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Gorgeous Georgian

The churches of Tao-Klarjeti

Robert Ousterhout is agog at the remarkable Georgian churches of the Tao-Klarjeti, the two medieval Georgian principalities between Kars and the Kaçkars

  • Öşk Vank's dramatic southwest portico (photo: Robert Ousterhout)

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.

To read the full article, purchase Issue 42

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Issue 42, 2009 Adventures in Anatolia
£8.00 / $10.16 / €9.34
Other Highlights from Cornucopia 42
  • Portrait of the Artists

    Unlocking the door to the private world of Feyhaman and Güzin Duran, by Maureen Freely

  • The Flutterby Ball

    The Kaçkar Mountains are heaven for butterflies, as the butterfly book author and photographer Ahmet Baytaş, economist by trade, ecologist by nature, discovered when he returned to Yaylalar, the village of his birth

  • Mother of the Uighurs

    The Turkic Uighurs of Western China have long chafed under Communist Chinese rule. Christian Tyler meets their formidable figurehead, Rebiya Kadeer, who spent five years in prison for protesting against her people’s treatment and now carries on her fight for their freedom from Washington

  • Water Over the Bridge

    For the English-speaking community of Istanbul the suggestion of aqueduct-hunting in Thrace strikes fear into the hearts of all but the foolhardy. Relentlessly cheerful, Prof James Crow of Edinburgh University would laugh off each misadventure and forge onward.

  • Heat and Dust

    Leo Gough grew up in the hothouse atmosphere of Cold War Ankara, where his father was director of the British Institute of Archaeology. He recalls tales of derring-do from the larger-than-life visitors and scholars who passed through the institute’s doors

  • Four Walks in the Kaçkars

    Kate Clow, pioneering waymarker and author of two walking guides to the Taurus Mountains, has now created a guide to trekking in the Kaçkars. Here she describes four breathtaking one-day walks.

  • A Day on Black Rock Pasture

    By whatever name it is known – whether Karataş Yayla (Black Rock Pasture) or ÇaGrankaya (Singing Rock) – this spur of the Kaçkars is full of drama. Andrew Byfield battled rain and fog to reach its riches

  • First Impressions

    The work of Feyhaman Duran and his contemporaries, once dismissed as unfashionably figurative, is now attracting renewed interest. A recent exhibition at the Sakıp Sabancı Museum in Istanbul celebrated their work. Berrin Torolsan selects some of her favourites

  • Wrestling with Life in the Mountains

    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

  • A Cold, Harsh Reality

    Norman Stone unravels the history of Kars

Buy the issue
Issue 42, 2009 Adventures in Anatolia
£8.00 / $10.16 / 327.72 TL
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