Beautiful Georgian cathedral                  Population: Less than 500

Ishan1Seven km north of the road running from the Artvin-Erzurum highway to Olur in north-eastern Turkey is İşhan, or rather Upper İşhan as there’s a village of that name on the main road too. The side road zig-zags uphill offering spectacular views of stupendous craggy mountains with bright green poplars and fruit trees lining the valley below. It’s one of Turkey’s most scenically magnificent drives.

Eventually you arrive in İshan where mainly wood-and-stone houses encircle a magnificent Georgian church, its dome still intact and its walls standing firm against the ravages of time. The dome is covered in glazed tiles that shimmer in the sun. Inside it's decorated with a cross supported by angels and with figures of saints seemingly damaged at a later date when round windows were punched through them. Ishan2

Unusually the east end of the church has a semi-circular internal colonnade, its stout columns topped with heavy capitals decorated in a variety of styles. This is the oldest part of the church, possibly dating back to the seventh century and consciously modelled on the church of Bana not so very far away. It is thought to have been damaged during the Arab raids.

The much more refined, loftier monastic church seems to have been built in 917 and then restored in  1032, with further additions in the 12th-14th centuries. The west end of the church still retains traces of frescoes; more can be seen over the windows and in the blocked-off western end of the nave. 

The church retains some fine external decoration including a carving of a lion doing battle with a snake, and a semicircular Georgian inscription (matched by another on the chapel opposite).Ishan4

Right beside the church is a tiny chapel dedicated to St Mary. Its Georgian inscription says that King Bagrat III (1000-14) had it built. 

The village itself repays a quick look. Streams tumble down the rocks on all sides so that the soothing sound of water is everywhere. Apples, pears, peaches and plums grow in abundance and in autumn the ground glitters with shiny pieces of fruit laid out in the sun to dry. Women halve plums, then stuff them with walnuts and cook them in butter to make kaysefe.

The school immediately behind the church is down to its last 10 pupils. 



Küçük Ev Pansiyon. Behind the café beside the church a prefab offers six absolutely basic rooms for those who’d like to stay in the village rather than visit from Yusufeli. They might be hot in summer though. Tel: 0532-657 0911

Transport info

One dolmuş a day runs up to İşhan but you’re unlikely to be able to use it to get back again unless you stay the night. Finding a ride back into town may also be difficult since days can go by without any visitors to the church.

To be on the safe side agree a price for a return trip with a taxi driver in Yusufeli. If you do manage to find a dolmuş up you could always walk back to the main road if it's not too hot a day (there's no shade) and hope to find transport coming from Olur.

For more information about the area: Georgian Valleys


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