UNESCO and Georgia: Rising Defiantly From the Ruins
Georgia’s mercurial leader cocks a snook at art-historical convention
Aug 26th 2010
IN MANY European countries, dwindling Christian flocks can barely cope with the patrimony they have inherited, from steeples to statues. Georgia, which adopted Christianity 17 centuries ago, faces almost the opposite problem: such is the strength of a religious revival that began after the fall of communism that a hectic programme of building and restoring churches—from tiny chapels to Tbilisi’s vast new Holy Trinity cathedral—can hardly keep up with demand.
And perhaps inevitably, the rush to refit ancient places of worship can easily run up against other priorities, including the latest international thinking about archaeology and conservation which holds that intervention should be kept to a minimum.
In some Georgian holy sites the choice is made easier by the devastation that has occurred over the centuries, leaving little to conserve. The sixth-century monastic complex of David Gareja was sacked by the Mongols in 1265, the Persians in 1615, and then turned into a firing range by the Soviet army; when modern monks reoccupied the place, they found little but damp, pockmarked caves. Elsewhere—in several medieval churches, for example—fair compromises have been made between the needs of modern congregations and the desire of art historians to coax faded frescoes gently back to life. On a shoestring budget, Georgia’s cultural monuments agency says it has carried out 400 conservation projects, mostly on churches, since 2004.
But there is one ultra-sensitive spot where Georgia’s masters—political and religious—are defying art-historical fashion, and are hence on a collision course with UNESCO. That is the Bagrati cathedral, a ruined structure dating from the 11th century. There a new dynasty, uniting the country’s west and east, set out to create a great empire. The edifice belongs to one of three world heritage sites in Georgia, and in theory, is subject to UNESCO’s rules.
But President Mikheil Saakashvili, and Patriarch Ilia II, the 77-year-old head of the Georgian church, have other ideas. The president has promised the patriarch that the cathedral will be rebuilt: walls, dome and all. Reconstruction is visibly in progress. Such a gesture plays well in a country where a towering expression of past and present glory has more appeal than fragile ruins; but it may be the boldest defiance of the world heritage regime that UNESCO has ever faced. True, Dresden was delisted as a site in 2009, but that was a rebuke to the city, not Germany’s government; a game park in Oman had the same fate in 2007 after the government wanted to drill for oil and tried to obtain a smaller boundary.
But Mr Saakashvili’s rebuilding of Bagrati is a new, head-on challenge to UNESCO’s ideas. A world heritage site is supposed to be of concern to all humanity; he is implying that its value to the Georgian nation comes first. With bristling ire, UNESCO is seeking a meeting with the Georgians to discuss the halting and reversal of the reconstruction. But in a land where religious and patriotic fervour abounds, Mr Saakashvili will not lose many votes by defying the outside world’s cultural overlords.