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Monastery Divides Georgia and Azerbaijan

Suggestions that cave monastery could be shared provoke opposition in Georgia
By Idrak Abbasov
Georgia and Azerbaijan, strategic allies on many issues, have failed to reach an agreement on the status of a monastery that lies on their common border.



The spectacular cave monastery known by Georgians as David Gareji and Azerbaijanis as Keshish Dagh is an important religious centre and cultural monument for Georgians. Azerbaijanis regard it as part of their cultural heritage, and also say it lies on strategic high ground.



The current border runs through the monastery grounds, with the majority of the churches on the Georgian side. There are border guards on both sides.



The exact delimitation of the border was not an important issue in Soviet times and has arisen only since both Georgia and Azerbaijan became independent. The two sides have failed to reach agreement at a number of recent meetings of a bilateral frontier demarcation commission. The commission made no public announcement after its most recent meeting this month, although official sources said a plan was under discussion for the state frontier to remain where it is, while both sides would be free to use the monastery as a tourist centre.



“All the religious sites should remain in David Gareji, but tourists from both Georgia and Azerbaijan go there, and it will be good if the numbers grow,” said Georgian culture minister Georgi Gabashvili. “Everyone should have the chance to see the monastery and I don’t understand what the problem could be.”



The monastery is situated in southern Georgia, 565 kilometres from the Azerbaijani capital Baku and 60 km from the Georgian capital Tbilisi. It dates back to the sixth century and is spread over 25 kilometres of arid landscape, with hundreds of buildings and churches built into rocks and cliffs, many of them still inhabited by monks.



On the Azerbaijani side, the landscape is completely deserted for 15 km between the Boyuk Kesik border checkpoint and the monastery.



The empty territory is used as pastureland, and all along the road this IWPR correspondent met shepherds and their dogs with flocks of sheep.



“In summer we go to Keshish Dagh to relax, and the Georgians go to pray,” said 61-year-old Ahmed Salimov from the village of Boyuk Kesik.



There are Azerbaijani border posts at the foot of the hill where the monastery is located as well as at the top. This correspondent was told he needed special permission to visit the monastery, meaning it was only possible to reach it from the Georgian side.



“This is a strategic location,” an Azerbaijani officer told IWPR. “It’s true we are on friendly terms with Georgia, but no country would give up strategic heights like these to another state.”



In recent years, Azerbaijan and Georgia have cooperated closely on prestigious projects such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline. The disagreement over the monastery is therefore an embarrassment to both sides.



Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili told journalists that it was not right to say there was a “dispute” over David Gareji. “It’s not a dispute,” he said. “We have a fraternal relationship with our friends have and we hope that we can settle this issue quickly.”



However, officials on both sides are digging in their heels - while repeating that bilateral relations are friendly.



Azerbaijani deputy foreign minister Halaf Halafov said, “We should not make a problem out of this. Everyone knows that the greater part of the complex lies on Azerbaijani territory, and we will solve this problem peacefully with the Georgians.”



The head of Georgia’s border police Badri Bitsadze said his country “will not give up a centimetre” of the monastery site.”



Georgian deputy foreign minister Giorgi Manjgaladze, who chairs a commission on border demilitarisation and demarcation, said that because Georgia attached such cultural and religious importance to David Gareji, his government was ready to offer Azerbaijan other territory in exchange for the area under dispute.



“We are interested in a possible exchange of territory,” he told IWPR. “We have made this position known to our Azerbaijani colleagues.” Manjgaladze said 95 per cent of the monastery grounds lie inside Georgian territory.



Baku is not keen on the proposed land swap. An Azerbaijani border guard official who wished to remain anonymous said, “This is the only strategically important spot on high ground in the surrounding area, and it is not in Azerbaijan’s interests to give it up in exchange for other territories.”



Inside Georgia, official suggestions that the territory of David Gareji could be a shared tourist zone have sparked indignation from the Georgian public, which is 85 per cent Christian, and from the Orthodox church.



Patriarch Ilya II said the monastery was a holy shrine that should lie entirely on Georgian soil.



Members of the Kartuli Dasi party and the non-government Union of Orthodox Parents of Georgia held two protest demonstrations this month, one outside the Azerbaijani embassy and one outside the Georgian foreign ministry.



“It looks as though our leaders are prepared to give Azerbaijan absolutely anything, including holy shrines, in exchange for energy resources” said one protestor, Lasha Zedgenidze.



Georgians point out that some of the frescoes dating back to the eighth century on the walls of the rockface churches depict kings and queens of Georgia.



However, some Azerbaijani historians claim that the monastery actually belongs to the Caucasian Albanian culture – an early medieval Christian civilisation in what is now Azerbaijan.



“The monastery was inside Georgia only in the 12th century,” said Azerbaijani journalist and historian Ismail Umudlu, who has studied the monastery. “Both before and after this period, the area was part of a state to which Azerbaijan is a successor.”



Georgian art historian Dmitry Tumanishvili dismissed this argument, saying that the churches were full of evidence of Georgian history, and there were no traces of Caucasian Albanian heritage there.



“David Gareji is covered in the work of Georgian masters; there are Georgian inscriptions everywhere dating back to the sixth century,” he said. “There are no traces of another culture there. After that, I don’t think you need any further proof.”



Visitors to the monastery play down the quarrel, saying that border guards on both sides allow them to wander freely through its spectacular cave landscape.



“I visit this unique place very often and always try to show it to my friends when they visit Georgia,” said Khatuna Jangirashvili who lives in Tbilisi. “It’s absolutely no problem to cross into Azerbaijan. It’s just that the Azerbaijani border guards don’t like us photographing their frontier posts. There are no other problems.”



Idrak Abbasov is a correspondent for the Ayna/Zerkalo newspaper in Baku. David Akhvlediani is a correspondent for Rezonansi newspaper in Tbilisi. This collaboration was done under IWPR’s new Cross Caucasus Journalism Network project.