also many old castles and lookout towers. Among them, Tortumkale (off the Tortum-Uzundere road) and Enguzekkale are in relatively good state.

Monastery of TBETI

Monastery of BANA

Monastery of DOLİSHAN

Monastery of VARDZİA

Monastery of KUTAİSİ

Monastery of GELATİ

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