Monastery complex Keshikchi Dag

Monastery complex Keshikchi Dag (David Gareja) and a conflict on the Azerbaijan-Georgia border

Arif Yunusov

The Monastery complex Keshichki Dag (Georgian – David Gareja)

In 2019, the fierce disputes between Azerbaijan and Georgia broke out with renewed vigour over the VIth century A.D. monastery complex, located high in the mountains on the border between the two countries. In fact, it is a unique mountain-carved small town of 25 km long, which includes 21 medieval monasteries with around 5,000 cells and various rooms where monks and hermits still live today. There is a fortress on the very top of the mountain. The Georgians call this complex “David Gareja” (in honour of the Syrian VIth century monk), while the Azerbaijanis named it «Keshikchi Dag” (“Watchtower Mountain”). If the first ones see it as an important religious center and a national cultural monument, whereas the second ones consider it a part of their cultural heritage and say that among other things, it is located at an altitude of strategic importance, hence, the name of the fortress.

In Soviet times, there was no need for a strict border demarcation, which existed technically only on the map. Moreover, at that time the area had been a military training ground for the Soviet army, where there had been conducted military exercises and artillery firing, which made the access to most of the monastery complex prohibited.

This issue became very important only after Georgia and Azerbaijan declared their independence. And rather soon, in 1996, the parties began negotiations on the border determination, for which they established the Georgian-Azerbaijani State Commission on Border Delimitation and Demarcation. Very promptly, the parties agreed on 314 kilometers out of the 480 kilometers of the interstate border, yet, the matter stagnated for a long time because of the remaining 166 km where was located this monastery. Long and fruitless disputes between the parties unfolded over some period of time. The problem is that the monastery complex consists of three parts. One of which with the main monastery of David Gareja is on the Georgian territory. Whereas on the Azerbaijani side there are two monasteries (the monastery Udabno on the mountain slope, and the monastery Bertubani is 2 km away from the border), about 40 cells and the Keshikchi Dag fortress where there is currently a post of the Azerbaijani border troops. In other words, 95 per cent of the complex is located on the territory of Georgia but the strategic altitude is controlled by Azerbaijan.

In the course of the negotiations, the Georgian side proposed an option of exchanging territories. However, the Azerbaijani authorities rejected it. All strategic heights are on the territory interested by Georgians, and from which a considerable part of the two countries’ land is easily observable. In its turn, Azerbaijan proposed to preserve the borders that remained from the Soviet inheritance and use this monastery complex as a tourist center for worshippers. But now the Georgian side, especially the Georgian Orthodox Church, was categorically against this idea.

Despite the negotiation process in effectiveness, as a matter of fact the issue has been put aside for many years. Priests and tourists were able to visit David Gareja from the Georgian side and also by crossing over to a part of the Azerbaijani side, without any passport control or restrictions.

Obviously, the problems in inter-state relations have occasionally occurred because of the unsolved boarder issue. In May 2007, after have met with Ilham Aliyev, the former Georgian leader, Mikhail Saakashvili, said that an agreement had been reached on the monastery complex that would be within Georgia territory. That provoked indignation and a strong rebuttal in Baku. Moreover, on 19 December 2007, Ilham Aliyev signed the decree announcing the Keshikchi Dag cave complex, which covers a vast area of up to 25 km along the Azerbaijan-Georgia border, as a State Historical and Cultural Landmark.

After the Georgian-Russian war in August 2008, the problem with the monastery complex has been on the back burner. Although the representatives of the Georgian-Azerbaijani commission had occasionally been meeting, though in vain, and those meetings ceased after 2011. The change of power in Georgia and the political turmoil ultimately postponed the problem to a distant future.

In early 2019, it was unexpected new sharp turn of the interstate relations aggravation due to the monastery complex matter. On the 27 February 2019, Georgia’s new President Salome Zurabishvili paid an official visit to Azerbaijan and, following the negotiations with Ilham Aliyev, stated that the parties had decided to provide instructions to the border delimitation commission in order to resume work and, finally to establish an official border that should rather unite two friendly states than separate them. 

At first, the Georgian president’s statement did not cause any particular concern in Azerbaijan. But then it happened something that some time later the Georgian Parliament Chairman Irakli Kobakhidze called Salome Zurabishvili’s “counterproductive improvisation”: on April 20th, she arrived in David Gareja and during a meeting with the Georgian border guards stated that the monastery complex belongs to Georgia and this issue would be positively resolved with Azerbaijani side by the end of the year.

In Azerbaijan, that statement of the President of Georgia was regarded as an open political challenge. Following S. Zurabishvili’s “improvisation” there were other Georgian officials statements, as well as politicians’, priests’, and harsh publications in the Georgian media. And all this against the background of pro-Armenian actions in Georgia (erection of monument to an Armenian solder fighting in Karabakh, etc.), which caused irritation in Azerbaijan and thus only worsened the situation.

The reaction of the Azerbaijani side followed right away: on 23 April Azerbaijani border guards blocked the road to the Udabno monastery and did not allow clergy, believers and tourists to visit it. Of course, this immediately caused a sharp surge of indignation in Georgia which followed with anti-Azerbaijani statements and protests. The reaction was similar in Azerbaijan. Two days later the negotiations between the Ministries of Foreign Affairs of Georgia and Azerbaijan, the border guards opened the border. But the genie was let out of the bottle. Things rapidly grew heated.

In Georgia, a social movement to defend the monastery complex began. On 05 May several hundred activists came to the David Gareja Monastery from the Georgian side and organized a “live chain” on the slope of the mountain; they were standing holding hands for several hours. At the same time, anti-Azerbaijani and anti-Muslim calls were heard, though, soon the Georgian Patriarchate warned to abstain from making such statements.

In response, the Azerbaijani authorities increased the number of border guards at this border point, and also paved the way to the monastery complex. And then, they also organized a “live chain”.

Living Chains” of Georgians and Azerbaijanis around the monastery complex

The situation continued to escalate and only after that the authorities of both countries decided to return to the border issue discussion of border: on 03 May 2019, the President of Azerbaijan reassigned Khalaf Khalafov to the post of Deputy Foreign Minister, despite the fact that he was dismissed from the very same post five months prior his reassignment. Khalafov was also appointed to the post of the president’s Special Envoy for Border Issues. After an eight-year hiatus, the Georgian-Azerbaijani intergovernmental commission on delimitation and demarcation of the state border took place in Baku on 23-24 May. The parties agreed to carry out a joint experts’ inspection of the uncoordinated efforts concerning some border sections and resume negotiations afterwards.

But the situation remained tense. Georgian clergy, believers and civil society activists continued protesting and “live chains” in the monastery complex area under the slogans “Gareja is Georgia”. Also, the demonstrations took place in the capital of Georgia, Tbilisi.

On 14 July a serious incident occurred: a group of Georgian activists climbed a hill at the section of the Georgian-Azerbaijani border in dispute by the both countries authorities and attacked Azerbaijani border guards, accusing them of removing icons from the cells of the Udabno monastery and using some of the chapels carved into the rocks as a toilet. Fortunately, the Azerbaijani border guards maintained their restraint and did not use weapons, which would certainly have had serious consequences for the two states.

But the state of Azerbaijan could not remain silent and pursued with a tough statement issued by the State Border Service; moreover, the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry regarded these incident as a provocation and called the Ambassador of Georgia for official explanations.

After that, the Border Police Deputy Teymuraz Kupatadze stated that due to the worsening weather there was a risk of damaging icons in the Udabno monastery. In order to avoid accusations against them, the Azerbaijani border guards took the icons out of the monastery and handed them over to the Georgian border guards. He further indicated that the cells were used as toilets by Georgian tourists and believers who had previously visited those places, while the Azerbaijani border guards just cleaned them. He also added that the parties made a decision to close access to the Udabno monastery cells starting from July, 14 for one week in order to maintain a calm situation at the border and cool down the protesters’ fervour.

However, the Azerbaijani side did not stop there and increased the number of border guards, improved the road and the necessary infrastructure. On October 7, the State Border Guard Service of Azerbaijan put into operation a new frontier post “Keshikchi Gala” on the specified section of the border with Georgia, which is to protect the cave and temple complex “Keshikchi Dag”.

Azerbaijan Border Guard Station “Keshikchi Gala”

At the same time, the Georgian side increased their border guards number. For security reasons and to avoid new incidents, the movement of pilgrims and tourists was seriously limited.

Only after that a new round of negotiations on this issue became possible: the Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia made his first official visit to Azerbaijan to discuss the existing problems. On the eve of his visit, the Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia Ilia II addressed the Prime Minister, as well as the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Minister of Internal Affairs of Georgia with a request, during the meeting, to solve the problem of banning visits to the monastery complex with the Azerbaijani leadership. He also sent a copy of his letter to the Sheikh-ul-Islam Allahshukur Pashazade, the head of the Caucasus Muslims Department.

On 10 October it was officially announced that starting from the 11 October Azerbaijan would open an access for believers and tourists to the monastery complex on its territory. Thus, the parties restored the status quo and decided to continue negotiations on the delimitation and demarcation of the border.

What are the conclusions?

We cannot definitely expect that Azerbaijan will give its consent to transferring the disputed part of the monastery complex to the Georgian side. The option of the territory exchange is not acceptable alternative for Azerbaijan in view of questionable military and political reasons. It is also clear that the problem should be solved in the legal sphere and based on international practice.

The dispute between Georgia and Azerbaijan is reminiscent of the conflicts over religious shrines in the Middle East. For example, in Syria there is the Cave of the First Blood (Magara ad Damme) in Damascus, where, according to the legend, the first man, Adam, lived and where Cain killed Abel and thus committed the first murder in the history of mankind. Both Christians and Muslims make pilgrimages there. And 50 km from Damascus there is the tomb of Abel, that constantly visited by pilgrims from Iran. An even more illustrative example is the solution to the problem of visiting religious shrines (Jewish, Christian and Islamic) in Israel and Palestine. All the shown examples are in the region where there are wars and conflicts, whereas Azerbaijan and Georgia are friendly and strategic partners. So, it means that this problem could be resolved taking into account the believers’ interests and both states concerns.