Conflicting Memories: Georgia’s Troubled National Heritage Sites

Niko, my driver, crosses himself three times as we reach the top of the pass. The road ahead, winding dangerously down into the Arkhoti Gorge, is hidden in clouds. This is one of the most remote places in the Georgian Caucasus. Further north is Chechnya.

The small village of Akhieli in the Arkhoti Gorge is home to about three families; Their houses are embedded in the valley floor. The Tsiskarauli Tower, a medieval military fortress, towers over the settlement. This region, Khevsureti, is known for its warlike past: raiders often crossed the northern border. When threatened, the Khevsurs of the valley retreated to their tower to throw stones and hot tar at their attackers. With the stepladder raised, they could hide inside for days.

Conflicts surrounding the tower are not just a thing of the past. During the Second Chechen War in 2001, the Russian army fired two rockets at the Tsiskarauli Tower. The entrance and one of the windows were reduced to rubble.

The tower’s restoration, organized by the National Trust of Georgia, was completed in September this year. Georgian, British and French volunteers worked in the valley during the summer months – snow separates the mountain road in winter – mixing mortar and laying stone. The tower, which was once in danger of collapsing, has been preserved.

According to historian David Lowenthal, heritage is “the celebration of the past for present purposes.” Icons are more important than websites.

Stories of history

“We are a country of ancient civilization!” Mikheil Saakashvili, the then Georgian president, appointed him president in September 2008. Crowds had gathered to listen to him in Tbilisi’s Freedom Square, around a monument to St. George where Lenin’s statue had once stood. The speech had a defiant tone despite Georgia’s recent defeat in the Russo-Georgian War. The message was clear: Georgia was stepping out of the shadow of its northern neighbor. Saakashvili saw himself as a nation builder. Georgia’s pre-Soviet history formed the basis.

Only 9.3% of Georgians believe that heritage sites have social value.

Nato Tsintsabadze has dedicated her life to this story. She trained as a heritage architect during perestroika – the political and economic liberalization of the Soviet system in the late 1980s – as burgeoning nationalism breathed new life into Georgia’s heritage sector. But the economic hardship of the 1990s gave Georgians even more pressing concerns. Tsintsabadze recalled that conservation work had stalled; Works of art disappeared from museums. “There was no public awareness, no education,” Tsintsabadze told me, “so today the majority thinks that only medieval castles and churches are important.” A 2014 poll found that only 9.3% of Georgians thought so are that cultural heritage sites have social value.

Tsintsabadze is now president of ICOMOS Georgia, an NGO that works to protect the country’s historical sites. It’s a tough fight.

“It’s all about money – today, now, quickly,” she told me. In 2009, the Tbilisi City Council oversaw the demolition of Mirza Shafi Street, the oldest in Tbilisi, to make way for unfinished luxury apartments. Sakdrisi, perhaps the world’s oldest gold mine, was blown up by a private mining company in 2014 after the site’s protected status was revoked. The ruling Georgian Dream party then blocked a parliamentary inquiry into the affair.

In 2008, the Georgian Orthodox Church announced a controversial reconstruction project for Bagrati Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The church enjoys overwhelming public support and is now the most influential institution in Georgia. A constitutional agreement that recognizes its “prominent role” in the country’s history gives it freedom of choice over all religious sites. It didn’t matter that the knowledge needed to reconstruct the 11th-century ruin had been lost to history; “The church was possessed,” Tsintsabadze said. Part of Bagrat’s original dome was destroyed and replaced with a replica. After the scandal, UNESCO removed the site from the list.

These losses still plague Tsintsabadze: “We cannot give future generations what we received from our ancestors.” That is painful.”

International national heritage

Ironically, support for conservation work in Georgia often comes from abroad. The US Embassy is a major donor, as is the Council of Europe. The restoration of Tsiskarauli was funded by the ALIPH Foundation, a Geneva-based NGO. The National Trust of Georgia was co-founded by an English writer, Peter Nasmyth.