Nika Vacheishvili, the Director General of the National Agency for Cultural Heritage Preservation of Georgia, strongly disputes the preliminary conclusions drawn by UNESCO. He insists that the UNESCO assessment is based on incorrect information provided by experts who had not conducted a thorough study of the monument. Speaking with Tabula, Vacheishvili offered his own assessment of both the UNESCO preliminary opinion and the work completed at Bagrati Cathedral:
“That opinion, in my view, is very incompetent. Even though we tried to show every facet to an expert from the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and to avoid superficial discussions regularly provided him with materials, the expert still arrived in Georgia unprepared and, therefore, the [UNESCO] document is riddled with mistakes. We have reacted to that, having sent a letter to the relevant entity. We expect that the one-sidedness that exists today will be balanced and the situation will be brought in line with the reality.
“Many things in the opinion have been regrettable lies. I do not know what turned that person blind. Those four hundred stones, which we had discovered during these recent years and found place for each of them, are not just abandoned but are being installed to the places they belonged originally. Openings in the dome, the width of the dome, the number and form of arches are documented withthese very stones. It is therefore a pity that such competent organizations have drawn such incompetent conclusions. There have been instances, however, when UNESCO has disagreed with ICOMOS opinions and I hope that the case of Bagrati will be such an instance.
“Bagrati is a very complex project and, the closer the reconstruction comes to its completion, the more convinced I become that we have embarked on the correct path; that is, a balance between the old and the new. We have smaller modern inserts which reflect the Twenty-First Century, thus avoiding sham replication of the old. There, both old and modern are appreciated. And all that is combined in the fabric of the Cathedral.”
Modern inserts imply a glass lift. For some unknown reason, the existence of this object within the religious space has caused exaggerated concern among people interested in the fate of the Cathedral even though the UNESCO opinion itself says nothing extraordinary about the glass lift. Instead, the preliminary assessment is focused mainly on other more conspicuous interventions. In comments to media, architectural restorers and art critics alike have confirmed the fact that the glass lift is the least alarming problem among interventions endangering the authenticity of the Cathedral. In order to facilitate the movement of handicapped and elderly people, lifts, like wheelchair ramps, are considered desirable in buildings of any type or age. However, in the case of Bagrati Cathedral, questions have been raised about the engineering design which envisaged installation of the lift on the façade. Whether that design was prompted by the necessity to make lift access conspicuous or just to add yet another element of décor is a topic of separate discussion.
According to modern restoration theory formulated by Italian art historian Cesare Brandi, a ruin that is part of a monument of cultural heritage represents an independent work of art whereas the entire reconstruction of a building in ruins is merely a copy of an authentic building and is not justifiable either esthetically or historically.
The initiative to reconstruct Bagrati Cathedral originated with the Georgian Patriarchate. At the request of the Georgian Patriarch, discussions on the full reconstruction of Bagrati started in the 1990s. On 21 January 2008, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili chose Bagrati Cathedral as the site of his inauguration for a second term. There, the President addressed the nation after his swearing-in, declaring: “We are completing the ceremony and starting to rebuild Georgia. As a symbol of Georgia’s revival and strength, we pledge – with the blessing and supervision of the Patriarch as well as with the best specialists – to start restoration works on Bagrati in the forthcoming weeks.”
This year, President Saakashvili responded publicly to criticism that erupted following ongoing reconstruction work at the Cathedral. Speaking at the 26 May inauguration ceremony of the new Georgian Parliament building in Kutaisi, the President remarked: “Manypeople kept telling me that the reconstruction of the Bagrati Cathedral was barbarism, that no one reconstructed the Acropolis in Greece. I think, though, that Bagrati was built for people to pray there and now it must be restored for modern Georgians to pray there as well.”
Nika Vacheishvili, in his interview with Tabula, addressed the question of whether responsible people have to make a choice between the symbolism of the Cathedral and its authenticity:
“I want to specify that the entire authenticity is preserved. Anyone who will go to the Bagrati Cathedral will see that the main glory of the Cathedral comes from the Eleventh not the Twenty-First Century. That is that nuance which has been thoroughly observed in the project. UNESCO is a very respectable organization. But, when you are one-hundred percent sure that you meet all the criteria which is certified by national as well as by renowned international experts, I think you would agree with me that we could not stay inactive for the threat of hypothetical criticism, especially taking into account the reality that the Cathedral was on the verge of perishing. Bagrati is a national symbol of unity and it would be incorrect to preserve it in the form of ruins. Therefore, instead of just being on the UNESCO World Heritage List, it is better to make something innovative that would become an example for others. And I am sure that UNESCO will appreciate that risk. So far, it has maintained that cathedrals should not be touched but only preserved. This project, however, has shown that there is a solution between the preservation of antiquity, the restoration of a cathedral and the maintenance of it as a church.”
Tabula also contacted Andrea Bruno, the Italian architect in charge of restoration of Bagrati. In Bruno’s view, the plan of Bagrati rehabilitation – the largest part of which was drawn up by Georgian architect Ivane Gremelashvili – is “innovative” and in line with modern standards. As Bruno explained:
“The Bagrati Cathedral and the entire adjacent area, which have been distinguished for its construction stratigraphy for centuries, represent a synthesis of material and non-material values of certain importance. That treasury is acknowledged by international bodies and included in the World Heritage List. An innovative project which is being implemented on the left wing of the construction enables the reconstruction of a gallery which will house a museum in the future. Archeological items and photos of construction of the Cathedral displayed there will allow visitors to get acquainted with the history of Georgia from that angle.
“That project was presented from the very beginning as an innovative gesture in restoration, focused on identifying values of earlier structures and simplifying the reading of palimpsest of the Cathedral. I believe that after the completion of ongoing works, cultural andcreative values of the Cathedral and its entire area will be shown more conspicuously.
“My creative plan, which I started to develop in January 2011 along with restoration interventions, involves the identification and study of values of the construction and that part which lies within the adjacent entire archeological area. I think that this is a necessary condition in order to fully meet the requirement of bodies in charge of preservation of cultural heritage, to increase the interest toward the monuments on the Cultural Heritage List and possibilities of determining their values. The work on these issues will start after the completion of the reconstruction process.”
The Cathedral of the Dormition, more commonly known as Bagrati Cathedral, is a monument of medieval Georgian architecture built during the reign of King Bagrat III in Kutaisi. Construction of the Cathedral started at the end of the Tenth Century and, according to the inscription discovered on the Northern façade of the Cathedral, was completed in the year 1003. The first serious damage to the Cathedral occurred during the invasion of the Ottomans in 1691, when the dome of the cathedral caved in as a result of an explosion of gunpowder. In 1770, under the order of General Gottlieb Totleben, Russian cannons fired at the Kutaisi fortress destroyed the upper part of the Cathedral. In the following centuries, the damage worsened.In the 1950s, the restoration-conservation of the damaged monument started under the direction of Georgian architect Vakhtang Tsintsadze. The initial restoration work was divided into six stages and continued through 1994. That same year, UNESCO experts acknowledged the Bagrati Cathedral, along with the Gelati Monastery, as a World Heritage site and one of the distinguished monuments of Medieval-Age architecture.
The reconstruction work undertaken in the following years, however, has raised questions about the authenticity of the Bagrati and Gelati monuments. In 2010, both sites were demoted to the List of World Heritage in Danger. UNESCO has since repeatedly called on Georgia to halt the reconstruction. The UNESCO preliminary conservation opinion published on 1 June 2012 confirms the fears of experts that the monument may be removed from the List of World Heritage. Whether or not UNESCO will take that very drastic step should become clear during the Thirty-Sixth UNESCO session scheduled for 24 June through 6 July in Saint Petersburg. That will determine whether Georgia will preserve the reconstructed Bagrati as a historically authentic cathedral or a modern replica.
Editor’s Note: The UNESCO World Heritage Committee decided at its meeting in St. Petersburg to postpone any final resolution of the issue of Bagrati Cathedral until the year 2013. A group of international experts will arrive in Georgia in September 2012 to assess the status of the Georgian monuments on the UNESCO Cultural Heritage List.
This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 106, published 25 June 2012.