Discover Georgia’s Greatest Treasure – Vardzia

By Beqa Kirtava

According to legend, one day King George III went hunting with his companions and brought his little daughter, Tamar (soon-to-be King (Queen) Tamar) along with him on the road. Once the field sport activities started, Tamar was left unattended and got lost in a cave. The King and his attendees immediately began the search, calling out – “Where are you Tamar?” Tamar heard their loud cries and shouted “I’m here, uncle!” (In Georgian: Aq var dzia!) That’s how one of the most significant places in Georgia got its name.

Vardzia is a cave monastery located approximately 30 kilometers south of Aspindza on the left bank of the River Mtkvari, in the region of Samtskhe- Javakheti. It dates back to the 12th century, when it was excavated through the slopes of the Erusheti Mountain. Consisting of 242 rooms, the site includes several chapels, 25 wine cellars, a pharmacy and the Church of Dormition, which is famous for its series of wall paintings, including the portraits of King George III and King (Queen) Tamar.

However, Vardzia is not the only cave monastery in the region. An even older complex – Vanis Kvabebi (English: Vani’s Caves) lies 3 kilometers east of the Erusheti Mountain. It dates back to the 8th century and consists of several maze tunnels, 2 churches and a special defensive wall which was built later, in the 13th century.

Currently included on the tentative list of UNESCO’s World Culture Heritage, Vardzia frequently tops Georgia’s must-see attractions lists, alongside the Khertvisi fortress, which is located just 15 kilometers from the landmark.

Khertvisi fortress served as the central defense building of Meskheti region back in the 10th-11th centuries. It was destroyed by the Mongol army in the 13th century and was later occupied by the forces of the Ottoman Empire during the 16th century. After 300 years, Khertvisi fortress was reclaimed by the joint Russian-Georgian army in 1828. According to legend, the fortress was attacked by Alexander the Great in the 4th century B.C., however, the credibility of the story is highly doubted by Georgian historians. As of 2016, the landmark is also included in the tentative list of UNESCO’s World Culture Heritage.