Set in semi-desert some 70 kilometers southeast from Tbilisi along the Georgian border with Azerbaijan and within Azerbaijan proper, the complex, which contains a rich collection of cave frescoes, has been a site for conflict as well as for contemplation, ever since construction began in the 6th century.
The best-known part of the complex, the Udabno cave monastery, which contain frescoes dating approximately from the 8th to the 13th centuries, as well as the monastery headquarters at Lavra, are located within Georgia. Additional monasteries, some nearly inaccessible and largely ruined, are also on Georgian territory. Azerbaijan contains the monastery of Bertubani, which features frescoes of the legendary 12th-13th century Georgian Queen Tamara and her son, Giorgi IV.
But who should control the David-Gareja monastery? When the Soviet Union defined the borders between the then Soviet republics of Azerbaijan and Georgia, the monastery complex was split in two. The border between the two now independent countries has remained unchanged since 1991. Part of the border passes through the top of the 813-meter-high Udabno ridge (known in Azerbaijan as Keshishdag), which harbors cave monasteries on its top and also on the northern (Georgian-controlled) and southern (Azerbaijani-controlled) slopes.
The monastery complex, which has withstood attacks by Tamerlane and Shah Abbas alike, holds strategic significance for both Azerbaijan and Georgia. From the Udabno ridge, both Azerbaijani and Georgian territory can be easily monitored. "From the military point of view, this position has importance for both countries," said Uzeir Jafarov, an independent Azerbaijani military expert in Baku and a retired colonel. "Theoretically, in the case of military conflict, the side which enjoys control over these heights will get a big advantage."
Border talks, ongoing since 1991, recently reentered the news when Zviad Dzidziguri, a Georgian member of parliament for the opposition Conservative Party, and chairman of the Democratic Front faction, claimed that Azerbaijan had moved its border with Georgia so that one of the complex's monasteries, Chichkhituri, was now within Azerbaijani territory, putting at risk the remaining monasteries under Georgian control.
The Georgian foreign ministry has denied the report. In an interview with EurasiaNet, a high-level Azerbaijani State Border Control Service official, who asked to remain anonymous, also stated that Azerbaijan had never moved its border. Yet, still, the debate continues.
To hold on to the churches on Georgian territory, Tbilisi has proposed giving Azerbaijan an as yet publicly unspecified section of Georgian land near the Azerbaijani border. "All we need to do is to find a common language with our Azerbaijani colleagues," Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Giorgi Manigaladze, who oversees the State Commission on Border Delimitation and Demarcation, told reporters in Tbilisi on October 30.
Azerbaijani officials, however, say that they are unwilling to consider the exchange.
"There is no room for territorial exchange [with Georgia]. There are no negotiations over this issue," Deputy Foreign Minister Khalaf Khalafov, co-chairman of the intergovernmental commission on border delimitation with Georgia, said at a press briefing in Baku on November 2. Azerbaijani officials say that in the past three years Georgia has twice offered sections of Georgian territory in exchange for recognition of the current border division of the David-Gareja monastery, but that Baku has rejected the offers both times.
"This territory [Azerbaijan's part of the monastery] has strategic importance for Azerbaijan. And we have no intention of giving it to anybody," Garib Mammadov, chairman of the Azerbaijani State Land and Cartography Committee, said in an April 2004 interview with the Azerbaijani daily newspaper Echo. "This is a strategic overlook. The whole South Caucasus might be monitored from this overlook very well. Why should we give it away?"
While officials and experts in Baku maintain that their position will not change, an official within the Azerbaijani foreign ministry, who asked to remain anonymous, told EurasiaNet that Azerbaijan "is open to the implementation of joint projects [with Georgia] for the restoration of the complex."
At a joint press conference with Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili on October 31 in Baku, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mamedyarov said that a fresh round of border talks would be held in Baku in November. Two meetings have been held on the topic since March 2006, Georgian officials say.
"During the commission's meeting in November, the demarcation will concern several areas of a 170-kilometer-long segment of the border," the Azerbaijani State Land and Cartography Committee's Garib Mammadov, a member of the intergovernmental commission, told journalists on November 1. "The areas have already been investigated thoroughly." Mammadov did not specify which parts of the border segment will be discussed.
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.
"As the Soviet border is set on the territory of an important cultural and religious monument, it is possible that the atheistic Soviet leadership tried to cause misunderstanding between Georgia and Azerbaijan someday in the future," said Father Superior Ilarion. "Right now, we have the result of this [plan]."
"I hope that Azerbaijan takes in consideration that David-Gareja monastery is an important spiritual and cultural unit for Georgia," he continued. "We hope that Azerbaijan will not claim the territory."
Monks at David-Gareja claim that they are unable to visit the church of Bertubani, located two kilometers inside the Azerbaijani border in the region of Agstafa, and are concerned about its maintenance. "We are not let in by the border guards," one of the monks said, adding that the monastery's leadership fears that the church's interior has been damaged. "All we know about Bertubani is that it is not used as a church. There are unique frescos [there] that need special care," he said.
The Azerbaijani Border Service official states that a simplified border control regime allows monks, Georgian pilgrims and tourists to travel to the part of the complex located on Azerbaijani territory without trouble. One Azerbaijani journalist who visited the area in the summer of 2006, however, reported that "bureaucratic procedures" for access could prove troublesome.
Questions, however, remain about the condition of the David-Gareja monastery complex within Azerbaijan. One Azerbaijani scholar concedes that the Azerbaijani Ministry of Culture and Tourism does not pay sufficient attention to the question. "Neither restoration work nor serious historical research has been held at the Azerbaijani part of the monastery so far," said Mekhti Mansurov, a historian at the Azerbaijani National Academy of Sciences. Azerbaijan added the monastery's churches to its list of national historical monuments in 2003, "only after Georgia did so," he added, in comments published by the Baku-based newspaper Kaspiy on November 1.
Some Georgian observers note that the thought of the monastery and its condition brings particular poignancy to the delay in concluding the border discussions with Azerbaijan. The topic is "painful" for ordinary Georgians, said Caucasian affairs expert Mamuka Areshidze,
"The problem has been discussed by people for a long time, but the authorities have been inactive" until opposition MP Dzidziguri's statement about Azerbaijan moving its border, Areshidze said. "There are problems with other borders as well -- for example, with Russia -- but that issue is not currently on the agenda."
Some Azerbaijani historians are strongly against the transfer of any part of the David Gareja monastery complex to Georgia, arguing that the monastery is not Georgian, but Caucasian Albanian, a reference to an ancient people, believed to be Christian, who are thought to have once inhabited northern Azerbaijan.
In the end, the key may be to proceed with moderation, cautions one Georgian analyst. "There is nothing special in having undefined borders," said Paata Zakareishvili, an independent political analyst in Tbilisi. "If the issue is studied professionally by both sides' experts, no political tensions should be expected."
Diana Petriashvili is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi. Rovshan Ismayilov is a freelance reporter in Baku. Alexander Klimchuk is a freelance photojournalist based in Tbilisi.