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Culture : Of Money and Monasteries : Georgia's religious monument survived Soviet shelling. Now it has a new enemy.


RUSTAVI, Georgia — When people here learned that the army was using an ancient monastery complex as a firing range, Ekaterina Pribalova found a way to convey their outrage to indifferent bureaucrats. Then a 25-year-old graduate student, she marched into the grand offices of the Ministry of Culture with a bomb she had found inside one of the monastery's churches.

"She put it right on the beautiful white marble table," recalls Georgy Marsagishvili, a medieval historian who was in the ministry that day. "Everyone went nuts."

"They knew what was happening," says Pribalova, now an art historian who oversees the restoration of Georgia's national monuments. "But they weren't doing anything about it. I wanted to say, 'Hey, take a look at what's going on there.' "

That was 1955 and the object of complaint was the Soviet army. Despite Pribalova's dramatic gesture, officials did nothing but mouth empty promises until September, 1988, when massive student demonstrations against the firing range forced the government to close it down.

The troops are gone now, and so is the Soviet Union. But the complex of caves and buildings known as the David Garedzha monastery faces a new danger. With inflation out of control and the currency on the verge of collapse, many historical monuments that dissidents fought for years to preserve lie in ruins because Georgia's hard-pressed government does not have the money for restoration.

"We are in a very difficult situation," says Temuri Abramashvili, an architectural historian who has devoted his life to saving the monasteries. "From a moral point of view, we can't ask the government to give us money to restore David Garedzha when our children don't have enough to eat."

The picturesque complex of 12 caves and several churches, 35 miles from Tbilisi, is named after a 6th-Century monk who first settled there with his disciple, Lukian. The two men transformed natural caves into primitive shelters, carving doorways and steps out of the rocks and placing icons and candles on crude altars hewn from stone.

The complex lies hidden like a buried treasure among lush mountains and deep russet canyons that hug the horizon. The rough roads leading to the David Garedzha monastery used to be off limits to civilians. Now they're open again--the military watchtowers vacant. But many of the scars inflicted by the Soviet army are still raw and exposed--open wounds that have not healed with time.

"They used every kind of weapon imaginable--tanks, shells, mortars--everything except nuclear weapons," Abramashvili says. "Sometimes the bombs landed right inside the churches and destroyed everything. Those grooves you see there in the mountains are from shelling."

The Soviet government considered this parched terrain an ideal location for a firing range because the area was--and still is--virtually uninhabited. It was also considered ideal training ground for the war with Afghanistan because the harsh climate, with its scorching heat during the day and freezing temperatures at night, closely approximate conditions in that country.

A visit to the monastery requires an arduous two-hour climb up 2,000-foot summits adjacent to the Azerbaijani border. As he reaches the edge of one of the caves, Abramashvili, dressed in Indiana Jones-style safari gear, stops and bends down to pick up something from the ground.

"It's snakeskin," he says, examining the leathery, diamond-patterned sliver. "They're molting. Watch your feet and above your head; some of them are poisonous."

The cool air inside the cave, called Lavra ("big monastery" in Greek), offers a respite from the searing heat outside. Leading the way into the darkness, Abramashvili explains that the tremors caused by years of constant shelling have weakened the surrounding walls.

"If we don't restore these walls, the entire monastery will collapse," he says. "But we don't have the financing or the know-how in Georgia. We tried to do it with wood, but it didn't work. Look how weak the walls are," he says, taking out a chunk that breaks up in his hand.

Inside these decaying walls, the story of one of the oldest Christian civilizations unfolds. There are the long wooden tables where monks once ate their modest meals and the large earthenware pots where they stored wine made from grapes grown on the land. Their lives consisted of copying manuscripts of early Georgian literature, praying, fasting and saying Mass.

Because it is dark inside the caves, they painted the frescoes on the walls in bright, rich, earth tones of chestnut, copper, bronze, umber and bone. Similar frescoes around the entrances to the caves, visible from long distances, were considered ideal targets for Soviet artillery practice. Many show the scars of bullets and shells and are covered by graffiti. Carved into the stone, in Russian, are the names of soldiers, their battalions, native cities and dates.

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