Ongoing governmental disputes have left the fate of these medieval architectural wonders in limbo.
A lost kingdom
A rugged, remote area where unforgiving rocky crags give way to green oases, north-east Turkey is home to magnificent Georgian monasteries from the medieval principality of Tao-Klarjeti, a former feudal state ruled by the Bagrationi royal family. Tao-Klarjeti was once a part of the United Kingdom of Georgia that thrived during the 12th and 13th Centuries. However, repeated incursions by the Turco-Mongol conqueror Timur in the late 14th Century led to the demise of the kingdom, and in the mid-16th Century, Tao-Klarjeti came under Ottoman rule, which lead to it becoming a part of modern-day Turkey.
During the kingdom’s golden age, Tao-Klarjeti was the centre of monastic life governed by the Georgian Orthodox Church. Today, striking remnants of the principality’s spiritual influence remain tucked in tiny Turkish villages among the visually arresting Kaçkar Mountains near the Turkey-Georgia border.
A crumbling church
Oshki Monastery in Erzurum Province is one of region’s grandest Georgian Orthodox sites. Built between 963 and 973 AD during the reign of Georgian prince Bagratid David III Kuropalates, the expansive, cruciform-shaped monastery is now mostly roofless, yet the open sky emphasizes the splendour of the soaring central dome. The southern facade, which serves as the church’s main entrance, is decorated with various motifs rendered in bas-relief sculpture, such as an archer hunting sheep, an eagle with an animal in its mouth and leaders presenting their churches to God.
A state of limbo
The monastery’s decrepitude is not all romantic. Many of the church decorations have been stolen over the years, a large crack on the western wall threatens the structural integrity and makeshift homes have been built right up against its exterior. Disagreements between the Turkish and Georgian governments on how to proceed with restorations have left the monastery in a state of neglectful limbo, and the majesty of Oshki is left open to the elements, crumbling slowly.
A fate worse than neglect
First mentioned in a Georgian manuscript from 951 AD, Işhan Church near the village of Arpacık has suffered a fate worse than neglect: a haphazard restoration. The sandblasted stone exterior belies the building’s age, while the large, smooth, square-cut stones – some a glowing white and others a perky pink – look more modern than medieval. Crowned with a brand new, yet uneven, red-tiled roof and bordering a carelessly excavated archaeological site, the church reveals the slipshod approach to preservation that is so prevalent in this region.
Receding into the hills
An uneven dirt road climbs up to the Dörtkilise church from the town of Yusufeli, running parallel to a small river lined with newly constructed concrete water channels, one example of infrastructure improvements taking place throughout the area. This striking church is part of a larger monastery complex ringed by gardens and grazing grounds. In contrast to the previously mentioned domed Oshki and Işhan churches, Dörtkilise is capped with a tall, steep roof covered in tufted grasses and recedes into the forested hillside.
Hints of former glory
According to a Georgian manuscript dated 1031, the Dörtkilise church and monastery were founded by Bagrationi clerics, who were instrumental in the spread of Georgian Orthodox beliefs throughout Tao-Klarjeti. The basilica’s soaring central nave, illuminated by large arched windows and flanked by two aisles, hints at its former glory.
Likewise, the faded frescoes in the apse of Dörtkilise speak to the church’s past grandeur. The images of the Orthodox Christian saints have faded over time and the white walls beneath them are desecrated by graffiti. Meanwhile, the slanted floor littered with debris lends credence to the claim that the church has most recently been used as a barn.
An uncertain fate
Despite the dilapidated condition of these churches, it’s still possible to admire the excellence of medieval architecture and craftsmanship. But with no cohesive preservation plan in place, the fate of these architectural wonders remains uncertain.