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Giorgii Anchabadze - the fate of the Bedia church

Bedia Church

Andrei Babitsky / Ekho Kavkaza

PRAGUE --- Today within the framework of our traditional Friday programme "Guest of the  Week," the editor in chief of Radio "Echo of the Caucasus," Andrej Babitskij, talks to well-known Georgian historian Giorgi Anchabadze (son of famous Abkhazian Historian and Academician Zurab Anchabadze [Achba] - AW) about the fate of the Bedia church, which has become the subject of a heated debate in recent weeks.

Andrei Babitsky: Actually, the question is very simple. How do you see the history of this church, its cultural significance? 

Giorgi Anchabadze: The church is of great importance, both cultural and historical. It was founded at the very beginning of XI century, and the founder was Bagrat III - the first king of united Georgia. Bagrat III himself is a very interesting figure in the history of Georgia, because he was the first to unite several kingdoms that existed in feudal Georgia. Among them the Abkhaz kingdom was of very great importance.

Today the Abkhazian Kingdom is the subject of politicised disputes, which I do not want to go into. But in fact this state was created on the basis of the Abkhazian principality headed by the Abkhaz dynasty.

But at that time, in the 10th century, most of its territory was Georgian lands. And in fact, already in the X century, if not earlier, this state fitted into the overall system of those states that existed on the territory of Georgia.

And the Abkhazian Kingdom, which for a long time dominated in the struggle between the states of the South Caucasus, ceded that domination in the second half of the 10th century to the kingdom of  Tao-Klardjeti in South Georgia, which was headed by the Bagration dynasty.

The Bagrationi – the Bagratids - are also a well-known dynasty. One branch of this dynasty reigned in Armenia, another - in southern Georgia. And the unification came about in such a way that a prince of the house of Bagration became king of the Abkhaz kingdom.  He became king not through conquest but as a result of an internal struggle within the family of the Abkhazian kings, where the brothers, the sons of King Giorgi II -- the most powerful and famous of the Abkhazian kings --killed each other in the struggle for power.

In the end, the throne went to Giorgi's grandson by his daughter. That is, Bagrat III; on his father's side, he was descended from the Georgian Bagration dynasty, and on his mother's side – from the Abkhaz kings. But given that he inherited the Abkhaz throne lawfully from his mother, he considered himself as belonging to the dynasty of the Abkhazian kings. A memorandum has been preserved  called "The Divan of the Abkhazian kings." It says that although Bagrat was by origin a Bagration, of the Bagration family, he considers himself a descendant of the Abkhaz kings. It lists 21 Abkhaz rulers, and says that after all these kings, Bagrat came to power in Abkhazia through his mother, and only God knows how many years he will rule.

Andrei Babitsky: So we can say this church is a state symbol too?

Giorgi Anchabadze: And also a symbol of the political unity of the Abkhaz and Georgian ties. Bagrat III reigned for a long time and united the whole of Georgia under his rule. But the list of his kingly titles began with the Abkhaz kings, and that became the tradition in the united Georgian kingdom: kings begin their list of titles King of the Abkhaz, Kartvelians, Kakhetians., etc. It was traditionally held that they united seven crowns, of which the first was the former Abkhaz kingdom.

Of course, this does not mean that it was not a Georgian state, of course; they were Georgian kings, but they always put the Abkhaz crown in first place. Even after almost 200 years, during the reign of Lasha - Giorgi, Queen Tamar's son, when Tbilisi had long since become the state capital, even then, shortly before the Mongol invasion, in the last years of glory of the united Georgian kingdom, a chronicler, describing the kingdom's victories, pointed out that the kingdom of ancient Abkhazia was at peace, meaning that the Bagrationi rulers of united Georgia always remembered that they became kings through the descendants of Bagrat.

Bagrat is buried in this church. He built and consecrated the church in 1003, it was where the kings' tombs were located. The territory of Western Georgia, including Abkhazia, played a major political role for a long time. And the Bedia church is one of the key points of the cultural-historical mission, which the former Abkhazian Kingdom played within the unified Georgian kingdom.

Andrei Babitsky: What do you think? Is it a bitter, fortuitous historical blunder that, as you said, a symbol of Abkhaz-Georgian relations has become a bone of contention between the two nations, or is this the natural culmination of the historical process?

Giorgi Anchabadze: It is natural, if we can call it natural. Unfortunately, this conflict, which took place almost twenty years ago, but thank God, the hot phase is over, and I hope it will not resume. Still, the conflict itself is not over; the political struggle continues — the information war continues. And it focuses to a large extent on historical monuments. I have not been in Bedia for a long time, in fact, not since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and I cannot say what is going on there. But I can say one thing: at one time there were rumours that the church was not visible on aerial photographs and people said it must have been destroyed.

But that proved not to be true. I will never believe the Abkhaz destroyed the church deliberately, because, firstly, they consider it a part of the Abkhaz cultural heritage. Whether it's part of the Georgian or the Abkhaz cultural heritage, I personally do not believe there was any such national differentiation in the Middle Ages. Everything was different then, everything could be considered shared, and indeed it was held in common.

Today, however, especially against such a background, the historical heritage is being divided up. But one way or the other, both the Georgians and the Abkhaz consider [the Bedia church] part of their culture, their own culture, and I do not think either side would have damaged it.

For example, I have been in the Ilori church which was also the subject of such arguments, and I do not think the alterations there are serious. Some repairs have been undertaken, but we do the same thing. And perhaps it would be better if historians and art historians set aside the political element of our relationship and instead began to devote themselves to our common historical past, but unfortunately this is not the case.

Andrei Babitsky:
But you hope that this will happen some day?

Giorgi Anchabadze:
Absolutely, of course. The Abkhaz and the Georgians are historically very closely linked; it is difficult to find another such example of such respectful relations. Even if you read classical Georgian literature – it shows Georgians' attitude to the Abkhaz. 

And the same can be said of Abkhaz oral and other literature. What we have seen today is the consequence only of the 20th century; that is where it derives from.  Prior to that, for many centuries and millennia, Georgians and Abkhazians lived in close and friendly fellowship.

I think that history will restore everything to its rightful place. I'm not talking about the political situation and what [Abkhazia's] status will be, and where the boundary will be – that is future history and that is not, in the final analysis, what is important. The main thing is to re-establish the ties between the two peoples. I am certain they will  be re-established. Sooner or later this conflict will come to an end, and then, I think, historians will begin to focus more judiciously on all these issues.

This article was published by Ekho Kavkaza and is translated from Russian.

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