Tao-Klarjeti, minute by minute

Erzurum
Three Türbes
Yakutiye Madrasah
Twin Minarets Madrasah
Tea houses
Bakery
Disappearing old town
Caferiye Mosque
Lala Mosque
Soup restaurants
The Road of Kartli
Tortum Castle
Khakhuli Monastery
Üngüzek Castle
Oshki Monastery
Tortum Reservoir
Yusufeli
Hamzet Church

Georgia was founded on the run, as were the Caliphate of Córdoba or the Principality of Transylvania. A disinherited ruler flees to the periphery in order to take back from the new center step by step what he lost. There are times in life when you have to start building everything over again somewhere else.

In Georgia, which did not extist yet, it was Ashot Bagrationi, the prince of the central Kartli province, who fled to Tao-Klarjeti in the inaccessible southwestern mountains after a war lost to the invading Arabs, and founded a new country there in 809. Entering into alliance with the Byzantine emperor, from whom he received a quasi-royal title, his mountains soon began to be called “the Kingdom of Georgia”, for the first time in history. And Ashot’s successors made sure to add the coat to the button, the country to the title. In three hundred years, they recaptured, valley by valley, the territories under Muslim control, first Kartli, and then, citing their all-Georgian royal title, also those principalities that had never belonged to Kartli: the western Kolkhis or Iberia, northern Abkhazia, and eastern Kakheti. In the meantime, the old enemies were replaced by new ones, the Arabs by the Seljuk Turks, but there came also new allies, the Frankish Crusaders and the Cuman tribes. Finally one of Ashot’s late successors, David IV the Builder defeated the Muslim emir before the walls of Tbilisi in 1122, and entered his new capital. This is how the golden age of united Georgia began.

It was a strange but very fruitful coincidence that shortly before Ashot, around 780, another Georgian aristocrat also retired to this province. He was not on the run, but in search of God. His name was Grigol and he belonged to the princely family of Iberia i.e. Western Georgia. Tao-Klarjeti was the only region of the country not controlled by the Arabs, so Christians could freely practice their faith. Grigol therefore founded a monastery in the Khandzta valley, which became the cradle of the rebirth of Christian spirituality in Georgia. The monks enjoyed the support of the Georgian kings, and the province soon became populated with monasteries. As the kingdom expanded ever more eastward, the monasteries of St. Gregory of Khandzta followed to re-Christianize the new conquests.

The period between the foundation in Khandzta and the dispersal of the monks around 1000 was thus one of massive monastery construction in Tao-Klarjeti. Just like the Georgian kingdom and Georgian Christianity, Georgian church architecture also had to be created almost from scratch after the loss of the country and its traditions. Intensive architectural experimentation took place in the province. The intellectual capital was provided by the monasteries, and the financial by the kings. And the architects – monks and civilians – incorporated many international trends and elements into their churches, from Byzantines to Armenians and from Syriacs to Latins. They experimented with various structural solutions and created not only Georgian fresco painting, but also figural sculpture, unknown in Byzantium, with mounted warriors, guardian angels and lions. By the time the Georgian kings and monks were ready to recapture the Georgian principalities, the standards of Georgian architecture had also crystallized in Tao-Klarjeti, to be transplanted to the whole of unified Georgia.

In the 16th century, Tao-Klarjeti was occupied by the Ottoman Empire, and in the 19th century it was retaken by the Russians, the new masters of Georgia, together with the whole of Eastern Georgia. Finally, in 1918, the Bolsheviks let it go. At that time, the countries of the Caucasus enjoyed independence for a short time, and it was not in the interests of the Bolsheviks to shed blood for them, so they renounced the Tsar’s conquests in the peace treaty concluded with Turkey. The Georgian Tao-Klarjeti and Armenian Kars provinces, together with the holiest places of the Georgians and Armenians – the earliest Georgian monasteries, Ararat, and the old Armenian capital of Ani – fell into Turkish hands again, and remain so today. The Armenians were driven out or killed, but the Georgians, who in the previous centuries of Ottoman rule had converted to Islam, could remain. Today, no Christians live here, and the former magnificent church buildings are slowly decaying.

Since I have been visiting Georgia, I have always wanted to go to Tao-Klarjeti, to see the cradle of medieval Georgia, and the models of Georgian churches. While I can. And while I can still get there. We are living in times where countries are closing down one after the other. You have to go there while you can. So, only three weeks after I came home from northern Mesopotamia, I am already in Turkey again, in the valleys of the Caucasus on the Turkish side, at the headwaters of the Chorokhi, the Mtkvari and the Araxes.

The road to Tao-Klarjeti traditionally leads from Erzurum, the easternmost big city of the Ottoman Empire. The Persian traders went up from here, as well as the puntive expeditions of the Mongols or Timur. The city was founded by the Byzantines under the name Theodosiopolis on the Silk Road coming from Tabriz, and it was only later renamed by the Arabs to Arḍ ar-Rūm, the land of Rome, because this was how Byzantium, the heir to the Roman Empire, called itself, of which the eastern extreme began here. From here, the “Georgian silk road”, called the Kartli road, branched off to the north, following the valleys of the Tortum, Chorokhi, and then Mtkvari rivers across the Lesser Caucasus to Akhaltsikhe, and thence to Tbilisi and then to Kakheti. We follow this road to the present-day Georgian border.

Erzurum was occupied by the Seljuk Turks in 1071, making it one of the first examples of Seljuk architecture. Nevertheless, the skyline of the old town is marked by the characteristic octagonal Armenian towers. No wonder, since the architects of the nomadic Seljuks, and also the later Ottomans, were local Armenians (or Greeks); as was the greatest Ottoman architect, Mimar Sinan. Even in the 16th century, Erzurum was called “the capital of Armenia”, and the local architects obviously designed the church, the mosque and the türbe in the same style, as it pleased the customer.

In Erzurum, the most typical monuments of this architecture are the ubiquitous türbes, the tombs of the Seljuk elite, which are nothing more than Armenian church towers cut off at their necks and placed on the ground. Three of them, the “Üç Kümbetler”, that is, the Three Türbes stand close to each other outside the southeastern city wall, the most decorated being the tomb of the Seljuk emir Ebuʿl Kasım Saltuk, who conquered Erzurum and founded the Saltukid dynasty. Originally, bas-reliefs of the Seljuk totem animals were also visible on it in the manner of Armenian architectural sculpture which was flourishing at that time, but the pious posterity removed these for the sake of the purity of the faith.

A more complex stylistic adaptation is the Yakutiye madrasah on the city’s main square, built in 1310 by the Mongol governor of the city on behalf of the earlier mentioned grand khan Öljeitü. An octagonal Armenian tower rises at the back of the theological school, but even more important is the central square that organizes the building, with it stalactite-vaulted skylight window standing on four pillars. This spatial structure imitates the tipical vestibule of Armenian churches, the gavit. Well then, the dear customer needs a large space that is somewhat sacred, but rather profane, and that only has window at the top, because it is all encircled with classrooms? We have one in stock, it’s called gavit, just bring it out, Narek. So well, we put it there, revamp it nicely, connect the study rooms, we put a carved gate on the front and a tiled tower, as you used to do in Persia, and at the end add a domed tower gratis, as if it were our church, so that it does not forget where it came from. Eight hundred dirhams, just for you, but don’t pay using the ones with the trimmed edges.

The gate is almost an independent work of art, as is customary in Persian Ilkhanid mosques. Its two narrower sides display one of the most beautiful versions of a motif that is ultimately of Persian origin, but whose best-known example can be found in King Roger II’s Norman palace in Palermo: two lions facing each other under a palm tree, a symbol of power and domination.

Silk fabric from Zandana near Bukhara (9th century)

A 12th-13th-century Arabic carving from the Museum of Athens

A  mosaic in Palermo’s Palazzo dei Normanni, the work of Sicilian Arabic masters, 1132-1143

The Armenian churches were destroyed long ago in and around Erzurum, not to mention the Armenians themselves. But all this that they built for others testifies to their once prominent presence and the greatness of their civilization.

Erzurum, the square under the castle. In the middle is the Ulu Camii great mosque, to the right of it and behind it are some Seljuk türbes. The two columns to the left are the emblem of the Two Minaret Madrasah.

Perhaps the oldest existing building in the city is another former theological school, the Çifte Minareli Medresesi, that is Twin Minarets Madrasah. It is not known when it was built, but the literature considers the Sivas madrasah of 1271 to follow its model, which is the terminus ante quem. And the terminus post quem is the Mongol conquest, because the structure of the building follows the typical mosques of the Persian Ilkhans, the Mongol conquerors who became Persian princes. This is the case with the double minaret decorated with glazed tiles, but even more so in that the building is organized around a large open courtyard, in each of its four axes a large two-level arch, called eiwān or iwan, with an ornate hall behind it. This element was developed in ancient Persian palaces and served as a reception or banquet hall where the king, aristocrat or rich merchant could have dinner and receive ambassadors or a caravan and estate inspectors in a quasi-private room, which was at the same time a public representational space, a stage for those in the courtyard. As a representation of dignity and power, it passed into Persian temples and later into mosques, madrasahs, and even rich merchant’s houses, where it raises the building’s rank symmetrically, on two or four sides. The four-iwan arrangement around the courtyard will become the basic type of Persian mosques, as opposed to the Ottoman type, which favors a dome raised above a square space.

The Twin Minarets is the emblem of Erzurum. The visitors to the city – don’t think of tourist buses; mostly families come here, to the mountains from other Turkish cities to escape the heat – visit this one monument, and pay their tribute to culture and the family album with a photo taken here.

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Just beyond the madrasah begins the suburb, with old men sitting in front of small Ottoman mosques and old-fashioned tea rooms. They are called kiraathane, ʻclubs’, and they are really the centers of community life. Officially set prices on the wall, a tea is ca. 8 euro cents, so that the galloping inflation does not tear communities apart. Like all visitors to the madrasah, we sit down in one of them.

Next door is a small traditional bakery, which is clearly preserved as a relic by the city planning. The baker gives us lavaş freshly taken from the oven. “You also had Attila as your king. Was he a good king?” he ponders. I think of the destroyed Aquileia, of those fleeing to the Venetian marshes, then of the rhetorician Priscus in embassy to the Hun king’s court, and finally to the unbreakable Turanian brotherhood. “A good king he was,” I nod in submission.

Erzurum may once have been a charming provincial town, but recently it is trying to become a pulsating metropolis. Moden steel and glass palaces grow out of the ground everywhere, I mean in the places of earlier buildings. The super stores and restaurants are open until late, the city is full of life until late at night, unlike in other Turkish cities. Erzurum is also a highly rated university town, with a large modern campus near the airport and lots of students, which is also reflected in the life of the city center. Therefore, the remains of the former charming provincial Erzurum are reduced to ever smaller islands. Among the modern buildings there are still clusters of old ramshackle houses and working-class neighborhoods, familiar communities, wool dried in front of multi-story buildings, horse-drawn carriages. Just like in my childhood district Kőbánya in Budapest. Even if I did not live here, the atmosphere is familiar, and my heart aches for its passing away.

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The Caferiye mosque under the castle was built in 1645. Most of the old houses around it have already been demolished. The area under the castle is being feverishly beautified, paved and landscaped. But the tea room still remains, and the old guests sit there as if nothing has changed in their world. On entering the mosque, we are struck by an even older layer of time. Children’s voices reciting in two parts: one constantly chanting the sacred text, the other following him as a counterpoint. Two small taliban, Quran students, are reading by the wall, with their master leaning forward with closed eyes, as if he is also following the text in his sleep. We sit in silence for a long time, listening to the performance. They acknowledge our presence, it inspires them, but they don’t look at us, they are immersed in their own reality. They only exit it when the text is finished. We thank them and congratulate them on how beatiful it was. The boys introduce themselves and accept the praise like adults: Amir and Ömer. The master is Murat.

The Lala Mosque on the main square must be mentioned in a Tao-Klarjeti travel description if only because its builder, the Bosnian janissary Lala Mustafa Pasha, was the Ottoman commander-in-chief in the Persian war of 1578-78, in which Tao-Klarjeti was annexed from Persia to the Ottoman empire. In 1570-71, he also led the campaign in Cyprus, where, after he captured the capital, Famagusta, he flayed the Christian commander-in-chief Marco Antonio Bragadin alive, even though he had offered the defenders a free retreat. He was the tutor of Suleiman’s son Şehzade Mehmet, and married his daughter. His embeddedness in the Sultan’s court can also be seen in the mosque in Erzurum, which follows the latest architectonic trend of the time, the style of Mimar Sinan. In fact, it is a Suleiman Mosque in miniature.

The usual clientele sits in front of the mosque, the aksakals of the mahalle (the white-bearded honorables of the neighborhood). You can hear a local joker entertaining them with occasional poems and jokes from afar. We cannot avoid him either. “Hungary? Turk and Hungarian, two brothers, let Putin stick a finger up his ass.” And upon Lloyd’s introduction, he praises the Democratic presidents, Clinton, Obama, “and what is the name of the current one?” he asks the people. “Yes, Biden.” He is a decidedly liberal stand-up comedian.

As every city in Turkey, Erzurum has many restaurants and excellent food. But it is different from elsewhere. In contrast to the recently seen northern Mesopotamia, where kebabs dominate, here you can get a variety of soups, and instead of the cigercis, liver grills that fill Diyarbakır, çorbacıs, soup houses dot the city and its surroundings. In addition to the single lentil or yellow pea soup usual in European Turkish restaurants, they also have a dozen others made from various meat and vegetables. My favorite is paça, cooked from sheep’s head and feet. A dense, collagenous, very nutritious, very healthy single dish.

Paça and lentil soup in Beyrancı Abdullah Usta, Erzurum’s best soup restaurant

Erzurum

We leave Erzurum through the Gürcükapı, that is the Georgian Gate. Once upon a time, Georgia was much closer to here than it is now, and at the time of David III the Great (966-1001) even Erzurum was part of Georgia. Our road goes uphill in a wide valley full of wildflowers, which begins to narrow after fifty kilometers. We reach the pass that separates the Erzurum Basin from Tao-Klarjeti. From now on, the rivers flow north. We continue our journey along the Tortum river, which then flows into the Chorokhi river, which flows into the Black Sea up in Georgia. Rocks with jagged contours rise on both sides. The rivers of Tao-Klarjeti cut deeply into the shale mountains. From here on, for the next week, we will travel in deep canyons. Wang Wei, who grew up in Mallorca, used to speak about the “island dweller mentality.” Do the inhabitants of Tao-Klarjeti have a canyon dweller mentality? After a week, we feel they would have.

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Along the Tortum river we soon reach the town of Tortum, which until the 19th century had a Georgian and Armenian majority. Most of the Georgians fled the violent Islamization for Christian Georgian territory, but the majority of the Armenians converted. They are the Hemshin, the Armenian-speaking Muslims.

Next to the river on a jutting rock stand the ruins of an old fortress. This is Tortumkale, the castle of Tortum, which protected the southern border of the medieval Georgian kingdom. We turn up the hill opposite so that we can take photos from a better angle, stopping next to a corn field. By the time the pictures are done, there are already two local farmers there, who kindly but carefully interrogate us why we came to their land and what is our purpose with photographing the castle. The keywords “Macaristan” and “tourist” are effective.

ხახული, Khakhuli, Haho. Ashot I, the founder of Tao-Klarjeti, died around 830. His sons Adarnase and Bagrat shared their father’s estates. Adarnase got Klarjeti, the northern province, with the princely center, the rock castle of Artanuji (Ardanuç), which we will see shortly, and Bagrat got the southern Tao, where he built a castle for himself in Bana. His son Ashot II received the title “King of the Georgians” from the Byzantine emperor in 888. Then in 961, Tao also split in two. The eastern part with Bana as its center (Amier Tao) remained for the royal branch, while in the western part (Imier Tao) the most talented member of the early Bagratids, David III the Great (966-1001) founded a new center in Oltisi (Oltu).

David’s goal was to unify Georgia, which he succeeded in achieving. He gradually recaptured Kartli. He adopted his nephew, Bagrat, the young expectant of the Georgian royal title and of Amier Tao, and crowned him king of all Georgia in Kartli in 975 (although Bagrat’s natural father, Gurgen, the holder of the royal title, did not die until 1008, so the kingdom of Bagrat III and the birth of the united Georgia is counted from that year). At the same time, he persuaded the old and blind Abkhaz King Theodosius III, the brother of Bagrat’s Abkhaz princess mother, to abdicate in favor of his nephew. In 976, as we saw in the history of the Iviron monastery on Mount Athos, he provided military assistance to Emperor Basileios II against the rebel Bardas Skleros, for which the emperor gave him the lands south of Tao, including Theodosiopolis, the future city of Erzurum, for life. And David conquered many provinces from the Muslims even to the south of the new donations. As the map below shows, he “collected” all parts of the later Georgia, with the exception of the hostile Kakheti and the Muslim emirate of Tbilisi (the map does not indicate that Abkhazia and West Georgia it occupied became the property of Bagrat III).

David assigned a major role to the Georgian Church in the unification of the country. He supported the monastic movement in Khandzta, and founded four large monasteries in his Tao estates, at Khakhuli, Oshki, Otkhta and Parkhali. Arriving from Erzurum, we visit these monasteries one after the other along the Road to Kartli, in the valleys of the Tortum and Barhal rivers.

The monastery of Khakhuli was perhaps the first of the foundations, sometime around 960. It was an important intellectual center and a scriptorium. Among others, the only surviving manuscript of Giorgi Merchule’s biography of St. Gregory of Khandzta, discovered in Jerusalem in 1845, was copied here. The biography, written around 950, is an important document not only for the Georgian reform monasticism, but also for the alliance between the emerging Georgian kingdom and church. It declares the divine origins of the Georgian kingdom, and it provides an ecclesiastical definition for the country in development: “Georgia is all the vast land where the liturgy and prayers are said in Georgian, except for the Kyrie eleison, which is in Greek.” And this work suggests for the first time that the Bagration dinasty is directly descended from the Old Testament King David, which later plays a major role in the Georgian royal representation.

But the most important artifact connected to Khakhuli is the so-called Kakhuli triptych. This huge enamel icon of the Mother of God, which is approx. 1.5 × 2 meters when closed, is the handiwork of medieval Georgian masters, who were also highly regarded in Constantinople. As usual with icons, it was made in several stages between the 8th and 13th centuries. It was originally kept in the Khakhuli monastery, until Demetrios I (1125-1156) transferred it to the monastery of Gelati, founded by his father, David IV the Builder (1089-1125). It was stolen from there in 1859 by the Russian governor of Kutaisi. Many of its gold and precious stone elements were sold in Russia, and the stripped-down icon became the property of painter and art collector Mikhail Botkin. His widow donated it to the Hermitage, from where it was returned to Georgia in 1923 in very bad condition. Today it is in the Tbilisi Art Museum. A reproduction of its nearly one hundred enamel paintings was published by Guram Abramishvili in 1988. As this publication is practically inaccessible, I make public a scanned version of it.

This icon is particularly interesting for us Hungarians. My friend Laci Holler, whose letters attached to our travelogues I have published several times on this blog as cameos, has shown in a study that some of the enamel images of the icon are prototypes for or perhaps even made in the same workshop as some of the images of the Hungarian royal crown.

The enamel image of the Pantocrator (above) and of Emperor Michael Dukas (below) on the Hungarian royal crown and on the Khakhuli triptych

This reference did not escape Laci Holler’s eagle eyes either. I must quote the most important part of his commentary again, because the experience he tells about describes well the feeling I had when standing in front of the monastery, earlier known to me only from literature:

“Your photos of the church itself, outside, inside, and the carvings! have impressed me. Because until now I had the feeling that maybe there once really existed a settlement called Khakhul, where there was a significant church, but they were swallowed up by the mists of history a long time ago. And it would be a serious challenge even to locate the place of this once-existing building. But the fact that it still exists in the reality in 2022, and I can see your photos taken there a few weeks ago, made my heart skip a beat.”

The buildings of the Khakhuli monastery are now in ruins. Only its main church has survived, now used as a mosque, and a small chapel next to it. We reach the surrounding wall of the church on the roadside near Bağbaşi at noon. The entry to the churchyard is still open, but the church is closed. On the façade of the transept, there is a huge arch, decorated with segments of red and white stone in a semicircle. Below it, on the top of a double window, an eagle grasping a calf looks down on us, the symbol of the Bagration dinasty. A similar arch is on the western and eastern façades, but without statues. A low southern vestibule runs parallel to the main nave, its wall is decorated by blind arcades starting from carved capitals. Above them, large statues of three animals – probably a lion, a bull and an eagle – protrude from the façade, but all three have had their heads knocked off. The dome tower is also decorated by semicircular blind arcades with carved column capitals. The chapel has a cross in its tympanum above the entrance, and a carved window frame on its back wall. Stuck by the door and on the capitals are the stubs of candles lit by Christian pilgrims who could not enter the church.

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It is a question whether we can enter it. I ask around in the vicinity who has the key. “The haji is about to come for the noon ezan.Zuhr, the noon prayer time, is at half past one today, so we wait. Meanwhile, I am reading Vakhtang Jobadze’s monograph on the monasteries of Tao-Klarjeti, which will be our good guide along the way. The zuhr comes and passes, the muezzin’s song can be heard from the surrounding mosques, but from the Kakhuli church-mosque no God is being praised at this time. Nevertheless, we keep waiting. Soon a minibus stops in front of the church. A dozen children roll out from its seven seats, and their teacher from the driver’s seat, who enthusiastically explains the history of the church to them in Turkish. He also takes them around the building, and I hope maybe he has a key to the door. But he does not. When they are about to leave, I ask him if he knows who has the key. He takes out his smartphone and opens the prayer time application. “Asr will be at five twenty-five, then it will be definitely open.” I do not want to object that it was not even open at the zuhr. We rather decide to check out the Oshki monastery in the meantime, twenty kilometers away, and then return afterward. It is worth a try.

We in fact visit the Oshki monastery, and then we have a late lunch at a roadside restaurant, where the service is very slow, so we are a bit late. We are five kilometers from Khakhuli when the ezan is sounding. We can only hope that the haji stays to chat a bit with one of the believers and does not leave under our noses.

We arrive at the church at five forty. We enter the churchyard. The church door is open! A middle-aged man stands there and lets us in without saying a word. He just asks inside: “Were you the ones here at noon?” You cannot beat the village news chain. He was obviously waiting for us.

The church has a Latin cross floor plan with a tall nave and apse, a majestic, impressive interior, and a dome over the crossing. Despite its function as a mosque, fragments of medieval frescoes have been preserved in the apse and dome: saints and the apocalyptic cross. The wall of the apse is decorated by a series of high semicircular arches. According to Jobadze, this is a rarity in Caucasian architecture. We will see similar ones only in Ishkhan and the Ani Cathedral. When developing the prototype of the Georgian church, the Georgian masters here experimented with a Syriac solution, which we recently saw in Hah. These worlds are in different boxes only in our heads. During the period, they thought in terms of a unified Christian oikumene.

The small entrance hall that runs parallel to the main nave, is furnished as a rudimentary classroom. “How many students do you have?” I ask the haji. “Twenty”, he says proudly. “Mashallah”, I say, he is pleased.

Only when looking back, do I notice one of the most important thing: the carvings of the southern door. Clumsy, folksy figures on both sides of the entrance, partly copied from manuscripts and partly from Persian carvings, but very important, because according to Jobadze, these are the very first Georgian architectural carvings. This is where a genre is born that is completely absent from Byzantine art, and which will be perfected on the façades of the great Georgian churches. From top to bottom on the left, Alexander the Great being carried to the heavens by griffins, a griffin bird and a lion defeating a bull, on the right a prophet, a whale with Jonah in the mouth, a rooster and a lion as animals driving away evil. An apocalyptic cross carried by four angels in the tympanum, a lion hunting a deer on the left capital, and the Virgin with the Child on the wall to the right of the gate. A pictorial theophany thrown together still without grammar.

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The fact that the road to Oshki Monastery takes you along the bottoms of canyons is not even worth mentioning. In Tao-Klarjeti, characterized by sharp mountain ridges, all the roads run along the rivers, and the rivers cut deep into the mountains. In this way, one travels either at the bottom of a canyon, or on the side of a canyon, if the river has been dammed into a reservoir; or in a tunnel, if there was no longer room for a road above the reservoir.

Shortly after Khakhuli, at the confluence of the Tortum and a tributary, stands Üngüzek Castle, which Akaki Chikobava showed to be the same as the Azordi castle mentioned in the 7th-century Armenian Geography, and perhaps even the Urartu city of Zua/Zuayna. It belonged to the southern defensive fortress system of Tao-Klarjeti. The castle standing on a black basalt rock blends into the color of the red slate mountain behind it not only in the picture, but also in reality.

ოშკი, Oshki, Öşkvank. Not long after the cozy town of Uzundere, a tributary with plenty of water flows into the Tortum. We turn into its valley, which soon expands and forms a small green paradise among the barren mountains, like in a Romantic novel by Mór Jókai. The first examples of the archaic wooden architecture, characteristic of Tao-Klarjeti, appear along the road. This road leads to the village of Çamlıyamaç, in the middle of which stands the main church of Oshki Monastery, dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, founded between 963 and 973 by David III the Great and his elder brother and predecessor Bagrat II.

This church is the largest among the Tao-Klarjeti monastery churches. It has a Latin cross floor plan, with a dome above the crossing. It is currently inaccessible, surrounded by an aluminium palisade, because cracks have appeared that made it life-threatening.

Many of the façade elements that were experimented with in Khakhuli can be seen again. Such are the arches above the windows, and the colorful segments below them, which were obviously not laid out from colored stones, but painted on the blocks. The eagle grasping the calf above the window of the transept (and since the proportions of the Oshki church are higher than of Khakhuli, there was also space above it for the archangels Michael and Gabriel). The blind arcades decorating the wall surfaces, which from then on become a permanent decorative element in Georgian architecture. And two Persian fairy-tale animals also climbed from the southern gate of Khakhuli onto the western twin windows of Oshki: the lion defeating the bull and the winged griffin, doubled, and accompanied by another Persian miracle animal, the simurgh. On the façade of the transept, under the blind arcade to the right, we also see the lion mauling a deer, also doubled for the sake of symmetry. According to Jobadze, such animal fighting scenes in Georgian churches represent the battle of cosmic forces in the same way as their predecessors in Persian art. Above this carving is a hunting scene, which is also adopted in later Georgian churches. In the middle of the scene, two deer are grazing on a tree of life, which is also a Persian motif. A version of this is the palm tree with the two lions seen at the Yakutiye madrasah in Erzurum.

Above the frame of the window of the main apse is a projecting lion statue, as in Khakhuli, also decapitated. The two side windows of the apse also have carved eyebrows. On the left is a sun disc and Solomon’s seal, which, as we have seen earlier, are the insignia of rulers in the Caucasus and among the Kurds. Above them, the inscription actually celebrates the two rulers, Bagrat and David, as the founders of the church. On the right one are two lions facing each other.

Bagrat and David appear in person on the façade of the church, on the south side of the apse. Here originally stoood a relief of a Deesis group, i.e. Christ with the Virgin Mary on his right and St. John the Baptist on his left, who offered the two donors, Bagrat and David, standing at the two ends of the group, to the patronage of Christ, as the founding inscription on the southern entrance tympanum says:

“Jesus Christ, through the intercession of the holy Mother of God, the holy Saint John the Baptist, the holy Life-giving Tree and all the saints, exalt our kings before you, the builders of this church, Bagrat, the Prince of Princes, and Magister David.”

In 1973, when Jobadze recorded this caption, the figures of Christ and the Virgin Mary were still visible on the façade. Today, these two boards have disappeared. I can only hope that they exist somewhere, but unfortunately I know too many examples of the opposite.

This group is the first known example of a Deesis accompanied by donors. Since the text does not ask for prayers for the founders, they were still alive at the time of its creation. This is also indicated by their square halo. Their dress is typical Byzantine, with Sassanid bird motifs on David to the left.

On the inner side of the main window of the apse, the outline of a figure with a halo attests that the apse is decorated with frescoes. Unfortunately, there was no way to slip in to photograph them. By the way, the frescoes explain an architectural peculiarity that appeared here in Oshki, and later became a common feature of many Georgian churches. On the outer, straight wall of the apses with a semicircular floor plan, two recessed niches with a triangular floor plan cling to the semicircle. One purpose of this is to save on stone material, but the other, more important, is that side windows can also be opened in the apse, which better illuminate the inner wall, mostly decorated with frescoes.

In Oshki, too, a lower vestibule was added to the south side of the main nave. The south vestibule has independent liturgical functions in Georgian churches. Often – as in Khakhuli – it is later built to the church, but in Oshki it may have been built at the same time. This is proven by a relief on its western façade, which is similar to the other reliefs: a lone angel standing guard over the destruction as if it were the angel of Paul Klee and Walter Benjamin:

“His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment so fair, to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed.” (Walter Benjamin: Angelus Novus)

The monastery was connected to the church from the north. Shanty cottages have been wedged in among its vast ruins, and its block stones have been used to build the surrounding houses. There is even a small tombstone here: the tomb of the local shepherd and famous folk singer Âşık Ümmani Çan (1919-1983), after whom the street of the monastery was named. The new people of the village tried to honor the former great spirits of the monastery with their greatest intellectual figure.

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Shortly after Oshki, the Tortum river widens into a reservoir. This is the first in a series of large reservoirs in Tao-Klarjeti, which accompany the Tortum and then the Chorokhi/Çoruh rivers in a string of more than a hundred kilometers from here to Artvin and beyond. As the old road mostly ran down at the river’s edge, with the rise of the water level new roads had to be built. These run almost all the way through tunnels, only occasionally allowing a view of the water of the reservoirs and the surrounding lunar mountains. Almost a hundred kilometers of tunnels from Lake Tortum to Artvin, with a complicated system of roads forking off towards Yusufeli. The tunnels have a speed limit of 50 kmh and a double line painted in the middle of the road, with no acceleration lane or possibility to overtake for a hundred kilometers. This unrealistic regulation naturally leads to civil disobedience. On the otherwise excellent road, everyone roars as fast as he wants, and nonchalantly overtakes in the tunnel. After a while, we also adapt to this habit. I also drove against traffic on a highway for the first time in Turkey, where this was the local custom.

At Lake Tortum, where the old road exceptionally wound along the mountaintop, it is still possible to go this way instead of the tunnel. We choose to do so to look out over the lake. And we have chosen well. A fantastic view opens up from a lookout point built for picnickers.

The new highway is still under construction. We experience how difficult and slow the road would be without it when, emerging from the tunnel a few kilometers before Yusufeli, the highway suddenly ends, and we are led down to the old road, which meanders through small villages and descends to the town in the valley. Built at the junction of the Çoruh and Barhal rivers and of several roads, the otherwise jovial small town is now one big construction site, with lots of demolition, temporary concrete mixing plants, trucks, terrible dust, and, what is the most apocalyptic sight, a row of concrete pillars of a future valley bridge rising high above the town. No photo can convey the chilling feeling created by these concrete colossuses rising to a hundred meters aboves the houses of the provincial town. I won’t leave it without photos, though. I also include a map of the current state here, because this will obviously change over time.

It is not known how the inhabitants of the small town will feel when the cars slip from one mountain to the next in the sky above them. But maybe they won’t experience it at all. In fact, there are plans to build a dam on the Çoruh river just below Yusufeli, and if this is realized, the entire settlement, which has been inhabited for three thousand years, will be under water.

From Yusufeli, we should continue to the other two monasteries founded by David III. But the map also marks a church here, on the southern edge of the city, at the confluence of the Çoruh and Barhal rivers. This is so rare that we must see it.

The church stands in the bend of the Çoruh river. A high mountain rises to the south, which makes the bend practically an island. The river is crossed by a single bridge from the southern industrial district of the city, a rope bridge-like thing that we only dare to cross on foot. On the other side it turns out that the locals also cross it by car. In fact, there is a small makeshift settlement on the island, perhaps the dilapidated version of an older, decent quarter, with an amazing fifty shades of misery. We have to scramble through it to get to the little church, which, wonder of wonders, really stands there on a rock at the tip of the island, roofless, with openings and vestment looted, but still reminding us of a different kind of history.

As far as can be mined from the internet, the church belonged to the former Christian village of Akhalti (Georgian: “new”), before it was absorbed by present-day Yusufeli. Judging by its masonry, it may be from the 10th century. Small traces of frescoes can still be seen in its sanctuary.

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We get more reminders of this different kind of history by the presence of a few other similar churches around the city, which are not marked on the map, and can only be found by chance. Along the road leading to the Otkhta monastery stands the rock fortress of Tekkale, with a similar small church ruin on top of the rock. And a similar ruined church can be seen from here on the other side of the river, at the foot of the mountain (around the middle of the picture below).

To be continued