The Art of Abkhazian Kingdom from the VIIIth to the XIth Centuries

The Art of Abkhazian Kingdom from the VIIIth to the XIth CenturiesAuthors: O. Kh Bgazhba, Anzor Agumaa, Denis Beletsky, Andrey Vinogradov, Ekaterina Endoltseva
Editorial Board of the Series "Archaeologica Varia": Sergej I. Bogdanov, Boris V. Erokhin, Yulij S. Khudjakov, Valery P. Nikonorov,  Yurij Yu. Piotrovsky, Edvard V. Rtveladze, Aleksandr V. Simonenko, Yurij A. Vinogradov
Place of publication: St. Petersburg
Year: 2011
Number of page: 271

Искусство Абхазского царства VIII–XI веков

Христианские памятники Анакопийской крепости

Авторы: О. Х. Бгажба, предисловие, А. С. Агумаа, 2011, Д. В. Белецкий, А. Ю. Виноградов, Е. Ю. Ен дольцева
Редакционный совет серии «Archaeologica Varia»: С. И. Богданов, Ю. А. Виноградов, Б. В. Ерохин, В. П. Никоноров, Ю. Ю. Пиотровский,  Э. В. Ртвеладзе, А. В. Симоненко, Ю. С. ХудяковИздательство:
Место издания: Санкт-Петербург
Год: 2011
Ответственный редактор: Вяч. Вс. Иванов
Страниц: 271

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The present book deals with the analysis of the Christian monuments from the fortified city of Anakopia. It consists of four parts dedicated respectively to the architectural monuments, the stone reliefs, the epigraphic witnesses, and the collection of the engravings, post cards, and photos (from the end of the XIXth to the beginning of the XXth centuries) with the views of mountain and ruins. The book is accompanied with three annotated catalogues (of the stone reliefs, the Greek inscriptions, and the engravings, post cards, and photos). The annex contains 14 drawings of the different parts of the churches on the territory of Anakopia fortress.

The mountain is located near the modern town of New Athon on the territory of the Republic of Abkhazia. This semi-ruined church has been constructed on top of Iver mountain, in the middle of the citadel of the ancient city of Anakopia. According to the written sources this city has witnessed the crucial moments of the history of this region in the paleochristian and the medieval periods: the foundation of the trade colony by the Greeks, the flourishing of Byzantine Empire, the uprising of the abazgs, the wars against the Persians and the Arabs. It is here that the first capital of the state of Abasgs appeared in the 770s. In 1033 the fortress surrendered to the Byzantines who ruled here for ca. 40 years.

The citadel and two lines of the walls always attracted researchers. However the date of the construction of the architectural monuments (the church of St. Theodore in the citadel and the so-called Lower church) as well as of making of the reliefs inside of the church in the citadel are the problems that remain unresolved. The fortress has been originally described by the countess P. Uvarova in 1894. The first archaeological excavations in the city date back to the period before the World War II. The research has been continued in the post-war period (1954–1956) by the expedition supervised by M. Trapsh. The ample material acquired during these excavations has helped to precise the date of the city walls and that of the citadel. The last expedition took place in 2004, as the western tower of the citadel was prepared for the reconstruction works.

Historical background

As stated in the Life of Vakhtang Gorgosali (a Georgian chronicle from the XIth c.), the fortress became well-known after a famous battle led by Abazgian and Georgian princes against Arabian conqueror Murvan ibn Muhammad, who occupied the present territory of Georgia. In 737 he reached Anakopia fortress, where he was defeated and forced to leave Abazgia. Anakopia became a capital of the new independent state, Abkhazian kingdom. Another medieval Georgian chronicle, Matiane Kartlisa, as well as Byzantine historian John Scylitzes witness that in 1033 the second wife of Abkhazian king George I, Ossetin princess Alda, together with her son Demetri tried to organize a complot aiming at overthrowing the elder brother of Demetri, king Bagrat IV (1027–1072). Upon the failure of this complot Demetri delivered the fortress to the Byzantines who ruled here up until 1074. They united Anakopia with Soteripoupolis (modern Borçka in north-eastern Turkey) in one thema. It is during this Byzantine period that the large-scale reconstruction works (witnessed by archaeological and epigraphic findings) took place.


A. Bashkirov, visiting the citadel in 1925, noticed that the skeleton of the church had been constructed prior to its revetment. M. Trapsh in course of the archaeological researches of the walls of the fortress (1957–1958) found no paleochristian structures. Having analyzed the masonry of the citadel, the researcher supposed that it could be made after the VIth century. He also supposed that the towers of the citadel could be built even later, ca. the VIIIth century. As to the church, the archaeologist mentioned that it had been rebuilt many times, only the eastern part preserving its original form. In the western part of the church the researcher found the tombs covered by the stone slabs. The walls of the western vestibule were constructed by the monks of New Athos monastery in the XIXth century, who also conducted a partial revetment of the other walls. In general Trapsh agreed with Bashkirov that the church of St. Theodore had been erected ca. the VIIIth and reconstructed in the XIth century.

The study of the cultural layers inside of the towers of the second line of the fortifications of Anakopia, the ceramic fragments, and coins permitted M. Trapsh to suppose the following chronology of the development of the fortified city on Anakopia mountain: the IVth to the IInd centuries BC, the Hellenistic settlement; the VIIth to the XIIth centuries AD, Anakopia fortress, the VIIIth to the IXth centuries being the first period of the intense construction works, the XIth century being the second one, that is the renovation of the fortifications. During the latter period not only the fortifications were renovated but also a small church on the south slope of the mountain was erected. A number of civil buildings belong to the same period. A discovery of the lime furnace not far from the citadel suggests a wide scope of the construction activity.

In course of the archaeological excavations in 2004 the cultural layers inside of the eastern tower of citadel were analyzed. The fragments of the ceramic and the stone reliefs on a surface permitted to date it by the XIth century. The thickness of the layers permitted the archaeologist Y. Biryukov to date the lowest layer by the VIIIth to the IXth centuries approx. No traces of earlier constructions were found on the territory of the citadel. In 1046–1049 under Constantine IX the important reconstructions occurred here. The fortifications of the second line were renovated. At the same time a small one-apse church was erected and the church inside of the citadel was embellished (i. e. faced with the carved limestone slabs) and consecrated to St. Theodore.

The most recent study by D. Beletskiy and A. Vinogradov permits to improve previous observations. The church was indeed built in two stages. The first one produced a simple single-aisled building with a narthex. It was constructed of rough stones, bricks being used in the apse only. There were two entrances: in the western and in the southern wall of the naos. Nothing concerning church decoration is known, evidently the church was not spacious (only a low ambo can be presumed). This initial building with no exact date of construction could be dated from the VIth to the Xth centuries. A clergyman of this church was buried nearby in 929, he belonged to the clergy of Anakopia bishopry, the fact not attested by other sources.

The second stage is a reconstruction done by the Byzantines in 1046–1049, following the siege of 1044–1045. All of the internal and external surfaces of the church (excepting the apse) were redecorated by well-cut limestone. The vault was supported by seven pairs of pilasters with arches on top of them. The windows were in the upper part of the walls. The sanctuary was an erected platform with a templon in the west (lost by now), two of three apse windows were closed. In the side walls there are deep niches: one in the northern and three others in the southern walls; they could be intended for the icons (those of Virgin mentioned in the XIth c. and of St. Theodore). An earlier door in the southern wall was replaced by the new one beside it. This door leads to the small balcony based on three arch-vaulted niches. From the balcony a narrow stair goes down along the southern façade to the bottom of the whole structure. Another stair to the left goes from the same bottom to the south-western corner of the narthex and the western entrance into the church. The exterior was richly covered with the limestone reliefs. According to a Greek inscription this reconstructed church of St. Michael was consecrated by archbishop Michael (probably of Soterioupolis) in the second year of indiction, i. e. 1049. The builders could have been of Anatolian origin as some architectural elements suggest (f. i. the decoration of the doors).

The whole structure of the church is based on mighty substructions that contain a cistern, a corridor, and two rooms, partially with the cave walls. The external walls were reconstructed by monks in the XIXth c., together with a part of the church walls. Two chapels were added to the west and inside of the church.

Limestone reliefs

At the end of the XIXth century the reliefs were combined in a kind of the iconostasis in the apse of the church of St. Theodore by the monks of New Athos monastery. The original location and function of these limestone reliefs are widely debated. There is a rich number of themes used in the decoration of these fragments that demonstrate various cultural influences. On some of the stones there are Greek inscriptions. The inscriptions have been published by the famous Russian scholar V. Latyshev in 1911. So as to determine the date and the possible function of the reliefs it is necessary to analyze their technical and iconographical characteristics and to use some additional paleographical, archaeological, and historical sources dealing with the life of the fortress.

Taking the represented subjects for a criterion it is possible to single out five groups. The first group is that of reliefs with the carved animals. Two reliefs of them are similar by their size, technique, and form. Semi-circular cut in their lower part helps to identify them as the upper frame of windows. The image is situated in the middle of each slab. The animal represented on the first slab (cat. of the reliefs № 2) may be a lion (due to the analogies, which are to be demonstrated subsequently). Its posture with half-bent legs and a tail turned up on its back is very characteristic. Two rosettes on both sides may be the traditional solar symbols. The second slab (cat. of the reliefs № 3) shows either three fishes or a fish between two schematically carved cypresses. The 3rd slab, which has since been lost (cat. of the reliefs № 1), could be attributed to the same group. It is known only thanks to the publication by V. Latyshev in 1911. Citing archimandrite Hieron, Latyshev mentioned that it had been discovered quite near the citadel church. The relief is of a special interest because there is an inscription in Greek obviously referring to the building decorated with this slab. The technical, stylistic, and formal characteristics of the relief are identical to two above-mentioned slabs. In its middle there is a schematic cross, its horizontal bar being decorated with semi-figures of two schematically depicted animals. One of them resembles the lion from the first relief, the second one is identified by its corns as a bull. The Greek inscription deciphered by Latyshev and reconsidered by A. Vinogradov informs of the reconstruction of a cistern under the Byzantine emperor Constantine IX (1042–1055). Therefore this inscription permits to date the whole group if it had been created simultaneously with this relief. Some scholars (f. i. L. Chroushkova) tried to demonstrate that the relief had been carved four centuries earlier than the inscription. But the original inscription on the relief (“Jesus Christ”) was curved by the same hand as Constantine’s inscription. Besides, the following iconographical parallels permit to place it in the artistic context of the Xth to the first half of the XIth centuries.

The closest parallels to the iconography of the reliefs are exemplified by the façade plastic from the churches of the Xth century on the territory of the historical provinces of Tao, Samtskhe, Armenia, a modern territory of northern Turkey, and south-western Georgia (St. John the Baptist church in Parkhali village, cathedral of Oshki monastery, cathedral in Vale, cathedral in Acht’amar). Taking into account the inscriptions and the iconographical parallels, the date of creation of the reliefs of the first group can be placed into the period from the 960s to the time of Constantine IX.

The second group consists of the reliefs with an image of the cross. Their form differs, so that several subgroups can be singled out. The first subgroup consists of two slabs, which form, function, technique, and size are very much alike. Lower part of these reliefs has a semi-circular form that once again reminds of the upper frame of a window (cat. of the reliefs № 10, 11). Therefore both reliefs may belong to the same building. Among the closest analogies there is a relief that was placed above the window on the eastern façade of the cathedral in Kumurdo (historical province Javakheti), which can be dated by several inscriptions on its façade, one of them mentioning a date of its construction, 964, and a name of the church warden, king Leon III (957–967). The slab with three crosses can be referred to the same period. The assumption is confirmed by the analysis of the evolution of a composition with three Golgotha crosses done by L. Rcheulishvili. This motif is similar to the façade decoration of the churches in northern Transcaucasia from the middle of the Xth up to the first half of the XIth century. To the same subgroup yet another relief can be added (cat. of the reliefs № 12). Judging by analogies, the slab could have been placed above the entrance of the church. We can find its close parallel on the western façade of the church dedicated to apostle Simon Canaanite (from XIX c.) that is situated at the foot of Anakopia mountain. It should be dated by the Xth century as well. The cross of the following relief of the subgroup resembles the above-mentioned by its form, yet differs in technique (cat. of the reliefs № 9). The lower part of the cross is given in high relief and decorated with a sphere. This feature relates it to the relief, placed above the window of the church façade in Bzyb fortress. Architectural analogies permit to date it by the Xth century.

The second subgroup consists of several slabs. One of them represents a cross, which form is typical for Transcaucasia (cat. of the reliefs № 6). It is of the same form as a cross of the above-mentioned relief with an inscription. The crosses of this type are common to the church façades of the region concerned between the middle of the Xth to the first half of the XIth century. A close analogy is a fragment of a relief from the museum in Sukhum. There is an inscription on it, which mentions the Abkhazian king George II (929–957).

In the third subgroup there is a slab with an image of the so-called flourished cross (cat. of the reliefs № 5). The analogies of this cross can be seen for example on the eastern church façade in Beris Saklare (the Xth century) and above the window on the façade of the church in Parkhali. The topographically closest parallel can be seen in the relief situated above the entrance of the northern compartment of the church in Agu-Bedia village. The church and its decoration is dated by the time of king Bagrat III (978–1014) due to the inscription on the chalice, 998/999.

The reliefs of the last subgroup represent the Maltese crosses (cat. of the reliefs № 7, 8). This type is more archaic than the previous ones. It can be seen on the graves of Khazar period (from Anapa and Kerch museums). So as to conclude, the analysis of the reliefs from the second group permits to date most of them (excepting the last group) by the same period from the middle of the Xth to the first half of the XIth century.

The third and the most numerous subgroup consists of the reliefs representing geometrical, ornamental, and vegetal motifs. Such ornamentation is typical for the façade decoration of churches in Abkhazia, western Georgia, Armenia, Asia Minor, and Greece from the middle of the Xth century. Numerous iconographical analogies prove that the group of the reliefs with twist motifs can be dated by the same period. In the 4th group there are reliefs with the architectural motifs and with the simple semi-circular rollers (cat. of the reliefs № 64–72). The slabs decorated with the rollers were evidently used for framing the doors and the windows. The decoration of this type was wide-spread in the cathedrals of this period.

The last group consists of the slabs without ornamentation. To sum up, the reliefs of the 5 above-mentioned groups can be chronologically separated into 2 periods. To the first period (from the end of the IXth to the beginning of the Xth c.) the reliefs with the crosses of the so-called Maltese type can be referred; to the second one (from the second half of the Xth to the beginning of the XIth c.) the remaining slabs.

Considering the function of the slabs concerned, this problem cannot be solved definitely. Anyway, taking into consideration their form and the above-mentioned analogies, they look like the ragments of a revetment of some (ecclesiastical?) building. One may propose the following groups: the upper window frame fragments of the different shapes; the group of window frame fragments; of the portal frame fragments (some of them can be seen in situ in the citadel church); revetment of the apse (the base of a similar form can be seen in the apse of the citadel church); funeral stones (including the slab with a funeral inscription, which analogies can be found in Bedia cathedral); the inner revetment of the church (with the constructive grooves); the external revetment or possible fragments of the altar barrier.

Having analyzed a complex of iconographical, epigraphic and archaeological evidences, one may suppose that the artists of local or Anatolian origin well-versed in Greek manner worked in Anakopia, reproducing the iconographical schemes that were popular on the territory of Abkhazian kingdom and its neighboring principalities (Tao, Clardzeti, Kartli) from the 960s on. To sum up, it is necessary to point out once again that the stone reliefs gathered in the apse wall in the church of St. Theodore inside of Anakopia fortress are generally homogeneous by origin. Most of them were produced in course of large-scale construction works sponsored by the Byzantine emperor Constantine IX. 3 funeral slabs (with the inscriptions and the Maltese crosses) were carved a bit earlier, in the 930s. They probably covered graves in the western part of the church or those near the church. The remaining reliefs were apparently made so as to face the church internally and externally in 1046–49. This ornamental conception has close parallels in a system of the façade decoration known from the 960s on the territory of the principalities of Tao, Clardzeti, Kartli, Abkhazian kingdom, Asia Minor, Greece etc. Thus the stone reliefs of Anakopia fortress demonstrate an interesting symbiosis of the local artistic traditions with the Byzantine cultural standards. Numerous iconographical parallels between Anakopia reliefs and the key monuments of the Byzantine plastic art from the end of the Xth to the XIth century (f. i. the cathedral and the church of Panagia in the monastery of Hosios Lukas in Phokis, Great Lavra on the Mount Athos) permit to place them in a context of the Macedonian renaissance.


The inscriptions from Anakopia are relatively numerous and in Greek only. They can be divided in two groups.

The first one, published by L. Kavelin (partially) and republished by V. Latyshev, contains four lapidary inscriptions found on top of Anakopia fortress, near St. Theodore church. The earliest one is dated by 929 and represents a tomb of a man, most probably a clergyman of this church (only the words “...of saint...” are preserved), he belonged to the clergy of Anakopia bishopry that is not attested by other sources. This inscription was written by another clergyman, presbyter Eustathios. Three other inscriptions are from the 1040s. One of them tells about the reconstruction of a cistern executed in February 1047 under emperor Constantine IX by two Byzantine officiers: protospatharios Eugene Despotes (probably the strategos of thema Soterioupolis and Anakopia) and Theodore Balantes, the turmarchos of Kasa (in Asia Minor). The reconstruction of such an important object became necessary after the siege of 1044–45. Another inscription is also from an (uncertain) building that was erected by the same officiers and above-mentioned Alda. The last inscription from the fortress tells about the consecration of St. Theodore church by archbishop Michael (probably of Soterioupolis) in April of the second year of indiction, which is most probably 1049. This inscription was executed by another, more accurate hand. All four inscriptions give us a very precious information concerning the history of Anakopia in general as well as of St. Theodore church in particular.

The second group of Greek inscriptions is formed by seven graffiti on the walls of St. Simon Canaanite church (Xth to XIth centuries), which is situated beneath Anakopia fortress in New Athos. They are invocative inscriptions made by the Greek visitors: certain Nicholas, Michael, ...adar, Apostolos, and Chariton. There is a commemorative graffito that mentions certain Sisinios. Yet another inscription is very important, as it contains the name of Despotes, i. e. Eugene Despotes, who rebuilt Anakopia in 1046. There is only one inscription from St. Simon church that is lapidary: it is an abbreviation  (ΜΦΣϚ(?)ΥΖ) which has no clear explanation.


The engravings, post cards, and photos (from the end of the XIXth century to the 1920–30s) that come from the private collection of A. Agumaa are of particular interest. They are published here for the first time and help to reconstruct the original state of the Anakopia ruins before the modification done by the monks of New Athon monastery at the very end of the XIXth century. This information is very important for the reconstruction of the architectural history of the whole complex.

Translated by I. D. Sablin




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