Penek Castle / Bana Cathedral
/ By Josh
Great for: Ruins, Churches, Armenian History, Georgian History, Nature
Locally known as Penek Castle, the ruins of Bana Cathedral, set in a green valley surrounded by high mountains and red hills, are an incredible sight. While time and history have not been kind to the once great church, the ruins of Bana Cathedral can still give a glimpse into the past glory of the place.
There is some debate as to exactly when Bana Cathedral was built with dates ranging from the 7th to the 10th centuries. The cathedral was built in an Armenian-Georgian style thought to be the same as the great Cathedral of Zvartnots (also ruined) in modern Armenia. The building consisted of a great outer circle set around a tetraconch, a cross or ‘+’ shape with rounded arms. Only a small section of one of the four great pillars remains and a small section of the second storey windows. As is common in the Armenian-Georgian style, there would have been a great conical dome reaching around thirty meters high to cap the church.
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The history of the decline of Bana Cathedral is somewhat murky and different accounts will sometimes contradict. The most commonly repeated story seems to be that the church was converted into a fort by the Ottomans during the Russio-Ottoman Wars of the late 1800’s. At this time the cathedral sat in a frontier zone between the Russian held City of Kars and the Ottoman garrisons at Erzururm. It’s said that it was during the fighting here that the dome was destroyed and much of the building collapsed. You can see rough stonework in various places where the church was altered to make the church a more suitable fortress.
Today the ruins are a beautiful sight set in a picturesque valley on a low hill above plowed fields. Visitors have come from as far away as Georgia to have wedding pictures done and locals still light candles among the fallen masonry.
How To Get There
Bana Cathedral is set in the countryside between the towns of Oltu (in Erzurum) and Susuz (in Kars) near the village of Penek, just off of the D060 highway. Finding the ruined church is easy, getting to it is a bit trickier. From the point where you can see it along the highway, you’ll need to head East and take the turn-off next to the bridge into the town of Penek (don’t try to hike across the fields from the highway, there’s no room to park and you’ll find a river in your way). Continue through the village and out the other side for a couple kilometres down the dirt track as far as your car will let you go depending on road conditions. You’ll be able to see the cathedral here and there so let that be your guide for lack of road names.
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Where To Stay
There are very little accommodation options in the area around Penek. The town of Oltu has a hotel as does Narman. For more options you may want to look to Tortum (97 kms away), Kars (116kms away), or Erzurum (150 kms away). If the weather is good this would be a great place to camp.
Planning on visiting Bana Cathedral? 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.