”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.”
The Economist online edition, August 26, 2010
At its 34th session in Brazil two months ago, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee added the Bagrati Cathedral and Gelati Monastery to its list of World Heritage Endangered Sites. The official UNESCO statement reads: “The Committee expressed its serious concern about irreversible interventions carried out on the site as part of a major reconstruction project. The Committee believes this project will undermine the integrity and authenticity of the site and should be immediately halted.”
Bagrati Cathedral and Gelati Monastery entered the status of World Heritage Sites in 1994. UNESCO acknowledged these monuments as outstanding representations of medieval architecture in Georgia. Their World Heritage Status imposes on Georgia a responsibility to the international community for their protection and preservation.
Designation of the Bagrati Cathedral and Gelati Monastery as endangered sites is the latest in a series of events surrounding the controversial reconstruction of the Cathedral. In the summer of 2009, the Ministry of Culture and Monuments Protection of Georgia approved a rehabilitation plan for Bagrati Cathedral. The rehabilitation plan envisaged full restoration of the site. The plan was discussed and adopted by a small circle of experts without public debate, and restoration work commenced promptly – and quite unexpectedly – thereafter.
A year earlier, in 2008, a formal decision adopted by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee requested that Georgia “provide assurances that no reconstruction work shall commence until the State Party has provided complete and detailed documentation concerning this project for review by the World Heritage Committee.” Similar requests were repeatedly made, but ultimately ignored. Without any prior agreement with UNESCO, intensive work began at Bagrati Cathedral.
As early as 2004, UNESCO reported that any reconstruction project had to take into account the outstanding universal value of the monument and its authenticity. International experts deemed it necessary to preserve the monument in the form of ruins, the form in which Bagrati Cathedral entered the World Heritage List. At that time, UNESCO did not question its authenticity.
A belated but sharp reaction to the ongoing reconstruction came from a small group of local professionals. A campaign they started on the social network Facebook was widely covered in the media and soon attracted wide public attention. Art critics, architects, historians, artists, writers, non-governmental organizations – all began talking about Bagrati. In response to the public outcry, the President declared at the 2009 opening ceremony of the restored Gelati Academy:
“I will not change my opinion on this matter. Bagrati must be restored up to its glory and be displayed in its full splendor.”
Wide-spread public attention finally prompted the Patriarchate of Georgia to put forward an initiative to halt the reconstruction work – temporarily. The official statement read, “Because the current process has become a matter of controversy in society, we propose to suspend temporarily all work and to create a competent commission comprising representatives of the Ministry of Culture, the Patriarchate and UNESCO, including experts opposing the current reconstruction work.”
The reconstruction was indeed suspended only temporarily. On 17 July 2010, reconstruction resumed. The Government views the monument as a symbol of Georgia’s unity. Both the State and the Church support its full restoration. The country is nonetheless ready to cooperate with UNESCO and other international experts, according to Nika Rurua, the Minister of Culture and Monument Protection. As Minister Rurua told the media: “This cathedral falls under the category of endangered monuments. The problems (wind erosion, water erosion, snow, rain) this site has had are still unresolved, and it is necessary to complete the restoration in cooperation with UNESCO. The most dangerous approach would be to leave the site in its current state.”
World Heritage Sites can be found everywhere on earth. Many of them are preserved in the form of ruins or are heavily damaged. Pompeii (destroyed during the eruption of the volcano Mount Vesuvius), the half-ruined Coliseum in Rome, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, are among them. These and many similarly ruined or partially destroyed sites attract the attention and admiration of millions of people each year. The Great Sphinx of Giza apparently was originally covered in plaster and painted bright colors. Napoleon’s army broke off the nose of the majestic Sphinx, but no one yet has come up with the idea to glue the nose back on the Sphinx.