Vardzia – the ancient Cave City of Georgia

Vardzia – the ancient Cave City of Georgia

posted in: Blog, Georgia | 23

Vardzia is a spectacular cave monastery near Aspindza in southern Georgia. It looks like one of the movie sets of Lord of the Rings, but it is not the home of dwarfs but of many monks. This underground monastery was built in the 12th Century, under the reign of King Tamar, the first woman that was ever crowned as a king (not a queen!) in Georgian history.

 

The ancient cave city of Vardzia - Journal of Nomads

 

In the late 1100’s the medieval kingdom of Georgia was constantly under threat of the Mongol Empire. To help her people avoid the Mongol onslaught, Tamar ordered the construction of an underground sanctuary and secretly they started building this fortress under the Erusheli mountain. It was a gigantic job but the people worked hard with the determination that their culture and lifestyle should not be destroyed by the invading Mongols.

 

The ancient cave city of Vardzia - Journal of Nomads

 

This underground fortress eventually had 13 levels constructed with natural caves and contained over 6000 rooms, including a throne room, a reception chamber, a meeting room, a bakery, a forge, chapels and a huge church. The only way to get to this underground city was through a secret tunnel which started at the nearby Mtkvari River.

 

The ancient cave city of Vardzia - Journal of Nomads

 

You might wonder how they survived here. The land on the outside of the hidden monastery was extremely fertile. The monks created a self-sustainable lifestyle by creating an irrigation system of terraced farmlands so they could produced their own food. Some tunnels had irrigation pipes that still bring drinkable water. They weren’t short on wine either because the cave city had about 25 wine cellars containing 185 wine jars.

 

The ancient cave city of Vardzia - Journal of Nomads

 

Sadly enough the glorious days of Vardzia didn’t last very long. It kept the Georgians safe from the Mongols but mother nature is unbeatable. In 1283, only 100 years after its construction, a devastating earthquake literally ripped the place apart and destroyed more than two-thirds of the city and the remaining caves that were once hidden became visible.

 

The ancient cave city of Vardzia - Journal of Nomads

 

To finish the (hi)story of Vardzia, here’s the myth of how it got its name: one day Tamar went out hunting with her uncle Giorgi and got lost in the caves. When Giorgi called out to her, she replied “ac var dzia”, which is Georgian for “I’m here uncle”.

 

The ancient cave city of Vardzia - Journal of Nomads

 

It was an awesome experience to be there in winter. Vardzia looked so beautiful wearing its coat of snow! Despite the freezing cold, it was worth the visit! Especially since there was almost no-one around, except for a few locals who visited the church to pray.

 

The ancient cave city of Vardzia - Journal of Nomads

 

The ancient cave city of Vardzia - Journal of Nomads

 

Our visit was extra special as we were being followed by the film crew of the Georgian TV station Rustavi 2, who were making a documentary about our journey! While we were walking through the labyrinth of caves, all Niko and I could think about was how tiny the people must have been to crawl through this network of tunnels, guided by the light of candles. If not, they must often have had back pains. Even our camera man was struggling to follow us and we often had to take a break to let him catch his breath!

 

The ancient cave city of Vardzia - Journal of Nomads

 

The ancient cave city of Vardzia - Journal of Nomads

 

The ancient cave city of Vardzia - Journal of Nomads

 

 

Don’t forget to bring some chewing gum with you when you visit Vardzia. There is a special ‘bubble gum tree’ where people make a wish and stick their chewing gum to the tree.

 

The ancient cave city of Vardzia - Journal of Nomads

 

The ancient cave city of Vardzia - Journal of Nomads

 

The more time we spend in Georgia, the more we get to know about the history and traditions. For every place we visit, there is always an interesting story or legend to be told!

 

The ancient cave city of Vardzia - Journal of Nomads

 

 

 

 

Follow Cynthia Bil:

Writer, photographer and co-founder at Journal of Nomads

I've got Belgian roots but the world has been my home for the past 6 years. I'm an artist at heart and often get lost in my thoughts. I like to create some-thing out of no-thing and once I'm feeling inspired, I'm unstoppable (except for when you offer me a glass of wine). I have a hard time getting out of my sleeping bag without a cup of coffee, I absolutely love chocolate (I'm from Belgium, what did you expect) and I have an extreme dislike for routine and vomit.

  • Indeed this ancient city covered in snow is looking great. I never thought of Georgia as a place to visit.

    • Not many people consider Georgia as a travel destination, it’s still an off-the-beaten-path place. It’s a stunning place, both in winter (perfect for winter sports and super cheap) and summer, if you like hiking!

  • Have y’all been to Matera, Italy? That’s an amazing cave city destination. I’ve seen such cave dwellings in Greece (Meteora and Santorini). Really interesting post and interesting to learn how the land was quite fertile. Seems like it would be a cold winter though!

    • It’s definitely cold in winter 😀 Don’t know how the people used to live in this cold, I guess the caves must have kept them warm! We also visited Meteora, was also a very stunning place. We’ve never been to Matera, never heard of it actually, will look it up. Thanks for the tip!

  • Liz

    What a gorgeous time! I usually hate winter but I could get down with this.

    • I’m not a big fan of cold weather either but this was definitely worth the freezing toes 😉 Snow can make a place look so different and beautiful!

  • I spent last summer in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. Unfortunately, due to the busy schedule, I didn’t have a chance to visit Vardzia. I was that close to going there, but something always got in a way. Looking at your photos makes it even sadder. Well, at least I could read about what I missed. Happy travels and thank you for sharing!

    • Thank you! How long did you spent in Tbilisi and how did you like Georgia?
      Happy travels 🙂

      • I stayed in Tbilisi for 4 months. I wholeheartedly think that Georgia is a great place to visit. There are so many amazing things there: different culture and traditions; delicious local food and wines; interesting architecture and historical sites, you name it. A vacation or a 2-3 weeks trip throughout the country would be the perfect experience. Living there for extended periods of time is a different story. There are pollution issues, water quality, western-quality medical care is available in Tbilisi and it still a stretch… I am glad that I experienced the truly local way of living in Tbilisi. It was an ultimate learning experience.

        • We’ve been living in Georgia for six months now and we can definitely agree with you! It’s a great country for a trip, whether you like hiking during the summer or skiing during the winter. We loved Tbilisi – stayed there for 5 months – and we didn’t only see the beauty of it but also the poverty. This is even more visible in the little villages. The Georgians are trying to get back on their feet but yes, a lot needs to change in terms of social well-fare! Hopefully this will improve very soon!

  • Fábio Inácio

    Never heard about this place, looks awesome and because of you is already on my list when I go to Georgia next year. The pictures are amazing!!

    • Thank you Fabio! I’m sure you’ll love it there! When will you visit Georgia and which other places are you planning to visit?

      • Fábio Inácio

        Not a great plan yet, I will meet my friends in Tiblisi, they are from there. After it we will go to hiking and camping in some mountains and valleys that they know 🙂

        • Oh, camping and hiking during the summer in Georgia is so great! You will love it, it’s a beautiful country!! Have you been here before?

  • This is the first time am hearing about this city. Looks stunning in winter and 6000 rooms is so freaking awesome. Never knew that Mongolia invaders at Georgia on target too.

    • We had never heard of it either before we came here. Vardzia is definitely unique!! Georgia has been a target of many empires and kingdoms but they were able to maintain their culture and traditions, thanks to the mountains. By the time the invaders found them, they were too exhausted and cold for a proper fight 😀

  • Nastja

    It looks so interesting! I can’t believe it actually had 13floors and 6000 rooms. It just sounds so crazy. I hope to visit it sometime.

    • Think about the amount of work they must have had to build this whole city!! I would definitely recommend to visit it 🙂

  • Beautiful photos, it looks great in snow! Putting it on my map 🙂 Did you have to pay an entrance?

    • The snow made it look very magical but even without its white coat, Vardzia is pretty impressive 🙂 You should definitely visit it!! We didn’t have to pay any entrance as we were with the film crew but the entrance fees in Georgia are very cheap: between 5 and 10 lari (which is maximum 4 euros 😉 ). I think Vardzia was 7 lari, but not sure.

  • InSearchOfLostPlaces

    This looks amazing, we are looking forward to seeing it soon. have they finished making the documentary about your journey? Ben and Amrita

    • Hi Ben and Amrita!
      When will you be in Georgia? You’ll definitely find a lot of ‘Lost Places’ here!! 🙂
      Yes, the documentary was shown on the Georgian Television. We got a copy of it now and will look to upload 🙂

      • InSearchOfLostPlaces

        Looking forward to the upload. We just left Georgia yesterday unfortunately. Now enjoying Armenia though…