Cave Towns

UPLISTSIKHE

Literally meaning ‘fortress of the lord’, Uplistsikhe dates back as far as the Iron Age and is one of the oldest urban settlements in Georgia. Located on a rocky promontory above the river Mtkvari, the city stood directly on the path of the old Silk Road, and was a strategic and commercial centre – much of this former glory can still be glimpsed today.

Uplistsikhe is cut into the sandstone hillside in several levels, with a main street winding between them. You can still see the gutters that lined the street back in the Iron Age. The complex is almost inaccessible from the river side, a 30 meter shaft that tunnels almost vertically down through the mountain, to provide a secret entrance and escape route during times danger. Although the city has been ravaged by invaders, earthquakes and the weather, it still contains a number of impressive public buildings, testifying to its importance as a trade centre, and occasional capital city – it’s said that the kings of Georgia would rule from here during the periods Mtskheta or Tbilisi were under foreign occupation. Along with several pagan temple sites, there is a large throne room (anachronistically named after Queen Tamar), whose roof has been carved to look like a wooden ceiling made of beams. Nearby are the remains of a theatre. Only the stage and arched ceiling have survived, but the fine detailing visible in the arch shows that even in the distant past Georgia was a crossroads of civilization – the motifs are exactly the same as those seen in Caracalla’s baths in Rome. The street then takes you past an ancient pharmacy; the shelves still contained traces of cures and remedies when the site was restored in the 60s. Further up is a pretty 10th century basilica that offers amazing views down over the Mtkvari valley.

Uplistsikhe is a 30 minute drive from the town of Gori, and is 85 kilometers from Tbilisi. Regular busses leave Tbilisi’s Didube bus station for Gori, (the trip takes about an hour), and taxis are available in Gori to take you to Uplistsikhe.

DAVID  GAREJA

When you look across the awe inspiring lunar landscape of the Gareji semi-desert, you can immediately see why this has been a place of spiritual pilgrimage and seclusion for so many centuries. 

The area was initially settled in the sixth century by Davit Garejeli, one of thirteen so-called Syrian fathers – monks from Mesopotamia who spread the tradition of monasticism in Georgia. Within a few years, Davit, who was known for his ascetic ways and ability to perform miracles, had attracted a following of novice monks, many of them would go on to found new monasteries in the are. There are currently seventeen monasteries in the vast expanse of the Gareji wilderness, all cut into caves in the hillsides. 

Today, most visitors head for the working monastery of Lavra, the most sacred part of Gareji, where Davit himself lived. Here, monks live in caves carved high up into the rock faces, and pilgrims gather every Sunday to experience the sacred place. Legend has it that Davit once performed a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. As he left the holy city he picked up three stones and put them in his bag. That night he was visited by an angel who told him that the three stones contained all the spiritual treasure of the city, and that he must return two of the stones, but could keep one for himself. That stone, containing one third of the spiritual wealth of Jerusalem, is inside the Lavra’s main church, which is why anyone visiting the monastery three times has performed the equivalent of one pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

Over the rocky ridge from Lavra, and accessible by a steep footpath that is clearly signed, is the amazing monastery of Udabno – literally meaning desert in Georgian. On a cliff looking down over the Azerbaijan border more than fifty rock-cut chambers, including churches, chapels, cells and a refectory survive, although the fronts of many have collapsed over the centuries. The chapels and churches, and especially the refectory, contain some of the most important frescoes in Georgian art history. 

The frescoes date from the 10th to 13th centuries, and are regarded as the pinnacle of Georgian art. Tragically, the area was used as a military training ground in Soviet times and many priceless frescoes were defaced. In spite of this, the stunning frescoes that remain, including the last supper, scenes from the life of St Nino and Davit Gareji, point to the amazing artistic achievement of the Georgian Golden Age.

VARDZIA

 The cave city of Vardzia looks like something out of a fairytale. Set on a cliff overlooking a steep, lush valley, the massive complex is spread over six stories, with hundreds of caves poking out of the rock-face. Vardzia dates from the time of Queen Tamar, Georgia’s beloved monarch of the 12th and 13th century, who presided over a Golden age of unparalleled prosperity. 

What is visible now is just a fraction of the city as it once was; when it could boast six thousand caves spread over thirteen levels. In spite of the ravages of earthquakes, invasions and time, Vardzia today is a hugely impressive place. Labyrinths of tunnels connect the various levels of the complex, and fresh spring water gathers behind the perfectly preserved church of the Assumption. The church, dating from Tamar’s time, is covered in amazing frescoes, on of which depicts an unmarried Tamar and her father.

Vardzia is located in Samtskhe-Javakheti province, in 290 km to the south-west of Tbilisi. Although day trips by car are possible from Tbilisi; it’s probably better to stay in the regional centre of Akhaltsikhe, seventy kilometers away, from which there are regular minibuses to Vardzia.