Between Erzurum and Yusufeli, a series of stupendously attractive valleys marks the southern extent of medieval Georgia. The most atmospheric approach is from Erzurum – about 70km out, you’ll spy a pair of castles crumbling away atop dramatic pinnacles, announcing the southern frontier of ancient Georgia more effectively than any signpost ever could. Pressing on, you’ll find some superlative ruins – the churches of Haho, Öşk Vank and İşhan are simply gorgeous, though access is tricky without your own transport.
There are no real travellers’ bases in this area; most visit the sights en route between Erzurum and Yusufeli. However, simple accommodation near Haho and right next to İşhan makes it tempting to stay the night in such rarified surroundings.
The tenth-century church of Haho owes its excellent state of repair to its continual use as a mosque since the eighteenth century. Entry is only possible on Friday around prayer time, or by tracking down the key-keeper in the village. Most of the monastery complex – the boundary wall and gate, and three satellite chapels – is in good condition, the effect spoiled only by aluminium corrugated sheets on the roof, though the conical-topped dome is still covered in multicoloured tiles.
To get to Haho you’ll first need to head to Bağbaşı, a large village 8km west of Highway 950, dispersed in a fertile valley. Two minibuses a day make the trip from Erzurum’s Gölbaşı Semt Garajı out to the village – a lot of toing and froing just to see Haho. If you’re heading there with your own wheels, take the signed turn west from the highway over the Taş Köprü humpback bridge, keep left through the first large village you come to, then take another left towards İspir, a few minutes later by a modern mosque. Finally, take a right at the next, well-marked junction.
The most elaborate example of Georgian Gothic architecture in these valleys, the monastery church of Öşk Vank (Oshkhi) is well worth the trouble you may incur reaching it. A late tenth-century foundation of David Magistros, it represents the culmination of Tao Georgian culture before the Bagratid dynasty’s move northeast and the start of the Georgian “Golden Age” after 1125. The interior colonnade – with no two columns alike – exudes a European Gothic feel with its barrel-vaulted, coffered ceiling; halfway up the south transept wall, the vanished wooden floor of the mosque that once occupied the premises acted as protection for a stretch of frescoes, the best preserved in any of the Turkish Georgian churches.
The side road to Öşk Vank is prominently marked just south of Tortum Gölü, 15.4km north of the Haho turning. It’s an easy, mostly paved 7.2km straight run up to Çamlıyamaç village.
Far and away the most spectacular church in the western valley, İşhan enjoys a truly spectacular mountain setting. The road up – not recommended for vertigo sufferers – weaves a lonely course through a heavily eroded, lifeless moonscape, which makes it all the more surprising when you arrive at the church and its surrounding apple, mulberry and walnut groves. This is charming İşhan village, which despite its beauty seems to be in near-terminal decline – since the 1980s, when its one school had over 130 students, the number has dwindled to just eleven. Surprisingly, the village is served by occasional public transport, and even boasts a simple guesthouse.
The imposing church itself was originally dedicated to the Virgin, and constructed in stages between the eighth and eleventh centuries, ranking it among the oldest extant sacred Georgian architecture. The semicircular colonnade that lines the apse, with superb carved capitals, is the earliest surviving portion of the building, and was modelled consciously after the church at Bana. Great chunks of the roof are now missing, so the 42m-high dome, constructed much like that at Öşk Vank, rests in isolation on four columns. The acoustics, however, remain superb, as you can hear for yourself if you stand directly beneath the dome, and some patches of fresco can be seen high up on the surviving walls of the south transept.