An Egg and a Stone

On Turkey's restoration of ancient Georgian churches

By / September 2015

I pick up the purple egg. Examine it. Then carefully return it to dusty ledge. Precarious, it hugs a buttercream stone pillar at the base of the soaring apse of Işhan Church. A blue fresco, like cloudless sky, fills the dome above. My eyes rise.

It’s September. Easter has long since passed. I muse on the origins of a solitary egg brightly-colored yet untouched by indomitable dust. I step out of the sanctuary into the shaded village of Arpacık, a mountaintop haven once home to a flourishing Georgian community. There I find a Turkish gentleman, Ahmet. Trowel in hand, he has been repairing the stone wall around his orchard. He says that only days earlier a delegation of clerics and pilgrims arrived from Georgia to visit the newly-restored cathedral. They held religious services and, apparently, brought eggs along for the celebration.

Işhan, or Ishkhani in Georgian, is one of a handful of ancient churches and monasteries tucked into the craggy terrain of the lower reaches of the Caucasus Mountains. Modern-day Georgians regularly descend into the vale of far northeastern Turkey to experience what remains of Tao-Klarjeti, their medieval kingdom. The simple yet stunning architecture of the churches reveals the grandeur of the former nation. Some date back more than a millennia. However, unlike the renovated Ishkani, many chapels of the Georgian valley are in sad disrepair.

Photograph by Brian McKanna

About an hour drive south of Arpacık, Meryem Ana Church anchors the creekside community of Bağbaşı. The structure, also called Haho, is one of the more well-preserved of the Georgian kingdom. The Christian building’s preservation is owing, in large part, to its conversion into a mosque.

From the outside, Haho, like many of the Georgian valley churches, has a light golden hue with accents of rusty red. Villagers claim that masons first soaked the large stones in milk before construction. The villagers also are the ones who call for Osman, the portly imam and sole caretaker of Haho. He holds the only key to the sanctuary. Straggling visitors like me or the occasional busload from Georgia often have to locate Osman in order to get inside.

Once he arrives, Osman opens the wrought-iron door to a rectangular room with a dirt floor and rows of rough wooden desks. He says it’s the space devoted to Quran lessons for children. The classroom’s interior wall, originally Haho’s exterior, is covered with relief carvings that tell stories perhaps biblical, perhaps apocryphal. A lion? An angel? One is particularly distinct, particularly eye-catching. To the right of the door, a toothy boar eats a man. He screams with arms outstretched. I assume this the only mosque in the world with the carved image of a pig.

Osman bids me on. Now with shoes removed, I pass the second entrance into a homespun house of prayer. A puzzle of tattered and mismatched rugs patch the floor. Some pinks, some blues. Lavender, turquoise. Cheap chandeliers and fluorescent tubes dangle from the ceiling. The front archway retains a sparse portrayal of saints or apostles, but not much more. Commissioned by the Georgian King David III Kurapalates in the late 10th century, Haho was once a spectacular monastery as evidenced by an extant triptych, a golden and bejeweled icon of the Virgin Mary now housed in the Art Museum of Georgia in Tbilisi.

Photograph by Brian McKanna

Today, only a red wooden box hangs on Haho’s central column. Above it, scribbles on a cardboard sign in multiple languages—Georgian, Kurdish, English, Turkish, and Russian—request donations for the upkeep of the sanctuary.

Turkey has begun restoring the Georgian churches of this valley one by one. It is no small ask. Beside Haho and Işhan there is Dört Kilise, Öşvank, Barhal, Yeni Rabat, and Tibet. Most are far from major roads and even farther from city centers. How the first Georgians created these marvels of stone in such an arduous landscape baffles the mind. I’m also awed by the bus loads of Georgians that teeter on one-lane gravel roads cresting bottomless gorges just to peregrinate these sites.

The road to Işhan is among the worst. And the best. The sparse village path can’t be more than four miles from the main drag, but it takes almost twenty minutes to climb and curl up the intimidating dirt trail to the top of the razorback hills. Then and only then does a plateau of lush greenery emerge. Ahmet, taking a break from mending his wall, told me that the villagers of Arpacik are expecting more visitors from Georgia following the renovation. He said he did not know whether there were plans to pave and widen the road.

Photograph by Brian McKanna

Next on the list for restoration is Öşvank, a sizeable church a few miles from Haho that is much easier to reach than Işhan. It’s also not far from Tortum Waterfall, Turkey’s largest. Sadly, Öşvank’s current state bears little resemblance to its past. The once glorious minster is said to have been the predecessor, the inspiration, for Georgia’s Bagrati Cathedral, a World Heritage Site. Like Işhan, Öşvank has a soaring dome roofed with glittering tiles. But almost all of the remaining ceiling is missing. From inside, Öşvank looks like a bombed out cathedral from World War II.

Outside, village children scurry by on bikes. Girls pass, books in tow, making their way to school. Across from the church, men sit at table under umbrellas smoking and sizing up visitors. No gaggle of tourists here. No entrance fees. Only maundering travelers. Turks curious enough about history to make the out-of-the-way trek. Occasional Georgians, by the busload, on a kind of pilgrimage to their past.

And then there are foreigners like me who come for the history and religion and architecture, to stare up from stone columns to stone rafters, at the remains of a once-glorious edifice. A millennium from now, I can’t help but wonder, what if anything will be left of it? Will people still be placing eggs in the dust of ledges or will the dust, by then, have the run of the place?

 

Brian McKanna is a contributing writer for EthnoTraveler.

 

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