Vardzia

Vardzia Cave Monastery


Useful Information

photography
Vardzia, Georgia. Public Domain.
photography
Vardzia, Georgia. Public Domain.
photography
Vardzia, Georgia. Public Domain.
Location: Vardzia. Mt Erusheli, southern Georgia near Aspindza, left bank of the Mtkvari River.
(41.375278, 43.2575)
Open: All year Tue-Sun, Hol 10-19.
[2021]
Fee: .
[2021]
Classification: SubterraneaCave House SubterraneaCave Church
Light: bring torch
Dimension: L=900m, VR=40m, A=1300-1462m asl.
Guided tours: self guided.
The monks from the monastery below guide after appointment.
Photography: allowed
Accessibility: no
Bibliography: Ghivi Gaprindashvili, (1975): Ancient Monuments of Georgia: Vardzia Aurora Art Publishers, Leningrad. pp. 7–25. ISBN 978-1-135-68320-7. English русский - Russian ქართული ენა - kartuli ena - Georgian
Address: Vardzia and Khertvisi Fortress Historical-Architectural Museum-Reserve, Aspindza Municipality, Vardzia.
Georgian National Agency for Cultural Heritage Preservation, Tiflis 0105, Krtsanisi st. # 58, Tel: +99-5599-556070. E-mail:
As far as we know this information was accurate when it was published (see years in brackets), but may have changed since then.
Please check rates and details directly with the companies in question if you need more recent info.

History

~1175 founded by King Giorgi III.
1185 transformed into a monastery by Queen Tamar.
1283 destroyed by an earthquake.
1551 raided by Persians commanded by Shah Tahmasp I.
1578 after the arrival of the Ottomans the monks departed and the site was abandoned.
1985 Vardzia Historical–Architectural Museum-Reserve created.
1999 submitted by the Georgian government for the UNESCO WHL.
2007 resubmitted for the UNESCO WHL but still on tentative list.
2012 conservation of the wall paintings in the Church of the Dormition carried out by the Courtauld Institute of Art.

Description

photography
Vardzia, Georgia. Public Domain.
photography
Vardzia, Georgia. Public Domain.
photography
Vardzia, Georgia. Public Domain.
photography
Vardzia, Georgia. Public Domain.

Vardzia is a cave city complex from the late 12th century, famous for mural paintings and sculptures. The complex was founded by King Giorgi III and enlarged by his daughter Queen Tamar, who reigned from 1184 to 1213 as Tamar the Great. Giorgi III was a Christian king of Georgia, at a time when Muslim invasions by hostile Seljuq Turks, were an ever-present threat. Giorgi founded it as a border fortress, and his daughter completed it after his death in 1184, she ordered its completion in 1185. During a military conflict with the Great Seljuq Empire she lived here between 1193 and 1195.

The complex originally had about 3,000 housings, each housing consisting of three rooms, and was big enough for 50,000 inhabitants. The rooms were cut into the rock on seven levels, connected by tunnels, shafts, and balconies. There was a library, a banquet hall, bakeries, stables, 25 wine cellars, and baths. The water supply was provided by aqueducts and ceramic pipes. A sophisticated irrigation system fed terraced areas under cultivation.

The extraordinary construction of artificial caves in a steep hillside was intended as protection from the Turks and Persians. It worked well as a fortress, but was also a monastery, an important cultural center, a place of significant literary and artistic work. Vardzia includes fifteen churches. The main church of the city is named Dormitio Virginis (Church of the Dormition) and contains a famous fresco of Tamar and Giorgi. The second most important churches are the early 11th century church at Zeda Vardzia and the 10th to 12th century rock village and cave churches of Ananauri. Much was destroyed by a heavy earthquake im 1283, only 750 rooms still exist today.

A soviet-era excavation revealed Bromze Age remains and early caves, which were dug since the 6th century. But Vardzia was built during four distinct building phases. The first was during the reign of Giorgi III when the site was laid out and the first cave dwellings excavated. The second was rather short, between 1184 and 1186 the Church of the Dormition was carved out and decorated. Several sources claim that Queen Tamar ordered the construction of the city in 1185, but that seems to be a sort of national patriotism or simply hero worship. She was the first Queen of the country and many wanted a male King, but she was very assertive and also very successful, so here reign is therefore often glorified. The third phase from 1186 to 1203 was also during her reign and most dwellings as well as the defences, water supply, and irrigation network were constructed in this phase. The fourth phase finally was a period of partial rebuilding after heavy damage in the earthquake of 1283.

There are many legends which have become a sort of fairy tale book of Georgian history called ქართლის ცხოვრება (Kartlis Tskhovreba, Life of Kartli). According to this book Tamar erected the church to house the icon of the Virgin of Vardzia after receiving divine help in her campaigns. She also transferred the monastery from Upper or Zeda Vardzia.

The aetiological myth tells that the young Tamar was out hunting with Giorgi. She was lost in the caves, and when the men of her father called for her, she replied "I am here, uncle". In Georgian this is said აქ ვარ ძია or ac var dzia which gave the site its name var dzia.

Some websites retell the popular legend that Tamar built Vardzia as a defense to the Mongol invaders. That's actually untrue, it was already completed at this time, which was 20 years after the death of Tamar.

The city was built into the rather soft tufaceous breccia rocks which can be found in a thick stratum in a height around 1,300m asl. There are various locations with caves, and all together are called Vardzia, so it is not a single site. The most important parts are called Zeda Vardzia and Ananauri. Zeda Vardzia has about 500 caves divided into an eastern and a western part by the Church of the Dormition. The eastern part are 79 separate cave dwellings with a total of 242 rooms in eight tiers. The western part are 40 houses in thirteen tiers with a total of 165 rooms. This included 6 chapels on each side, a refectory with a bakery, a meeting room named Tamar's Room, a pharmacy, and a forge. There were ovens for baking bread distributed among the structure, as well as 25 wine cellars. The wine cellar had 185 wine jars sunk into the floor. Ananauri has a church, the portal and hall are decorated by frescoes. There are numerous caves and a tunnel.

The list of sites is actually quite long, so heres the list: Vardzia Monastery Complex (12th century), Tmogvi Fortress (9th to 10th century), Vani Boilers (8th to 16th century), Lepisa Darani, Tsundi Church (12th to 13th century), Khertvisi Fortress (10th to 18th century), Zarzma Monastery (13th to 14th century), Sapari Monastery (13th century), Beriskhevi Caves, Mirashkhani Caves, Margastani Caves Complex, Koriskhevi Caves ("Rifiani Rock"), Gelsundi Caves Complex, Chikhorishi Church (10th century), Red Fortress, Zemo Vardzia Monastery, and Gaghma-Gamoghma.

The cave city was raided in 1551 by Persians commanded by Shah Tahmasp I. They salvaged all important icons and then destroyed the cave city. The place is today used as a monastery, but nowadays the monks live in normal buildings at the foot of the cliff. The monks offer guided tours to visitors.