This domed basilica stands in the hills north of Shilda on a track that leads ultimately up into the Caucasus mountains and Dagestan. Although the modern border is now difficult to negotiate, in the past there was a steady traffic of traders and animal herders across the mountains making the now abandoned village of Bartsana, on the open area south of the forest where Sarbela church is located, a prosperous local centre up until the nineteenth century. The church itself has horseshoe arches and the support of the dome is difficult to confirm as the dome has collapsed and within the last 30 years a corrugated metal pyramid has been constructed to protect the building. There are traces of medieval frescoes on the north wall and the north wall of the apse. There is a narthex added to the west side and an additional arcade was appended to the south. The apse is flanked by two pastophoria, the southern of which has ceramics embedded to aid the acoustics. The dome was supported by two piers on the west side and this two-pier disposition was reported by Chubinashvili as being a late development - the same arrangement can be seen at the sixteenth century royal church at Gremi. However this appears to be a late antique foundation, suggesting that the use of piers to support a dome may be earlier in Georgia than previously accepted. Two red crosses were found painted beneath the medieval plaster on the west side of the south pier and in the middle of the north wall. There is an extensive open air marani north of the church.
The basilica at Shilda is a relatively large example of the "three church" type and represents a simple variant of the form. It has three windows on the east end and the north aisle is truncated because the eastern end forms a pastophorion only accessible from the central nave of the building, as encountered elsewhere in places such as Eniseli and Dubi. The central nave is a great deal higher than normal and this is the result of a substantial rebuilding in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, almost certainly as the result of a Lezghin (Dagestani) raid. At the same time as the roof was raised, windows were added at the clerestory level to the north, south and west and doors were added from the central nave to the aisles and from the aisles to the exterior on both the north and south sides. The only two slight departures from this common form of basilica type that are original are the fact that the whole building is tied together - the aisles are tied into the central nave - rather than separate as a precaution against seismic activity and both the north and south aisles are considerably wider than is standard.
Nekresi is a complex of churches in the foothills of the Caucasus near the border with Dagestan. In the valley beneath, archaeologists have found the remains of a sun temple and it is popularly believed that the early Christians appropriated an earlier sacred site, possibly a Zoroastrian high place, in building a church in the C4th at this location. However this belief has been disproved by archaeological excavation which has found no evidence of pre-Christian occupation at the site and has redated the 'C4th' building to the C6th. This structure has entrances on the north, south and east sides and is open to the elements on all sides. It has an undercroft that was used for burials suggesting that this was possibly built as a funerary chapel. The complex also includes a C6th-C7th basilica, known in Georgia as a triple basilica as the narthex opens onto three aisles, but the south aisle does not communicate with the main body of the church and both the north and south aisles are semi-open to the elements with arched arcades to the north and south. There is also an C8th-C9th centrally-planned church that shows a strong Persian influence in its design. The rest of the monastery complex is medieval and a series of early Georgian inscriptions excavated nearby are displayed within them. Nekresi is also associated with one of the Thirteen (As)Syrian Fathers St. Abibos Nekreseli who was reputedly martyred for his resistance to Zoroastrianism.
As with Dolochopi and Dzveli Gavazi, a further visit to the site in the company of Professor Nodar Bakhtadze in August 2017 has led to discussion of the relative dating scheme applied to the "three church basilica" and the centrally-planned domed church and raised questions as to whether or not they were necessarily built that far apart in time. As with Dzveli Gavazi, the centrally-planned church at Nekresi is something of an anomaly given the ubiquity of the "three church basilica" type in Kakheti. In fact this church appears to be an experimental early version of a domed "three church basilica" as it has two apsed side aisles to the north and south of the central church. The northern aisle has a window to the east and is closed off, whereas the south aisle and the narthex in the west both have two arches and are open to the elements. The west and south arcades also have pilasters on the internal wall, as encountered at Areshi large basilica and Kindzmareuli. Inside the main part of the church the dome has windows to the east, south and west, but not on the north side. The dome itself is supported to the west by two squinches, whereas at the east there are what can only be referred to as 'proto-pendentives' - an arrangement also found in the later church of Khirsa Stepantsminda. There is also one other window placed in the apse. If this is an early attempt at a domed basilica, then it is likely to pre-date c.630 and the building of Tsromi to the west in Shida Kartli. It also raises questions as to why two variant forms of centrally-planned church were being experimented with perhaps almost at the same time in the same vicinity. Moving on to the "three church basilica" it is a large example of this type and has open arcades of two arches on both the north and south sides. There is a door to the north aisle from the main nave, but a corresponding door on the south aisle seems to have been sealed centuries ago as medieval frescoes now cover the area where the door once stood. As at Shilda, the entire construction took place as one project and the north and south aisles are firmly tied to the central nave. In the sixth century mortuary chapel (referred to in Georgian as the akeldama) it is clear that this was intially tied to another structure in the sixth century - possibly the refectory - and the later intervening space between the ossuary trench and the other building only became used as a burial ground for wealthy patrons and their families in the middle ages. The marani/refectory complex extant today dates from the twelfth century, as do the cells and work area excavated to the north of the main complex. The tower is sixteenth century, as is the tower at Shilda.
Tags: (As)Syrian Fathers, Architecture, Areshi, C12th, C16th, C4th, C6th-C7th, C8th-C9th, Centrally-Planned, Church, Dzveli Gavazi, Funerary Chapel, Georgia, Georgian, Georgian Inscription, Inscription, Kakheti, Khirsa, Kindzmareuli, Middle Ages, Nekresi, Shilda, Stepantsminda, Thirteen (As)Syrian Fathers, Three Church Basilica, Triple Basilica, Tsromi, Zoroastrian