Great for: Monasteries, Nature, Hiking, Armenian History, Churches
As this region has been a politically sensitive one in the past visiting Khtzkonk / Beşkilise Monastery may lead to you being stopped by the police. This isn’t a problem but make sure you have ID on you and explain that you’re there to see the monastery. If you’re on your way back show them some pictures of where you were. These stops are routine, don’t let them stop you from visiting. They’re most likely to be suspicious of treasure hunting so best not look like you’ve been digging.
Hidden among the cliffs of a remote ravine in the far eastern province of Kars near the Armenian border are the lonely remains of a medieval monastic complex. Known as Khtzkonk to its Armenian Christian founders the complex is locally known by its Turkish name of Beşkilise, meaning Five Churches, though only one church is left standing today.
As with many of the sites in this historically troubled region, the history and origin of Beşkilise Monastery is somewhat murky. With most of the complex completely destroyed it’s difficult to know exactly when the monastery was first established here though it’s believed that it was established around 1033 at the latest according to one of the few remaining inscriptions.
Beşkilise Monastery was built on a set of three narrow promontories jutting out of the side of the canyon’s steep banks a few kilometres from the old Armenian village of Tekor (now known as Digor). Three churches stood on the outcropping where the Church of St Sargis still stands today, one on the outcropping next to it, and the fifth church a short distance away where the ruined remains can still be seen easily. Among these were lesser buildings: cook houses, monks cells, etc., though these too have been lost. (There is also a a sort of platform built above the ruins of the most Eastward structure with large flat paver stones made visible by treasure hunters, though there is no mention of this spot in any of the sources I’ve read.)
While little is known about the history of Khtzkonk Monastery it was likely abandoned following the Mongol invasions of the 13th century. We know that the monastery was again in use during the 19th century when the region came under Imperial Russian control. It was again abandoned in the 1920’s when the territory was regained by the Turks.
Despite the fact that Khtzkonk Monastery was built in a region of near constant conflict the monastic complex was most grievously damaged rather recently in peacetime. Old photographs show the complex intact and, according to most sources, Beşkilise complex was blown up intentionally by Turkish forces in the 1950’s during a period of soaring tensions between Turkey and Armenia. Four churches and the lesser buildings were completely wiped out and the Church of St. Sargis was badly damaged. Treasure hunters continue to do damage to the site and remains can be found over a wide area.
How To Get There
Whether you drive or take a bus you will need to walk the last few kilometres to get to Beşkilise Monastery so make sure you wear appropriate footware.
The most common route to Beşkilise Monastery is to start from the village of Digor. You can drive or catch a minibus to Digor from Kars, the drive is just over 40 kms. From Digor follow the river West into the ravine. You can stay in the canyon bottom or follow the trail that picks its way along the slopes of the canyon about halfway up. The path along the slope takes you directly to the monastery while the path along the bottom will pass below the monastery. If you follow the valley floor make sure to keep an eye out for the ruins perched atop a cliff face above you. To ascend to the monastery from the valley floor continue just past the outcroppings where you’ll find a steep but easier slope that you can climb up to the Church of St. Sargis.
Beşkilise Monastery is a 3.5 km hike from Digor.
Keep in mind that Kars is very cold and snowy place in the winter so if you’re thinking of visiting during the winter come prepared for pretty severe winter conditions and potentially a great deal of snow in the valley and in the spring, a swollen river of meltwater.
Where To Stay
The village of Digor is quite small and has no accommodation options beyond camping in a field. Your best bet by far is to get a hotel in the nearby city of Kars (50 km away) where there are lots of good quality, reasonably priced hotels in the centre of the city.
Planning on visiting Beşkilise Monastery? Make sure to check out what other sights are in the region!
Have any tips or info to add? Spot any mistakes? We’d love to hear about it.