18th September 2017
Sandwiched between Russia to the north and Turkey to the south, and the continents of Europe to the East and Asia to the West, the small country of Georgia is too often overlooked. Even Georgia’s name can be confusing, as many are likely to think of the U.S. state before they think of this diminutive European country. Despite being easy to miss on a map Georgia is home to one of the most visually impressive and culturally rich destinations in Europe- the labyrinthian Vardzia Cave Monastery, an entire city carved within the very side of the Erusheti mountain in Georgia.
Georgia had just come under the rule of “King” Tamar, the very first female Georgian ruler to be crowned, and the young leader was anxious to embark on a project to firmly establish her rule. As was common in Europe at the time, the construction of grand and beautiful churches were a way of showing off a nation’s prosperity and cultural refinement.
While Vardzia's cave systems were already in existence, it wasn’t until the construction of the city’s massive church that the tunnels were refined and decorated to better match their surroundings. Although the site originally began as a place of worship, the political situation in Georgia and growing proximity of the nearby Mongols necessitated a couple of changes and fortifications became mroe important. Over time defense oriented structures were added in an attempt to have Vardzia double as a place of refuge.
Given Vardzia’s close association with the much beloved King Tamar, it holds a special place in the hearts and minds of many Georgians.
This in turn led to an increased need for self-reliance, leading to the construction of internal terraces and irrigation systems. What once was a monastery turned into one of the country’s most reliable wartime shelters - the religious atmosphere of the site only strengthening it as an image of protection and shelter in the minds of refugees.
The city’s grand subterranean church, The Church of the Dormition (also known as the Church of Assumption), brings many travelers from all around the world to visit the Vardzia Cave Monastery. While the cavernous structure of the city itself is a site to behold, this church acts as the cornerstone of the site and brings everything together as a cohesive whole. Inside the church there are many murals which depict a number of different important historical scenes in the life of Christ and of Georgian royalty. In other cathedrals contemporary of the time, such paintings were done in fresco; however the scenes depicted within the Church of Dormition were crafted using local traditional techniques.
The name Vardzia is taken from one such mural which depicts a story involving Tamar during her youth.
Despite its remote location, there are still monks which live in the complex and oversee it. Construction teams and archaeologists are also a common sight as the area is preserved and taken care of thanks to a government mandate much like a national park would be.
Are you interested in seeing the Vardzia Cave Monsatery and the rest of Georgia for yourself? Wild Frontiers offers numerous tours and holidays to Georgia which feature a visit to Vardzia. Learn more about our signature trip called Georgia: Land of Myths and Mountains which will take you on an unforgettable adventure through this beautiful country.