What’s one of the most extraordinary sightseeing destinations in Georgia? No doubt, it’s cave monastery Vardzia! The monastery is a high rock above the Kura river with dozens of man-made and natural caves in its steep walls. There’re, approximately, 600 caves that stretch along the river for a kilometer, but only a small part of them can be seen from the river bank. Vardzia is much like other rock-hewn monasteries: Uplistsikhe and David Gareja, but it dates back to the Golden Age of Georgia.
Georgia desperately needed an impregnable fortress to protect citizens from invaders. The Georgians didn’t have to build it, it already existed, they just needed to break in the caves. It had already been inhabited before, but with Queen Tamar resettlement of Vardzia monastery was serious; all caves were enlarged and renovated, Church of Dormition and dozens of other churches were built, a library, baths, water system, and secret ways. When Vardzia was a flourishing city, it was hidden by outer cliff wall that was destroyed by an earthquake.
There’s a legen behind the name of the monastery; Queen Tamar, when she was a little girl, while wandering around the caves, yelled: “Ak var, dzia!”, which translates as “I’m here, uncle!” However, historians say that the name derives from “vardzh” – the name the Persians called the Georgians.
Today Vardzia is just a small part of what used to be a giant complex that protected thousands of people. It suffered from several devastating earthquakes and invasions of the Turks and the Persians. In 16th century, Vardzia was taken over by the Turks and stopped its existence as an inhabited town. The Russians freed the complex a few centuries later; Orthodox monastery Vardzia came back to life for a while, but was closed by the Soviet government. It functioned only as a museum. Today the complex can be divided in tourist part that is opened for visits and monastery part that is closed for everyone but 5 monks that live there.