It was a close thing and we wouldn’t have reached the cave city in Vardzia. Even worse – we’d have given it up consciously. We were frustrated by bad weather, which greeted us on Armenian-Georgian border, and all I wanted was a rest by the sea. In addition, I was convinced that nothing would be able to beat the Jordanian Petra, which I’d once visited. Yet, by coincidence we landed off the main road to Vardzia and the weather improved a lot. So why not take advantage of it?
Afterwards, we were very pleased that things had turned out like this as the cave city in Vardzia is one of the most interesting monuments in Georgia (though it doesn’t come upt to Petra in Jordan, but they present two totally different ideas – Petra are facades carved into red rock, whereas, Vardzia is an underground system of corridors) and being in this country one does have to see them. No wonder that we came across a couple of organised tours (peak season, unfortunately… ), including one from Poland. Fortunately, the complex is big enough to get away from the crowd easily.
It’s easier to talk about the complex in Vardzia as a ‘city’, although it doesn’t remind us the cities we’re used to. There’re no streets or buildings, and it’s made up of caverns interconnected with each other by a tunnel system. From a distance it looks like animal caves in the rocks, nests or a termite mound, and from the inside it resembles an anthill. It was carved out in the soft tuff of Eruszeti at 1300 m.a.s.l, just above the canyon of the river Mtkwari.
the history of Vardzia
The construction of the complex began in the reign of King George III (1156-1184) and was completed under the rule of his daughter, Queen Tamara (1184-1213), who transformed the city into a monastery. It means that the cave city in Vardzia is more than 800 years, but one should know that such designs used to be very popular in these areas. The oldest is a cave city Uplistsikhe founded around 500 BC and situated some 10 km from Gori. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a chance to visit it. A lot of such carved ‘hollows’ in the rocks we’ve also seen in Eastern Turkey near the border with Armenia.
In times of its greatest splendor the tunnel system in Vardzia stretched over a distance of 500 m and had about 3000 rooms interconnected by passages on 19 floors, all of which were hidden under the ground. There used to be living quarters, stables and stalls, bakeries, 25 cellars for storing wine (which played a key role in the trade), barns, rooms with book collections, as well as 13 churches. On a daily basis the monastery was inhabited by 2,000 monks; yet, in times of danger even up to 60,000 people could be accommodated here! For such a number of people a huge amount of drinking water had to be gathered, and it was possible just due to a complicated (and very modern as for those days) gutter system, by which the water flowed into the tanks. Sources say that Vardzia was very rich and the churches adorned with gold, silver and precious stones.
In 1283 this part of Georgia was struck by a powerful earthquake, as a result of which 2/3 of the massif sank into the river. Due to it Vardzia was revealed, which in 1551 was harnessed by the Persian – they killed many monks and robbed all the valuables. Eventually, the city was deserted in 1587, when the Turks occupied the lands, and again it was inhabited by a handful of monks in the 70s of the XXth century. It was then that the renovation began, unfortunately, with the help of a large amount of concrete. In 1998, heavy rains caused the collapse of yet another fragment of the complex, which has been rebuilt.
Today, one can see only 1/5 of what once formed Vardzia, but anyway it makes a huge impression. Narrow passages, steep tunnels, stairs rubbed off and washed out over the centuries… The inside of the complex is amazing, we entered into one of the passages somewhere at the bottom, we made a few turns, climbed the ladders, then we went down, up again, made another turn and… it turned out that we were completely on the other side of the town and, what was even more surprising, several metres higher than before!
If we’d had our own car, for sure we’d have stayed in Vardzia much longer. We were, however, dependent on some other means of transport, mainly hitchhiking and the time of a day. To stay here longer would have involved looking for another accommodation somewhere by the river, but we were already tired of our several weeks wandering and we were really, really into having a rest at the sea.
Anyway, I recommend Vardzia to everyone! It makes another attraction in Georgia which shows how diverse the country is. In addition to the High Caucasus mountains, sunny and wine flowing Kakhetia, semi-desert grasslands on the way to David Gareja monastery. Vardzia is definitely our best memory from Georgia, and if someone asks us which place to reccommend there, I will say Vardzia even if one has to go there even from Tbilisi!
Have you ever been to Georgia or any other Caucasus countries? Have you visited Vardzia? Or maybe you have never heard of this cave city? If so, would you like to visit it? Share your opinion in the comment box below!