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Vardzia - the cave city, monastery, and fortress of Georgia

Updated: Jun 22, 2020

Welcome to our very first blog post! In this post you’ll learn about Vardzia, the historic cave-monastery and fortress in southern Georgia. It is located approximately thirty kilometers (18.6 miles) from Aspindza in the Erusheti Mountain on the left bank of the Kura River. Vardzia is a stop in our Hidden Gems of Georgia tour on Day 6. It’s a must see for every traveler who wishes to explore the rich history of Georgia. Here’s why...

For skimmers: In the second half of the twelfth century Vardzia was dug out of solid rock in the slopes of a mountain by the Georgians, as ordered by Giorgi III and then by the “mountain queen” Tamar in efforts to save them from the Mongol conquerors. It was successful for some time until an earthquake exposed the insides of the cave city. It was eventually conquered and permanently turned into a monastery.

1. In the late 1100s the medieval kingdom of Georgia was resisting the onslaught of the Mongols, the most devastating force Europe had ever seen. Giorgi III ordered the construction of the fortress Vardzia as a military base after 10,000 Mongolian troops were somehow defeated by a small, but bold Georgian army of just 2,000 men.

2. In 1185, after Georgi’s death, Queen Tamar ordered the construction of the underground sanctuary. When completed this underground fortress extended 13 levels and contained 6,000 living spaces, a throne room and a large church with an external-facing bell tower.

3. Most believe that the only access to this stronghold was through a hidden tunnel whose entrance was near the banks of the Mtkvari (Kura) river. The external slope of the mountain had a fertile surface, suitable for agriculture. An intricate system of irrigation was designed for farming.

4. With these defenses and life-sustainable systems in place, natural and manmade, the fortress was impenetrable to human forces. This was the “Golden Age” of feudal Georgia, as Georgian art, science, and literature flourished.

5. Some believe the cave city’s name Vardzia was derived from something Queen Tamar said. Tamar got lost in the caves when she was young and out riding with her uncle Giorgi. He called “Where are you?” she replied, “ak var dzia,” meaning “Here I am.”

6. Unfortunately for the Georgians, the glorious days of Vardzia didn’t last. Though they were safe from the Mongols, they were not safe from natural disasters. In 1283, only a century after construction, a devastating earthquake literally ripped the fortress apart. The earthquake shattered the mountain slope and destroyed more than two-thirds of the city, exposing the hidden insides of the remainder.

7. Despite the earthquake, the monastery community persisted until 1551 when it was raided and destroyed by Persian Shah Tahmasp.

8. Today Vardzia is maintained by a small group of monks. About three hundred living spaces and halls remain and some of the original irrigation pipes still facilitate drinkable water into the caves.

9. The underground tunnels of Vardzia have been compared to those in Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones.

10. If you’re going to visit, prepare to climb lots of stairs and bring water to stay hydrated on your adventure to Vardzia.

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