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Conflicted Memories: Georgia’s Fraught National Heritage Sites

The stones may be centuries old, but the tensions are contemporary.

Words: Jack Beeching
Pictures: Jack Beeching
Date:

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

The tiny Akhieli village in the Arkhoti Gorge is home to around three families; their homes are nestled in the valley floor. Overlooking the settlement is Tsiskarauli Tower, a medieval military fort. This region, Khevsureti, is renowned for its warlike past: Raiders would often cross the northern border. When threatened, the Khevsurs of the valley would retreat into their tower, to cast down rocks and hot tar upon their attackers. With the stepladder raised, they could shelter inside for days.

Conflict around the tower isn’t just a thing of the past. During the Second Chechen War in 2001, the Russian army fired two missiles at 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 this September. Georgian, British, and French volunteers worked in the valley through the summer months — snow severs the mountain road in winter — mixing mortar and laying stones. The tower, once at risk of collapse, has been preserved. 

Heritage, according to historian David Lowenthal, is “the celebration of the past for present purposes.” Symbols matter more than sites. 

Histories of History

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

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

Nato Tsintsabadze has dedicated her life to that history. She trained as a conservation architect during perestroika — the political and economic liberalization of the Soviet system in the late 1980s — when nascent nationalism was breathing new life into Georgia’s heritage sector. But the economic anguish of the 1990s gave Georgians more pressing concerns. Tsintsabadze recalled that conservation work stalled; artworks went missing from museums. “There was no public awareness, no education,” Tsintsabadze told me, “That’s why the majority today think that only medieval castles and churches are important.” A 2014 poll suggests that only 9.3% of Georgians think that heritage sites have social value. 

Tsintsabadze is now president of ICOMOS Georgia, an NGO working to protect the country’s historical sites. It’s an uphill battle.

“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 as-yet unfinished luxury housing. Sakdrisi, perhaps the world’s most ancient gold mine, was blown up by a private mining company in 2014, after the site’s protected status was revoked. The ruling party, Georgian Dream, then blocked a parliamentary probe into the affair. 

In 2008, the Georgian Orthodox Church announced a controversial reconstruction project on Bagrati Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Church enjoys overwhelming public support, making it the most influential institution in Georgia today. A constitutional agreement, which recognizes its “outstanding role” in the country’s history, gives it discretion 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 obsessed,”  Tsintsabadze said. Part of Bagrati’s original cupola was destroyed, replaced with a replica. Following the scandal, UNESCO delisted the site

These losses still haunt Tsintsabadze: “We can’t deliver to future generations what we got from our ancestors. That’s painful.”

International National Heritage

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

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Tsiskarauli Tower, Arkhoti, Sept. 20, 2023.
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Peter Nasmyth, co-founder of the National Trust of Georgia, at the headquarters in Tbilisi, Sept. 20, 2023.
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A classic ‘Italian’-style building in Tbilisi, Sept. 20, 2023
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Niko (left) picking potatoes in Arkhoti, Sept 26, 2023.
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A ruined building in central Tbilisi, Sept. 20, 2023.
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A classic ‘Italian’-style building in Tbilisi, Sept. 20, 2023

Enamored with Georgian culture, Nasmyth has divided his time between London and Tbilisi since the 1980s. He would leave for several months, then return to find historic buildings replaced by glass and steel. Saddened by these losses, he set up the National Trust in 2016, alongside a group of Georgian colleagues. 

“We’re not radicals,” Nasmyth told me. Even so, Georgia’s fraught politics have sometimes mired the National Trust. In March of this year, the ruling party proposed a law requiring organizations partially funded from abroad to register as “agents of foreign influence.” The bill was widely compared to Russia’s foreign agent law, used to crack down on civil society. 

The backlash was swift, and decisive. Thousands took to the streets, including Nasmyth, who was teargassed by riot police. The government dropped the bill. 

Geopolitical Threats

Russia has occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia, one-fifth of Georgia’s territory, since the 2008 war. People living close to the boundary line are regularly detained, leading many to abandon their homes. The people I met in Tbilisi were often fatalistic: “If the Russians wanted to, they could take us in a week,” Tsintsabadze said. If heritage is part of a nation’s story, then it can become a target; over 300 cultural sites have been damaged in Ukraine since the invasion began. 

Although the Georgian people look West, to closer ties with NATO and the EU, their government often aligns itself with Moscow. Direct flights between the two countries resumed in May, after a four-year hiatus. Georgia remains one of the few visa-free destinations for Russians. When we last spoke, Nasmyth was planning a trip to the Khada Valley, north of Tbilisi. His latest, doomed fight is against the construction of a highway through the region. Khada holds dozens of medieval towers and archaeological sites, some over a thousand years old. Despite local opposition, the road will almost certainly be built. It leads to Russia

In Arkhoti, two guesthouses have recently opened. The rehabilitated tower has put this valley on the map for committed tourists. There’s a small museum inside, run by the locals. “What do you think of our tower?” they ask me, proudly. 

Cover photo of the interior of the National Trust of Georgia’s headquarters, Sept. 20, 2023.

Jack Beeching

Jack Beeching is a student at the London School of Economics with an interest in the former Soviet Union. He previously edited the LSE’s newspaper. Jack speaks Spanish and Russian.

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