Saturday, Sep 29 2007
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Ancient monastery starts modern-day feud in Caucasus
Michael Mainville

May 3, 2007

DAVIT GAREJI, Georgia --  Perched high on a cliff side in the remote borderlands of eastern Georgia, the ancient Davit Gareji monastery hardly seems the kind of place that could be at the center of a modern-day diplomatic dispute.

Monks settled on this arid land in the early 600s, less than 200 years after Georgia became one of the first countries to adopt Christianity. They carved their homes into the stone and over the centuries built churches and towers that loom overhead on the long road to the monastery.

A handful of black-robed Georgian Orthodox monks still live here much as their forebears did, maintaining long-held traditions of seclusion and reflection. The modern world intrudes only in the form of occasional tourists on day-trips from the Georgian capital Tbilisi, about 85 kilometers (55 miles) away.

Behind the monastery grounds, a narrow trail snakes up to a stony ridge from where it becomes clear why Davit Gareji is threatening the attempts of two ex-Soviet neighbors to build closer ties.

From one side of the ridge, eastern Georgia spreads out below at the foot of the snow-capped Caucasus Mountains. On the other, a steep drop leads down to the western steppes of Muslim Azerbaijan.

But neither country can agree on exactly where the border lies and tempers have flared in recent weeks with both sides claiming the land that Davit Gareji sits on as their own.

"This is a holy place, but unfortunately that doesn't mean we are immune from politics," said Zaza Datunashvili, a heavily bearded novice monk at Davit Gareji.

More than 15 years after they became independent countries following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgia and Azerbaijan have yet to resolve claims over about 35 percent of their shared border.

Despite their cultural and religious differences, the two countries have become increasingly close, especially as relations with Russia have faltered over their increasingly pro-Western foreign policies.

They have worked in tandem to build a corridor of oil and gas pipelines to ship Caspian Sea reserves through their territory to Western markets. When Russia cut off gas supplies to Georgia a few months ago, Azerbaijan boosted its gas exports to Georgia to fill the gap.

In February, oil-rich Azerbaijan loaned Georgia $200 million to finance its share of a new railway link from the Azerbaijani capital Baku, through Georgia, to the Turkish city of Kars.

But new friendships can be fragile in the patchwork of nations around the Caucasus Mountains on Russia's southern border. Memories here are long and ancient claims not easily set aside.

The border dispute reignited when Azerbaijan's deputy foreign minister, Khalaf Khalafov, told a press conference in April that it was "out of the question" for Azerbaijan to give up its claims to the borderlands that include Davit Gareji.

Khalafov, the co-chairman of a joint border commission, then controversially said that the monastery actually belonged to the Caucasian Albanian culture - an early Christian civilization in what is now Azerbaijan.

Authorities in Azerbaijan also say that the region is on strategic high ground and is essential to maintaining the country's security.

Khalafov's statement drew angry responses from Georgia.

"It is absolutely unclear to me why my colleague made these remarks," Georgian foreign minister Gela Bezhuashvili told reporters in Tbilisi. "His history lessons are absolutely incomprehensible. He should read up on world history."

The patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Ilya II, said that the monastery was a holy shrine that must lie entirely on Georgian soil. Protestors rallied outside the Azerbaijani embassy and the Georgian foreign ministry in Tbilisi.

Senior officials, including Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, have downplayed the dispute, saying that it can be resolved through friendly dialogue.

But neither side appears willing to give ground.

"Georgians will never, under any circumstances, give up this territory," said Giga Bukia, a member of the Georgian parliament with the opposition Conservative Party, which has accused the government of softening its position on Davit Gareji in order to secure financial aid from Azerbaijan.

"Azerbaijan has absolutely no historical rights to this land," he said. "And what is this talk of it being a strategic location? Are they planning to go to war with Georgia?"

In Baku, historian Ismail Umudlu said that there was ample evidence of Azerbaijan's historic claim to the site, which Azerbaijanis call Keshish Dagh.

The monks who first settled at Davit Gareji were missionaries from Syria who spread Christianity not only in present-day Georgia but also in the ancient Caucasian kingdom of Albania, which controlled the territory of Azerbaijan before the arrival of the Azeri Turks and their conversion to Islam.

Umudlu said that the territory including the monastery only became part of Georgia in the 12th century, after the Caucasus Albanian culture had disappeared.

"This is a sacred place in Azerbaijani history as well and we are not required to give it up simply because it is not Muslim," Umudlu said.

Datunashvili, standing at the foot of the monastery's gate, scoffed at those claims. He said that Georgian inscriptions found at Davit Gareji date back to the 6th century and that there are no traces of another culture at the monastery.

"The idea that this monastery was founded by the Caucasus Albanians is simply absurd," he said. "You might as well say that Georgians built the Great Wall of China."


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