My favourite thing about the cave city of Uplistsikhe, Georgia, isn’t the remnants of the pagan temples, or the proto-Christian churches, or the dramatic hand-chiselled cave dwellings; it’s the paths, and the stairs, and the ramps.
Some of the paths are wide, smooth, open promenades; others narrow, twisting, awkward sets of stairs; and some routes are no more than a series of footholds going straight up the rock outcrop.
I like the paths because of the level of wear they exhibit. Stone, as you know, doesn’t wear down quickly or easily, and yet these stone paths are as worn as a pair of old boots.
Clearly this was not a town of just a few hundred people. This is the work of tens of thousands of feet running up and down these paths each and every day over thousands of years.
The cave city of Uplistsikhe
Uplistsikhe (which means the lord’s fortress) is one of the oldest settlements in Georgia; its origins stretch back to the Iron Age, to the 1st Millennium BCE, and beyond.
Not much is known about Uplistsikhe’s early years, but during the 5th Century BCE it developed into one of the most important cities in Kartli (a kingdom in central Georgia). At its peak the cave city is thought to have housed more than 20,000 people.
Its importance ebbed in the 4th Century CE following the Christianisation of the Caucasus (at which time the power-base shifted to Mtshketa, and later to Tbilisi), but Uplistsikhe came into its own again during the Arab conquest of Tbilisi in the 8th Century CE, when it was used as a place of refuge and resistance.
Then Genghis Khan’s Mongol army turned up (I’ve skipped forward 600 or so years) and trashed the place. Uplistsikhe was attacked, conquered, sacked, and destroyed.
The city was abandoned, left to crumble; a process that was accelerated thanks to numerous earthquakes (a particularly nasty earthquake in 1920, with an epicentre not far from the nearby town of Gori, caused considerable damage).
There are hundreds of structures at Uplistsikhe, most of which are obscure of purpose.
The largest, most notable, most ornate structures are the temples, of which there are several, and they were used by both Christians and pre-Christians (prior to the arrival of Christianity there was an extensive pantheon of spiritual figures worshipped in Georgia; including at least 23 gods, along with any number of demigods, spirits, and other mythical beings).
It’s difficult to come to Uplistsikhe and be wowed by the remnants of the city. What once would have been a thriving, bustling, living community, is now a wasteland of damaged rock. It’s a struggle to imagine the caves in their glory years.
But these paths and stairways are another thing.
The wear on these paths is something I can innately connect with, and as I walk along the main promenade of Uplistsikhe today I can imagine the sandals of Mongol raiders slapping over the same hard stone stairs 700 odd years ago. If I think a little harder I can picture an early Christian priest treading on his robes on one of these central promenades as he scurries between temples back in Medieval times. And if I really set my mind to it, I can picture the bare feet of a ragamuffin child of the Iron Age scampering over this exposed, weathered rock back when these paths were yet to be formed
Practical information and how to reach Uplistsikhe:
Uplistsikhe is ten kilometres from the town of Gori in Central Georgia. The easiest way to reach Uplistsikhe is to catch a taxi from Gori and to ask the driver to wait for you while you explore the site.