A Monastery Hike at Georgia’s David Gareja

A Monastery Hike at Georgia’s David Gareja

The David Gareja monastery complex, on Georgia’s southeastern border with Azerbaijan, is a long-established site of great significance for Georgians. Founded in the 6th century, the complex is still active today and features numerous cells carved straight into the bare rock face. These caves function as living quarters, refectories, chapels, libraries and rooms for instruction and silent meditation.

Lavra Monastery<br>Photo credit: Devin Connolly

Lavra Monastery from above
Photo credit: Devin Connolly

First Stop: Lavra MonasteryThe complex consists of several parts. The first is the Lavra Monastery, immediately visible when you arrive. Located at the bottom of a steep hillside, this part of the monastery is currently inhabited by a handful of monks. Because of this, visitors are not allowed to enter any of the cells of the lower monastery.

Lavra Monastery<br>Photo credit: Devin Connolly

Monks’ cells and niches at Lavra Monastery
Photo credit: Devin Connolly

However, visits to the church on site are welcomed, and guests may rest and enjoy the fresh air in the courtyard adjacent to the church. In a place surrounded by semi-desert, the shade of the few trees in the courtyard is more than welcome.

Cave entrance at Udabno Monastery<br>Photo credit: Devin Connolly

Cave entrance at Udabno Monastery
Photo credit: Devin Connolly

Worth the ClimbThe other part of David Gareja is the uninhabited Udabno Monastery. This is the true prize of the visit, as it is where the cave frescoes are located.

But to view these beautiful frescoes is no easy feat, as the Udabno Monastery requires a steep uphill climb that takes an average of 30 minutes to an hour, depending on your level of fitness. The first part of the hike is the most grueling; hikers must scramble over bare rock face and steep hills of loose dirt. But it gets better! After a while, as the path continues uphill, it evens out and becomes a more gentle and smooth ascent. Still, it is a relentless climb.

Hiking a trail on the Georian-Azeri border<br />  Photo credit: Devin Connolly

Hiking a trail on the Georgian-Azeri border
Photo credit: Devin Connolly

Spectacular Views and Frescoed WallsFinally, on the crest of the hill, overlooking neighboring Azerbaijan, you find the Udabno Monastery. Hidden away on the back side of the hill are several caves that hint at the former power and scope of the monastery. Each cave is, or was at one time, painted with beautiful frescoes showing scenes from the Bible or important figures from the early era of the Georgian Orthodox Church.

View of Azerbaijan<br>Photo credit: Devin Connolly

View of Azerbaijan from the hilltop
Photo credit: Devin Connolly

Even though many of the caves are badly ruined and some of the frescoed walls have been completely eroded or destroyed, you can still sense the magnificence of the monastery at its zenith.

The golden age of the David Gareja Monastery corresponds with one of the golden ages of the Kingdom of Georgia; from the 11th to the 13th centuries, the complex reached its height of activity. A Georgian school of painting flourished here and many of the most beautiful frescoes adorning the walls of the Udabno Monastery were painted during this time.

Udabno Cave Fresco<br>Photo credit: Devin Connolly

Udabno cave fresco
Photo credit: Devin Connolly

Refractory at Udabno<br>Photo credit: Devin Connolly

Refectory at Udabno
Photo credit: Devin Connolly

A Pilgrimage to David GarejaUnfortunately, this golden age was brought to a halt by the invading Mongol army in 1265, and the monastery has never been fully restored to its former glory. The saddest chapter of David Gareja’s history was when the frescoed caves of Udabno Monastery were used for target practice by the Soviet Army, during the Afghan War.

However, David Gareja is like a phoenix that continues to rise from its own ashes; even after the Mongol invasions, the Arab invasions, and ultimately the Soviet-era shutdown of the complex, the spiritual flame burning at the heart of the monastery has not been extinguished.

Visitors from all over Georgia and the wider region view David Gareja as a pilgrimage site. It is even said that three visits to the complex are equal to one pilgrimage to Jerusalem. What more reason could you need to return to Georgia for a second (or third) look at its natural beauty and breathtaking churches and monasteries?

David Gareja<br>Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

David Gareja Monastery complex
Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Travel to David Gareja on a visit to Georgia with MIRHead to Georgia to visit the David Gareja monastery complex, with the possibility of a hike to the upper monastery, on MIR tours Treasures of the South Caucasus and A Taste of Georgia: Wine, Cuisine and Culture.

You can also opt to travel on your dates and at your pace on MIR’s Essential Georgia or Essential Caucasus independent trips, or on a custom private itinerary.

(Top Photo: Devin Connolly ascending to the upper Udabno Monastery at David Gareja)

PUBLISHED: March 19, 2015

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One thought on “A Monastery Hike at Georgia’s David Gareja

  • geof giles

    It’s quite a climb to the top, but well worth it. Bring water and allow 4 hours round trip. A walking stick is a good idea too. The border guards on top are friendly, but don’t like being photographed.