Robert Ousterhout is agog at the remarkable Georgian churches of the Tao-Klarjeti, the two medieval Georgian principalities between Kars and the Kaçkars
The Tao-Klarjeti is named after the two most important medieval Georgian principalities, bounded by the Pontic Mountains (the Kaçkars) to the west, by the Erzurum plain to the south and by the plain of Kars to the east. Tao had a centre at Tortum, Klarjeti at Ardanuç.
For reasons unexplained, the medieval Georgians preferred their monasteries in high, rugged, out-of-the-way places, which may be why they get so few tourists today. Most visitors – foreign and Turkish – come for trekking or kayaking and have no idea what they’re missing. “Blessed Grigor suffered many hardships transporting building materials to the monastery,” our Georgian travelling companion, Nino, elucidated. We believed her. Just getting there seemed hard enough…
Georgian medieval history is nothing if not confusing, with boundaries and political allegiances changing on an almost daily basis. Through it all, the unifying force in Georgian culture was the church, which grew wealthy, I suspect, by default. Thus, although the mountaintops of the Tao-Klarjeti are punctuated with fortresses and castles, the most memorable remains are the churches, which are as breathtaking as the landscape. Many are royal or aristocratic foundations; some did double duty as cathedrals and mausolea; most are difficult of access, but all of them are eye-opening, mind-boggling and definitely worth the trip. The common denominators are tall proportions, exquisite ashlar construction, innovative vaulting and exceptional decoration in relief sculpture and fresco. Trust me – after the Tao-Klarjeti, Seljuk architecture will never look the same again.
Nor will European medieval architecture. The Tao-Klarjeti churches seem more Romanesque than Byzantine, but they predate their French counterparts by at least a century…
To see the monuments, it is possible to visit the major sites from a base in Yusufeli, but you will need a good car and (most important) a stalwart driver. Porta was the only place where a four-wheel-drive vehicle or reverse driving seemed necessary, but the roads can be challenging and the views distracting. For a long weekend, I’d recommend the churches listed on the right.
Notes follow on Öşk Vank/Oshki, İşhan/Ishkani, Haho/Khakuli, Dört Kilise, Çevizli/Tibeti.
Norman Stone unravels the history of Kars
Unlocking the door to the private world of Feyhaman and Güzin Duran, by Maureen Freely
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High in the apparently empty Kaçkars, the way of life is as old as the hills. Michael Hornsby joins in the fun at a village festival in remote summer pastures. Photographs by Giulio Rubino