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Restoration threatens Georgian medieval masterpiece

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  • Bill Samsonoff
    http://www.france24.com/en/20120103-restoration-threatens-georgian-medieval-masterpiece-0 03 January 2012 - 20H41 Restoration threatens Georgian medieval
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      http://www.france24.com/en/20120103-restoration-threatens-georgian-medieval-masterpiece-0

      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
      to rubble.

      "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
      the reconstruction.

      "Bagrati is a holy place and Kutaisi's main landmark. It must be
      restored and again be a functioning church," said local resident Naili
      Dzotsenidze.

      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
      Mirzikashvili.

      Jokilehto also said the Georgian authorities "have taken the situation
      very seriously" and expressed optimism that "acceptable solutions" would
      be found.

      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
      uncertain.
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