Take a hard hat. That would be my tip for your visit to Vardzia, Georgia. The site is crumbling and unstable. Several times while I was there I saw and heard rocks tumbling down the cliff.
The Georgian government have done what they can to stabilise the site and protect the public; everywhere you look there is concrete, and hard engineering, and geotechnical reinforcement, designed to hold the site together, designed to keep it from falling apart.
But there are cracks everywhere. Huge cracks, small cracks. It isn’t the Georgian government’s fault – although the unsightliness of the selected engineering structures may be – it’s the geology of the site; it’s too unstable.
More than half the city was destroyed in an earthquake in 1283 CE; and when the next big earthquakes hits they’ll probably lose half of what’s left, and so on, and so on, till all that’s left are a few ugly balustrades.
People have been living in the cliff face at Vardzia since the Bronze Age; they probably migrated here, and took up residence in the caves during the first major flourishing of the cave city of Uplistsikhe (around 400 BCE).
Vardzia: the city
The real city building didn’t start until the 12th Century CE, during the reign of Georgi III, and Tamar, the regal queen that resided over Georgia during its Golden Era.
The cave city of Vardzia has more than 400 rooms in total; it’s built over 19 levels, and occupies a 500 metre long stretch of the cliff-side above the Kura River.
The city includes churches, chapels, numerous wine cellars, a bell tower, a refectory, and a bakery.
The pièce de résistance is the Church of the Dormition, built in 1180 CE, decorated with colourful medieval Georgian murals, many of which survive to this day.
Vardzia: the disastrous earthquake
Disaster struck in 1283 CE in the form of a devastating earthquake. Half the city collapsed. The people stuck it out though, and steadfastly began the rebuilding process.
The caves proved a perfect hiding place during the Mongol Invasion of 1290 CE. Genghis’ Hordes never learnt of their existence.
But Vardzia fell to the Persians in 1551, and the city was abandoned in entirety in 1578, following the Ottoman conquest of the Caucasus.
The cave city of Vardzia is 60 kilometres – a scenic one hour bus ride – from Akhaltsikhe. Buses are infrequent, so check the timetable ahead of schedule.
And watch out for falling rocks!
Vardzia-Khertvisi is on the tentative list for UNESCO World Heritage status. Read more here.