Uplistsikhe

Dating back to the 2nd millennium BC, Uplistsikhe is the oldest settlement in Georgia. From afar, the ancient cave-town is bewitching. Reminiscent of an abstract sculpture by Gaudi, giant pores on steep rock faces hold hundreds of grottoes that once brimmed with life. Ruins of majestic halls, temples and dwellings connected by winding alleys and tunnels usher visitors into Georgia’s glorious past.

THE HISTORY OF UPLISTSIKHE

Uplistsikhe is an ancient cave town-fortress located in Gori district within the Shida Kartli region of eastern Georgia. The rock-carved town is nestled on a rocky massif on the left bank of the River Mtkvari, 15km east of Gori city. In the Georgian language, Uplistsikhe translates to “Fortress of the Lord.”

Uplistsikhe contains a variety of structures dating back from the Early Iron Age to the Late Middle Ages. The cave-town is remarkable for its unique blend of diverse styles of rock-cut cultures of the region, most notably from Iran and Anatolia, as well as the co-existence of Christian and pagan architecture.

Archaeologists have found Uplistsikhe to be one of Georgia’s oldest urban settlements. The cave town is also mentioned in chronicles from the earliest times. Both the importance and age of the town led medieval Georgian literature to trace its founding to the mythical Uplos, son of Mtskhetos and grandson of Kartlos.

According to legend, the city was built by slaves using special iron-plated golden axes. The slaves worked hard on their task as they were promised that after destroying the iron plate on the surface of the axes, they would be rewarded with their freedom, as well as the golden axe.

During the 1st and 2nd millennium BC, its strategic location in the heartland of the ancient Georgian kingdom of Kartli made Uplistsikhe an important religious, political and cultural center of the country. Its temples were mainly dedicated to the sun goddess.

The Christianization of Kartli during the early 4th century led to Uplistsikhe’s decline in importance, losing its position as the center of Christian culture to Mtskheta and then later Tbilisi. Nevertheless, life continued in Uplistsikhe and Christian structures were built.

Uplistsikhe would reemerge as a key Georgian stronghold following Tbilisi’s conquest by the Arabs in AD 645. It then became the residence of the kings of Kartli and an important post on the main caravan trading route between Europe and Asia.

Uplistsikhe enjoyed its heydays between the 9th and 11th centuries, which ended when Tbilisi was recaptured in 1122, leading to the cave-town’s immediate and rapid decline. This culminated in the destruction of large parts of the cave-town during the 13th century Mongol raids. Uplistsikhe was abandoned soon after and used only occasionally as a temporary refuge during invasions.

Archaeological excavations in Uplistsikhe have uncovered many Georgian artifacts from various periods, which are now preserved in the National Museum in Tbilisi. These include beautiful gold, silver and bronze jewelry, as well as magnificent ceramics and sculptures.

In 1920, an earthquake completely destroyed several parts of Uplistsikhe’s most vulnerable areas. With the stability of this Georgian monument under threat, a conservation program was launched in 2000 to protect it. Since 2007, the Uplistsikhe cave-town complex has been on the tentative list of the UNESCO World Heritage program.

EXPLORING UPLISTSIKHE

The Uplistsikhe cave-town complex covers 8 hectares and is divided into 3 parts: the lower/ south, central/ middle and upper/ north. It is estimated that there were over 700 structures at the time the cave-town was built, but today only about 270 have survived.

The middle section is the biggest and contains most of the cave-town’s rock-hewn structures. It is connected to the southern section through a narrow rock-hewn pass and tunnel. Staircases and narrow alleyways branch out from the central “street” towards the various structures.

Other tunnels served as emergency escape routes during invasions. Channels were also built to carry off storm water and prevent flash floods. Drinking water was supplied through a well-engineered system of ceramic pipes and a tunnel.

Most of the caves do not have any decorations with the exception of the middle section. This is the most interesting part of the complex which comprises of a large hall known as Tamaris Darbazi (Queen Tamar’s Hall) that features a coffered tunnel-vaulted ceiling and the palace complex.

The ribbed ceiling features complex decorations carved out of the natural rock. It has a smoke outlet that also lets in light and is supported by 2 rock-hewn columns. The hall also has niches on the sides and back that could have been used for ceremonial purposes.

Next to the hall is a rock-hewn church built in the second half of the 6th century. Near the church are some old kvevri – large clay pots for Georgian wine-making, which were part of a tradition in Uplistsikhe. When a child was born, the family would fill the pot with wine and store it underground until the child became 16 years old. Thereafter, they gave the wine-filled kvevri to the church as a gift to God.

To the east, at the summit of the complex is a functioning brick church constructed between the 9th and 10th centuries atop the ruins of an ancient pagan temple dedicated to the Caucasian sun god. From the cliff overlooking the cave-town, spectacular views abound of the surrounding villages, farms and the flowing Mtkvari River.

There is a prison comprising of deep holes, specially made such that the prisoners could only stand in them. The prison was located in the central part of the complex so that everybody could see the prisoners suffering and thus be discouraged from committing a crime.

Other highlights of Uplistsikhe include the Hellenistic amphitheater overlooking the Mtkvari River where residents once enjoyed Greek-style performances. There’s also a Bronze Age pharmacy with round cells that were used to store wheat and shelf-like spaces for holding medicinal herbs.

Other rock-cut structures in Uplistsikhe include the living quarters, pagan places of sacrifice and functional buildings such as the bakery. There’s also a cave tunnel leading out of the city to the riverside that is fun to explore.

One and a half hours should be enough to visit the site and enjoy some caving in Uplistsikhe. While most of the complex is in ruins, the level of detail preserved in some parts is nothing short of impressive. A column still supports the ceiling in one of the halls, while the triangular facade of a temple is still distinguishable. In particular, the 10th century church is remarkably well-preserved and intact.

NEARBY ATTRACTIONS

Nestled within the picturesque Kartli Valley, Gori district is divided into 2 cities – Gori and Tskhinvali, and dozens of villages and communities. The sixth-largest city in Georgia, Gori City is the regional capital of the Shida Kartli region, which boasts a diverse range of place to visit including several historical and cultural landmarks.

Joseph Stalin Museum

Gori is the birthplace of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin (1878-1953), therefore visiting his house-museum is the main reason why most travelers include the city in their Georgia itinerary.

Born Ioseb Besarionis dzе Jughashvili, Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin went on to become a key figure in 20th century history. Dedicated to him, the Joseph Stalin Museum complex comprises of a memorial house in which he was born, an exposition building and his personal train carriage.

Impressive in design, the museum exposition building is a huge palace built in the original Gothic style. It was opened in 1957 and features over 60,000 displays documenting Stalin’s life and career including the purges, the Gulag and his 1939 pact with Hitler.

The museum is filled with paraphernalia and media that charts Stalin’s journey from the Gori church school to the leadership of the USSR, the Yalta Conference at the end of the Second World War, and up to 1953 when he died.

It depicts his whole life, from childhood, his rise to power, becoming one of the key figures in the 20th century, to his death. This is done through numerous letters, documents, manuscripts, newspaper clippings and personal memorabilia. Everywhere you look are portraits, photographs and busts of Stalin.

The first hall upstairs features exhibits from his childhood and adolescence, including his pastoral poetry. It continues into his early revolutionary activities in Georgia, his 7 jail terms under the Tsarist regime (6 in Siberia), the 1917 revolution and Lenin’s death in 1924. Also on display is Lenin’s 1922 statement describing Stalin as coarse and power-hungry, and recommending his removal as General Secretary of the Communist Party.

One room holds a bronze copy of Stalin’s death mask, lying in state. Another features a large collection of gifts from world leaders and other Bolsheviks. Beside the staircase is a reconstruction of his first office in the Kremlin, with personal memorabilia including his glasses, pipes and cigars. At the foot of the stairs, a small section focuses on political repression under Stalin.

The wood and mud-brick house of the Jughashvili family in which Stalin lived until age 4 is preserved outside the exposition building. The first floor of this two-story memorial house was occupied by the family, while the ground floor had the shoe workshop in which Stalin’s father worked.

On the other side of the exposition building is Stalin’s personal armored train carriage, in which he traveled to Yalta in 1945, as he didn’t like to fly. The bulletproof carriage boasts elegant interiors with Venetian glass mirrors, carved furniture, a bathtub, and an air-conditioning system.

While the museum’s one-sidedly nostalgic portrayal of Stalin can be jarring for visitors, the exhibits are actually quite well done and impressive.

Ateni Sioni Church

Situated 12km south of Gori, Ateni Sioni is an impressive ancient church with a gorgeous setting that overlooks the pretty grapevines of Tana Valley. Modelled after the Jvari Monastery in Mtskheta, Ateni Sioni dates back to the 7th century.

Carved into the facades of the church are beautiful reliefs of stags, a hunting scene and a knight. The 11th century frescoes inside depict Georgian rulers and biblical scenes, and are among the finest in medieval Georgian art. Ateni Sioni is located in Ateni Village within the Ateni Gorge that boasts a great diversity of flora and fauna. On a clear day, the view of the Caucasus from the church is spectacular.

Nearby to the church is a resort that offers special therapeutic baths made from mineral waters containing sulfur compounds. Soaking in the mineral baths is believed to cure a range of ailments. The resort season typically runs from June through September.

Gori Fortress

Gori Fortress is an oval citadel that stands on a rocky hill at the center of Gori. Partially reconstructed, the fortress dates back mostly to the Middle Ages, with additions from the 17th century. The fortress once controlled major strategic and economic routes and accommodated a large garrison. Today, it is a great place to visit at sunset as it offers fine panoramas over the city and beyond.

Archaeological findings along with ruins on the northern slope indicate that there was a fortress at this location as far back as the 1st century BC. The fortress is first mentioned as “Gori Prison” in historic manuscripts from the 13th century. According to some historians, the fortress was built by Byzantine King Heraclius to store ammunition for battles against the Persians.

Memorial of Georgian War Heroes

Situated at the foot of Gori Fortress is the Memorial of Georgian War Heroes, which consists of a semi-circle of 8 mutilated metal warriors. Created by Georgian sculptor Giorgi Ochiauri between 1981 and 1985, the sculptures were initially placed around the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Tbilisi’s Vake Park.

In 2009 they were moved to their present location in Gori to honor those who lost their lives during Georgia’s 2008 war with Russia over South Ossetia.

The Great Patriotic War Museum

The Great Patriotic War Museum is mainly dedicated to the heroic achievements of the Red Army and to the Gori people’s involvement in the Second World War. It also features a small display on the 2008 Georgia-Russia War with photos of the devastated city, including civilian casualties.

Within the lobby are several pieces of Russian ordinance from this war, including a cluster bomb that was dropped on the main square in Gori. On display are many medals, photographs, guns, uniforms, mortars and many ceremonial flags. There are also portraits of Gori’s “heroes” who fought bravely in the war.

Virgin Mary Cathedral

Nestled within picturesque surroundings, the Virgin Mary Cathedral is a catholic church built between 1806 and 1810. The church was heavily damaged in 1920 by an earthquake. In Soviet times, Gori’s Music School was located inside the church. The building was handed over to the Georgian Orthodox Church during the 1990s.

Sergi Makalatia Gori Historical & Ethnographical Museum

Founded in 1935, the Sergi Makalatia Gori Historical & Ethnographical Museum houses a stunning collection of over 48,000 exhibits and archeological finds from prehistoric Georgia to early modern Georgia.

Visitors can admire cultural and historical exhibits such as weapons, furniture, paintings, manuscripts, folk costumes, traditional jewelry, decorative sculptures, coin collections and a vast archive of photos. The exhibits provide a fascinating insight into the lives of Georgians in Gori over many millennia.

Ruisi Cathedral of Transfiguration

Located 7km from Gori city, the Ruisi Cathedral of Transfiguration was built by Georgian King Vakhtang Gorgasali between the 8th and 9th centuries. Although the original structure of the church building was not preserved, its 8th century architectural style is still easily identifiable.

The Ruisi Cathedral of Transfiguration is associated with several important political events of the Georgian feudal period. Within the walls of the church, George II (1072-1083) was crowned king of Kartli.

Gardateni Village

Gardateni is a village situated 6km from Gori town. Here you will find a number of historic monuments including Vere Fortress, Vere Church of the Virgin Mary, the Church of Saint George, Tsedisi Fortress and the Green Transfiguration Cathedral.

Gori State Dramatic Theater

Located inside a stunning building, the Gori State Dramatic Theatre was the first professional theatre to be established in Georgia. Inside is a museum that showcases information about past events and performances. Although plays are performed in Georgian or Russian languages only, the theater is still worth visiting to soak up the beauty of the building.

Stalin Park

Stalin Park has a large statue of Stalin, an aviary, a few old rides, a Ferris wheel and a paintball range. On summer evenings, the park is often crowded with locals and makes for a great spot to enjoy some people watching.

Few of the numerous statues of Stalin erected throughout the former USSR have survived and Gori’s is undoubtedly one of the most magnificent and well-preserved.

For a long time, the large statue stood in front of Gori’s city hall until 2010 when it was suddenly removed in the middle of the night by the current pro-Western government. The statue was then re-erected in Stalin Park opposite the Joseph Stalin Museum.

There are 2 other Stalin statues in Gori. A replica of the main statue is also found in Stalin Park. The second, of Stalin as a young man, is located next to the Gori State University.

Samtavisi Cathedral

Situated 30km from Gori City, Samtavisi Cathedral is a monastic complex comprising of a church, dwellings and a cemetery. Regarded as a fine example of medieval Georgian architecture, the cathedral served as a model for the Kashveti Church in Tbilisi.

Samtavisi Cathedral traces its origins to the 5th century when the original church was built, whose remains now lie under the cathedral floor. The original building was shaped like a basilica with a massive dome.

In the mid-6th century, the 13 Assyrian Fathers – monks tasked with spreading Christianity in Georgia, began to erect monasteries. Their most famous achievements were Nekresi Monastery, Ikalto Monastery and David Gareja Monastery. One of the monks, Isidor Samtavisski, founded the monastery that still bears his name “Samtavisi.”

Later between 1025 and 1030, the present-day Samtavisi Cathedral was erected on the site of the basilica. The church was reconstructed several times, and at the start of the 16th century, its damaged dome was built anew. Thereafter, the northern, southern and western walls of the cathedral were re-done. As such, only the eastern wall holds patterns created thousands of years ago.

According to its layout, Samtavisi Cathedral is a cross-domed church. Nearby are foundations of other churches and residential houses. Only an 18th century bell-tower and church fence have been preserved. The interior of the cathedral is rather modest with some interesting 17th century frescoes. There are also several icons and gravestones on the church floor.

Other interesting sights in the vicinity of Samtavisi Cathedral include the 2 castles of Amilakhvari and Skhvilo.

HOW TO GET TO UPLISTSIKHE

For flights landing at Tbilisi airport, you can hire a car and drive 1.5 hours to Gori (90km). That said, driving in Georgia can be challenging if you don’t speak the Georgian language or understand the Georgian alphabet. The most convenient option would be to get to Uplistsikhe via private transfer.

Final words and travel suggestions

It’s hard to believe that such a grandiose creation of an entire city from the stone was done by human hands. But Uplistsikhe is a testament to this. Not much is left of the former grandeur of the place, but once you get there it’s easy to imagine how magnificent it once was. It then becomes clear why the mystical cave town is one of Georgia’s most exciting and unforgettable destinations.

You can book hotels and vacation rentals near Uplistsikhe in advance with our travel agency. If you prefer to drive to Uplistsikhe, we have a modern fleet of rental cars available for hire. We also offer tour packages to Uplistsikhe that include private transfers to and from Tbilisi airport.

Even better, create your own custom vacation package that includes the specific places you want to visit and tourist activities you want to enjoy in Gori. Fancy a journey back in time? Order your custom tour to Uplistsikhe today and step into the glorious past of Georgia’s oldest settlement!

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