About Sights – The Cave City of Vardzia

Vardzia (Georgian: ვარძია) is a spectacular cave monastery site in southern Georgia, dug out of the Erusheti Mountain on the left bank of the Mtkvari River in Samtskhe-Javakheti region. It was the easternmost bastion of Christianity and holds special significance for Georgians because it is associated with King Tamar, the most famous woman in Georgian history (she was crowned king, not queen).

In the late 1100s the medieval kingdom of Georgia was resisting the onslaught of the Mongol hordes and King Tamar ordered the construction of an underground sanctuary. Thirteen levels were constructed with a church at the centre. Natural caves were enlarged to contain over 6,000 dwelling places for monks and for those fleeing invaders. A complex irrigation system watering terraced farmlands was also constructed and in some tunnels the old irrigation pipes still bring drinkable water.

The only way to get to this underground city was via well hidden tunnels which started at the nearby Mtkvari river.

At the heart of the cave complex is the Church of the Assumption, with its two-arched portico.

To the west of the church, between the bell tower and the main church, you can explore 40 cave groups, in thirteen tiers, with a total of 165 rooms, and six smaller churches. On the east side are 79 cave groups, in eight tiers, that contain 242 rooms including King Tamar’s throne room, twenty-five wine cellars (containing 185 wine jars sunk into the floor) and six churches.

Less than one hundred years after it was built a powerful earthquake in 1283 caused two thirds of the cave system to collapse. Despite this disaster the monastery continued until 1551 but was then attacked and pillaged by the Persian Sash Tahmasp who killed all of the monks.  It was then that Vardzia was finally abandoned.

What else can I see there? Murals in the Church of the Assumption portray New Testament scenes, and on the north wall depict Tamar alongside her father, Giorgi III. These were painted between 1184 and 1186.

A guide is available but will be Georgian or Russian speaking. A guide can be useful to help navigate the labyrinth of dark caves and levels.

Vardzia is spectacular and breathtaking – at times literally. The levels are connected by winding passages and steps – which can be tiring to explore but you can choose to see as little or as much as you want. For people who suffer from claustrophobia the narrow tunnels and confined spaces might make the visit an uncomfortable experience. It’s useful to take a flashlight.

Opening times? 10:00 AM – 7:00 PM, six days per week (not open Monday)

Entry fee? 3 Lari.

How do I get there? Since Vardzia is located far from Tbilisi or any of the other large cities in Georgia, be prepared to spend a few hours on the road. Borjomi and Bakuriani are most often used an overnight base for Vardzia but taxis and marshrutka (mini-bus) go to Vardzia from the small city of Akhaltsikhe. A taxi from the bus station at Akhaltsikhe will cost around 60 Lari for a return trip (including waiting time). A marshrutka (mini-bus) will cost much less (4 Lari) but runs only once a day  (10.40 a.m. and returning at 15.00 p.m.). Do check times. If you want to travel to Vardzia from Tbilisi there is a train that goes to Akhaltsikhe, from where you can get a taxi or minibus.

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23 Responses to “About Sights – The Cave City of Vardzia”
  1. dogdaz says:

    Great pictures. Makes me want to hop of plane.

  2. Chancy and Mumsy says:

    All of this post and these pictures amazed me. I kept thinking as I read and viewed the pictures how hard they must have worked and wondered how long it took them to construct all of that. I would have to pass on visiting this if ever I had the chance. I had a bad experience in a cave when I was a child and I would not do well going to visit this place. Thank you for sharing this. I am just in awe of all the beauty and interesting places there in Georgia. Hugs

  3. Shary Hover says:

    What a fascinating place! I’m always astonished by such feats of engineering. Was it all completely hidden until the earthquake?

    • It is located in an isolated place and was accessible only through secret tunnels but it was eventually attacked and was subsequently abandoned Shary.

  4. This is, by far, one of the most interesting pieces about Georgia that I’ve read up until now. It’s so dramatic! I want to know more about King Tamar and the lives of the monks. What a great historical novel this would make!

  5. Lisa says:

    Wow! I’d love to see this place in person – but your pictures are super. Fascinating history! It sort of reminds me of Petra.

  6. How beautiful! I would love to see this in person some day.

  7. sorrygnat says:

    Amazing and wonderful! My esteemed best to Bassa

  8. This is fascinating! Tamar was crowned King? Now that is interesting.. I am off to learn more about Tamar!!! I love history and especially church history! Great post!!! Keep up the great work on one of the best blogs on the net! 🙂 We are deeply impressed! 🙂

  9. Bongo says:

    This is amazing! I’ll send my person to visit there and I’ll hang out with Bassa.

  10. I am planning to go to Georgia. I want to know its possible to get to Tbilisi from Vardzia by bus.
    How are the bus connections between Vardzia-Akhaltsikhe-Tbilisi?

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