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Uplitsikhe



Image of a 10th-century Orthodox Church atop a rocky outcrop
Uplistsikhe Basilica, Uplistsikhe Museum Reserve, Georgia

Often when I’m in a place with a long history, I think of a quote from astronomer Carl Sagan as he reflected on an image of Earth, a speck in space taken from four billion miles away:


That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there….


Standing on our pale blue dot, it’s difficult to imagine such a broad perspective of the little speck floating in space. Most of the time, we’re incapable of contemplating the big world around us, the array of people, cultures, and the shared history of humanity. 


As I stood under a vaulted cave ceiling in Uplistsikhe, admiring the geometric decorative pattern carved into the gray sandstone, I thought about the people who inhabited the city, one of Georgia's earliest, centuries ago.


From the two-lane highway east of Gori, the cave city of Uplistsikhe is hard to miss. Perched above the dull-green vegetation along the Mtkvari River, the city ruins rest on and in a barren sandstone outcrop. 


As we approached, the weathered ruins looked like an oversized plastic toy, left out too long in the sun, slightly melted. 


 At its peak in the second century, approximately 20,000 inhabitants called the city home, but its history goes back much further.



image of a carved stone ceiling and skylight
Carved Stone Ceiling, Uplistsikhe Museum Reserve, Georgia

Archaeological evidence indicates the site was founded around 1000 BC and with continued habitation through the 13th century, making it one of the oldest urban settlements in the country.


 Our friend Arman suggested Uplistsikhe as an easy day trip out of Tbilisi and took us there on a series of small-two-lane highways that wind through a surprising number of landscapes for the short distance covered.


 Wandering through what was once the courtyards, temples, streets, and storage rooms, it’s impossible not to think about the kings, peasants, heroes, cowards, creators and destroyers who inhabited the city during its lifetime. Like any site of its age, it saw prosperous times, invasions, and obscurity.


 Since archaeologists have started excavating the site in the 1950s, the city’s ruins began relaying a fascinating tale of pagan and Christian architectural influences influenced by Persia and Türkiye.


 A boisterous group of Chinese tourists were in front of Corie and me as we entered what was once the city gate. Reading about the site before we had left, I had a picture in my mind of a quiet, desolate place and was surprised at the number of people who were around us. I wasn’t disappointed, however. It helped create a feeling of what the city must have been like during its centuries of habitation.


 We left the Chinese group behind and made our way up through the city, following pathways formed by eras of footsteps eroding the sandstone. Above us, a small orthodox basilica looked down at the ruins. From our vantage point, it looked like an unusual moonscape.


 The basilica was constructed in the 10th century, when Muslims occupied Tbilisi. A woman selling beeswax candles and religious icons greeted us when we walked in and smiled appreciatively when I asked if photos were allowed inside.


 The interior wasn’t as richly decorated as similar churches in Georgia, but the late-afternoon sun, streaming through three high windows, inspired a feeling of serenity, enhanced by the echoes of the city’s complex history.


A doorway carved into a rocky cave
Doorway, Uplistsikhe Museum Reserve, Georgia

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