Since the Republic of Georgia established independence in 1991, disputes over the Russian-backed separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have repeatedly devolved into active combat. Warfare erupted most recently in 2008, when the Russian-Georgian War ended in ceasefire without resolution. During the five-day war, over 145,000 ethnic Georgians were forced out of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Since the war, churches in the occupied regions have been renovated to cover Georgian architectural elements and inscriptions, and to take on Russian features. For Georgians, the renovations at Ilori are part of a larger process of forced migration, internal displacement, and ethnic cleansing in Abkhazia.
One of these sites is the Ilori Church, an eleventh century Georgian Orthodox Church in Ochamchire, Abkhazia. Without the ability to return to Abkhazia or to stop the renovations, a group of Georgian people have started to construct a new version of the Ilori Church in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. Some are internally displaced people who were forcibly pushed out of Abkhazia during the war, while others have familial or ancestral ties to the region. Whether they grew up in Ochamchire or Tbilisi, all of them felt a drive to create a community gathering space for those who feel a personal loss over the church. With movement limited by protracted conflict, a new church fills the community need for a space to worship, gather, and connect—to each other, to their homeland, and to their ancestors. Volunteers provide the labor to construct the new church, part of a planned complex that they lovingly refer to as “Little Abkhazia.” Yet, the Tbilisi church bears little resemblance to the original building. Rather than an architectural replacement, the new church is a place of gathering for those who yearn to return to Ilori. The new Church evokes memories of family members lost to the war and an inaccessible homeland, and seeds hope for an eventual return to Abkhazia.
Gracie Golden the Administrative Coordinator at the Penn Cultural Heritage Center. Her anthropological research focuses on cultural heritage, borderization, and displacement in Georgia.