Despite centuries of Ottoman rule, evidence that Turkey’s far northeast long lay under the command of the Georgian kingdom 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 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, the largest urban base, is the most common gateway for the few intrepid travellers who choose to pop by. To the north lie the southern valleys, home to the churches of Haho and Öşk Vank. Without your own transport, you’ll find it easier to tour the western valleys, where the main town, Yusufeli, has reasonable transport links and accommodation, and also provides a good base from which to organize a tour of the stunning Kaçkar Dağları mountain range, or spectacular ruins such as İşhan. Heading north again, Artvin is the best base for a tour of the churches and castles of the northern valleys, or to continue on to Georgia proper. It’s also possible to hit the border from Ardahan, the main base of the eastern valleys. Lastly, the town of Bayburt, astride the young Çoruh River, makes an acceptable stopover between Erzurum and the coast. Dwarfed by the largest fortress in Turkey, dating from the sixth century, it holds plenty of accommodation and dining options.
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 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, you’ll need at least three days to see all the monuments.Read More
- Yusufeli and around
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 that measures 70km by 20km, the Kaçkars extend from the Rize–İspir road to the Hopa–Artvin highway. The more abrupt southeast flank is lapped by the Çoruh River, while the gentler northwest folds drop more gradually to misty foothills. At 3932m, their summit ranks only fourth highest in Turkey, but in scenic and human interest they fully earn their aliases “the Little Caucasus” and “the Pontic Alps”.
Besides 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 due to 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 Berta River valley
On to Georgia
On to Georgia
While most travellers cross from Turkey to Georgia through the Black Sea ports of Sarp and Batumi, the adventurous can make use of an inland border post linking Posof and Akhaltsikhe. At the time of writing, citizens of most countries could get a free visa on arrival, but double-check with your nearest Georgian embassy.
Arrival and departure
Buses run from Kars and Ardahan to the cute Turkish border town of Posof; there’s nothing to see there, but the lofty views may even entice you to stay the night. The border is 12km away and accessible by taxi (TL25); you’ll pay just a little more for the remaining run to Akhaltsikhe (drivers will accept euros and Turkish lira), a pleasant Georgian town with banks, hotels and good links to Tbilisi and Batumi.
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 – hence the partial overlap in the medieval history of the two kingdoms. 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 their churches.
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 “the Great” Magistros of Oltu, as well as Bagrat III, who in 1008 succeeded in unifying the various Georgian principalities into one kingdom. The Selçuks arrived in 1064, ravaging Georgia and all of eastern Anatolia, but as soon as they turned to confront the Crusaders a Bagratid revival began. David the Restorer managed to expel the Selçuks by 1125, moved the Bagratid court to newly captured Tblisi, then 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, as well as the ancestral Georgian valleys. A formidable military strategist and shrewd diplomat, the queen displayed a humanity and tolerance unusual for the era. Many churches and monasteries were repaired or re-endowed under Tamara; despite being a woman and a non-Muslim, her name still elicits respect from local Turks.
After Tamara died, 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, who erected castles on just about every height; generally you’ll have to be satisfied with a passing glance, since access to many of these eyries has long been impossible other than 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. 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 damage from dynamite- and pickaxe-wielding treasure-hunters: the locals have an unshakeable conviction that all 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.