David Gareja (Georgian: დავითგარეჯის სამონასტრო კომპლექსი, Davit'garejis samonastro komplek'si;Azerbaijani: Keşiş dağ məbədi) is a rock-hewn Georgian Orthodox monastery complex located in the Kakheti region of Eastern Georgia, on the half-desert slopes of Mount Gareja, some 60–70 km southeast of Georgia's capital Tbilisi. The complex includes hundreds of cells, churches, chapels, refectories and living quarters hollowed out of the rock face.
Part of the complex is located in the Agstafa rayon of Azerbaijan and has become subject to a border dispute between Georgia and Azerbaijan. The area is also home to protected animal species and evidence of some of the oldest human habitations in the region.
The complex was founded in the 6th century by David (St. David Garejeli), one of the thirteen Assyrian monkswho arrived in the country at the same time. His disciples Dodo and Luciane expanded the original lavra and founded two other monasteries known as Dodo's Rka (literally, "the horn of Dodo") and Natlismtsemeli ("the Baptist"). The monastery saw further development under the guidance of the 9th-century Georgian saint Ilarion. The convent was particularly patronized by the Georgian royal and noble families. The 12th-century Georgian king Demetre I, the author of the famous Georgian hymn Thou Art a Vineyard, even chose David Gareja as a place of his confinement after he abdicated the throne.
Despite the harsh environment, the monastery remained an important center of religious and cultural activity for many centuries; at certain periods the monasteries owned extensive agricultural lands and many villages. The renaissance of fresco painting chronologically coincides with the general development of the life in the David Gareja monasteries. The high artistic skill of David Gareja frescoes made them an indispensable part of world treasure. From the late 11th to the early 13th centuries, the economic and cultural development of David Gareja reached its highest phase, reflecting the general prosperity of the medievalKingdom of Georgia. New monasteries Udabno, Bertubani and Chichkhituri were built, the old ones were enlarged and re-organized.
With the downfall of the Georgian monarchy, the monastery suffered a lengthy period of decline and devastation by the Mongol army (1265), but was later restored by the Georgian kings. It survived the Safavidattack of 1615, when the monks were massacred and the monastery's unique manuscripts and important works of Georgian art destroyed, to be resurrected under Onopre Machutadze, who was appointed Father Superior of David Gareja in 1690.
After the violent Bolshevik takeover of Georgia in 1921, the monastery was closed down and remained uninhabited. In the years of the Soviet War in Afghanistan, the monastery's territory was used as a training ground for the Soviet military that inflicted damage to the unique cycle of murals in the monastery. In 1987, a group of Georgian students led by the young writerDato Turashvili[ launched a series of protests. Although, the Soviet defense ministry officials finally agreed to move a military firing range from the monastery, the shelling was resumed in October 1988, giving rise to generalized public outrage. After some 10,000 Georgians demonstrated in the streets of Tbilisi and a group of students launched a hunger strike at the monastery, the army base was finally removed.
After the restoration of Georgia's independence in 1991, the monastery life in David Gareja was revived. However, in 1996, the Georgian defense ministry resumed military exercises in the area, leading to renewed public protests. In May 1997, hundreds of Georgian NGO activists set up their tents in the middle of the army's firing range and blocked the military maneuvers. The army officials finally bowed to the public pressure and the exercises were banned.
The monastery remains active today and serves as a popular destination of tourism and pilgrimage.
Georgia–Azerbaijan border dispute
Because the complex is partially located on the territory of Azerbaijan, it has become subject to a border dispute between Georgia and Azerbaijan, with ongoing talks since 1991. Georgian monks at the monastery say that "they see the dispute as the result of Soviet scheming to undermine relations between Christian Georgians and Muslim Azerbaijanis." Giorgi Manjgaladze, Georgia's deputy foreign minister proposed that Georgia would be willing to exchange other territory for the remainder of David Gareja because of its historical and cultural significance to the Georgians. Baku disapproves of this land swap because of David Gareja's strategic military importance. "There is no room for territorial exchange. There are no negotiations over this issue," stated Azerbaijan's deputy foreign minister Khalaf Khalafov. In April 2007, Khalafov told a press conference in that it was "out of the question" for Azerbaijan to "give up its claims to the borderlands" including David Gareja. He then made a controversial statement that the monastery "was home to the Caucasian Albanians, who are believed to have been the earliest inhabitants of Azerbaijan." This prompted a response from Georgian foreign minister Gela Bezhuashvili. "It is absolutely unclear to me why my colleague made these remarks," he told reporters in Tbilisi. "His history lessons are absolutely incomprehensible. He should read up on world history."
The Albanian theory is also supported by some Azerbaijani historians who are strongly opposed to transferring any part of their territory to Georgia. "The monastery was inside Georgia only in the 12th century," stated Ismail Umudlu, an Azeri journalist and historian. "Both before and after this period, the area was part of a state to which Azerbaijan is a successor." Georgian art historian Dimitri Tumanishvili dismissed this claim and stated that the complex "is covered in the work of Georgian masters." "There are Georgian inscriptions everywhere dating back to the sixth century," he said "There are no traces of another culture there. After that, I don’t think you need any further proof." "The idea that this monastery was founded by the Caucasus Albanians is simply absurd," said Zaza Datunashvili, a monk from David Gareja. "You might as well say that Georgians built the Great Wall of China."
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili downplayed the dispute and said that "it can be resolved through friendly dialogue." However, Giga Bukia, a member of the Georgian parliament with the Rightist Opposition stated that "Georgians will never, under any circumstances, give up this territory" and also accused the government of softening its position on the complex 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?"
Azeri officials confirmed that Azerbaijan "is open to implementation of joint projects with Georgia for the restoration of the complex." However, official suggestions that the complex could be a "shared tourist zone" have sparked indignation from the Georgian public. Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia Ilia II said that "the monastery was a holy shrine that should lie entirely on Georgian soil." A number of fresh rounds of "border delimitation" talks have been conducted between Azeri and Georgian authorities (in Tbilisi and then in Baku).