Monastery of BARHAL (PARHALI)

Barhal Monastery is located in a forested valley close to the straggling village of Barhal, also known as Altıparmak. To reach it drive north from Yusufeli along the scenic valley of the Barhal River for about 40 kilometres. Once you find yourself among the scattered houses of Barhal village, take a right into a narrow and densely wooded side valley, where you will immediately see the church standing on a steep slope, also to your right. Although it was once surrounded by the usual complement of auxilliary monastic structures, the church now stands alone and apart from two chapels which stand on the far side of the valley. The church is remarkably well-preserved, partly as a result of the fact that for nearly three centuries it has been used as the village mosque.

The church of Barhal is dedicated to St John the Baptist and was first mentioned in the “Barhal Bible,” a manuscript copied during the reign of King David Magistros (reign 961-1001). The building is thought to have been constructed between 961 and 973. The two chapels also date back to the same period. The church shows signs of later additions and renovations. The portico in front of the south entrance is one of these, made during the reign of King Alexander (1412-1442). An inscription in the nave says that the church was restored during the Patriarchate of Johannes (1489-1507). A portico was added to the west entrance by Atabeg Khvarkvare in 1518. Barhal monastery remained in service up until the 17th century. An Ottoman imperial edict dated 1677 cites that the church was repaired by Hacı Şerif Efendi and turned into a mosque.

In terms of dimensions and style, the church of Barhal very closely resembles the main church at Dört Kilise, though it is a little smaller, being only 28.4 metres long and 18.65 metres wide. Both have a simple basilical design without a dome, which distinguishes them sharply from Haho, Öşk and Işhan. The nave is divided into five bays by arches carried on massive cruciform piers, two of which have niches adorned with stylized floral and figural relief-carvings, including a fragmentary angel. The apse is flanked by small rectangular side chambers that open into the aisles. At the western end of the nave there is a gallery that was added later. The church has entrances on its south and west sides. It also has numerous arched windows. The north and the south entrances were blocked up when the church was turned into a mosque. The original south entrance has been walled up to form a mihrab. The church rests on a three-stepped podium. The building was made of rubble infill construction faced with beautifully crafted ashlar masonry. The overall effect is one of noble simplicity.

The frescoes that must have once adorned the interior have not survived but the external decoration is unusualy lively and attractive. All four façades are enlivened by blind arcades and all have relief-carvings. Most of these are abstract, or nearly so, consisting of palmettes, lozenges, interlaces, geometric patterns and crosses, but there are also figural elements, including a standing lion, two opposed peacocks and bearded male figures wearing long tunics with extended arms. There is an inscription bearing the name Theodore who is thought to be the architect of the church. Sun-burst motifs painted in red adorn the south façade.

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