03 January 2012 - 20H41
Restoration threatens Georgian medieval masterpiece
AFP - Bagrati cathedral, a world-renowned but crumbling masterpiece of
mediaeval Georgian architecture, is suffering not only from wear and
tear but also from the impact of human meddling.
Keen to please the influential Orthodox Church, the government in the
deeply religious former Soviet republic has defied world heritage body
UNESCO by starting to rebuild the 11th century monument.
The cathedral was badly damaged in the 17th century during an Ottoman
invasion, and as its elegant facades slowly crumble and a hole gapes
where there was once a majestic cupola, experts fear it could be reduced
"The monument is collapsing and will fall apart without urgent
intervention," said Georgian art historian Dimitri Tumanishvili.
But instead of conservation, the government started reconstruction work
that risked distorting the monument's original look, prompting outcry
from the United Nations culture agency UNESCO as well as experts at home.
"Bagrati's reconstruction will lead to the loss of its authenticity,"
said David Khoshtaria, an architecture conservationist.
"It is more about constructing a new building, rather than
reconstructing a historical monument," he added.
In Kutaisi, Georgia's second-largest city where Bagrati's imposing
silhouette dominates the urban landscape, locals appear to be happy with
"Bagrati is a holy place and Kutaisi's main landmark. It must be
restored and again be a functioning church," said local resident Naili
Built in the early 11th century by Bagrat III, the first king of unified
Georgia, the ancient cathedral is seen as a symbol of the unity of the
Georgian state -- an idea that still resonates strongly because the
country has lost two provinces to separatist rebels in recent years.
President Mikheil Saakashvili's administration, which has pledged to
restore control over the Moscow-backed breakaway regions of Abkhazia and
South Ossetia, is keen to restore Bagrati too.
"We will invite the best specialists from abroad in order to do
everything well," Saakashvili promised in 2009 as he launched an
ambitious project to renovate Kutaisi, where he is also relocating
parliament to an ultra-modern steel-and-glass building.
But the Bagrati reconstruction project infuriated UNESCO's World
Heritage Committee which monitors the conservation of buildings on the
World Heritage List.
In 2010, the Committee publicly censured Georgia by putting Bagrati on
its 'world heritage in danger' list.
It said the cathedral was under threat from "irreversible"
reconstruction works which could have an impact on its "Outstanding
Universal Value, integrity and authenticity".
Works carried out in Bagrati -- the construction of new pillars and
arches in the interior -- "have not been based on secure documentary
evidence", said Jukka Jokilehto, an expert at the International Centre
for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property.
"The situation is really serious," added Jokilehto, who is now helping
the Georgian government to create a more appropriate rehabilitation plan
for the cathedral.
UNESCO pressure forced the government to halt reconstruction until
experts find the right way to deal with Bagrati's problems.
"Whatever will be done to Bagrati, the Georgian authorities guarantee
that the cathedral's authenticity will be preserved," said a culture
ministry official in charge of world heritage-listed monuments, Ruska
Jokilehto also said the Georgian authorities "have taken the situation
very seriously" and expressed optimism that "acceptable solutions" would
But despite the assurances, some Georgian conservationists still fear
that the authorities' desire to win public approval by appeasing the
powerful Orthodox Church could be stronger than their wish to conserve
the country's heritage in the way UNESCO wants.
"Unfortunately, politicians often tend to ignore experts' opinion,"
architect Khoshtaria said.
If UNESCO accepts the new Georgian strategy, it could take Bagrati off
its danger list, but with scaffolding still obscuring some of its grand
contours and ornate facades, the future of the ancient cathedral remains