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With scores of underground halls carved out of solid rock, Vardzia looks like something out of the pages of “Lord of the Rings.” The only difference is that this stunning cave-monastery was not built by dwarfs, but by medieval Georgians for their beloved queen Tamar.
Vardzia is an underground cave monastery and fortress excavated from the slopes of the Erusheli Mountain on the left bank of Mtkvari River. It is located 30km from Aspindza district within the Samtskhe-Javakheti region of southern Georgia.
Excavations have uncovered that the area of Vardzia was inhabited as early as the Bronze Age, indicating the reach of the Trialeti culture in ancient Georgia. Four distinct building phases have been identified at the fortress of Vardzia.
The first building phase was during the reign of King Giorgi III (1156-1184), when the site was laid out and the first cave dwellings excavated. In the late 1100s, the medieval kingdom of Georgia was constantly under threat from the Mongol Empire. Vardzia was therefore built for defensive purposes as a refuge from Mongol attacks.
The second building phase was between the death of Giorgi III and the marriage of his daughter and successor Tamar in 1186. The third building phase was from between the marriage of Tamar until the Battle of Basian around 1203.
One of the greatest Georgian monarchs, Tamar was the first woman ever crowned queen of Georgia. During her reign, the kingdom of Georgia experienced its Golden Age and Vardzia was transformed from a military stronghold into a monastery.
In fact, the name of the cave-town is connected with Tamar. According to legend, when Tamar was young she got lost in the caves while out hunting with her uncle. When called for, she replied “I am here, uncle” which in Georgian translates to “Ak Var Dzia”.
Her last two words echoed around the cave complex, and were heard by Giorgi III. He then ordered that the complex be called “Vardzia”. Although multiple funeral processions left Tbilisi upon Tamar’s death to confuse tomb raiders, it is believed that she was buried at Vardzia.
The construction of the underground sanctuary of Vardzia was done in secret. It was a massive undertaking but the people worked hard determined that their lifestyle and culture would not be destroyed by the invading Mongols.
Upon completion, the underground fortress had 13 levels with natural caves and contained over 6,000 rooms. These included a throne room, meeting room, reception chamber, bakery, forge, chapels and a big church. The only way to access the underground city was through a secret tunnel whose entrance was located near the banks of the Mtkvari River.
The mountain slope surrounding the hidden monastery was very fertile and ideal for cultivation. An intricate irrigation system was set up on terraced farmlands to produce their own food. Irrigation pipes supplied drinkable water through the tunnels, and there were about 25 wine cellars with 185 wine jars.
Sadly, the glorious days of Vardzia did not last. Although the cave-fortress had kept Georgians safe from Mongol attacks, it was destroyed in 1283 by a devastating earthquake that shattered the mountain slope.
In the aftermath of the earthquake, over two-thirds of the complex had been destroyed and the remaining caves that were once hidden became exposed. This prevented Vardzia from continuing its primary function as a fortress.
It was then that the fourth building phase took place. Following this partial rebuilding, Vardzia was described as a “wonder”, “impregnable as the wall of Alexander the Great”. A community persisted at Vardzia until 1551 when it was sacked by the Persians following a battle within the caves.
In 1578, following the Ottoman conquest, the monks departed and the site was largely abandoned. After the Russo-Turkish War of 1828–29, the valley was transferred to the Russian Empire and life returned to Vardzia. But during the Soviet era, monastic life stopped in the monastery.
Following the end of Soviet rule, Vardzia once again became a working monastery. Today, some caves have been cordoned off and are inhabited by a small group of monks. About 300 dwellings and halls can be visited and some of the old irrigation pipes still supply drinkable water.
One of the most important Georgian monuments, Vardzia is today a must-visit tourist destination in Georgia. The site is part of the Vardzia Historical-Architectural Museum Reserve, which includes 46 architectural sites, 12 archaeological sites and 21 sites of monumental art.
The Vardzia cave monastery developed into a complex stretching 800m along the mountain side, to the depth of 50m. It had chapels, wine cellars, baths, libraries and numerous dwellings connected by steep stairs and narrow tunnels. The complex housed about 2,000 monks, but could shelter up to 20,000 people during an enemy attack.
The greater Vardzia area also includes the early 11th century church at Zeda Vardzia and the 10th-12th century rock village and cave churches of Ananauri. The main lower site was carved from the cliff’s central layer at an elevation of 1300m above sea level. It is divided into an eastern and western section by the Church of the Dormition.
The eastern section features 79 separate cave dwellings on 8 levels, with a total of 242 rooms, including 6 chapels, Tamar’s room, a pharmacy, meeting room, reception chamber and 25 wine cellars. Sunk into the floor are 185 wine jars that signify the importance of viticulture to the monastic economy.
The western section has a further 40 dwellings on 13 levels with 165 rooms, including 6 chapels, ovens for baking bread and a forge. The complex rises up 13 levels with steps leading to a cemetery, and infrastructure that includes access tunnels, water facilities and defense posts.
Below the cliffs is a bell-tower that was built after the 1283 earthquake, the refectory with a bakery, and the Church of the Dormition, the heart of the complex. A dark tunnel leads to “Tamar’s Tears”, a pool with beautifully cool and sweet waters.
The star of the show at Vardzia is the impressive Church of the Dormition with its double arched entryway and row of hanging bells on the outside and intricate murals decorating the interior walls. The church was carved out and decorated during the reign of Queen Tamar.
Also known as the Church of the Assumption, the Church of the Dormition was the central spiritual monument of Vardzia. The church is deeply cut into the rocks and has tunnels leading from behind the church rooms to the upper level. It measures 8.2m by 14.5m, and rises to a height of 9.2m.
Both the church and its entryway are painted with murals that are of crucial significance to the development of medieval Georgian mural painting. Although applied using local artistic traditions, the paintings are evidence of Georgia’s contact with the Christian Orient and the Byzantine world.
On the northern wall is a mural of the royal founders, Giorgi III and his successor Tamar during whose reign the paintings were created. This famous fresco is just one of four that were painted during Tamar’s lifetime. Rati Surameli, the church’s patron who invested heavily in its decoration, is commemorated in a donor portrait also found on the northern wall.
Other paintings include episodes from the life of Christ that occupy the upper walls and vaults. At a lower level are paintings of saints. Behind the altar at the back wall of the sanctuary are icons of the Twelve Church Fathers, while the entryway has other scenes including that of the Last Judgment.
Each year, many visitors from all around the world come to visit the Vardzia cave monastery primarily because of this church. While the cave architecture of the city is in itself a site to behold, the Church of the Dormition acts as the cornerstone of the site, bringing everything together into a cohesive whole.
Today, the Vardzia cave-city complex remains a fascinating place to explore for Georgia tourism. Moving at a comfortable pace it is possible to enjoy a caving tour of the entire complex in 2-3 hours. You can explore the cave city more or less at random.
Some of the chambers are interconnected but open to the outside world. Although most of the chambers are blackened with smoke, there are a few visible paintings. But even more interesting than the walls are the floors which are dug out with an array of channels and receptacles for water and wine.
The tunnels leading away from the main chamber upward through the cliffs are some of the most intriguing in the entire complex. Other unique features include the chapel that is perched precariously on the cliff edge, and the apothecary wall which can only be viewed from far below.
The drive to Vardzia through the Samtskhe-Javakheti wilderness is one of the most dramatic in Georgia. The road follows the Mtkvari River, meandering through narrow canyons before veering along a beautiful valley that cuts like a green ribbon between rocky, arid hillsides.
Located in Aspindza, about 5km from Vardzia is Vanis Kvabebi, a cave monastery containing 6 churches. Vanis Kvabebi has several hundred rock caves on 16 floors, used as shelter, vault, market and tomb. Its church dates back to the 8th century, while the caves were added between the 9th and 11th century.
In 1089, a strong earthquake destroyed parts of the cave and church. But these were reconstructed during the reign of Queen Tamar. In 1204 the old stone wall was rebuilt, and in 1265, the gate, a bell tower and hall of the church were built.
Also located in Aspindza, Khertvisi Castle looms over the village of Khertvisi, at the meeting point of the Mtkvari and Paravani rivers. The castle once guarded an important road linking the Byzantine Empire and the Caucasus.
One of the biggest fortresses in Georgia, this elongated castle is over 150m long and over 30m wide. Khertvisi Castle has been used as a fortress since the 2nd century BC, making it one of Georgia’s oldest fortresses.
Tmogvi is a fortress perched high above a gorge on the bank of the Mtkvari River in Akhaltsikhe. A narrow path stretching up the gorge leads to the fortress. Once at the edge of the gorge, a picturesque view of the mountain and river is revealed.
Majestic in appearance, the fortress consists of a central temple and several ruined towers. Near Tmogvi is the church of St. Ephraim, another attraction worth seeing. The church is carved right into the rock and its walls feature 13th century paintings.
Nestled on the bank of the Potskhovi River, Rabati Castle is located in Akhaltsikhe. Since its construction in the 13th century, the fortress has witnessed many invasions and destructions due to its strategic location.
The fortress is divided into two parts – modern and historical. The historical section has a mosque, a church, the Jakeli family castle and the historical museum with a range of Georgian artifacts. The modern section has a restaurant, cafes, shops and a hotel.
Located 10km from Akhaltsikhe within a ravine surrounded by dense forest, Sapara is a Georgian Orthodox monastery. There is a fantastic road leading to the hidden monastery that is surrounded by high mountains.
Construction of Sapara began in the 11th century with the Assumption Church, followed by the complex itself. The 13th century church of St. Saba is the largest temple in the complex whose walls are decorated with beautiful carvings and frescoes.
Nestled in the charming Borjomi Gorge, Borjomi is a resort town that is famous for its rejuvenating mineral water springs. Borjomi attracts many people with health problems who believe that the mineral waters have curative powers.
Adventurers and nature travelers can go rafting in Borjomi on the Mtkvari River. The river is one of the best places to enjoy white water rafting in Georgia. There are 2 routes starting from Kvabiskhevi village (12km) and from Chitakhevi dam (8km).
Taking a scenic ride on the Kukushka train is another popular activity to enjoy in Borjomi. Dating back to 1902, the Kukushka is a 37km narrow-gauge railway line that links the town of Borjomi with Bakuriani Ski Resort.
The famous Kukushka train meanders through breathtaking forest before ascending the great Caucasus Mountains of Georgia. This train journey is an absolute must for travelers who want to enjoy spectacular Georgian nature.
Nestled at the foot of the breathtaking Caucasus Mountains, Bakuriani Ski Resort is one of the most popular ski resorts in Georgia. Located in Borjomi district, Bakuriani offers some of the most amazing skiing and snowboarding in Europe.
An internationally-acclaimed winter sports hub, Bakuriani is a pearl among the Caucasian resorts. Perfect for nature and sports enthusiasts, it’s ideal for enjoying the Georgian winter, as well as outdoors activities in the summer.
Nestled among unique forests and scenery, Mitarbi Ski Resort is a mountain resort in Borjomi district. With its surroundings of breathtaking nature and landscapes, Mitarbi is one of the most beautiful Georgia ski resorts.
It is also one of the main destinations for family holidays and ski sports events in Georgia. Every year, thousands of locals and tourists visit the resort to ski, snowboard, hike, cycle, horse ride and enjoy many other activities.
Regarded as one of the most beautiful and pristine forest landscapes in Georgia, the Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park has long been treasured by Georgians. In fact, Borjomi’s history as a protected area dates back to the feudal age when the forests were protected for hunting by feudal lords.
The park also offers a wide range of activities including wildlife and bird watching opportunities within the national forest. The forest is one of the most ecologically diverse forests in the country. There are also hiking trails available for both casual and advanced hiking and trekking.
A medieval orthodox Christian monastery, the Zarzma Monastery of Transfiguration is located in Adigeni district. The monastery is found in the village of Zarzma, nestled within the forested Kvabliani river valley.
The complex has a series of buildings that are dominated by a domed church and one of Georgia’s largest bell towers. The church facades are richly decorated while the interiors are painted with frescoes. There are also several single-naved chapels, some of which are ruined.
Paravani Lake is located on the mountains of Samtskhe-Javakheti near Ninotsminda at an altitude of 2,070m above sea level. With a surface area of 37.5 square kilometers, Paravani is the largest lake in Georgia.
Rich in diverse fish species such as trout, Paravani Lake is one of Georgia’s most popular fishing destinations. The lake is also a favorite among eco-tourists who come to enjoy the picturesque nature, especially in spring and summer.
Vardzia weather features a continental climate with warm summers and cold winters. The best time to visit Vardzia is between the months of June through September, when the temperature is mild and pleasant with little rainfall.
Average temperatures in Vardzia during spring include highs of 13 degrees Celsius and lows of -7 degrees Celsius. Winter sports enthusiasts can still enjoy activities in the region until early April when spring sets in.
Vardzia weather in summer sees temperatures ranging from highs of 22 degrees Celsius to lows of 6 degrees Celsius. This season is ideal for taking road trips, as well as hiking and cycling holidays in the surrounding region.
Autumn is a great time of the year for lovers of the outdoors to take a road trip or a walking or cycling tour in the surroundings of Vardzia. Average temperatures range from highs of 17 degrees Celsius to lows of -3 degrees Celsius.
It’s great to visit Vardzia in winter when the cave-city is beautifully blanketed in snow. January is the coldest month in Vardzia. But if you can withstand the freezing cold, you can have the site all to yourself, as there is almost nobody around except for a few locals who come to pray.
It is possible to see Vardzia in a day trip from Akhaltsikhe or Borjomi. However, because the river valley area is truly magical, an overnight stay is worthwhile. There are several accommodation options at and near Vardzia, including the fancy Vardzia Resort, as well as a few informal guesthouses at Tmogvi.
There are several pleasant riverside restaurants situated around the base of Vardzia. At these Vardzia restaurants, visitors can enjoy a taste of Georgian cuisine as well as sample Georgian wine. For something more upmarket, try the restaurant at Vardzia Resort.
Many people visit Vardzia as part of an organized tour from Akhaltsikhe or Borjomi. Our travel agency offers tours to Vardzia that include private transfers. We also offer cars for hire should you prefer to drive yourself to the ancient cave city.
A testament to how desperate times can drive humans to perform feats of mythical proportions, the unique rock-carved city of Vardzia doesn’t fail to amaze. From stunning cave architecture to beautiful murals, Vardzia offers an abundance of historic, cultural and religious treasures that make it a must on any Georgia itinerary.
Due to limited accommodation options, it is advisable to book Vardzia hotels in advance through our travel agency. If you prefer to drive to Vardzia, we have a modern fleet of rental cars available for hire. We also offer Georgia tour packages to Vardzia with private transfers.
Even better, create your very own custom vacation package that includes the specific places you want to see and things you want to do around Vardzia. Fancy a tour of a spectacular cave city? Order your custom tour package to Vardzia today and enjoy an amazing journey back in time to medieval Georgia!