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."he 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)