Yesterday was full. Full with mountains, rivers, biodiversity, ancient ruins, conversation, local food and friends.
“Doydum”- I am full! Well, ok, doydum actually means “I have had enough” which isn’t true. The endless Çoruh valley has more than enough to satiate, but I’ve definitely not had my fill. The valley, cut by the Totrum and Çoruh rivers (among numerous other streams) runs for hundreds of kilometer NNE from Turkey into Georgia. It has been declared a key biodiversity zone for Turkey and is protected by UNESCO because of its wealth of birds, flowers, and other species which are endemic to its specific micro-climate. Some sections of the valley have been made into National Park lands and other areas have a protected status. In the spring, there are numerous places to hike, camp, and climb. Bird watching is very popular as are guided hikes across the high-peaks.
Our guide yesterday was a friend from the Economics faculty who has worked on numerous economic development projects in the area, particularly through the means of outdoor adventure tourism, biodiversity tourism, and localized sustainable agriculture. He supplied us with fantastic English guide books and pamphlets for the area and gave us copies of a cookbook which focuses on local, organic, seasonal ingredients. We even got to meet the author of the cookbook who happened to be our friend’s wife’s aunt! She served us cay with about 15 different dishes including dut pestili (mulberry fruit leather,) kaysefesi (basically a huckleberry crisp), tava ketesi (walnut scones), and apple muffins. It was fascinating to hear them talk about only wanting to cook with local ingredients and no extra sugars and nothing but whole grains. It almost felt like I was back in Harrison with the healthiest women I know (Hi Harrison moms!).
In addition to the incredible natural sites, we also visited two Georgian churches:
The churches have changed hands many times. After spending between 700-800 years as monasteries, they were converted into mosques when the Ottomans conquered the area. When the Russians occupied the territory in the early 20th century, the Islamic holy places became secular sites only to be converted back again in the mid-1900’s. In the 1980’s the Turkish government declared them protected historic sites. The Hahuli monastery still acts as a mosque for citizens of the Bağbaşı village. The effect of all the changes was primarily destruction. The sculptures, paintings, and mosaics from both religious groups have been destroyed or covered over multiple times. What remains is on odd mixture of the two. In fact, at both monasteries, large carvings of eagles holding their prey have been left in tact, while most of the other depictions of humans or animals were destroyed. The eagle was/is an Ottoman symbol, represented Alexander the Great, and is thought to have depicted the bravery of Christian monks. Symbols form connection across seemingly irreconcilable boundaries… Pro Tip.