Oshki monastery is a church and monastic complex in the historic Tao-Klarjeti region, now a territory of northern Turkey. The monastery was erected ten centuries ago from the patronage of the Georgian crown to serve Chalcedonian Armenians, a group of Christians heavily influenced by the Georgian Orthodox Church and in union with the imperial church of the Byzantine Empire. The central part of the monastery’s facade was mostly composed of bas-reliefs.
The monastery, which is credited with hosting a number of unique architectural and artistic features, has not been restored since the monastery’s original construction. In addition to the bas-reliefs, experts believe that the extensive damage will permanently destroy much of the structure’s artwork.
Also, the collapse of the bas-relief sculptures has also been preceded by the disappearance of the Holy Mother figure from the supplication scene several years ago. One of the oldest images of Saint Nino and a monument of Grigol Oshkeli, known as the one who oversaw the building of the complex, have also disappeared.
The complex was built in the second half of the 10th century at the discretion of the Taovan Bagrationi family – Bagrat eristavteristavi (‘prince of princes’) and David III Kuropalates magistros (‘the great’). In 1036, under the auspices of Jojik Patrikios, the church’s famous frescos were painted. However, the few that remain today are in deplorable condition.
The monastery itself has functioned since the 16th century and was neglected and paid little attention after the 19th century when historic Samtskhe was separated from Georgian territory. From 1843 to 1853, the Armenian researcher Sargsyan visited Tao seeking to study the region’s rich Armenian heritage. His work on the region included descriptions of Oshki and other Georgian sites in the area. This work would be built up on later by the eminent 19th century historian and archaeologist Ekvtime Takaishvili, who conducted archaeological expeditions in the region.
The church is also accompanied by a seminary and a dining area on the north side of the complex. From these chambers, a number of ancient manuscripts have been recovered, including a bible that is considered the oldest Georgian manuscript of the Old and New Testaments.
According to art historian Dr. Irene Giviashvili, Oshki is unlikely to survive the winter in its present condition without significant restoration work in the near term. In addition to natural wear, several unique sculptures have also been looted from the site, which has only exacerbated the decline of the structure’s integrity.
Sadly, the dire situation today could have been resolved earlier. Two years ago, Georgian authorities rejected an offer by Turkey to restore three Georgian churches in Tao if they were also permitted to restore three mosques in Georgian territory in exchange. The Patriarchate’s posture, though not technically a standing party in the negotiations, proved to be critical in the outcome. One of the mosques, the Mosque of Aziziye in Batumi, was demolished by the Communists in the 20th century and replaced by a bland residential building. This should have obligated the allocation of land for a replacement, but was protested strongly by Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II.
“We find the fulfillment of the agreement unjustifiable as more than 240 jamehs and mosques (140 in Adjara), 8 madrassas, and public schools are functioning in Georgia, yet with no Georgian churches in Turkey,” said a letter from the Patriarch to then-Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze. However, the agreement implied the rehabilitation of the mosques for cultural purposes rather than to resume services. In addition, Oshki has been listed as part of a UNESCO world heritage site while no mosques in the region have been conferred a similar status.
Negotiations have resumed this year. According to the foreign ministry, the requirements by Turkish authorities remain unchanged. According to the public affairs officer of the Patriarchate of Georgia, Dean Davit Sharashenidze, the Patriarchate does not currently have an official position on the issue.