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Vardzia caves, Georgia - Amazed by the ancient wonder

Vardzia cave city,Erusheti Mountain,Georgia,UNESCO

Travelled into the wilderness in Georgia: through deep valleys and green rocky hillsides I reached this wonder of the world. Here there are hundreds of rooms, tunnels, a spring, kitchen, cermony chambers, and a church with old frescoes, all carved into the mountain itself. In ancient time thousands of people lived here.

Photo. Vardzia cave town, Erusheti Mountain, Georgia - a monument of Georgian history, culture and religion. © Travel Explorations.

It was time again to immersing myself in ancient history, and going to Georgia gave me countless opportunities for memorable moments. Travelling to ancient sites can indeed provide some of the most unforgettable and enriching experiences. Vardzia cave town is an example of that. 

In May - June 2019 I “travelled back in time” to visit Vardzia cave town in southern Georgia. Vardzia was built in the 12th century during the reign of Queen Tamar, one of Georgia's most celebrated rulers. It was constructed as a defensive structure and a place of worship, serving both secular and religious purposes.

With stars in my eyes I could observe the spectacular cave monastery site here, dug out of the Erusheti Mountain on the left bank of the Mtkvari River in Samtskhe-Javakheti region. It was the easternmost bastion of Christianity and holds special significance for Georgians because it is associated with King Tamar, the most famous woman in Georgian history (she was crowned king, not queen). 

Vardzia is a rock-carved fortress stretched over 500 meters. It is located in the historic region of Samtskhe-Javakheti and consists of 600 rooms. It can freely be called the Honor of Georgians. This cave town is a monument of Georgian history, culture and religion. It should be mentioned that the site is included in the UNESCO world culture heritage list as one of the most unique rock-hewn towns. 

Time under the reign of Queen Tamar is considered the golden age of Georgia. This period marks the revival of the country. The end of XII century and the beginning XIII is thought to be the renaissance of art and literature. Around this time began Bethania, Kintvisi desert and many other temples were built. The most prominent of them was, and still is, Vardzia. Tamar’s father, King Giorgi III, began construction of this monastic cave town and his successor King Tamar finished it. Vardzia is a brilliant creation of the Georgian people, which endured centuries and countless attacks from within. It is an example of art, culture and the geniality of our people. It shows in which conditions our ancestors created ways to defend the nation from numerous attacks from enemies.

The name of the cave-town is connected with Queen Tamar, the great female monarch (Mepe) of Georgia from 1184 to 1213, presiding over the apex of the Georgian Golden Age. According to the legend, young Tamar, when out hunting, lost in the caves; when called for, she replied "I am here, uncle" (Georgian: “aq var dzia"), giving the site its name.

Walking around in the complex cave system filled me with a sense of amazement and fascination. Exploring the site can indeed feel like navigating through a labyrinth. The complex also had a defensive purpose. It was strategically located to defend against invasions, particularly from the Mongols. It had a complex system of tunnels, escape routes, and secret passages, making it a formidable fortress. In the late 1100's the medieval kingdom of Georgia was constantly under threat of the Mongol Empire. To help her people avoid the Mongol onslaught, Tamar ordered the construction of an underground sanctuary and secretly they started building this fortress under the Erusheli mountain. It was a gigantic job but the people worked hard with the determination that their culture and lifestyle should not be destroyed by the invading Mongols. As it is known, Vardzia was built as a shelter from Mongol attacks and from other enemies. 

This underground fortress eventually had 13 levels constructed with natural caves and contained over 6000 rooms, including a throne room, a reception chamber, a meeting room, a bakery, a forge, chapels and a huge church. The only way to get to this underground city was through a secret tunnel which started at the nearby Mtkvari River.

It is also noteworthy that the land on the outside of the hidden monastery was extremely fertile. The monks arranged an irrigation system on terraced farmlands so they could produce their own food. As the author notes, some tunnels had irrigation pipes that still bring drinkable water. The cave city also had about 25 wine cellars containing 185 wine jars.

Vardzia kept Georgians safe from the Mongol attacks, but, sadly, a devastating earthquake in 1283 (only 100 years after its construction) destroyed more than two-thirds of the city. In the aftermath of the earthquake, the remaining caves that were once hidden became visible.

Besides its historical and architectural significance, Vardzia is set in a stunning natural landscape. The site offers breathtaking views of the surrounding cliffs, the Kura River, and the picturesque Vardzia Gorge. 

Efforts have been made to preserve and restore Vardzia over the years. UNESCO recognized it as a potential World Heritage site, highlighting its importance for Georgian history and culture. Vardzia is not only a testament to Georgian's rich history and architectural heritage but also a place of spiritual significance. Its unique cave structures and historical importance make it especially interesting when it comes to history, culture, and natural beauty. 

Fortunately I didn`t get lost and found my way out again from the complex cave system. Exploring the network of caves and tunnels was a thrill adventure that created intense memories that I am sure I will carry with me for a lifetime. My experiences here not only allow me to connect with the past but also provide opportunities for personal reflection, cultural appreciation, and a deeper understanding of human history. These gave me lasting memories and a sense of wonder about the achievements of an amazing ancient civilization.

Stein Morten Lund, June 2019

Additional information
Description of the Vardzia rock cave site by UNESCO (submitted 2009):
"Rock-cut complexes forms integrate part of the landscape. Rock-cut structures of the nominated site have preserved interiors and planning type, which have not reached us in the samples of built architecture. This is especially vivid in the samples of vernacular architecture, monk cells, subsidiary and public structures. Rock-cut monuments preserved in Vardzia-Khertvisi gorge comprise quite vast chronological limits - from the 8th-9th cc. up to 15th-16th cc. They make to possible to trace development of the type from simple caves up to grand, multi-tiered complexes. This gorge has preserved rock-cut villages with the unique samples of dwellings, minor and great monastic complexes, with the masterpieces of the medieval mural painting, as well as epigraphical monuments containing important historical records."

From Varzia we continued our journey to Rabati. Approximately 60 km from Akhaltsikhe – a road following the upper Mtkvari River and leading through canyons and valleys – lies the cave city of Vardzia.

Admired the medieval Rabati castle complex, Akhaltsikhe, in Georgia. Influenced by various cultures, the complex houses a Church, a Mosque, a Minaret and a Synagogue. When entering the site I was greeted by beautiful green parks and beautiful architecture. 

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