The Monastery of ÖŞK (ÖŞKVANK)

During the Middle Ages, the valleys watered by the Çoruh River and its tributaries formed part of the Georgian principality of Tao-Klarjeti. From the beginning of the 9th until the first quarter of the 11th century, independent feudal principalities similar to the city states of Italy were dominant in the region whose rulers supported the foundation of monasteries financially as well as by granting land. These monasteries soon became vibrant centres of culture, art and learning.

The monastery of Öşk is in the village of Çamlıyamaç in the province of Erzurum, which is within the boundaries of the medieval lower Tao. A church, a refectory, a scriptorium where the manuscripts used to be copied and kept and the remains of three chapels have come down to us.

According to numerous inscriptions, the church was constructed between the years 963-973 and was dedicated to St. John the Baptist and donated by the Bagratid brothers, sons of the Georgian Curopalate Adernese, King David (reigned 961-1001) and Prince Bagrat († 966).

During the time when the region was under the reign of the Byzantine Emperors, the dome of the church was repaired by the Emperors Basil II († 1025) and Constantine VIII († 1028).

In the 11th century, the Monastery of Öşk was one of the most important bishoprics in the region and a center of culture especially famous for its manuscripts. It preserved its importance until the end of the 15th century. At the end of the 19th century, the church was converted into a mosque and functioned as a place of worship until 1980. In 1985 the Ministry of Culture designated it as a monument to be protected and preserved and included it on the national heritage list.

Leaving aside the later additions, the church measures 43.80×29.70 meters. Öşk Vank is by far the largest cruciform-shaped church in the region. It is as large as the Romanesque and Gothic churches in the west. The church can be entered through the south, north and west entrances.

The central space is covered by a dome with a high drum, carried on pendentives. The southwestern pillar bears the busts of the patrons, King David and Prince Bagrat, depicted on a niche situated on its eastern façade. Three of the four cross arms on each side of the central bay have similar dimensions each ending with an apse. The side chambers flanking each apse, as well as the northern room attached to the west cross arm, have two stories.

Unlike many Byzantine, Armenian and Georgian churches, the church takes the form of a Latin cross with an extended nave. During the 11th or 12th centuries, two chambers, whose functions still remain unclear, were added, one to its west and the other to its south. The western annex may have served as a kind of a room for keeping valuable objects, as it has no exit from the outside, while the southern annex could have served as a prayer room for the newly converted. There is a richly decorated octagonal column on the southwest corner of the arcaded southern annex. There are figures of saints among the floral patterns adorning the shafts of the columns, and the capitals display the scene of the Deesis and figures of St. Simeon Stylites the Younger and the Seraphim.

According to an inscription in the church, the interior was adorned with frescoes financed by the Patriarch Gagik in 1036. Only three Biblical scenes and a few human figures in the north, east and south apses have survived. On the wall of the northern apse the scene of the Dormition of the Virgin, depicting two angels and the Apostles can be seen. The remains of the fresco on the southern apse reveal scenes of the Crucifixion. The scene to the right shows St. John the Evangelist with two Roman soldiers behind him. In the middle above, there are images of the Deesis, with Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist flanking Christ.

The exterior wall is constructed with well-hewn stones and has an arrangement of blind arcades and deep triangular niches. The door and window frames are enlivened with geometric and floral patterns as well as images of lions, eagles and bulls, which were symbols of power considered to protect the church. On the southern façade, there are angels carved in high relief. On the upper section of the wall surface above the southern entrance there is a scene of angelic combat between an eagle and a deer with the Archangels Gabriel and Michael hovering over them.

A scene with five figures carved in high relief is placed on the southeastern façade. The figures make up the Deesis, with Christ in the middle, Virgin Mary to his left and St. John the Baptist to his right, both praying to Christ for the resurrection of the souls of sinners. King David and Prince Bagrat are seen holding models of the church they built and are depicted beside Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist. St. Simeon the Younger is portrayed on the twin window of the west façade as standing on a pillar with both hands opened in a gesture of prayer.

The vast refectory is only situated 30 meters to the north of the church. Its southern walls and roof have collapsed and it is now partly buried. The rectangular building measures 33.80×18.50 meters. Its walls were constructed with roughly cut stones, while its pillars and arches which used to carry the vaulting system were made of well-cut ashlar masonry. In the Middle Ages, refectories did not only function as places where monks gathered to dine but also served as meeting places as well as venues for recitations from the Bible.

The scriptorium attached to the north of the refectory used to function as a library where the manuscripts were kept. The scriptorium has four entrances, the southern one opening into the refectory.

Of the three chapels, two are 200 meters and 150 meters to the southwest and one is about 50 meters to the south of the main church. Only the farthest single-naved chapel is remarkably well-preserved.