Oltu Valley, view from Bana Cathedral. Photo by Irene Giviashvili
The Kingdom was split into two branches: the Klarjeti branch and the Tao branch, thus gaining the name the “Tao-Klarjeti Kingdom”. The millennial reign of the Bagrationi dynasty began in this region, but its history dates back to the very roots of the Georgian nation. The Georgian Chronicles provide a list of the oldest Georgian cities that were established by Kartlos, the mythical founder of the nation, and his descendants. Among the most ancient are the major cities of the region: the fortified city of Tukharisi in Klarjeti, Tsunda, and Artaani in Javakheti.
Tao-Klarjeti played a much more important role in the history of Georgia than merely another province. This is the very place where the idea of a United Georgian state was born and executed, but long before the first united army of the eastern Georgian Kingdom of Iberia and Colchis (western Georgia) was formed. The 11th-century chronicler Leonti Mroveli recounts how in the 3rd century BC, King Parnavaz of Iberia decided to confront the Eastern Roman Empire. He was joined in this campaign by the Colchians and Ossetians, and the site of the battle was a place called Huri (the city of demons), which at that time had already been abandoned. The rock-cut complex near the modern Altas (an old Huri, Ardahan) still bears the name “Nakalakoi” (which in Georgian means abandoned city), and most probably witnessed this story.
The first church for the newly-Christianized Iberia was built here in the village of Erusheti, in Artaani, by Byzantine masons traveling to Mtskheta. When the newly converted Iberian King Mirian sent a mission to Constantinople, the Emperor Constantine the Great sincerely rewarded the Georgian King with holy relics and sent masons to build churches. The first episcopates were formed here in Klarjeti at Ahiza and Mere, followed by the first monastery at Opiza – all of which were established during the reign of King Vakhtang Gorgasali (5th century).
Akhiza fortress (Ferhatlı Kalesi), general view. Photo by Irene Giviashvili
During the era of Arab domination in eastern Georgia, which began in around 640, Erismtavari Ashot Bagrationi (786 — 826) left Tbilisi and moved to the periphery — to the southwestern provinces of the country that bordered Byzantine lands. Accordingly, at the end of the 9th century, a new principality was founded, with its royal residence in Artanuji (present-day Ardanuç, Turkiye). The area’s topography, featuring high plateaus and deep canyons, offered fertile farmland and easily defensible positions. Surrounded by the Islamic World on the one hand, and sharing a border with the Byzantine Empire on the other, the Bagrationi Kings played a crucial role in changing the political and cultural landscape of the region.
Artanuji (Ardanuç),, general view. Photo by Dimitry Ermakov, 1877–1878
The Georgians of Tao-Klarjeti brought monasticism to a new level, particularly through the activities of Father Grigol Khantsteli (Gregory of Khantsta), who established new monasteries and restored the old ones. These monasteries produced books, the finest masterpieces of metalwork, and were rich with icons and liturgical objects.
The Georgian Chronicles state that “Klarjeti was protected by a rocky environment,” and it appears that such a location provided not only physical, but also spiritual tranquility for its inhabitants. In the mid-10th century, leadership was taken up by the Tao branch of the Kingdom.
Nukas Saqdari (Nuka Kilise), general view. Photo by Hakan Aydin
King David III, who reigned with spectacular success from 958 to 1001, dramatically altered Georgian history with his diplomatic, military, political, economic, educational, and cultural achievements. The monasteries that were founded or redeveloped during David's reign (
huli, Oshki, Otkhta Eklesia and Parkhali) came to define the very borders of the Kingdom. Georgians from Tao-Klarjeti were able to establish the new Georgian monastery of Iviron on Athos in 983. The Iviron Monastery soon became an important destination for spiritual and educational purposes. A leading school of translation was founded on Athos, and the steady flow of monks from Tao supplied a constant exchange of knowledge and culture during the medieval centuries.
Otkhta Eklesia (Dört Kilise) monastery, general view. Photo by Lynn and Michael Almonds, 1984
Located at a geographical and cultural crossroads, and also owing to the political, religious, and cultural ideology of the Georgians of Tao-Klarjeti, the country became an integral part of and active player in the regional changes that were occurring in the Caucasus and Anatolia. The religious centers in Tao-Klarjeti became a kind of transmitter for cultural exchanges among Christian centers, as well as between the Christian and Islamic Worlds. At the same time, the fortifications that created a kind of grid of massive fortresses and small watchtowers served as a powerful barrier against political expansion.
The importance of Tao-Klarjeti declined once the center of the united Georgian Kingdom moved first to Kutaisi (ca. 1000), and finally to Tbilisi (1122), although its cultural impact was diffused around the rest of Georgia. The historic Georgian provinces of Tao-Klarjeti were taken first by Ottoman Turkey in the 16th century, and ultimately by the Turkish Republic according to the Kars treaty of 1923.
Kaji Fortress (Seytan Kale), Kaji Fortress, general view. Photo by Irene Giviashvili
Evidence of the cultural and political importance of the area is seen in the ruins of more than a hundred churches, chapels, bridges, and fortifications. These are landmarks from geographical, cultural, and historical perspectives.
It is worth mentioning that the most venerated icon among Georgians — the Ancha Icon —comes from Klarjeti; and the largest icon among the entire Eastern Christian World, the Khakhuli triptych of the icon of Virgin Mary, was originally assembled in Khakhuli and arranged on a gilded and silver frame along with a sizeable collection of Georgian and Byzantine enamels.