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08 12 2008 - ‘Georgianization’ of the church ofNorashen Sourb Astvatzatzin Church
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An Historical Overview of the Norashen Sourb Astvatzatzin Church

Kristine Aghalaryan

December 08, 2008
The Norashen Sourb Astvatzatzin Church (Holy Mother of God) is located in a central and ancient neighborhood of Tbilisi, next to Meydan Square, in Leselidze Street, in the vicinity of Saint Sion, the Georgian Primate’s Residence and the Greek Jvaris Mama Church. The name Norashen is of Armenian extraction and signifies ‘newly constructed’.

The Norashen Holy Mother of God Church was constructed in 1467 by a person called Sadab, as a memorial for the spouse of his father’s grandfather, Tavakal; Vishel, Nariman, Shariman and others. In 1650 Khoja Nazar rebuilt the church already in ruins. The dome was built by Ousta Petros. Historical records show that the church was constantly being repaired by Armenians – in 1795 by a decree of Behboudyan Melik-Avetik and at the urging of Father Grigor, in 1808, under the direction of broker/agent Ter-Ghazar and Baron Mountoyan, especially after the destructive raids of Agha Mahmad Khan.(dinasty Gajaride)

The bust of Lidia Tamamshyan

With the permission of Catholicos Nerses, the tile roof of the church was repaired in 1875 and renovation work inside the church took place in 1897 and 1900. In writings left by visiting Armenians and foreigners to Norashen the church is mentioned as one of the most prominent Armenian churches in ‘Tpghis’. Even Georgian researchers didn’t hide this fact until 1989.

Countless generations of Tbilisi Armenians have been baptized in Norashen and many notable citizens of Tiflis repose under its walls– the remains of princes Toumanov, Tamashen, Vartanov, and Pridonyan. Here too rest the remains of Archpriest Bajbeouk-Melikov.

Up till 1931 during the Soviet era the Norashen Holy Mother of God Church fell under the jurisdiction of the Diocesan Council. Afterwards the church was transformed into a book depository. In 1962, the Norashen ancient book depository was ranked third after those in Moscow and Kiev.
Proof of the ‘Georgianization’ of the church

‘Improvements’ to the Norashen Holy Mother of God Church began in 1983, during renovations to the vicinity of the church and Leselidz Street carried out by employees of the Georgian Head Division of Monuments Preservation under the supervision of Sh. Kavlashvili, the city’s chief architect. The church’s northern inscribed portal was torn down as an ‘architectural redundancy’. In 1989 Jansouk Babounashvili, Deputy Director of the Department of Monuments Preservation, was the first top official to declare that the Norashen church was actually a Georgian Orthodox Church built in the 13th century.

The ‘khatchkar’ (stone-cross) with the inscription attesting to the construction of the church dome in 1650 by Joughayetsi ‘Ousta’ Petros. The stone-cross, located inside the church, was destroyed in 1995.

Encroachments on Norashen assumed a continuous nature as of 1994. On November 29th that year books started to be removed from the church. On this occasion a group of Armenian intellectuals traveled to Tbilisi and met with Teodoros Jokhadze, Secretary to Georgian Catholicos Ilia. Secretary Jokhadze declared at the time that the existence of an Armenian church in the proximity of the Georgian Sion Holy See was not permissible. “We must make it Georgian”, stated the Catholicos’ Secretary.

On February 15, 1995, members of the Georgian clergy consecrated the church according to Georgian church ritual and named it ‘Khareba’ (the Promised/Annunciated). As of 1994, and especially 1995 till today, ‘renovation’ work resulting in the disappearance of Armenian traces, the baptismal font, elevated bema (sanctuary), stone-crosses affixed to the walls, Armenian language inscriptions, frescoes, etc, has been conducted in earnest.

As a result of research carried out by Samvel Karapetyan, who heads the “Armenian Architecture Research” NGO, all churches in Georgia have undergone the process of ‘Georgianization’ under the pretext of renovation and according to specific methods. Thus, the altar of an Armenian Church is 80 centimeters higher than the nave which has two sets of stairs leading to the altar. The Georgian Church, along with Greek and orthodox churches in general, have no such fixture. In their attempts to take over Armenian churches the Georgians first tear down the bema and level it off with dirt. In the north wall of Armenian churches there is the baptismal font which is usually made of one complete stone. The Georgian Church also celebrates the sacrament of baptism but theirs is a mobile basin. Thus, they destroy the Armenian baptismal font. The next victims are all the engraved and lithographed inscriptions and wall frescoes.

Another ‘khatchkar’ of the 17th century that ‘disappeared’ around the same time. Now you see it, now you don’t.

On March 13, 1995, at the invitation of the Georgian Armenian community, Archbishops Garegin and Grigoris along with Father Yzras and Human Rights Committee President R. Papayan traveled to Tbilisi. They met with Catholicos Ilia II and agreed to close the church for a given period and create special group of Armenian and Georgian experts to study the question of the church’s ownership. Till today, they still haven’t done so.

The inscribed northern portal destroyed in 1983.

The odyssey of Father Tariel Sikinchelashvili

In the spring of 2005 a new cemetery including five tombstones with Georgian inscriptions turned up next to the southern wall of the Norashen church. One was a gravestone of a certain individual named Maghlakelidze, who died in 1874. Samvel Karapetyan notes that according to one research study delineating the place of residence of various Georgian patriarchal ancestral lines in Georgia, the Maghlakekidze clan only resided in a few settlements in all of Georgia, including the village of Mleti in the Doushet region, where Father Tariel was the priest before being appointed the parish pastor at the ‘Georgianized’ Greek Jvaris Mama Church.

Tombstones still fastened with
metal wire.

Engraving work being carried out
on those tombstones.

Those same tombstones after being repositioned.

Samvel Karapetyan claims that, “It follows from this that the Georgian gravestones brought to Norashen to assist in the process of ‘Georgianization’ were transported by Father Tariel from the cemetery under his care in the village of Mleti.”
The encroachments continue – the recent incidents

In May, 2008, under the direct supervision of Father Tariel Sikinchelashvili of the Georgian Orthodox Church a fence surrounding Norashen started to be erected, decorated exclusively with motifs and crosses unique to the Georgian Church. On October 22nd, after the encroachments made on Holy Norashen and environs under the pretext of the fencing, due to numerous protests and the efforts of the Armenian community, the Tbilisi Municipality passed a decision to remove the fencing. That decision has still not been carried out. Just the opposite; the wall continues to be built. Finally, on November 16th, under the supervision of Father Tariel, representatives of the Georgian Orthodox Church attempted to dislocate and remove the tombstones of Mikayel Ivan Tamamshyan and Lidia Petros Tamamshyan that have lain in the Norashen church courtyard for more than 100 years, with the help of heavy machinery. Father Tariel took that move “to improve the environs of the church and to ‘remove rubbish’ from the site within the framework of his personal initiative”.

As a result of the efforts of the Armenian community the gravestones were restored to their original site and the heavy machinery removed from church grounds. But Father Tariel was never penalized for his actions. This last incident received a great deal of press coverage and the ensuing reaction was widespread. Georgian news services have always portrayed the issue of the Armenian churches as one in which Armenians make various claims regarding Georgian churches without any evidence to back up their claims that the churches are indeed of Armenian origin. Regarding recent incidents at the Norashen church the Georgian media writes that the activism of the Armenians is the result of Russian impetus, especially after the recent Georgian-Russian war.
Clamor was raised during previous incidents as well and the result was the removal of the gravestones. Accusatory charges were directed not only at Georgian authorities and the Georgian Church for their hostile behavior but also at the authorities in Armenia and the Holy See at Etchmaidzin for its passive stance and occasionally at the Tiflis Armenian community for its inaction on the matter and for not making specific demands of its own.

Annette Melikian

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