10 Things You Should Know About Vardzia Cave Monastery

The Vardzia Cave Monastery is one of Georgia's most emblematic landmarks and a place with enigmatic history. Once a flourishing fortress city and a place of religion, it had had the misfortune to collide with the power of Mother Nature and to be nearly destroyed by a massive earthquake.

Hidden in the slopes of the Georgian Erusteti Mountain lies a magnificent ancient cave city complex that rarely received the attention it deserves. The Vardzia Cave Monastery is one of those enigmatic real-world locations that could easily find a place in a fantasy book or movie.

1. Vardzia was more than a cave monastery, it was a flourishing city

Although the caves have been used for centuries, whether as a hiding place or by monks, during the Golden Age of Georgia it became a developed city with many streets, churches, libraries, and everything necessary for a normal lifestyle.

2. The Vardzia cave monastery and city are dated to the 12th century

Vardzia became the most important location in the country during the reign of the first female ruler of Georgia – Tamar the Great. She adored the region and decided to establish a flourishing city in the natural caves of the Erusteti Mountain.

3. Vardzia was established as a fortress city

This magnificent sight was once hidden from the naked eye.
This magnificent sight was once hidden from the naked eye.

Although it is clearly visible today, Vardzia was hidden from the road a thousand years ago. This made it an extremely strategic location and the most important fortress city in the country. The entrance to the city was hidden and could be reached only by roads and doors only known to Georgians.

During battles, the secret entrances allowed Georgian fighters to appear surprisingly in different parts of the valley, a nightmare for the invaders.

4. In war times, the Vardzia cave monastery could hold up to 20 000 soldiers

Tales tell the story of how Queen Tamar the Great defeated an army of hundreds of thousands of invaders with a significantly smaller force while using Vardzia as a wartime shelter.

5. The central cave building of the Vardzia Cave Monastery is the Medieval Church of Assumption

The central building in Vardzia is the Church of Assumption, which still impresses with its grandeur. In the Middle Ages, the churches, the throne room, and the royal rooms were decorated with gold and precious stones.

6. The city had 19 levels at its peak

Nowadays, the different levels of the Vardzia Cave Monastery are accessible through stairs.
Nowadays, the different levels of the Vardzia Cave Monastery are accessible through stairs.

It was on average on 13 levels, and in its most developed state, they reached 19. They were all connected by tunnels and alleys. It is said that the greatest depth in the interior reached 80 meters.

7. A powerful earthquake in 1283 began the decline of the Vardzia Cave Monastery and city

In 1283, a monstrous earthquake occurred in the region. As a result, a giant rock mass with a depth of 15 meters broke away from the city bringing unspeakable disaster. Two-thirds of the original premises of the Vardzia cave monastery were destroyed. With this moment began the decline of Vardzia.

8. The earthquake “opened” the mountain which is why we today can see the caves

This would not have been possible to see was it not for the massive earthquake.
This would not have been possible to see was it not for the massive earthquake.

It is said that the massive earthquake literally tore the mountain apart and revealed the cave city to the outside world. This is why we nowadays see it from the outside and it is one of the main reasons why it was abandoned to a certain extent. It no longer served as a hideout as it was clearly visible.

9. The monastery existed actively until the region was conquered by Persians in the 16th century

The remains of what was once a flourishing city remained in use as a monastery for three more centuries. The end of the Vardzia cave monastery came during the Perian invasion in 1551 when it was destroyed leaving the site we see today.

10. It is believed that Queen Tamar was buried in the Vardzia Cave Monastery or somewhere in the mountain near her favorite place

It is believed that Queen Tamar’s remains are somewhere in the mountain or the nearby area. When she died in 1213 in Agarani Castle, near Tbilisi, eight processions started from there and only one of them contained her remains. No one should have known where the queen was buried. One of them reached Vardzia and everyone thinks that she chose this divine place as her burial ground. 

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