Many things in Georgia are old – churches, buildings, landmarks – but nothing can really compare to the cave cities found throughout Georgia, which have survived thousands of years. I spent three days exploring the different cave systems and learning about their histories.
The first cave city I visited was Vardzia. It is by far the largest, although only 30 percent of the original caves remains today. When we drove to the first sight, you can see the caves from afar – they look like black dots on the hillside. Although our guide did not speak much English, we were able to follow the history of the city.
Vardzia was built in the 12th century by King Giorgi III, and his daughter Tamar created a monastery there which at one time housed over 2,000 people. Today there are still over 50 monks that call this hillside home. Of the 13 original stories, eight remain today and we were able to climb through the tunnels and up the stairs carved in the rock to get to the top. I was amazed that although we were in the middle of a mountain, the rooms and tunnels were fairly large. I was able to stand up in most places and never felt claustrophobic.
There is a natural spring in one of the caves and we were able to drink from it! It tasted amazing! The plumbing they used all those years also was ingenious. They had pipes and gutters and pulley systems to collect and transport the water. I asked what they did with waste and was told it was simply thrown over the side of the mountain! Oh my! After leaving Vardzia, I was not sure how anything was going to equal it.
Then I arrived in Uplistsikha. These caves are about 10 kilometers outside of the city of Gori, and compared to Vardzia and everywhere else I have been, they are OLD! Founded in 1000 BC, Uplistsikha is one of the oldest places in all of the Caucasus Mountains. Much of what remains was built from the 6th century BC to the 1st century AD and it was clear upon arriving that someone had spent some money to encourage tourism.
There is a brand new restaurant, gift shop and restrooms (still not open to the public), there are new metal railings and stairways, and guides who speak many languages. Our guide, Stalin, as he called himself, had taken a two month intensive English course in order to give tours and he was about to begin a course in German.
There is a theatre, a temple, a pharmacy and a large hall still constructed. Prince’s Church, which was built in the 10th century AD is also still there and we were able to go inside. The most exciting part of the tour was the tunnel that runs down to the Mtkvari River (the same river that flows through Tbilisi). It was used as an escape route and to bring water up to the village. Another great tour of a place older than anywhere I had ever been.
The third cave city, Davit Gareja, although vastly different from Vardzia and Uplistsikha, was no less fascinating. The complex is named after the man who founded it in the 6th century and monks still live in one of the caves, Lavra. This area is the first we came to when we arrived and it was easy to see it was very different. The caves were set right into the hillside with staircases and railing built in. There is a wall surround the caves, creating a courtyard. In order to get to the other caves, which are in the hillside bordering Azerbaijan, we had to hike. And I really mean hike! It took us over an hour to climb to the top of the hill and over the other side.
The monastery of 15 caves scattering the hillside is called, Udabno. Between the 10th and 13th centuries there was a fresco school in the caves and the paintings are still visible today. It was incredible to see them. Unfortunately, little is being done to protect them and most are covered with scratch marks and graffiti. The view from the caves was gorgeous and it was easy to see why anyone would want to live there.