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.