Conservation of the Bagrati Cathedral and Gelati Monastery was once again on the agenda of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention when its 35th session convened in Paris this summer.
In a decision adopted at the June session, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee said it “[w]elcomes the halting of all work on the Bagrati Cathedral, as well as progress in the implementation of the rehabilitation programme and the conservation master plan for Gelati Monastery.” The Committee also “note[d] with satisfaction that the coordination between the Georgian Church and the national authorities” has improved “management of religious and sacred World Heritage properties in Georgia.”
Built in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries, the Bagrati Cathedral and Gelati Monastery were jointly added to the World Heritage List by UNESCO in 1994. At that time, Bagrati Cathedral was in a semi-ruined state but considered to be a masterpiece of the history of medieval Georgian architecture. Last year, Bagrati Cathedral and Gelati Monastery were inscribed on the UNESCO List of World Heritage in Danger. The World Heritage Committee reached that decision in June 2010 when it determined that a major reconstruction project undertaken by the Georgian government threatened “to undermine the integrity and authenticity of the site.” In its 2010 decision, the Committee expressed “serious concern” about the effect of the reconstruction project and urged Georgian authorities to halt all work immediately at the Kutaisi site.
The more positive tone adopted by the World Heritage Committee in its June 2011 decision is attributed by the National Agency for Cultural Heritage of Georgia to the responsiveness of the Georgian side. As Rusudan Mirzikashvili, the head of the Agency’s international relations service, notes: “The Committee gave a positive assessment to the fact that the Georgian side last year made unprecedented progress in terms of fulfilling the previous decision of the Committee. There is virtually no point of the previous decision in relation to which more or less considerable progress has not been made.”
Rusudan Mirzikashvili considers the recent involvement of international experts in the rehabilitation process to be an important factor in the ability of the Georgian side to maintain constant and constructive communication with the World Heritage Centre. The UNESCO Committee specifically noted in its latest decision that Georgian authorities have appointed an international conservation architect as a consultant for Bagrati Cathedral and that Georgian engineers are working on a three-phased approach aimed at rehabilitating the Cathedral.
Regrettably, it might not be possible to reverse interventions carried out before national authorities stopped reconstruction work on Bagrati Cathedral. According to the World Heritage Committee, its own international consultant has determined that “the interventions are almost irreversible,” although it might be possible to mount a lightweight roof on the Cathedral’s existing concrete columns.
Rusudan Mirzikashvili dismisses as unfounded rumors that rehabilitation plans envisage covering the Cathedral with a glass dome: “No radical interventions are planned. Every plan is agreed with the World Heritage Centre as well as Georgian organizations and representatives of society interested in the issue.”
Georgia has been requested by the UNESCO Committee “to develop a rehabilitation strategy for the Bagrati Cathedral that reverses the maximum amount of recent work.” The Committee has further requested that this new rehabilitation strategy be submitted to the World Heritage Centre, for review by the Advisory Bodies, before the Georgian side undertakes any new commitment.
The National Agency for Cultural Heritage of Georgia says that it is ready to fulfill the latest UNESCO requirements: “We have already expressed full readiness, have mobilized a group of international experts and already launched those initial works which were feasible at this stage. We have repeatedly sent notifications that we urgently need detailed instructions in order to take concrete steps – this is a mutual process and we are waiting for their reciprocal steps.”
Concerns about the threat to the architectural integrity and historic authenticity of Bagrati Cathedral first surfaced in 2009, when rehabilitation work commenced at the site. Criticism of the rehabilitation project intensified following release of the 2010 decision of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee. That decision reads in relevant part: “The World Heritage Committee… Expresses its serious concern about irreversible interventions carried out by the State Party as part of the preparations for the Bagrati Cathedral reconstruction project prior to any review or approval of the project and its impact on the Outstanding Universal Value, integrity and authenticity of the property; Urges the State Party to halt immediately all interventions at Bagrati Cathedral, which threaten the Outstanding Universal Value, integrity and authenticity of the property.”
The rehabilitation work on Bagrati Cathedral had been suspended several times – the first time last year on the Georgian Patriarchate’s initiative. When work resumed on 17 June 2010, it caused a new wave of indignation which culminated in the World Heritage Committee decision at the 34th session in July 2010. In December 2010, the rehabilitation process was suspended yet again.
Despite positive changes realized since rehabilitation work was halted, Bagrati Cathedral and Gelati Monastery remain on the List of World Heritage in Danger. According to the Georgian side, several members of the Committee suggested removing the sites from that list, but UNESCO deemed such a move to be premature. The National Agency for Cultural Heritage is optimistic its efforts will pay off and the endangered world heritage designation of Bagrati Cathedral and Gelati Monastery will be lifted.
The Georgian government has been instructed to submit an updated report to the UNESCO World Heritage Centre by 1 February 2012. The state of conservation of Bagrati Cathedral and the Gelati Monastery will be discussed at the 36th session of the World Heritage Committee later in 2012.
Vocal critics of the rehabilitation work undertaken at Bagrati Cathedral complain that they have not been given access to any detailed information concerning current plans. According to one active critic, Manana Tevzadze, interested individuals have not even been allowed to visit the site.