Georgia holds three World Heritage Sites, which are of great importance for the worldwide recognition of Georgian history and culture. However, all three sites are the subject of intense conflicts between state, religious and economic actors and UNESCO. Since 2010, the recognition of the Gelati Monastery complex northeast of Kutaisi has been under threat as UNESCO believed that the structural changes to the Bagrati Cathedral in Kutaisi endangered the authenticity of the building. After long negotiations, it was agreed in 2015 that the Gelati Monastery would be added to the list. Bagrati Cathedral, however, was removed from the prestigious list, which is of great importance to every state with regard to its tourist attractiveness (cf. UNESCO 2010, 2017).
Read about the case of Bagrati Cathedral „Georgian Perspectives | Controversial World Culture – Conflicts over Georgia’s Architectural Heritage Using the Example of the Bagrati Cathedral in Kutaisi“
These developments around the Bagrati-Gelati Complex show how World Heritage sites are political spaces in which different actors struggle for interpretative sovereignty over space.
Read the articles „Ushguli’s World Heritage in danger (Ushguli, village of Chazhashi, Georgia)“ and „Towers, mountains, sickles and hammers – different perspectives on the question of what is part of the cultural heritage of a community.“
The decisive criterion for the inclusion of the Gelati Monastery on the World Heritage List was the harmonious and symmetrical design of the architecture of the monastery complex. Its importance for the Georgian cultural area is as undisputed as the significance of the 12th-century institution, which extends far beyond Georgia.
Drawings of the entire monastery complex in the side view from north and south
Founded in 1106 in the west of Georgia, the Monastery of Gelati is a masterpiece of the Golden Age of medieval Georgia, a period of political strength and economic growth between the 11th and 13th centuries. It is characterized by the facades of smoothly hewn large blocks, balanced proportions and blind arches for exterior decoration. The Gelati monastery, one of the largest medieval Orthodox monasteries, was also a centre of science and education and the Academy it housed was one of the most important centres of culture in ancient Georgia.UNESCO (1994)
The 12th century mosaic in the altar niche of the main church depicts Our Lady with the Child; the floor plans show the main church and St. George’s Church, the northern new buildings are from the 13th to 14th centuries; the section of a 12th century Gospel book shows the teachings at the University of Gelati
The construction was started in 1106 by the Georgian king Davit IV; his tomb is located in the southern gate of the complex. Davit IV is considered the founder of the medieval „Golden Age“ because he succeeded in reuniting Georgia as a kingdom. He successfully combined religious, state and military power and thus strengthened the unity of the empire. This was associated with an upgrading of ecclesiastical authority, which is why Davit is also a central figure of identification for the Georgian Orthodox Church and many devout Georgians.
In Gelati, just as in Ushguli, UNESCO included the natural environment in its evaluation. This inevitably entails coordination on the further use of both the building ensemble, which has been awarded World Heritage status and the surrounding area.
The whole monastic precinct is included in the property and contains all the main 12th century buildings as well as those added in the 13th century. All the attributes necessary to express the Outstanding Universal Value are present and included in the area. No important original feature of the monastery from the 12th and 13th centuries have been lost during the centuries, and its landscape setting remains largely intact. Not all buildings are in a good state of conservation.UNESCO (2017)
As the monastery complex is visited by tourists and inhabited by monks, there exists a conflict of use. Furthermore, there are plots of land around the complex whose ownership has not been fully clarified. Strictly speaking, the ownership by the church is controversial. Included in the so-called buffer zone is the Motsameta Monastery, which is situated above the Tskaltsitela River.
Motsameta Monastery, situated above the Tskaltsitela River
In this context, a law promoted by the ruling party of Georgia is of importance, which in principle is to attribute to the church the ownership of undeveloped forest areas surrounding churches (see OC Media 2020).
The Management Plan 2017-2021 reflects contributions of the Church, and relevant government bodies and community groups who were involved in the consultation process. It aims to set out a shared vision for the property. The Plan was developed in harmony with the Conservation Master Plan, with the Imereti Tourism development strategy, and with the 2014 management plan for the Imereti Protected Areas that includes the valley and canyon of the Tskaltsitela River in the buffer zone. It needs approval to become fully operational and enforceable by relevant authorities. A Management Committee for the property remains to be appointed and it is necessary for key roles and responsibilities to be established.UNESCO (2017)
The Orthodox Church acts as a preserving force concerning old church buildings. However, its leaders make it clear that this is a religious, cultural heritage and that it is ultimately the Church that will decide how to deal with it. So far, the Church has been able to count on the support of Georgian society, because it has succeeded in presenting itself as the bearer of the state in terms of the Georgian identity. The Orthodox world view is still a dominant component of Georgian nationalism. However, popular support is waning in the wake of numerous scandals and behaviour during the COVID 19 pandemic that is incomprehensible to many Georgians (see OC Media 2020, Dustin Gilbreath & OC Media 2020).
Text: © Stefan Applis (2020)
Photos: © Stefan Applis (2017, 2019)
Reproductions of illustrations: All illustrations such as maps and historical photographs were taken from the volume ‚The Art of Old Georgia‘, edited by Russudan Mepisashvili and Wachtang Zinzadze; some of the photographs from the same volumen may have been taken by Rolf Schrade, but unfortunately it was not possible to trace them.
Stadelbauer, J. (2018): Schützen oder nutzen? Konflikte über das Bauerbe in Georgien. [Protect or use? Conflicts over the architectural heritage in Georgia] In: Osteuropa 68 (7), 47–77.
OC Media (2020). Georgian parliament paves the way for swathes of forestland to be handed to Orthodox Church. OC Media, 22 May 2020. https://oc-media.org/georgian-parliament-paves-the-way-for-swathes-of-forestland-to-be-handed-to-orthodox-church/
OC Media (2020). Georgians avoided church over Easter and disapproved of communal spoon, survey finds. OC Media, 23 July 2020. https://oc-media.org/georgians-avoided-church-over-easter-and-disapproved-of-communal-spoon-survey-finds/
Dustin Gilbreath & OC Media (2020): Analysis | Church scandals have hurt trust in the Georgian Orthodox Church. OC Media 3 August 2020. https://oc-media.org/features/analysis-church-scandals-have-hurt-trust-in-the-georgian-orthodox-church/
UNESCO (ed.) (1994): World heritage list – Gelati Monastery. https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/710/
UNESCO (ed.) (2010): World Heritage Committee inscribes Bagrati Cathedral and Gelati Monastery (Georgia) on List of World Heritage in Danger. https://whc.unesco.org/en/news/637/
UNESCO (ed.) (2017): Gelati Monastery, Georgia, removed from UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger. https://whc.unesco.org/en/news/1692/