The Mtkvari river carves its way through the lush and dramatic cliffs of Georgia. Its course runs like a tour through Georgian history. Ancient fortresses and castles loom over the river, and ancient trading sites attest to Georgia’s rich history as a crossroads between Europe and Asia. Eventually, the river’s meandering course passes by the hidden tunnels leading to one of Georgia’s most remarkable sites: the cave city of Vardzia.
It doesn’t look like a city or a monastery at first. In fact, the porous, honey-combed rock face looks more like the set of a sci-fi movie. But even today, you can see monks making their homes in this sprawling, 13-story cave complex. Carved into the Erusheli mountain, Vardzia’s nearly 6,000 caves include residences, a church, a throne room, and steep stairways connecting them all together. The site even has its own irrigation system and terraced farming fields.
At nearly 1,000 years old, this cave city has seen a number of changes throughout its history. Giorgi III built the sites as a fortress. With the only entrance being hidden tunnels near the Mtkvari river, the caves were buried and secluded deep within the Erusheli mountain, making them the perfect safe haven during times of war. Later, though, Georgia’s first female ruler, Queen Tamar, founded a monastery in the caves. The monastery grew to become an important spiritual site for Georgia, and for Eastern European Christianity.
The monastery was dramatically altered in 1283, when an earthquake crumpled the cliff walls, destroying much of the cave city, and exposing many of the hidden caves to plain view. It’s secrecy and isolation lost, the cave city fell to invading Persian forces in 1551. However, with the reestablishment of Georgian power and influence, Vardzia again became a functioning monastery. To this day, its stone walls house many monks, and its cavernous church plays host to many services and ceremonies.
It is also a popular tourist attraction. The nearby Georgian city of Akhaltsikhe has easy transportation to Vardia cave complex. For the more adventurous, it’s also accessible through kayak or rafting tours down the Mtkvari river. This is a popular destination for people teaching English in Georgia.
The Georgian Ministry of Education is offering paid flights and free accommodation to volunteer English teachers. Find out more about how you can teach English in Georgia.