Explore 3 Ancient Cave Towns in Georgia, South Caucasus

Explore 3 Ancient Cave Towns in Georgia, South Caucasus

Thanks to their long-time isolation and inaccessibility, several historic rock-hewn cave towns in South Caucasus’ Georgia are today unique destinations, highlights for many MIR travelers. Three stand-out favorites include:

All three cave towns are currently under review as tentative UNESCO World Heritage sites.  Each cave town is distinctive with its own history, highlights, and insider tips.

David Gareja Monastery Complex 

The golden age of David Gareja Monastery lasted from the 11th to the 13th centuries<br>Photo credit: Martin Klimenta</br>

The golden age of David Gareja Monastery lasted from the 11th to the 13th centuries
Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Beginnings: Still operating today, this 6th-century complex of a dozen Orthodox cave monasteries is considered one of the most sacred sites in Georgia, located in the Kakheti region bordering Azerbaijan. David Gareja was one of 13 Assyrian Fathers, monastic missionaries who came to Georgia to spread and deepen the Christian faith. Father David made his home here, high in a sandstone cave above the semi-desert slopes of what is now Mt. Gareja. 

Monks' cells and niches at Lavra Monastery in the David Gareja complexPhoto credit: Devin Connolly

Monks’ cells and niches at Lavra Monastery in the David Gareja complex
Photo credit: Devin Connolly

(click on small square photos to see a larger version)


He wasn’t alone forever, however: by the 12th century more than 2,000 monks lived in the soft-rock caves of David Gareja, by now renowned for its school of fresco paintings, murals, and sacred illuminated manuscripts. As the monastery complex grew with its churches, refectories, and monks’ cells, it became a centerpiece for culture and education in Georgia. Over the centuries the monastery complex was the target of looting and destruction, from Mongol pillaging to Soviet artillery training practice. After Georgia regained its independence in 1991, much of David Gareja has been restored, an active working monastery that truly is off the beaten path.

Frescoes fills this cave's ceilings and walls of David Gareja's Udabno MonasteryPhoto credit: Devin Connolly

Frescoes fills this cave’s ceilings and walls at David Gareja’s Udabno Monastery
Photo credit: Devin Connolly

(click on small photos to view a larger version)


  • David Gareja Insider Tips
    • Udabno Monastery is the highlight, and worth the steep uphill walk for views and best cave frescoes.
    • Monks live in the lower Lavra Monastery; this is the best opportunity to see and perhaps interact with them.
    • David Gareja is considered a sacred pilgrimage site, with a dress code of modesty: pants for men, skirts/pants for women, with shoulders covered.

“If you’re ambitious, take a Jeep or 4WD to the nearby Sabereebi church caves with their richly painted frescoes dating back more than 1,000 years.” 

 – Douglas Grimes, MIR President 

 

Vardzia

The cave town of Vardzia is carved into Erusheti Mountain in southern GeorgiaPhoto credit: Douglas Grimes

The cave town of Vardzia is carved into Erusheli Mountain in southern Georgia
Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

Beginnings: This 12th-century cave city in southern Georgia was once massive, with as many as 6,000 cave dwellings on more than a dozen levels; today there are about 300. It begs the question: Why was Vardzia carved out of Erusheli Mountain along the Mtkvari River in the first place, and what happened?

Georgia’s King Giorgi III first built Vardzia as a fortification against the Mongols, but it was his daughter, Queen Tamara, who finished the sprawling complex and oversaw its transformation to a sacred oasis and monastery, where fresco paintings and religious art thrived (many still seen today). Over time, it was known as a place of spiritual reflection and discipline – truly an “oasis on a mountain.”

The view from Vardzia on Erusheli Mountain in Georgia<br>Photo credit: Caucasus Travel</br>

The view from Vardzia on Erusheli Mountain in Georgia

(click on small photos to view a larger version)


Although Vardzia did escape the Mongols, a devastating earthquake destroyed two-thirds of this cave town in 1253. It ripped open the guts of the mountain, exposing the inner cave dwellings and what visitors see today. The monastery declined and eventually was abandoned, a target for pillaging invaders. Now re-opened, Vardzia’s monastery is run by a small group of monks. 

  • Vardzia Insider Tips
    • Visit the dwellings where a half-dozen monks still live today.
    • Look for tunnels with ancient irrigation pipes that still channel potable water. 
    • Visit the Church of the Assumption, the only functioning church left in Vardzia.

“If you’re up for a challenging hike (steep steps, climbing in tunnels), visit the nearby 8th-century Vanis Kvabebi cave monastery complex. There are 16 levels, two churches, and spectacular views of the canyon and countryside below.”

– Douglas Grimes, MIR President

Uplistsikhe

The Georgian cave town of Uplistsikhe is known as the "Lord's Castle"<br>Photo credit: Georgian Tourism Board</br>

The Georgian cave town of Uplistsikhe is known as the “Lord’s Castle”
Photo credit: Georgian Tourism Board

Beginnings: Heart of culture, politics, and religion for since ancient times, Uplistsikhe was long a bustling hub for commerce and culture as well as for pagan and Christian worship along the Silk Road from Byzantium (now Istanbul) to India and China. As many as 20,000 people once lived here.

Built high above the Mtkvari River not far from Gori, many of Uplistsikhe’s sandstone cave dwellings were naturally made, with inhabitants traced as far back as 1000 BC – one of the oldest settlements in Georgia. Uplistsikhe has endured earthquakes, erosion, and Mongol invaders, yet there still remain narrow alleys, secret tunnels, rock-cut cave dwellings, churches, temples – and even a pharmacy. Archaeologists have dug up ancient artifacts and treasures on the original 22-acre site, including gold and silver jewelry, pottery, and sculptures; many items can be viewed in Tbilisi’s National Museum. 

This 9th-century stone and brick Christian basilica was built on the highest part of Uplistsikhe, Georgia <br>Photo credit: Jake Smith</br>

This 9th-century stone and brick Christian basilica was built on the highest part of Uplistsikhe, Georgia
Photo credit: Jake Smith

(click on small photos to view a larger version)


  • Uplistsikhe Insider Tips
    • Visit the Hall of Queen Tamara with its royal stone seat and intricate carvings made to resemble wooden beams.
    • Ask the guide about the secret tunnel, an escape route down to the Mtkvari River used by townspeople during enemy attack.
    • Uplistsikhe is windy and sandy; if you wear contacts you may want to switch to glasses during your visit. 
Travel to Georgia with MIR

Why end might Georgia’s cave towns on MIR’s scheduled tours to the   and Georgia. MIR can also create a hand-crafted private itinerary focused on your special interests, including these cave towns.

Want to visit a specific cave town on a MIR tour? Try these options:

Or, travel and tour around Georgia and the other South Caucasus countries of Armenia and Azerbaijan on MIR’s tour, Treasures of the South Caucasus

MIR has more than 30 years of unmatched destination and travel planning experience, hand-crafting tours to Georgia and the South Caucasus since 1986. Chat with one of our destination specialists by email or by phone at 1-111-111-1111 to start planning your 2017 travels now.

(Top photo: Founded in the 6th century, Georgia’s David Gareja monastery complex is a sacred pilgrimage destination. Photo credit: Richard Fejfar)

PUBLISHED: April 26, 2017

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