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In Georgia, a legacy threatened by progress

Nestled high in the Caucasus a mere whisper from where Russian and Georgian troops fought in 2008, another conflict is raging. But instead of topography, this one is being fought over the legacy of Bagrati Cathedral.

The late August sun is setting slowly, bathing the surrounding hills in golden light. Picnickers and tourists mill about, admiring a church that serves as one of Georgia's most potent national symbols. It's a serene moment, or would be were it not for the incessant buzz of jackhammers, dump trucks and construction crews.

Welcome to Bagrati Cathedral, perhaps the most controversial UNESCO World Heritage Site on earth.

"Bagrati plays an important part in Georgian history, but it has been controversial because of disagreements over how best to take care of it," explains a tour guide from Tbilisi named Zura. "The disagreement has been over whether Bagrati should be conserved or restored."

First built in the early years of the 11th century under the direction of King Bagrat III (from whom its name derives), Bagrati was at one point considered a masterpiece of medieval Georgian architecture. In 1692, it was devastated in an explosion by invading Ottoman troops, causing the ceiling to collapse and leaving the once-imposing church in ruins.

Zura, who has visited the cathedral a total of seven times, says the debate over conservation versus restoration has been raging in Georgia since at least the 1960s. "Some have said we don't need [the church to be restored]," he explains. "But the Georgian president was convinced to restore it as a symbol of Georgian reunification. Since then, there has been a lot of hype surrounding it."

Construction at Bagrati Cathedral in Kutaisi, Georgia.

Bagrati Cathedral is undergoing extensive restoration, which has sparked controversy

Opposition at home and abroad

Located at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, and occupied at various times by empires as varied as the Mongols and Persians, Georgia has been trying to restore its economy after a five-day war with Russia in 2008 that devastated the country. A major focus has been expanding the tourism sector, and so far the efforts are paying off: Georgia was ranked the world's third-fastest growing tourist destination last year, with a 39 percent increase in arrivals, according to the World Tourism Barometer. Restoring sites such as Bagrati, some argue, can help encourage even more people to visit by proving the country is united and stable.

But others have voiced their opposition both externally - with UNESCO decrying the restoration as having the potential to "undermine the integrity and authenticity of the site" - and internally, where the powerful Georgian Orthodox Church is strongly opposed to the plans, although Bagrati is an orthodox church.

Yet despite the criticism, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has been defiant in pushing for restoration: "Our position is very firm and clear - restoration of Bagrati Temple is very important for us, because Bagrati is the symbol of united Georgia," he told Georgian television station Rustavi 2 in June. "We do not need ruins, but a temple, where church service will be held and which will be the image of Georgia's development."

Mischa Amashukeli, left, and Tamar Amashukeli are two Georgians with different views about the resoration at Bagrati.

Mischa Amashukeli, left, and sister Tamar, right, have different views about Bagrati's restoration

Not all Georgians agree with Saakashvili's plans, however.

"I don't like it very much," says Tamar Amashukeli, an English teacher visiting Bagrati from Tbilisi. "I'm not sure it will be authentic when restoration is done."

Others disagree with Amashukeli. Her brother, Mischa, is one of them.

"Right now, I think it's okay," the 24-year-old says, adding he especially likes the new dome on which President Saakashvili helped place a 300-kilogram (660-pound) cross on August 20.

'It's a desecration'

Restoration has been ongoing at Bagrati since 2009, when the Georgian Ministry of Culture and Monuments Protection approved a rehabilitation plan that called for full restoration of the site. The plan was discussed and adopted by a small circle of experts without public debate, and work commenced shortly thereafter.

A year earlier, in 2008, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee requested "assurances that no reconstruction work shall commence" until Georgia had "provided complete and detailed documentation concerning this project for review by the World Heritage Committee." Restoration began regardless of UNESCO's protests.

A 2010 UNESCO report was sharper in tone. The World Heritage Committee expressed "its serious concern about irreversible interventions carried out on the site as part of a major reconstruction project" and said that the restoration "should be immediately halted."

A priest and a young boy watch the restoration of Bagrati.

The Georgian Orthodox Church has opposed the restoration of Bagrati

As work on Bagrati continues, it remains a World Heritage Site - for now.

The shadows gradually lengthening as the late summer sun slowly fades from view, a black-robed, bearded orthodox priest watches forlornly as dozens of men in hardhats scurry about like ants in a cloud of rising dust.

"I don't know if it will remain on the list [or not]," he says, declining to give his name. "But that is not the important thing. What is being done here is not a restoration; it's a desecration."

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