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.