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Turkey's Forgotten Georgian Churches

Georgian churches in the eastern provinces of Turkey, although particularly fine, are under threat from neglect and lack of understanding

Originally published in AR April 1992, this piece was republished online in February 2012

Georgia was one of the first Christian states and, through its long and troublous history, it produced churches of great distinction and originality which were, like those of Armenia, inspirational in the evolution of Gothic. Georgia’s boundaries have moved many times over the centuries, with the result that major churches are to be found in neighbouring countries. Those in the eastern provinces of Turkey are particularly fine but are now under threat from neglect and lack of understanding.

While civil strife in Georgia has recently pushed the former Soviet republic into the newspaper headlines, part of medieval Georgia’s architectural heritage lies abandoned and forgotten, scattered among the wild and beautiful side valleys of the Çoruh, Oltu and Tortum rivers in north-east Turkey. Remote and isolated, they receive few visitors today and have the dubious distinction of being one of the world’s most neglected groups of ecclesiastical buildings. Yet they play a significant role in architectural history.

As Orthodox Christians, the medieval Georgians had greater contacts with Byzantium than their better-known neighbours, and sometime foes, the Armenians. Their churches influenced mid-Byzantine architecture and were a factor in the evolution of the Romanesque style in Europe.

In theory, the remaining churches are protected buildings under Turkey’s laws on ancient monuments but there is no conservation programme to ensure their continued survival. Ironically, it is only the promotion of tourism, for all its mixed blessings, that could help to save some of these fine buildings.

During the Middle Ages, the north-east corner of Turkey, then part of the kingdom of Georgia, was a land of shifting frontiers, an embattled border area over which many peoples fought. The Russians came from the north; Arabs and Sassanids of Persia from the south; Romans, Byzantines and Ottomans from the west; Seljuks and Mongols from the east. Yet despite these almost ceaseless struggles for control of the region, Georgia survived as a recognisable kingdom for more than a thousand years. At its height, it stretched 400 miles from the Black Sea to the Caspian. It was bounded to the south by the Aras River and to the north by the great Caucasian chain. The last king of Georgia died in 1798.

Georgia became Christian in the fourth century, 50 years after the neighbouring kingdom of Armenia, and subsequently recognised the Patriarch of Byzantium. During the seventh and eighth centuries, the original Georgia, with its capital at Tiflis, was devastated by successive Arab invasions from the south and east. Tiflis was abandoned and a new Georgia, with its capital at present-day Ardanuç; in Turkey, was established, based on the provinces of Tao, Klarjeti and Shavsheti. Under the Bagratid dynasty, which now took firm control of the upper Çoruh valley, Georgian power revived during the ninth century and the new kings embarked on a notable period of church building, each prince intent on raising memorials to his reign.

By the eleventh century Georgia was weakened again. First, by Byzantium which now feared the Bagratids’ growing power and, second, by the advance of the Seljuk Turks. But defeat did not last long and under David II, ‘the Builder’, Georgian armies recaptured Tiflis in 1122, heralding a second political and cultural renascence. Georgia lived in relative peace for another hundred years and reached its zenith under Queen Thamar (1184-1212) before being ravaged again by the Mongols in the thirteenth century.

By this time the Georgians’ internal cohesion was also weakening. When Marco Polo visited the area in the late thirteenth century he noted that ‘they are losing their Christianity for lack of preachers.’ Their final defeat came in the 1540s at the hands of the Ottoman Turks, although Georgia remained a Christian principality until the seventeenth century. Russia and Turkey continued to fight for regional supremacy during the nineteenth century until today’s border (which incorporates the old Georgian provinces of Tao and Klarjeti within Turkey) was decided at the Brest-Litovsk Treaty in 1921.

Only a handful of the 80-odd Tao-Klarjeti churches have survived. There were three principal types. One of the earliest Tao churches, a large seventh-century church at Bana, destroyed except for one apse during the nineteenth-century Turco-Russian wars, was based on a quatrefoil plan within a circular wall. An early form, this centralised plan was later dropped in favour of a basilica or, more usually, a cruciform combining the two simpler forms. Dörtkilese, now used for husbandry, is a picturesque example of the former; Ishan, Ösk Vank and Haho are fine edifices of the more complex cruciform type combining a basilica and centralised dome, with a choir, nave and transepts.

It is this last cross-axial form which perhaps best illustrates the contrast found in all Georgian architecture between an apparently simple exterior and a complex interior. At Ösk Yank, for instance, the outside of the church gives the impression of a straightforward cruciform church with transepts and a central dome. Yet within, each transept is composed of a triple conch with a central apse flanked by two subsidiary recesses. Externally the divisions between the apses are indicated by two triangular niches bordered by blind arches.

The principal facades and the distinct drums of the Tao-Klarjeti churches are commonly faced in a delicately hued yellow stone, much of which is in remarkably good condition. The villagers at Haho say that the colour was obtained by soaking the stone in milk. Other characteristics include blind arches, scalloped niches, finely chiselled window surrounds and ornate sculptures of animals and saints. A striking eagle clutching a doe in its talons is a recurring feature which has led to the speculation that it could have been a sort of heraldic emblem of the Bagratids. According to a mythical story related by Marco Polo ‘all the kings of this province were born with the sign of an eagle on their right shoulder.’

Similar sculptural themes adorn the walls of Ösk Vank and Haho including archers and a lion attacking a stag. In the churches badly decayed frescoes, as well as the external sculptures, frequently portray a saint carrying a model of a Georgian church as an offering to Christ. At Ösk Vank two such saints, whose heads have been hacked off, wear richly decorated robes like those which would have been worn in the court of the Byzantine emperors. This enhancement of Georgian architecture with relief carving, often grouped around the southern entrance, is believed to be an early stage in the elaborate decoration of main portals which featured in the development of Romanesque and Gothic architecture in Europe.

In addition to the surviving sculptures, some of the extant churches contain traces of mural paintings which have only recently been studied. Relatively sophisticated in form, they follow the medieval traditions of eastern Christendom but use a strictly limited palette. Typically, biblical scenes including Christ and the Apostles, the Virgin Mary, the Incarnation and the Redemption, are composed within horizontal registers. They have stylistic traits in common with the better-known and richer paintings found in the rock-hewn churches of Cappadocia in central Turkey, frescoes which are slowly benefiting from a major conservation effort launched by UNESCO and the Turkish government.

The poor condition of the frescoes reflects radical political changes. In the centuries following the inclusion of Tao and Klarjeti within the expanding Ottoman empire, the churches were gradually abandoned as the area became dechristianised. Many fell into ruin or were plundered for their stone; others were damaged by earthquakes, by treasure hunters or continuing regional conflict. Yet, in more recent decades, the survivors have suffered further harm. The dome of Opiza, one of the oldest monasteries in Klarjeti, was pulled down in the 1960s. More seriously, the fine centralised church at Ekek, near Tortum, was dynamited so that the stone could be used to build a new mosque in memory of a local shopkeeper. In others, windows and doors have been filled with cement and rubble, walls have been blackened by fire.

Turkey's forgotten Georgian churches

In several cases the conversion of churches to use as mosques has helped to conserve the building’s basic structure, but once converted, the faded frescoes have invariably been covered with whitewash. The roof of the Parhal basilica has been covered with a thick layer of concrete in an unsuccessful attempt to keep the rain out. Water that seeps into the basilica is kept off the kilims by corrugated iron sheets attached to makeshift scaffolding.

One of the best preserved churches is at Haho, now Baglar Basi, and also faces an uncertain future. Honouring a 70 year old agreement, the villagers have maintained the building in reasonable condition although the basilica roof tiles have been replaced with corrugated iron. Unsightly as it is, the sheeting was all the villagers could afford to keep the building open as a mosque. A new mosque is currently under construction and, once abandoned, Haho could go the way of its neighbouring churches and fall into disrepair.

The only hope for the Georgian churches is for them to be recognised as a tourist asset in a beautiful region of deep gorges and spectacular mountain scenery. Following recent political rapprochement between Turkey and the former Soviet Union, the Sarp border gate on the Black Sea, for decades a closed frontier, has been opened allowing Georgians and other ex-Soviets to visit the region. Improved roads, though often unmetalled, have eased accessibility and a few specialist tour operators have started organising trips to the area.

Combined walking and church study holidays could be promoted to include those churches, such as Dortkilese, which are several hours from the nearest road. To date, the few studies published about the churches have been of an academic nature. A condition survey is urgently required and priorities for conservation need to be assessed before time runs out for Turkey’s forgotten Georgian churches.

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