Nestled on the rugged cliffs along the Kura River Valley in southern Georgia is one of the most unusual and astonishing medieval monasteries in the world: Vardzia.

Carved entirely into the rock of Mount Erusheti for over 500 meters, Vardzia is an architectural marvel with up to 19 levels of chambers.

The site has a long history of human settlements dating back to the Bronze Age. Habitable caves have existed here since at least the 5th century BCE, taking advantage of the easy shelter provided by the soft limestone cliffs.

In the 12th century, during Georgia’s Golden Age under Queen Tamar’s rule, Vardzia transformed from a small group of natural caves into an extensive rock-excavated monastic complex.

Construction began in the 1150s by King Giorgi III’s order as a defensive site near the border against neighboring Muslim states. Without modern machinery, monks patiently carved the soft rock with hammers and chisels to create cave homes and multi-level structures connected by tunnels on the cliff face.

By the time of Tamar’s reign in the 1180s, there were over 500 caves housing churches, workshops, dormitories, storage rooms, and administrative buildings.

An extensive network of aqueducts and cisterns was also carved to provide fresh water for the sizable population within Vardzia’s cliffs. How the builders managed to plan and coordinate such a massive underground city remains a marvel.

At the spiritual heart of Vardzia’s city-monastery is the rock-carved Dormition Church, built in the 1180s. Its large vaulted interior was richly decorated with frescoes depicting biblical scenes. On the north wall are portraits of King George III and Queen Tamar, showcasing their royal patronage of the monastery.

Other cave churches within Vardzia also had fresco-adorned interiors. As an Orthodox Christian monastic center, Vardzia housed hundreds of monks and was a significant hub for manuscript illumination, hymnography, and academic works.

In addition to its religious functions, Vardzia served crucial economic and defensive roles. Underground cellars stored large quantities of wine from the fertile valley vineyards, while other caves housed workshops and storage areas.

Strategically located near the border, Vardzia’s high cliffs and fortified tunnels made it virtually impregnable to attacks. Thus, when the Mongols invaded Georgia in the 1290s, monks and other residents could safely take refuge within the rock maze.

Vardzia flourished as a prominent cultural and spiritual center throughout the 13th century. However, the arrival of the Ottomans precipitated its decline from the 16th century onward. Persian forces attacked the site in 1551, looting its treasures, leading to increased Ottoman control over Georgia and the abandonment of the remaining monks.

For centuries, the immense cave monastery remained untouched within its rock walls. It wasn’t until Soviet excavations in the 20th century that the impressive scale of Vardzia and its history were revealed. Today, although long devoid of inhabitants, Vardzia’s architectural grandeur and artistic treasures still captivate the imagination.

Walking through its vast network of caves and fresco-adorned ruins and rock-carved dwellings, one cannot help but be amazed by the tremendous labor and unparalleled inventiveness with which this stone city was carved into the living rock walls along the Kura River Valley in Georgia.

Since 1985, the site has been part of the Vardzia Historical-Architectural Museum-Reserve, which includes forty-six architectural sites, twelve archaeological sites, and twenty-one monumental art sites.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on January 31, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en El Monasterio Cueva de Vardzia tiene más de 500 habitaciones en 19 niveles


Vardzia-Khertvisi (UNESCO) | Emilio Bilotta, Alessandro Flora, Stefania Lirer, Carlo Viggiani, Geotechnical Engineering for the Preservation of Monuments and Historic Sites | Antony Eastmond, Royal Imagery in Medieval Georgia | Wikipedia

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