What could be the future of the past: capturing a potential value of Gremi historical landscape


“Any landscape is composed not only of what lies

before our eyes but what lies within our heads”.

D. W. Meinig



1. Introduction


In the early 2000s, the International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) undertook an analysis of the World Heritage and Tentative lists in the framework of UNESCO’s Global Strategy aiming to create a more representative, balanced and credible World Heritage List. The study entitled The World Heritage List: Filling the Gaps – An Action Plan for the Future identified several gaps and imbalances based on three complementary approaches- Typological, Chronological-Regional, and Thematic Frameworks [ICOMOS, 2004]. In particular, it appeared that religious buildings and ‘elitist’ architecture were over-represented in relation to other types of property as well as Christianity to other religious monuments. The results of the ICOMOS research were supposed to be a basis for the signatory State Parties of the World Heritage Convention of 1972, among other things to revise and harmonise their Tentative Lists [ibid]. In spite of this, Georgia submitted seven Christian sites (churches, cathedrals, and a monastery), including Gremi Church of the Archangels along with Royal Tower to be included in the Tentative List in 2007 [UNESCO, 2020a]. [1]

On the one hand, this is not a surprise coming from the country with many Christian monuments and for which, entangled with its history over the last seventeen centuries, Christianity is identical to its national identity. On the other hand, one can argue that it is not in compliance with the Global Strategy for a Representative, Balanced, and Credible World Heritage List. [2] It appears to be against the comparative study of the existing World Heritage Sites, and arguably, it would be difficult to justify why “Gremi Church of Archangels of and the Royal Tower” would bring Outstanding Universal Value [3] in comparison with other cultural sites. 

Since 2005, one of the events for the creation of a representative, balanced and reliable list of World Heritage is a transnational nomination that includes the remarkable places of the state whose legacy is less represented in the World Heritage List. In this context, following a decade of work, the Silk Roads World Heritage Transnational and Serial Nomination project has been implemented [Williams, 2015:1].

The nomination envisages the inclusion of trading cities, caravanserais, inns, military posts, garrison stations, natural and cultural landmarks, and industrial/production sites from different countries linked by an overarching concept of the Silk Roads [Williams, 2014].  

The nomination project has already gained popularity concerning the political and cultural agenda of the countries alongside the historic route. In 2014, the World Heritage Committee at its 38th session inscribed the first Silk Roads transboundary serial property The Routes Network of Chang'an-Tian Shan Corridor on the World Heritage List, which encompasses 33 component sites in three countries, China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan [UNESCO, 2020b]. Other corridors including Penjikent-Samarkand-Poykent-Merv Zarafshan Heritage Corridor (Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan), the South Asian Silk Roads (China, India, Nepal and Bhutan), and the Fergana-Syrdarya Silk Roads Heritage Corridor (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) are underway, along with the initiatives to explore the corridors to the west [Jing & Denyer, 2019:13].

This article aims to analyse whether Georgia fits in such a nomination strategy by examining a case study of Gremi. In doing so, this paper rethinks the significance of Gremi in the context of a cultural route. It does not intend to deprive the Gremi Church of  Archangels of its attractive architectural dominance or “outstanding artistic importance and remarkable power” formed “through its location and interrelation with the surrounding landscape” (UNESCO, 2020c) but rather to reassess the cultural significance associated with the historical landscape of Gremi as a whole, through deconstructing its biography. The article aims to examine the opportunity of Gremi for developing the Silk Roads World Heritage serial nomination project in combination with relevant sites in the neighbouring countries. 

2. Deconstructing the Historical Past of Gremi

2.1. Uncovering urban life of Gremi

A series of archaeological surveys and expeditions (1939-1940; 1963-1967, 2011) that shed light on 150 years of Gremi’s bustling life is an integral part of its historical past. In 1939-1940, Al. Mamulashvili, Director of Telavi Museum in Kakheti, conducted the first archaeological surveys here. In 1963-1967 P. Zakaraia and L. Chilashvili, on behalf of the S. Janashia National Museum, carried out archaeological excavations. Most recently, D. Mindorashvili conducted archaeological research on a market district of the city Gremi, before the construction of a new museum here in 2011. These discoveries and publications are the primary sources regarding understanding the complex nature and significance of Gremi.  

2.2. Historical background: the rise and fall of Gremi

The biography of Gremi is not long-term but diverse. In 1466, the medieval city of Gremi was founded as the capital of the Kakheti Kingdom, in eastern Georgia, at the confluence of the Rivers Intsoba and Bolia. There is little evidence to indicate an earlier settlement on the territory of the late medieval Gremi. Only minor finds have been uncovered dating back to the Bronze Age and the 12th-13th centuries CE [Zakaraia, 1975: 11]. 

The exact reason for the foundation of the capital here, as opposed to the revival of any other survived towns in Kakheti, is not apparent [Zakaraia, 1975:10]. A multifaceted character of Gremi lies in its functionality as the royal residence, administrative, and trading centre of the Kingdom for which it occupied over 50 hectares for a century and a half [Zakaraia, 1975; Chilashvili, 1980].

A favourable geographical location seems to have played the central role in opting for this place as the centre of the Kingdom. The city was built at the junction of the Caucasus Mountains and Alazani Valley. Situated at the crossroad of these two different geographical landmarks, Gremi served as a connecting bridge regarding the socio-economic life of the two regions [Chilashvili, 1980:12-13]. These local economic ties, coupled with international commerce, must have triggered the rise of Gremi while all the other cities of that time in the former Georgian Kingdom declined [Suny, 1994:46]. 

The main advantage of Kakheti over other parts of Georgia was its proximity to the Gilan-Shamakhi-Astrakhan Silk Route that enabled Gremi to engage in international trade. [Suny, 1994:46].

Culturally and economically developed Gremi ceased to exist in 1616 due to the devastating invasions by Iranian Shah Abbas I with his army, and never regained its former glory [Suny, 1994:50]. The strategic and economic centre of the independent Kingdom of Kakheti is considered to be one of the most short-lived cities in Georgia, and yet it had a remarkable history for which it is cherished today. 

2.3. Gremi as a historical landscape 

Cultural heritage, as well as historical, archaeological, religious, aesthetic, social, economic, political, symbolic, associative and scientific significance, can be assigned to the historical landscape of Gremi. 

The monument consists of four main parts, including the citadel, the royal area, the commercial quarter, and the Holy Trinity fortification [Chilashvili, 1980: 44-46]. The citadel encompasses the Church of the Archangels, a royal residence with a bell tower and a surrounding defensive wall [Zakaria, 1975: 21-50). The manufacturing facilities, such as wine cellars and a wine press, are also found here [Chilashvili, 1980: 44-45]. The Church of the Archangels and the adjacent dwelling-tower with the belfry occupy a dominant position among surviving medieval buildings [Mepisashvili et al. 1979). They stand on the hill at the end of the Caucasian mountain that was cut artificially to build the church on it and is strengthened by the surrounding fortification [Chilashvili, 1980:72].

The citadel, the Church of the Archangels, and the dwelling-tower, which miraculously survived the Persian attacks, are the best-preserved components of Gremi’s historical landscape. The Church of the Archangels was built in 1565 by King Leon I of Kakheti (1518- 1574) as stated in a Greek inscription carved above the western door of the church [Zakaria, 1975:21-23] and it is active today. It is a traditional type of cruciform domed church with two detached piers, however, with a distinct emphasis on height. The interior wall paintings date back to 1577 [Mepisashvili et al. 1979: 179]. Both the Church of the Archangels and the royal tower are built using brick, densely arranged patterns, as opposed to stone, for which it testifies the Iranian influence. The spread of Iranian form and taste is reflected in the decoration of the facades too, with pointed arches instead of round ones. The Church of the Archangels is significant regarding religious, cultural heritage, architectural, historical, and scientific as well as aesthetic value.

Similar to the Church of Archangels, the historical and cultural heritage values can be attributed to the royal tower. It is a three-storey building, designed for residential use with living and reception rooms and a belfry which is a later addition. Since 1975, the building has served as a museum where visitors can see archaeological artefacts, portraits of the royal members and watch the slideshow and animation showing the chronological reconstruction of the city of Gremi. 

In the royal tower, on the right of the corridor, there is a toilet with its plumbing system. Its exceptional organization takes a visitor by surprise even in the 21st century. From the top floor of the tower, there is a panoramic view of Alazani Valley and the peaks of the Caucasus Mountains [Mepisashvili et al. 1979: 179], revealing the beauty and aesthetics of the Gremi historical landscape. 

In the royal district (20 ha) archaeologists uncovered remnants of a palace complex, the residential houses, pavilion with water fountains, pools, baths, a bakery, a wine storage facility, and the remains of some other buildings [Zakaraia,1975: 51-91; Chilashvili, 1980: 86-104]. Although all the buildings here were destroyed, the royal district preserves archaeological and historical significance for the contemporary and future generations, regardless of the condition of the remaining structures.

The most significant part of the city appears to be the commercial quarter (30 ha), where trading caravans and travellers from foreign countries used to trade [Chilashvili, 1980:45). The architectural complex of the market, the caravanserai, residential houses and manufacturing buildings, a public bath-house, two inns, several parish churches, and Tarsa wall were situated in this lively part of the city [Zakaraia, 1975, 92- 114; Chilashvili, 1980: 46-72]. It was inhabited mostly by merchants of different ethnic groups (Georgians, Armenians, and Jews), artisans and servants [Chilashvili, 1980]. The architectural complex of the market occupied 1,400 square m in total, including the courtyard that covered 500 square m. It consisted of 30 trading arcades of pointed arches, built with cobblestones and mortar and had small balconies in front. The fireplaces found in each of the shopping arcades suggest that they operated throughout the year. Some of the markets were two-storey buildings with deep basements that might have been used as cold storage rooms. A large number of coloured glazed tiles found here are thought to have been used for the decoration of the markets. Each of the arcades served a different purpose. Some accommodated shops and workshops, others, located at the entrance, were used by guards and customs officers. In one of the markets, a discovery of coins along with the remains of a furnace with burnt copper items indicates the presence of an ironsmith’s workshop. One room in the middle of the market with a swimming pool is thought to have been used for leisure activities by local and foreign merchants who stayed at the adjoining caravanserai. 

According to the reconstructed plan of the caravanserai, it was 75m long, with 32 rooms situated on both sides of its corridor. Between the architectural complex of the market and caravanserai, a three-metre passage facilitated the markets to be supplied with goods [Chilashvili, 1980:48-56]. The commercial district of Gremi reflects the socio-economic and political values of its heyday. In the present day, it can be associated with historical, archaeological, and cultural heritage values. The market district is as much part of Gremi’s historical and cultural heritage as the Church of Archangels, despite its lack of physical integrity. 

The fourth part of Gremi, the Holy Trinity fortification, was a defensive complex situated on the ridge, the opposite side of the Church of the Archangels. It encompassed the Holy Trinity Church, a hall, a tower, the workshops, a water system and a perimeter wall [Zakaraia, 1975: 132-138]. On the road to the Trinity Fortress, to the west of the Archangels’ complex, a church was used as a sentry post. It was a vantage point from where one could see other three parts of the city, the gorge as well as the Caucasus and Alazani Valley. The above-mentioned buildings highlight their value for the means of security and defence of this prosperous city in the past while reflecting its historical significance today. The intensive water supply and several water canals found in Gremi must have been required for this densely populated city, its baths and pools. These components of the complex are noteworthy regarding the scientific significance. Traces of ceramic water canals descending from Lopota Gorge to Gremi indicate that, in terms of water provision, the city did not depend only on the Intsoba and Bolia rivers. It is argued that small canals were used for providing drinking water while large ones were employed for the irrigation of the adjoining crops. The study of the water supply system undertaken by a group of hydro-technicians between 1938 and 1939 suggested that the canal could irrigate up to 4000 ha of land, of which 2900 ha were agricultural [Chilashvili, 1980:152-153]. Since 2007, each survived archaeological and architectural features of this historical landscape including the architectural complex of trading arcades, caravanserai, bath, the church of Archangels, royal tower, fortress and other buildings have been individually listed as Cultural Heritage Monuments of National Significance, following Georgian Law on Cultural Heritage [The National Agency for Cultural Heritage Preservation of Georgia, 2019]. 

Arguably, the main cultural heritage and historical significance of Gremi lie not only in the architecture of the Church of Archangels and the royal tower but also in the biography of the place and in its attributes which have been formed out of the interactions with the different nodes of that time.

2.4. Gremi as a destination on the Silk Roads

One of the essential historical events of Gremi's bustling life originates from its trade connections with Persia and other Oriental countries as part of the Silk Road, which, in turn, determines associative and symbolic significance of the place. Here, archaeological excavations uncovered artefacts imported from various trading centres of Persia 9Kerman, Kashan) including various types and colours of glazed ceramic ware, china, copper and silver items. Among remarkable discoveries were fragments of Chinese porcelain and celadon [Mindorashvili, 2015: 207-208].  

In the 15th and 16th centuries, goods exported from Kakheti consisted of silk and carpets, gold cloth, Rubia (a plant used to make red paint), wine, horses, sheep and precious furs [Chilashvili, 1980: 151-152]. Ensuring the provision of the infrastructure to facilitate trade and transportation was of high importance for the Royals of Kakheti. Archaeologists have discovered a three-metre-wide red brick road starting from Gremi and stretching over several dozen kilometres in Kakheti [ibid: 233].  

Gremi was connected to Persia, Dagestan and Russia via Shamakhi (Azerbaijan). The journey from Gremi to Shamakhi took ten days at an average rate of 30 kilometres per day, while the distance from Shamakhi to Derbent was covered in six days. The total travelling time between Gremi to Derbent thus was 16 days. Taking into account already known topographic and cultural features and reports of some foreign Ambassadors, Chilashvili (1980) reconstructed the route from Gremi to Shamakhi. The first overnight stop for travellers after Gremi would be Gavazi, then Areshi, Togha, Zagemi, Qakh and Sheki until they reached Shamakhi.  

Remnants of buildings in Gavazi, Areshi, and Togha had to be caravanserai or halting places. On the segment between Gavazi and Togha, traces of the old road were identified along with the remains of a defensive tower [Chilashvili, 1980:238]. 

On the route from Gremi to Shamakhi, Zagemi (Bazari) another prominent economic and political centre of Kakheti Kingdom, emerged due to the commercial activities. This centre is now situated in the Zakatala region of Azerbaijan, specifically, in the village of Aliabad. It represents an under-researched area, archaeological excavations have not taken place here ecxept for field surveys.  According to Russian and Turkish sources, Zagemi consisted of three districts: the Church District, which included the royal quarters as well as the main church; the Rabat (outskirts) and the Market District, which was a walled trading area encompassing the caravanserai and restaurants. Except for these buildings, a mint was located in Zagemi since the end of the 13th century. The tradition of minting coins here seems to have been revived by the 16th century: 189 coins minted at ten different locations were accidentally found here, of which eight coins were minted at Zagemi. Among the revealed coins were European ducats which testify the connection between the European and local traders. During ploughing, some coins were discovered in a clay pot of which the oldest coin was dated back to 1602-1603, while the newest ones - to 1615. Zagemi ceased to exist at the same time as Gremi in 1616 [Zakaraia, 1975: 94]. 

One of the leading destinations for the traders from Gremi was Shamakhi - an important centre of culture and trade and the royal seat of Shirvan shahs from the 9th to 18th century. According to Adam Olearius (1599-1671), a German traveller and diplomat who visited Shirvan in the 1630s, Shamakhi consisted of two parts, the southern and northern, each of which was surrounded by walls. The northern part of Shamakhi was inhabited by Turks, Armenians and Georgians, but they all spoke Turkic which was common all over Persia. Spinning, weaving and embroidery with silk and paper were the main activities of the inhabitants of this part of the city [Mustafayev, 2018]. 

The main market of Shamakhi was located in the southern part that was bigger than the northern area. Here, a large market with several lines with shops and tents of local merchants offered silk and cotton fabric, silver and gold brocade, bows, arrows, and other handicrafts for a reasonable price [Mustafayev, 2018: 39]. Two large caravanserais with chambers and galleries where foreign merchants stayed and traded, were situated in the southern part of the city. In one of the caravanserais, named after Shah, mostly Russian merchants used to stop and bring tin, leather, copper, furs and other commodities. In another, the so-called Lezgi caravanserai, traders from the North Caucasus in particular, from Circassia and Dagestan, offered horses and slaves for purchase [Mustafayev, 2018: 39-40]. 

According to the Dutch traveller Jan Streiss (1670), Georgians also played a big role in the economic life of Shemakhi. In one of the parts of the city, there must have been Giurji-bazaar, the Georgian Market, mentioned in Ermakov's photo-documentation of Shamakhi, and destroyed by an earthquake on January 31, 1902 [Chilashvili 1980: 249]. Surely, Shamakhi was not the final destination of the merchants coming from Gremi and other places. Commonly caravans used to carry on to the south towards Ardabil (modern Iran), one of the main cities on the territory of southern Azerbaijan (Mustafayev, 2018: 39-40) and towards other nodes. The trip from Shamakhi to Ardabil took eight days [Matthee, 1999:55]; thus, the journey from Gremi to Ardabil lasted 18 days [Chilashvili, 1980:252]. According to the Dutch traveller Jan Streiss (1670), Ardabil was a very famous and great trade city where merchants arrived and departed for Gilan, Kurdistan, Georgia and other countries [Chilashvili, 1980: 252]. From Ardabil, two roads diverged- the western route towards Tabriz and the south-eastern road to the cities of Qazvin and Kashan. Silk from Gilan province was also ferried across the Caspian Sea to Astrakhan [Matthee, 1999:54]. While a trip from Shamakhi to Naziabad took five days, the distance between Naziabad to Astrakhan, may have been covered by a boat in five to nine days, depending on the season and circumstances [Matthee, 1999:5]. 

3. DiscussionIn the increasingly globalised world, cultural heritage is recognised not only by the national but also by the potentially international importance. The significance of each heritage site is ascribed to the place. The deconstruction of Gremi’s biography showcased its prospective international potential in a somewhat different way than it is featured on the Tentative List. The concentration on material and tangible manifestations of culture still confine the imagination and interpretation of landscapes [Baird, 2017:5-6]. However, it should be highlighted that a relatively new museum of Gremi, managed by the National Agency for Cultural Heritage Preservation of Georgia, offers an appropriate interpretation of Gremi’s historical landscape, the character of the city and its engagement with one of the branches of the Silk Road. Furthermore, in 2014, the National Agency for Cultural Heritage Preservation of Georgia published bilingual (Georgian/English) publication on a new museum of Gremi, which reciprocates the interpretations on the historical landscape of Gremi presented at the museum [The National Agency for Cultural Heritage Preservation of Georgia, 2014]. The publication is accompanied by the documentary film “Gremi” which graphically reconstructs the daily activities, commercial practices, and historical events taking place in the late medieval Gremi. 

The biographical approach to Gremi’s landscape makes apparent that focusing predominantly on the best-preserved parts of the city, such as the Church of Archangels and the adjoining royal tower, considerably limits the representation and expression of the very essence of the place. Alternatively, framing Gremi as an outcome of the Silk Road makes it possible to tell a fuller and richer story about it, enabling to capture all the values one might ascribe to it, including the symbolic, associative, historical, archaeological, etc. However, it is also evident that the Gremi historical landscape cannot be individually seen as a manifestation of exceptional response to the Silk Roads. Developing a serial nomination that reflects a particular geo-cultural system can be relevant to discuss in this case. 

To select sites/landscapes for prospective Silk Roads serial nominations the ICOMOS thematic study on the Silk Roads suggested the corridor-based approach, enabling to amalgamate nodes with all their complex attributes and the mixture of small sites, the infrastructure that facilitated trade and movements, and a variety of manifestations of the Silk Roads related to social, cultural and religious spheres [Williams, 2014: 58]. Considering cultural and historical as well as eco-geographic reasons, Gremi can form the basis for two serial nomination projects in combination with some sites in Azerbaijan, Iran and theoretically in Russia too. 

The first option for the project to develop could be the Gremi-Shamakhi-Ardabil route in combination with relevant sites in Georgia, Azerbaijan and Iran, respectively. The second option would be the Gremi-Shamakhi-Derbend route in collaboration with the State Parties of Azerbaijan and Russia. However, the latter does not seem viable considering the existing political tension and frozen conflict between the Russian Federation and Georgia. Furthermore, the major issue here, which is relevant to both routes, is demonstrating physical evidence on sites as well as the scale of archaeology. 

The potential for the Gremi-Shamakhi-Ardabil Silk Roads corridor to be submitted on the Tentative List depends on proper knowledge of heritage resources and their condition. It is clear that further research and surveys employing modern technologies are needed to be undertaken with the involvement of a group of local experts for the identification of potential heritage resources on the section between Gremi and Sheki, particularly, in Gavazi, Areshi, Togha, Zagemi, Qakh, as well as on the segment between Shamakhi and Ardabil, and beyond in Iran. The main challenges with this route are that many potential sites are under-researched and some even poorly preserved, while those well-studied and well-preserved, such as sites in Sheki, Ardabil and Tabriz have already been individually inscribed on the World Heritage List [UNESCO, 2020d].  

4. Conclusion

The nomination of Gremi as part of the Silk Roads transboundary project is not an easy task, and it poses many challenges, which may not be overcome due to the decay or extension of the physical embodiments of the Silk Roads’ concept. However, the complex values of Gremi’s historical landscape and trading centre on one of the branches of the Silk Roads should not be ignored but enhanced in the case of nomination. For that matter, it would be useful for Georgia to work closely with Azerbaijan, another under-represented country to identify and evaluate the potential of the sites within the proposed corridor for justifying OUV and finding a feasible solution together for developing future intercultural cooperation in this regard.

The Silk Roads serial nomination with the participation of the Caucasus region would add to this transnational World Heritage project, particularly in terms of diversity and dimension, showcasing that Silk Roads covered a much broader scale and geography than it lingers in the perception and imagination of the academia and society. 

[1] Georgia  has not updated the Tentative List since 2007.

[2] According to paragraph 59.b of the Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention (2017) to promote the establishment of a representative, balanced and credible World Heritage List, States Parties are requested to consider proposing only properties falling into categories still underrepresented.

[3] Outstanding Universal Value means cultural and/or natural significance which is so exceptional as to transcend national boundaries and to be of common importance for present and future generations of all humanity. 

This work was supported by Shota Rustaveli National Science Foundation (SRNSF) [PhD_F_17_52].


მინდორაშვილი დ.
საქართველოს არქეოლოგია II-III: განვითარებული და გვიანდელი შუა საუკუნეები. ბათუმი: ბათუმის შოთა რუსთაველის სახელობის უნივერსიტეტი.
ზაქარაია პ.
ნაქალაქარ გრემის არქიტექტურა. მეცნიერება. თბილისი
საქართველოს კულტურული მემკვიდრეობის დაცვის ეროვნული სააგენტო
მუზეუმი, ისტორია, არტეფაქტები: გრემის მუზეუმი. თბილისი.
საქართველოს კულტურული მემკვიდრეობის დაცვის ეროვნული სააგენტო
ინფორმაცია მოძიებულია 2020 წლის 29 სექტემბერს შემდეგ ელექტრონულ მისამართზე: https://www.heritagesites.ge/uploads/files/5d9b295f1fa11.pdf
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