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Vardzia


a stone wall with faded paint, etched with graffiti
Painted Wall, Church of the Dorminion, Vargzia, Georgia

I am sitting inside a peaceful cave next to the wall of an 11th-century church, taking in its serenity. The only sound is the low rumble from the Mtkvari River below, echoing around the cavern's walls at the same volume as if I were sitting next to the water’s edge.


The scent of beeswax candles fills the small cavern, which is dimly lit with modern lights that seem very much out of place. I had just returned through a narrow tunnel from a spring-fed pool deep within the cave. Each step I took echoed through the narrow rock passageway as if I were stomping, but I was treading carefully, mindful that every move I made created an eruption of echoed sound.


This is Vardzia, a cave monastery near the Armenian border. It’s a place Corie and I had wanted to visit since we were planning our Georgia move and the last place outside of Tbilisi we explored during our two-year stay.


Archeological evidence points to habitation in the area during the Bronze Age, but the first distinct construction phase of the cave city started in the mid to late 1100s. For anyone who is familiar with New Mexico’s Bandelier National Monument, there is a striking similarity between the Ancestral Pueblo site and Vardzia. Both were inhabited during the 12th century, and both were abandoned during the 1500s.


Caves dotting a cliff face
Vardzia Georgia,

During the late 1100s, Georgia’s Queen Tamar oversaw Vardzia’s expansion, including more dwellings, defenses, irrigation, and the Church of the Dominion, built into a cave that dominates the center of one of the cliffs. Legend says the name Vardzia came from a time when a young Tamar was lost in the caves and called out, “ak var dzia,” or “I am here.”


In the 1200s, an earthquake changed the appearance of Vardzia, shearing the front of the cliff. As a result, one of the “secret” passageways from the monastery to the river is less secret than during its construction, threading in and out of tunnels on the descent.


Looking out from the caves across the wide valley below, the vegetation is brown, still in its winter slumber, but it’s not difficult to imagine the verdant view that will soon emerge. Even though the layers of this cave city are linked with modern staircases, it doesn’t take much to imagine the hum of daily life when the city in its heyday when more than 6,000 rooms on nineteen levels comprised the monastery. 


During the summer, these ruins would be filled with tourists, but today, Corie and I feel like we have the site to ourselves except for the five resident monks we passed along one of the wider walkways.


It is a fitting end to our two years here in Georgia, a place where both the destination and the journey underscored the country’s unique history, breathtaking scenery, and proud traditions.


Orthodox icon resting in an alcove inside a cave
Icon, Vardzia, Georgia

 

Two weeks from today, Corie and I will be starting our next chapter in Romania, so next week will be my last newsletter from Georgia (at least for a while). It will be a special newsletter for me: my last photo walk here in Tbilisi. I’ll be joined by my good friend Nino Khundadze, a talented artist, photographer, and writer. I hope you’ll join us.

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