Culture minister: 2008-2020 rehabilitation "experiment" on Gelati UNESCO World Heritage Site "big mistake"

  • The culture ministry and heritage preservation agency are expecting a visit from a UNESCO expert next month for studying the damage on the roofing of the monument. Photo via National Agency for Cultural Heritage Preservation of Georgia., 20 May 2021 - 15:51, Tbilisi,Georgia

Thea Tsulukiani, the Minister of Culture, Sport and Youth of Georgia, has called the 2008-2020 rehabilitation work on Gelati Monastery Complex in the country's west a "big mistake" and an "experiment" that has proved "damaging" to the UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Speaking to the media on Thursday about the ongoing work on the site that has proved problematic over the years, Tsulukiani said it was her "subjective opinion" that the 2008-launched initiative on the complex - with its latest phase involving a replacement of the roofing with pieces resembling the Medieval tiles originally used on the site - had been an "experiment damaging to the monument".

In her comments about ongoing work around the 12th century complex, Tsulukiani said the National Agency for Cultural Heritage Preservation had now requested restriction of access to the scaffolding on the monument - citing needs for preventing further damage - and received approval from the ministry for the measure. The minister herself issued a strongly worded message against "wandering around on the scaffolding" that was "causing further damage to the frescoes" in Gelati.

In another update on developments around the World Heritage Site, Tsulukiani told reporters the ministry was expecting a UNESCO expert visit in June to inspect the roofing and issue recommendations for further rehabilitation efforts. She also lamented what she called a neglect of opinion of local professionals on assessing the damage, alleging their old age had played a role in their knowledge of the matter having being ignored.

Unfortunately, Gelati was selected as an experiment starting in 2008 [for the work] on restoring the Medieval- and Georgian Golden Age-era tiling method. I believe this to have been a big mistake. This experiment damaged the monument

- Thea Tsulukiani, Minister of Culture, Sport and Youth of Georgia

The minister's comments come after rounds of controversy surrounding the major monument, with the latest incident emerging on the site in the summer of 2020 when rainwater leaks into St Mary Temple - the principal part of the complex - were reported after a newly installed roof tiling proved defective. Staff working at Gelati told Radio Liberty rainwater had leaked into the building a number of times over the past few years and damaged some of the frescoes.

The cultural heritage agency later fined and replaced the contractor company in January for "failure to amend results of work carried out in violation of terms, despite warnings issued last year". Some local experts said a proper solution to the issue would require intervention from foreign professionals, citing a lack of qualified local knowledge on monument restoration.

After Tsulukiani's appointment as culture minister in March, the ministry announced a call for local professionals of monument restoration, in a bid to create a registry of the experts and "revive" the tradition of local knowledge in the field. The state institution cited the botched roof work on Gelati as an example of a loss of an organised system of monument rehabilitation in recent history.

The roof tiling selected in the rehabilitation work that later proved defective and leaked rainwater in 2020. Photo via National Agency for Cultural Heritage Preservation of Georgia.

Rehabilitation of the complex, a major work of national importance, was launched in 2008 and involved both state and international support, including from the World Bank, the Ambassador's Fund for Cultural Preservation at the United States Embassy in Tbilisi, and the Municipal Development Fund of Georgia.

Rehabilitation of the St Mary Temple of the complex was started later with professionals involved in the work using roof tiling made to resemble tiles discovered around the site in the mid-1980s and considered to have been used in the original roofing of the 12th century building.

The Gelati complex had been part of the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1994, when it shared the spot with the nearby 11th century Bagrati Cathedral. They were later moved to the UNESCO list of endangered sites in 2010 when government-led restoration works - initiated in defiance of UNESCO regulations - led to the international organisation's warnings on "irreversible interventions carried out on the site".

Following years of work by the subsequent Georgian government, Gelati was re-accepted in the World Heritage List as a separate monument, with the decision announced at the 41st UNESCO World Heritage Committee meeting in Kraków, Poland in 2017.

Located outside the western Georgian city of Kutaisi, the monastery is noted by the UNESCO for representing "the masterpiece of the architecture of the 'Golden Age' of Georgia and the best representative of its architectural style".