Turkey’s far northeast was once under the command of the Georgian kingdom, and despite centuries of Ottoman rule, evidence of this historical legacy remains tangible – ruined castles and churches abound, dotting a valley-chiselled landscape more redolent of modern Georgia than “regular” Turkey. The years of Georgian rule are also reflected in some place names, most commonly in the form of the common prefix “Ar-” (as in Ardahan, Artvin, Ardanuç and so forth), equivalent to “-ville” or to “-burg”.
Erzurum is the area’s largest urban base, and the most common gateway for the few intrepid travellers that choose to pop by. To the north lie the southern valleys, the highlights of which are the churches of Haho and Öşk Vank. Those without their own transport will find it easier to tour the western valleys: the area’s main town, Yusufeli, has reasonable transport links and accommodation options, and also provides a good base from which to organize a tour of the Kaçkar Dağları, one of Turkey’s most stunning mountain ranges. Artvin is the best base for those touring the churches and castles of the northern valleys, or continuing on to Georgia proper; it’s also possible to hit the border from Ardahan, the main base of the eastern valleys.
You’ll need your own vehicle, or a lot of time for walking and hitching, to visit most of the sights. Bus services, where they exist, usually arrive near the sights in the afternoon and depart for the nearest town in the morning – exactly the opposite of tourist schedules. Some of the roads are bad, but if you can assemble a group and find a willing taxi driver, this can end up being far cheaper than renting a vehicle in Erzurum or Trabzon. Even with a car or taxi, at least three days will be required to see all of the monuments detailed here.Read More
- The southern Georgian valleys
- The western Georgian valleys
The Kaçkar Daglari
The Kaçkar Daglari
A formidable barrier between the northeastern Anatolian plateau and the Black Sea, the Kaçkar Dağları are the high end of the Pontic coastal ranges – and Turkey’s most rewarding and popular trekking area. Occupying a rough rectangle some 70km by 20km, the Kaçkars extend from the Rize–İspir road to the Hopa–Artvin highway, with the more abrupt southeast flank lapped by the Çoruh River, and the gentler northwest folds dropping more gradually to misty foothills. At 3932m, their summit ranks only fourth highest in Turkey after Ararat, Gelyaşin peak in the Cilo mountains and Süphan Dağı, but in scenic and human interest they fully earn their aliases “the Little Caucasus” and “the Pontic Alps”.
In addition to the principal summit area, several other major massifs are recognized: the Altıparmak and Marsis groups of about 3300m, at the north end of the Bulut ridge, which links them with Point 3932; and the adjacent Tatos and Verçenik systems of about 3700m, at the extreme southwest of the chain.
Partly because of intensive human habitation, the high Kaçkars support relatively few large mammals; bear and boar prefer the forested mid-altitude zones, while wolves and ibex are ruthlessly hunted in the treeless heights. Birds of prey and snow cocks are more easily seen and heard, while the summer months witness an explosion of wildflowers, butterflies – and vicious deer flies.
- The northern Georgian valleys
Georgians have lived in the valleys of the Çoruh, Tortum, Kura and Berta rivers, now in Turkey, since the Bronze Age. Like the neighbouring Armenians, they were among the first Near Eastern nations to be evangelized, and were converted rapidly to Christianity by St Nino of Cappadocia in the mid-fourth century. Unlike the Armenians, they never broke with the Orthodox Patriarchate in Constantinople, and maintained good relations with Byzantium.
The Georgian kingdoms
An effective Georgian state only entered the local stage early in the ninth century, under the auspices of the Bagratid dynasty. This clan contributed rulers to both the Georgian and Armenian lines, and hence the medieval history of both kingdoms overlapped to some extent. They claimed direct descent from David and Bathsheba, which explains a preponderance of kings named David, a coat of arms laden with Old Testament symbols and curiously Judaic stars of David embossed on many of the churches they built.
Ashot I Kuropalates began the first stages of territorial expansion and church-building in the area, under the guidance of the monk Gregory Khantzeli. Ashot’s descendants included David Magistros (“the Great”) of Oltu and Bagrat III, who in 1008 succeeded in unifying the various Georgian principalities into one kingdom with a capital at Kutaisi. A decade or so later the Byzantines compelled Bagrat’s successor, Georgi I, to evacuate Tao and Klarjeti, making it an easy matter for the Selçuks to step in during 1064. They ravaged Georgia and all of eastern Anatolia, but as soon as they turned to confront the Crusaders a Bagratid revival began. David the Restorer not only managed by 1125 to expel the Selçuks, but moved the Bagratid court to newly captured Tblisi, and reunited the various feuding principalities ruled by minor Bagratid warlords.
Under the rule of David’s great-granddaughter Tamara, medieval Georgia acquired its greatest extent and prestige, controlling most of modern Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan from the Black Sea to the Caspian, as well as the ancestral Georgian valleys. The queen was not only a formidable military strategist and shrewd diplomat, but displayed a humanity and tolerance unusual for the era. Many churches and monasteries were repaired or re-endowed by Tamara, and despite being a woman and a non-Muslim, her name still elicits respectful compliments from local Turks.
Following Tamara’s death the Georgian kingdom began a slow but steady decline, effectively partitioned between the Ottoman and Persian empires. The rise of imperial Russia signalled the end of any viable Georgian state, and the last semi-independent king effectively surrendered to Catherine the Great in 1783.
The Bagratids were a prolific bunch, and they erected castles on just about every height; generally a passing glance is what you’ll have to be satisfied with, since access to many of these eyries has long been impossible except for technical climbers. The most remarkable examples are the early Bagratid monastic churches, all dating from before the move northeast to the Caucasus proper, and most sited amid oases at the heads of remote valleys. The Georgians borrowed many of the architectural features of Armenian churches and it takes a trained eye to distinguish the two styles, though in general the Georgians rarely attempted the rotundas or multi-lobed domed squares beloved of the Armenians.
There’s not been nearly the degree of official stonewalling about Georgian Christians as there is concerning Armenians, and the churches have become recognized as tourist attractions. Almost all have suffered some damage from dynamite- and pickaxe-wielding treasure-hunters: the locals have an unshakeable conviction that all of the Christians who left the area in 1923 secreted precious items in or under their churches in the mistaken belief that they’d eventually be able to return.