Christ cross

A new architectural tradition rises in the suburbs of Tbilisi

TBILISI – “Yes, we have one, but look how wonky it is. You can probably fix it with Photoshop. If it was lit, that would be cool,” says Nika, 13, as he skateboards ahead from the big blue building to the very last bus stop.

Nika talks about the cross on top of the building, which leans a bit to one side. You could confuse it with a TV antenna. When I ask the kids who put it there, they just say the name ‘Irakli’.

The former district administration building now houses displaced people.

I’m on the outskirts of Tbilisi trying to photograph the crosses that sit atop some of the Georgian capital’s Soviet-era apartment buildings. Some of these metal constructions light up at night; others have small religious icons placed below. Many of these are the so-called St. Nicholas Crosses, a traditional Georgian variant where the horizontal arms drop diagonally. Often known as a vine cross, legend has it that Georgia’s first missionary made a cross out of a vine, binding it with his own hair.

I find the six-storey building in the Zgvisubani district of Tbilisi, via the @jvrebi (Georgian for crosses) Instagram account that, as the name suggests, is all about crosses. But not crosses in churches, but crosses found everywhere else.

The building the kids are talking about – the big blue building – was definitely not built for living in. The long dusty corridors with small rooms on both sides were for administration.

“Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Regional Union of War, Labor and Army Veterans,” reads a sign on a locked door. On the first floor there is a working Tax Services office, but the rest of the building is used as accommodation for internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Abkhazia and others who receive social benefits from the state.

Displaced people from Abkhazia, a breakaway region of Georgia on the Black Sea coast, have been living in state-owned buildings across Georgia since the 1992 conflict forced them out. Often living in rudimentary and dilapidated housing, they have repeatedly protested against their living conditionsmany families are still waiting for new apartments or the right to privatize their accommodation.

There are no complaints from kids here, however. For them, the six-storey building is a giant playground, and when I ask if I can talk to an adult, a superior, they say there is no one above them. A boy sticks out his tongue.

Up in a hallway on the sixth floor, there are a few religious icons in the corner. “God Give Us Grace” is painted above in big green letters. A door opens and a teenager in a tracksuit comes out smoking. On the opposite wall is written: “Do not judge others and you will not be judged”.

“I wrote that,” the boy said.

In the corner of the corridor are the icons left by Irakli.

In the corner of the corridor are the icons left by Irakli.

His name is Beka and he tells me that he does not go to school, which is legally possible in Georgia after the age of 16. Instead, Beka says, he either wants to learn a trade or join the military. Among the children, Beka is definitely one of the leaders, so he is the one who takes me to the roof, where I finally learn more about the mysterious Irakli.

Irakli is also an IDP from Abkhazia, but he no longer lives here. According to Beka, he is sometimes in a monastery, sometimes somewhere else. No one really knows for sure. Irakli wanted his neighbors to follow a religious path and baptized some of the children in the building, including Beka.

It was Irakli who erected the cross and brought priests to consecrate the whole building. Consecration is common in Georgia. Priests can consecrate almost any object – usually an apartment or a car – by performing a special ritual. Since Irakli moved, one of the neighbors is responsible for lighting the candle in front of the image of Saint-Georges.

“To consecrate a house does not only mean to protect it, say, from lightning or fire,” explains Aleksandre Galdava, a Georgian Orthodox priest. “People approach it with magic spells and think that with this ritual they will be protected from evil… To consecrate my house means that I will shelter more people, feed the hungry, put [the house] in the service of God.”

“The cross at the top is of little importance if it does not convey the idea that the people who are placed there respect each other, resolve conflicts peacefully and take care of the common spaces”, adds the priest.

Visiting different apartment buildings across Tbilisi, no one knows exactly how the tradition of the cross began. But we always hear the same story: there was a particularly religious neighbor who one day decided to take the plunge and erect the cross.

The building with seven crosses is well known in the Temqa district of Tbilisi.

The building with seven crosses is well known in the Temqa district of Tbilisi.

A nine-story building in Tbilisi’s Temqa district has seven crosses — six to mark each entrance and a large one in the middle. It was Zura, a former superintendent of the building, who erected the crosses on the building around 2007. All the crosses were illuminated at night, using communal electricity which all residents paid for. Now only the central cross glows at night, powered directly from a resident’s apartment. There is still, I hear, an electricity debt of 700 lari ($237) from when all the crosses were lit.

The building’s current supervisor, Lali Kveseladze, says raising money for the building’s most important needs, let alone lighting up the crosses at night, is hard enough. Ten or 15 years ago, says Kveseladze, everyone in the building knew each other, but now many people have left and the sense of community has disappeared.

Meko on the roof of the house of seven crosses.

Meko on the roof of the house of seven crosses.

My guide to seeing the Seven Crosses was one of the building’s residents, a young man named Meko. He was just a boy, he says, when all the neighbors got together to lift the crosses from the rooftops with ropes.

“Everyone here knows our building, and it’s easy to explain to the taxi driver where to go. And it’s beautiful,” he says proudly.

The fact that the almost 4 meter high cross is fixed to the building with only a few bolts does not seem to bother him. After all, he says, it’s been lit all these years, hasn’t it?

Residents of this building say there was never a collective decision, no signatures collected, before the crosses were erected.

“The president just did it out of his own pocket,” they say, adding that signatures are only required when funded by the town hall.

A photo of this illuminated cross on a building in the Varketili district recently went viral on social media.

A photo of this illuminated cross on a building in the Varketili district recently went viral on social media.

Tbilisi’s architectural department, which regulates these things, tells RFE/RL that for roof changes, a resident must submit an application with detailed plans of the future construction. If the roof is a common part of the building, which is usually the case, residents must collect signatures from their neighbors – and without this step, construction is illegal.

Another body, the Municipal Inspectorate of Tbilisi City Hall, told RFE/RL that “it is impossible to monitor thousands of buildings” for safety checks. According to the office, rooftops and yards will only be checked if there is an official complaint. There have been no complaints about the crosses so far, they say.

An illuminated cross against the night sky.

An illuminated cross against the night sky.

Not all residents of Tbilisi are so hospitable. In the Gldani district, a cross on top of a 16-storey building overlooks the entire district. A lonely bush, swaying in the wind, grew beside it.

When I knock, a building supervisor says she knows nothing about the cross and is about to slam the door when her husband rushes outside, demanding an explanation. I explain that I mean no harm and that I’m just a reporter working on a story, but he still doesn’t trust me. He keeps asking me why I came to this building where Orthodox Christians live. Orthodox Christians who have done nothing wrong. Photos on Facebook of these houses with crosses are always met with contempt, the man says.

He has a point.

“Have you totally lost your mind? “Does this protect you from the evil eye?!” “Idiocy!” These are just some of the less hostile comments under the photos I’ve seen on social media.

“Go away and leave us alone,” the man said, angry not only at me but at all those online commenters. I leave, finally only able to take pictures of the cross from a nearby building.

Standing on 16 floors, this cross of Saint Nino overlooks the Gldani district.

Standing on 16 floors, this cross of Saint Nino overlooks the Gldani district.

Most Georgians trust the Church more than government institutions. A survey as of 2022 found that 81% of those polled had a “favourable” view of the Georgian Orthodox Church, while the government received only 46% support.

A survey Caucasus Research Resource Centers (CRRC), found that most citizens (79%) think the Georgian Orthodox Church is the foundation of Georgian identity and 83% say it plays a very important role in their family.

Back at the big blue building, the boys love their wonky cross. They have plans for the roof, they say. A dryer and a small gym. I ask the boys if they like living in this house.

“We don’t like the place, but we like the house,” they say. “And all of our friends are here. Together.”

Read the original story in Georgian here.