The Disappearing Armenian Churches of Tbilisi

The Disappearing Armenian Churches of Tbilisi

Many travelers will be in awe of Tbilisi’s historical buildings, and the numerous church spires which sprout up from the city. The city itself has been a crossroads for empires, religions and peoples. But, the Armenian contribution to the city’s history seems to be on the wane, and nothing exemplifies this more than the neglected Armenian churches which once dominated the cityscape. 

Text : Emilio Luciano Cricchio 

 

According to censuses conducted during the Russian Empire, for much of the 19th century, Armenians were the largest ethnic group in Tbilisi. Naturally therefore, numerous Armenian churches were constructed throughout the city. Much of these churches remain today, however many have been left derelict and ruined, with the municipality of Tbilisi seemingly interested in their restoration, leaving this rich corner of Armenian history under threat. 
One of the major affronts to the Armenian churches of Tbilisi started during early Soviet rule, where throughout the union, many places of worship were demolished. Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, Baku’s Bibi-Heybat Mosque, as well as many of the major Armenian churches in Tbilisi were destroyed as part of the USSR’s anti-religion campaign. 

Between 1937 to 1938, churches like Saint Sarkis, Kamoyants St Gevorg, Zrkinyants St Gevorg and Jigrashen Avetyats, were all 200-year-old churches that were destroyed by the Bolsheviks. Even the 14th century Pashavank Monastery, a major Armenian landmark, was brought down completely, with only the bell tower remaining today.

There are two major Armenian churches, however, which are still functioning today. Echmiadzin Church, right by Avlabari Square, is an 18th century church that escaped disuse or destruction. The church in Avlabari is also the final stop for many minivans and buses coming into Tbilisi from Armenia.

The other is Saint George’s, at the base of the tourist hotspot and historical citadel, the Narikala fortress. Some historians even pinpoint the original construction date of this church to be as far back as 1251. Saint George’s was even renovated between 2012 and 2015, with over $3 million spent on the project. 

But unlike Saint George’s and Echmiadzin churches, many other churches have met less fortunate fates; here is a compilation of a few of the Armenian churches in Tbilisi that were either left derelict, demolished, or even reconsecrated as Georgian Orthodox churches.

 

Norashen Church

   

Located in the old town, Norashen has been subject to a great deal of controversy. In the early 90s, the process of reconsecrating the church as a Georgian church and the removal of the Armenian characteristics began. 
However, due to Norashen’s prominence within the Armenian community in Georgia and abroad, the issue even became a cause for tension between the Armenian and Georgian governments. 

But it wasn’t only Armenians that protested about Norashen; Sozar Subari, a prominent ombudsman and human rights activist, openly stated that it was common knowledge in Tbilisi that Norashen is an Armenian church. 
Regardless, activities to remove Armenian characteristics from Norashen were started, but due to outcry from different sectors of Armenian and Georgian society the project was abandoned and the church became defunct. 

Although, the dispute continues to this day as to whether Norashen is under Apostolic or Orthodox jurisdiction, some positive developments have occurred, with the Armenian gravestones returned and a renovation of the church taking place. Armenian church and community leaders still continue to fervently campaign for the full return of Norashen to Armenian Apostolic jurisdiction.

 

Church of the Holy Seal

The Church of the Holy Seal was built between 1703 and 1711 and was reconstructed in 1780. To many Armenian residents of Tbilisi, it represents a more hard-hitting example of Anti-Armenianism in Georgia. 

 

In 2002, a fire broke out at the church, which local Armenians describe as taking an unusually long time to put out, after which the building was closed to the public. In 2012, two more fires broke out successively, making arson the most probable cause. This combined with the fire damage from the first fire, as well as 10 years of disuse, left the church utterly bereft of its former self, with even the columns collapsing due to extreme heat. Now, the building remains abandoned and according to one local Armenian resident, is only visited by stray dogs.

 

Church of the Red Gospel

The final church on this list is the Church of the Red Gospel, a mysterious church with contradictory accounts as to what befell it. Walking towards the old town from the Avlabari district, you may come across a half-collapsed church with Armenian inscriptions on it, with the courtyard being used as a car park. 

The Church of the Red Gospel’s destruction is debated to this day. Armenian locals state that it was a controlled demolition, whilst other Georgian locals state that an earthquake caused the structure to collapse. 

Regardless, the church, which once stood at 40 meters, would have dominated the historical skyline of Tbilisi. While today, with its structure destroyed and the interior closed off to the public, it has become a regular dumping ground for garbage. 

These churches are all integral parts of not only Armenian culture and history, but Georgian culture and history as well. Although there are those in Tbilisi and elsewhere that are tirelessly working to preserve or restore the history of these churches, the lack of awareness about their stories remains a major obstacle to any progress. 

We applied to the Tbilisi Municipality for a comment with regards to concerns about the issues around Armenian churches in Tbilisi, as well as the slow progress of returning churches like Norashen to Armenian church jurisdiction, but received no reply.

 

Saint George of Mughni Church

Saint George of Mughni in Tbilisi’s Kala district has been sought after by the Georgian Orthodox church, but instead has fallen into disrepair and remains derelict to this day. 

After the USSR’s anti-religion campaign the church became a museum of art, but soon became disused after the Collapse of Communism. 

 

Parts of the church were destroyed in the early 1990s, and cracks started to appear across the walls which were used as an excuse by Georgian authorities who argued that demolishing the unsafe structure was a better course of action than repairing it. 

In 2009, the dome collapsed leaving the church laid bare before the elements. Since then multiple sources have committed to renovating the ruined church, but till now nothing notable has happened, and the church built in 1756, remains neglected.

 

Qarapi Saint George’s Church

Another church in Tbilisi’s old town which was left abandoned during the USSR’s anti-religion campaign and became a toy workshop. 

After independence, this church too was reconsecrated as a Georgian church. Again, the ornamental crosses, the font, the altars, the khachkar tombstones, and even a 1753 inscription in Armenian about the construction of the church, were all removed and replaced with characteristic Georgian additions.

 

Upper Bethlehem Church

Located at the foot of the Narikala fortress, this 18th-century Armenian church, in the Kldis-Ubani district, was also reconsecrated as a Georgian Orthodox church in 1994. 
Much like some other Armenian churches in Tbilisi, the hallmarks that would identify this as an Armenian church were removed throughout the 90s. 

In 1991, the frescoes in the interior of the dome were removed. The altar, which was originally constructed in 1898, had inscriptions about the construction of the church in Armenian which was erased by 1990. Furthermore, the font, and a 17th-century Armenian khachkar tombstone also disappeared.

 

Saint Stepanos Church 

Saint Stepanos is located very near to the Upper Bethlehem Church, at the foot of the infamous Narikala fortress. 

Some estimate the original construction of the church to be as far back as the 14th century, but it was rebuilt in the late 1860s.

Saint Stepanos was again subjugated to the same tactics as the previously mentioned churches. 

The altars, fonts, inscriptions, windows, iron gratings, drum, frescoes were all destroyed. In fact, according to some, this was one of the most extensive examples of the lengths Georgian Orthodox Church authorities went through to eradicate any remnants of Armenian culture and history. Throughout the early 90s, apart from the structure nearly the whole church was changed, with some claiming that even explosives were used to destroy the western pediment of the church.

 

Saint Karapet 

During Soviet rule, Saint Karapet was turned into a dormitory for Russian Old Believers, then into a painting workshop, but by the 80s, work began to Georgianize the church. 

Saint Karapet was reconsecrated as a Georgian Orthodox church in the early 90s. On top of this, not only was the jurisdiction of the church building changed, but the Armenian characteristics were also erased; the font, the Armenian-style belltower, the altar (which was placed outside and used as a bench), the tombstones, and even the graves of the deceased, were removed. The interior frescoes were also painted over and the church was renamed. Soon after independence, it became a church mainly attended by Georgians who fled Abkhazia.


 

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