The Çoruh Project Region

The Tourism Development in Eastern Anatolia Project (TDEAP) is a sustainable human development project, implemented by the United Nations Development Program, Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism and Efes Pilsen. Project area covers İspir and Uzundere districts of Erzurum and Yusufeli district of Artvin Provinces and includes the valley of the Çoruh river and most of its tributaries. The river flows southwest-northeast and has carved a deep slot south of the Kaçkar mountains. One of the main branches, called Tortum river, flows from south to north by passing through Tortum Lake and reaches to the main river near to Yusufeli district center. Çoruh river divides the high, jagged mass of the Kaçkar from the northeast Anatolian plain. There are huge differences in altitude: the Kaçkar rise from sea level to a maximum altitude of nearly 4000m and descend to the Çoruh valley floor at 500-800m before rising again to the hills bordering the Erzurum plain at around 2000m.

The dramatic river scenery – including the gorges of the Çoruh, Ardanuç and Tortum rivers and the fast-flowing Barhal river – has cut through layers of younger rock to offer a tantalising glimpse of the geological past. The oldest rocks, visible along the gorges, are strongly folded schists and quartzites. Many extrusions of quartz and other volcanic rocks have formed outcrops and dikes.
The Kaçkar range itself was formed of granite, which is now eroded into sharp peaks. Around the Çoruh, over these older layers, upper Cretaceous limestone deposits with fossils, sinkholes and caves, form the highlands. Later, there were further extrusions of melted rocks and the area cracked and lifted in blocks, further confusing the geology.
Until the construction of the first dam near the Georgian border in the late ‘90s, the Çoruh carried 3 million tons of sand and gravel to the sea every year. It also deposited banks of rich alluvial soil which enriched the farming of the valley floor. The rivers formed communications links between the interior and the sea, and enabled the early development of small, well-fortified kingdoms, independent of larger states on the plains.

The climate varies according to altitude and distance from the sea. The Kaçkar are wet and cool, with pine and fir forest and glaciers around the peaks. The Çoruh and Tortum valleys have an extraordinary Mediterranean climate, and produce olives, grapes and rice. The southern highlands provide cooler, drier grazing and scattered forest.

In the Anabasis, Xenophon describes the area in 400 BC. Wealthy local communities, living in semi-underground houses, provided his men with wonderful banquets. In 331 BC, the Çoruh became part of Alexander the Great’s Hellenistic world, which stretched from Greece to India. Trade routes from the east reached the sea at Trabzon, enriching the area. Later, altough the Romans conquered the whole south part of Çoruh Basin, Georgia remained independent in the further north. During the Roman and early Byzantine period, people of Çoruh Basin became Christian, developed a written language and a distinctive local architecture. Although part of the Byzantine Empire, local churches refused to accept Greek Orthodox beliefs.In the 7th century, the Bagratid dynasty successfully united the area in defence against Arab invasions, but were partly replaced by the Tao-Klarjeti dynasty in Georgia. From the 9th to 11th centuries, Georgia flourished under brilliant independent rulers of the Tao-Klarjeti dynasty such as King David Magisterios and Queen Tamara, who sponsored superb religious buildings and art. Before the 13th century, when the Mongols destroyed it, this forgotten kingdom stretched from the Kaçkar to the Caspian Sea. Even after its destruction, the strong feudal system and distinctive Georgian Orthodox Church kept the people together.
During this time, the Selçuk Turks and allied Turcoman tribal groupings controlled the eastern plains, but, in the 14th century, Tamerlane invaded Anatolia and the Turks and Georgians suffered equally. Meanwhile, in western Turkey, the Ottoman dynasty was forming an empire and expanding eastward. Some Georgians fled northeast to Russian protection but others converted to Islam under the Ottoman Empire. Our area became a frontier zone between the Ottomans, Persia and, later, the expanding Russian Empire.
From the 18th century, with the Ottoman Empire in decline, Russia advanced south and west from the Caucasus. While claiming to protect Christian minorities it absorbed parts of Georgia and re-formed Armenia. Until 1917, when the Bolshevik revolutionaries recalled their troops, much of northeast Turkey was held by the Russians. In 1921, under the treaty of Kars, the new Turkish republic and the recently-formed Soviet Union fixed the modern boundaries, incorporating Georgia into the USSR. Since 1991, Georgia has been an independent state and Georgians are regular visitors to the churches and castles in the area.

Since the 1960s, when the Çoruh had a flourishing agricultural economy, entire local families have migrated to Turkish and foreign cities. They cling to their traditions and visit their relatives and villages each year. Outward migration still continues, although the UNDP project and others support local economic betterment.

History has left its mark in the form of many hilltop castles and the magnificent medieval Georgian monastery churches These impressive, dressed-stone buildings soar skywards, with vertical emphasis enhanced by tall windows, blind arches and half-columns. Simple patterns or animals and birds form carved relief decoration.
Earlier churches were of basilica form, with lower side-aisles separated from the central aisle by columns, and a semicircular apse. Later ones experimented with the dome-over-transept model – a cross-shaped ground plan, with huge pillars at the junction of the arms supporting a dome, which soars high over the crossing-place. The interiors were decorated with beautiful frescoes of elongated, stylised figures depicting biblical stories, but few traces remain of these.
Byzantine emperors valued Georgian architects and craftsmen. The Selçuk Turks adopted their architectural styles and, through the Crusaders, European church architects adopted their ideas.
Several 19th century travellers, including Isabella Bird (who rode from Baghdad to Trabzon), Robert Curzon, (who spent a winter in Erzurum) and Frederick Barnaby (who crossed Anatolia to Persia as a spy for Queen Victoria) wrote vivid books about this area.
In the 1960’s, British, Swiss, German mountaineers and explorers and the Turks themselves rediscovered the Kaçkar range and climbed the summit. After the first guidebook, Lonely Planet’s ‘Trekking in Turkey’ was published in 1989, modern tourism began in the Kaçkar and the Çoruh.