Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Fog of war obscures state of cultural heritage sites in Georgia

The recent hostilities in Georgia have again focused attention on the impact of armed conflict on the region's ancient sites and monuments.

One of the oldest countries of the South Caucasus region, Georgia is particularly rich in cultural heritage, containing countless archaeological sites and medieval and later buildings of great historical significance. The country has three sites on UNESCO's World Heritage List and a further fifteen on the Tentative List for possible inclusion.

In 1991, following the fall of communism, Georgia became an independent nation. However, like many of its neighbours it has struggled with the transition from a relatively impoverished Soviet satellite state to a full-blown market economy.

The conflict of the early 1990s in the Russian-backed separatist republic of Abkhazia in north western Georgia brought widespread looting and damage to the region's cultural heritage. As a result, the website of ICOMOS, (the International Council on Monuments and Sites), has stated that "the entire cultural heritage of Georgia is endangered."

Maka Dvalishvili, director of the Georgian Arts and Cultural Centre (GACC) in Tbilisi, and Fulbright Scholar at the Harriman Institute at Columbia University, told me it is too early to make an accurate assessment of the impact of the recent war on the region's cultural sites. "At the moment, there is no way to get to the key areas to assess the damage. It is not even safe for local residents. There is a real risk of unexploded mines and the armed forces say it will be two weeks before the territory is safe enough to enter."

A monitoring group from the Georgian Ministry of Culture in Tbilisi is standing by, ready to go in.

Nato Tsintsabadze, an architect and advisor on cultural heritage matters to ICOMOS and the Georgian Ministry of Culture, told me, "A plan is being prepared for monitoring and emergency response to war-damaged cultural heritage in the country which will take place after (and if) the European peace-keepers enter in the occupied territories. There are some efforts to gather information through interviewing displaced people from central Georgia."

Meanwhile, the draft of a preliminary report prepared by ICOMOS Georgia for Mr. Dinu Bumbaru, Secretary General of ICOMOS, states that, "On 7 August, ICOMOS Georgia professionals were at the village Ateni (near the town Gori) working on the 6th-century Ateni Sioni Church when shelling of the village had started. Fortunately, all the team had managed to leave the village together with other civilians without losses. Regretfully, there are casualties among our colleagues and their families working in the field of heritage preservation of Georgia."

There are around 345 registered historical monuments and archaeological sites within the main conflict zones (Gori District, Java District, Akhalgori District, Kareli District), 53 of which are in the city of Gori itself. These include the cave city of Uplistsikhe (dating from the 1st millennium BC up to the late Middle Ages); the Church of Ateni Sioni (7th century architecture, 11th century murals), and Ikorta Church (12th century).

The ICOMOS draft reports states that, "We are especially concerned with news of rockets being fired into the Uphlistsikhe rock-cut city (5th-century BC-7th century), a site on the World Heritage Tentative List, but since the site is not accessible we don’t have information about the scale of damage. The horrifying news of looting of the 11th-century Samtavisi Cathedral [shown above left in eastern Georgia some 45km from Tbilisi and another candidate for inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage List] shocked us. But again details are not known."

The Georgian city of Gori, birthplace of Joseph Stalin (and home of the Stalin Museum right), 47 miles from the capital Tbilisi, is also home to the medieval citadel of Goris-Tsikhe, which dates back to the pre-Christian era. Gori suffered severe Russian airstrikes during the recent conflict with numerous human casualties and many residential and public buildings reduced to rubble.

Lying within 3-5km of Gori are monuments of inestimable archaeological importance, says Maka Dvalishvili. "These are really wonderful sites from antiquity, but although the bombs fell nearby, the reports we've received from local museum directors suggest that no major damage was done. Again, it is too early to be sure."

The ICOMOS report says, "It is difficult to count sites at risk beyond the war zone, since the missile attacks were going on entire territory of Georgia (sic) and it is still ongoing in western Georgia, though with less intensity."

Another village to suffer heavy fighting was the village of Nikozi, some 20 km (12 miles) outside the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali. Maka Dvalishvili says, "The village contains the 10th century Church of the Archangel, a 5th/6th century Domed Church, a 16th/17th century Bell Tower, the 10th/11th century Archbishop’s Palace, and walls and other structures dating from the Middle Ages. The final state of the architectural ensemble is uncertain".

Reports say that after evacuating the archbishop from Nikozi the Russians fire-bombed his palace. One unconfirmed eye-witness report from the village of Nikozi stated: "There is the Nikozi diocesan church in our village. Yesterday, when I came there, I found the bishop Isaia and his congregation praying. The shelling started just at that moment. The monastery was also bombed. The Bishop had to take his congregation out of there. We passed several villages on foot. The Bishop contacted the priest Andria, who came for us with a minibus from Gori. Only the bishop Isaia and the priest Antoni [were] left behind, saying 'We cannot leave now' and they went back under fire and this disaster. They are there even today. We left. I could imagine anything, but shelling the Orthodox Church." (source: www.ireport.com)

The International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) has issued a 'Watch List' of "Georgian museums in uncertain conditions situated in regions occupied by the Russian Army." The list includes the Joseph Stalin State Museum in Gori, the Sergi Makalatia Gori Historical & Ethnographical Museum, five further museums in and around Gori, and two museums in South Ossetia.

Thea Paichadze, Head of the Division of Museums and Moveable Monuments at the Cultural Heritage Department of the Georgian Ministry of Culture, says that reliable information remains hard to get.

"There are several museums in the conflict region Shida Kartli (particularly in Samachablo (so called by Russians 'South Ossetia'). We don’t know anything about three of them: Ivane Machabeli House Museum (in the village of Tamarasheni, near Cxinvali [Tskhinvali], capital of Samachablo [South Ossetia]), Didi Liakhvi Gorge Museum-Reserve (in the village of Kurta) and Iakob Gogebashvili House Museum in the village of Variani, Gori district, where fire bombs were thrown in the morning of 8th August."

"When the bombing started the population fled and those who left are unreachable. So we don’t know what was happened with these museums. The whole population was evacuated from the villages of Tamarasheni and Qurta, where everything was destroyed and possibly the buildings of the museums as well."

Ms Paichadze says that while Gori’s Stalin Museum management had a little more time for evacuation, they managed to evacuate part of the exhibits. "After being properly documented, they were handed over in my presence for temporary storage to the one of the Tbilisi museums. Yesterday the director went back to Gori, all the windows of the building are broken, but fortunately nothing else is damaged."

In reports reminiscent of the Iraq Museum crisis of April 2003, the situation at the Ksani Gorge Historical–Architectural Museum in Akhalgori is also unclear. "Russian troops entered few days ago," Thea Paichadze told me. "I have very frequent phone conversation with director of museum. Georgian population left the village. His family also, but he is staying alone at the museum and looking over it. He secures it and takes care as he can do (but what he can do?) For several times he could manage to protect museum from Russian soldiers, although he is afraid of how long he can resist them. The exhibits/ artifacts can not be moved out of the building. The biggest part of it is well packed and moved to more safe places of the building, while rooms are sealed. Because of current situation in the museum I immediately informed the deputy minister, which has contacted ministry of internal affairs and asked for support.  At this stage they also can not do anything."
The ethnic nature of Georgian separatist conflicts is a source of further anxiety among cultural heritage professionals, not least for what the future might hold for the ancient sites and monuments. "A real worry — and it's a very serious point," says Maka Dvalishvili, "is that if relations deteriorate further the South Ossetians might cause deliberate damage to ancient Georgian cultural sites in their territory."

Reports by websites and bloggers sympathetic to Russia and the Russian-backed South Ossetians claim that Georgia had razed Tskhinvali to the ground in a way reminiscent of the siege of Leningrad or the invasion of Fallujah by US counter-insurgency forces in November 2004.

"Humanity witnessed a real cultural catastrophe as the capital of South Ossetia, Tskhinvali, was completely destroyed in a few days," wrote one contributor to the website The Voice of Russia.

The Voice of Russia website goes on to quote Aleksandr Kibovsky, a historian and the head of the Russian Federal Service for the Preservation of Cultural Values, who said, "The culture of South Ossetia suffered a great loss" [...] "The region of South Ossetia was always remarkable for its unique monuments of history and culture. Now, we can only remember that the residents of now-destroyed Tskhinvali used to have two museums, a theatre, and a library… Apart from this, there were hundreds of unique archaeological and architectural monuments there, some of them going back several centuries, and, now, as a result of the Georgian invasion, everything is lost forever. How cruel and cynical it was to destroy the cultural heritage and memory of a whole nation in a few days!”

The fog of war makes apportioning responsibility for the destruction an onerous task, however. For every claim there is a counter-claim. Reports from international news agencies who visited Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, after the shelling (here for example) state that most of the city remains standing.

More news of the Georgian cultural heritage situation will follow on this blog as the security situation in Georgia and surrounding region improves. Tom Flynn welcomes writing and journalistic assignments. Contact: tom flynn at bt internet dot com.