5 Facts about Vardzia: Georgia’s Hidden Cave City

Nestled in-between Eastern Europe and Western Asia lies a medieval complex of caves that relatively few travelers ever visit. Hidden in the slopes of the Erusheti Mountain, up to 19 levels of caves form a mind-boggling sight. These caves carry the name of Vardzia, or the Vardzia Cave Monastery in full. Although the site has been inhabited since the prehistoric bronze age, it wasn’t until the early Middle Ages that they became a true city of caves, ruled by the mighty Queen Tamar of Georgia.

A few days ago I had never even heard of these caves. One evening, when I was watching Levison Wood’s documentary about his journey from Russia to Iran, I immediately went on an internet deep dive and tried to find every little detail about these caves. How come nobody talks about this unbelievable city on the Eurasian border? In order to shed more light on this heritage site, here are 5 facts about Vardzia, the hidden cave monastery in Georgia.

5 Facts about Vardzia in Georgia

A close-up view of the Vardzia Caves.
Photo via Valen1988 on Wikmedia Commons, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

1. Why Queen Tamar Wanted to Live in a Cave City

There was a reason why Queen Tamar wanted to live inside a cave city. Her father, Giorgi III, started the construction of the city, but did not live to see it completed. During the Middle Ages, the people of the kingdom of Georgia had to deal with devastating attacks from Mongol hordes. The Georgians decided it would be best to create an underground hiding place at Vardzia in 1185. Ultimately, Queen Tamar the Great was the one who finished the construction of the Vardzia cave city. She became the first female ruler of Georgia, technically crowned king or ‘mepe’. Workers carved dwelling places into the side of the Erusheli mountain, creating a sanctuary away from the invaders.

The one who finished the construction of Vardzia was Queen Tamar the Great. She was the first female ruler of Georgia, technically crowned king or ‘mepe’.

Tamar began ruling at 25 years old and continued to do so for nearly three decades. Many still remember her as Georgia’s “warrior queen”. Under her rule, Vardzia became a prosperous, self-sufficient and even ‘luxurious’ city for the time.

2. Only One Way In: Hidden Passages and a Secret Entrance Tunnel

The Vardzia cave city was carved into the upper half of the Erusheli mountain, elevated high above the ground. They manually expanded existing caves and added new caves. This ultimately resulted in a throne room, a church, and 6000 homes for monks and refugees. The different levels were all connected to each other via hidden passageways in the ceilings. According to a legend, Queen Tamar had 366 rooms to herself, so invadors would never guess which room was her actual bedroom. At the time, the only way to get into the underground city all was via a secret tunnel as well. The entrance to the tunnel was kept a secret, hidden somewhere on the banks of the Mtkvari river.

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An overview of the Vardzia Cave Monastery in Georgia
Photo via Wojciech Bijok on Wikmedia Commons, licensed under CC BY 3.0.

3. A ‘Green’ and Sustainable City in the Middle Ages

During the Georgian Golden Age, Vardzia became a surprisingly prosperous city. It even developed to the point that it functioned as a ‘green’ and self-sustainable community. The slope of the Erusheli mountain was remarkly fertile and suitable for agriculture, so the location was already a great strategic choice. The monks that lived inside the cave city created terraces on the mountain slope and implemented a complex irrigiation system. In this manner, Vardzia became one of the only medieval examples of a self-sustainable city in Europe. At its peak, the city probably provided all the residents with plenty of food and water.

4. How an Earthquake (Almost) Ended Everything

The Vardzia cave city proved to be a succesful stronghold, as it succesfully withstood any enemy invasions until the end of the 13th century. At the time, Persian writer Hasan Bey Rumlu even compared it to the “impregnable wall of Alexander the Great”. Unfortunately, Vardzia still had to face a fateful destruction nonetheless, 70 years after Queen Tamar’s death. In 1283, a major earthquake largely destroyed Vardzia. The earthquake wrecked about 75% of the city and even sliced a piece off the mountain slope. This partially revealed the hidden cave system inside the rocks, which is also why you can see the caves on the mountain side today. The monastery was exposed, and the city became a much easier target for enemies.

The earthquake destroyed about 75% of the city and even sliced a piece off the mountain slope. This partially revealed the hidden cave system inside the rocks, which is also why you can see many of the caves on the mountain side today. Since the monastery was now exposed, and the city became a much easier target for enemies.

A tunnel inside the Vardzia cave complex.
Photo via Bolo77 via Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC BY 4.0.

5. The Monks that Survive the Test of Time

Following the earthquake in the late 13th century, Vardzia suffered several attack and invasions. After the Ottomans attacked and invaded the former cave city in the 16th century, most inhabitants abandoned Vardzia. A few residents remained until 1551, but the Persians soon came and raided whatever was left after the quake. Evidently, most of the inhabitants of the former cave city have long gone, but a small group of monks have returned to Vardzia. They have even made the irrigation pipes work again, supplying clean water to the site. Nowadays, thanks to these hard-working monks, tourists can visit Vardzia, see several homes and tunnels, and learn about Georgia’s history.

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