The Medieval Cave City of Vardzia, Georgia

History Facts

Where: Vardzia, Lesser Caucasus Mountains, Southern Georgia, Central Asia
When: 12th century
History: A military fortress turned site of religious significance hewn into the mountain’s rocks
Go there for: A guided tour by monks of the cave-like rooms – women not always welcomed

Where it’s at

Vardzia, in the south of Georgia close to the Turkish border, is a Medieval cave city, hewn into the side of the rocks of Mt Erusheti above a river. It is located in a hanging valley in theLesser Caucasus Mountains.

History of Vardzia

Vardzia was built after 10,000 Turkish troops marched into Georgia but were defeated by a bold Georgian army of just 2,000 men. There are only 750 rooms left now after an earthquake but in its heyday it housed 50,000 people. The rooms include monk cells, a grand foyer, a treasury, cathedral, libraries, stables, bakeries, and bathing pools. Each dwelling consisted of three rooms, although it is said that Queen Tamar, Georgia’s first female sovereign, who completed the city after her uncle’s death, had 366 rooms so that if Vardzia were to be invaded by the Persians she would be able to lose the enemy in her quarters.

This cave monastery was built during the “Golden Age” of feudal Georgia. Built between 1184 and 1186, it is a unique example of cave architecture. It is thought to have been of great cultural significance, having been built during the time of Rustaveli. At this time, Georgian art, science, and literature flourished.

Originally built as a military base by Giorgi III, it was Queen Tamar who was responsible for the change in function to a more religious site. The legend has it that when the workmen finished where they had started removing the rock, at the end of each day their tools would mysteriously have been moved to another location. After this happened a number of times it was considered to be divine intervention and the new location became the chosen place. It therefore had religious significance form the start. It is also thought that the city’s name derived from something Queen Tamar said. Tamar got lost in the caves when she was young and out riding with her uncle Giorgi. He called ‘where are you?’ she replied, ‘ak var dzia,’ meaning ‘here I am’.

Visiting Vardzia Today

There are still a few monks living in Vardzia who act as guides but they do not speak English, they will merely prevent you from getting lost. An entrance fee of six lari ($3.50) is payable but the monks also expect a tip. Also be warned that there is sill a debacle going on between the church and the government. The monks and the church do not consider women welcome at Vardzia, which seems strange as it was the first female tsarina, loved by her people, who founded the city and lived there for many years.


MORE INFORMATION Vardzia Cave City 1998
Pictures and information on Vardzia.

By Faye Welborn