Restoration threatening masterpiece of Georgian architecture

The 11th century Bagrati cathedral clad in scaffolding in Georgia’s second largest city of Kutaisi.

The 11th century Bagrati cathedral clad in scaffolding in Georgia’s second largest city of Kutaisi.

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.

The monument is collapsing and will fall apart without urgent intervention

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,” Mr 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 Ms 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.

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