The cave fortress - Vardzia Monastery captivates with its appearance, similar to the scene of "The Lord of the Rings". This fortress was not built by brave dwarves, but by Georgians in the Caucasus, for their legendary Queen Tamara of the Bagration Dynasty. In desperate times, people are ready for desperate actions that become a legend thanks to oral folklore.


Once upon a time, at the end of 1100, the Georgian Kingdom boldly defended itself against the oncoming Mongol hordes, the most ferocious and devastating force Europe had ever encountered. In 1185, Queen Tamara the Great ordered the construction of a fortification to begin. It was dug deep into the heart of Mount Erusheti (Mecha Mountain), which is located in the southern part of the country, 30 kilometers from Aspinza, 18 kilometers from Ahalkalaki.


Upon completion of the fortress, it had 13 levels and close to 6000 niches, a throne room and a large church called the Dormition of the Virgin. The church, with an outside bell tower, was built in 1800 during the Golden Age of Tamara the Great, which houses important murals that are the object of cultural heritage. Carved in a similar fashion to the rest of the palace, the church was the spiritual and monumental center of the cave palace. Its walls were reinforced with stone and its dimensions were 8,2 m wide, gradually extended to 14,5 m, and its height was 9,2 m.

photo: Tony Bowden

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The mural paintings provided the direction for the development of the Georgian Mural School and became known worldwide. On the north wall was depicted the patron saint of the monastery, the aristocrats Rati Suramelli, as well as portraits of King George III and Queen Tamara, with the inscription under them "God grant her long life". The dungeons and upper floors depict episodes of the life of Christ: beginning with the Annunciation, followed by Christmas, the Lord's Resurrection, Baptism, the Resurrection of Lazarus, the Entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, the Crucifixion of Christ and his Ascension.

Murals in the temple

On the other side are depicted the 12 Apostles of Christ, as well as three scenes from the life of St. Stephen. The other paintings were destroyed in the 1283 earthquake. The interesting thing here is that the "seko" technique was used to paint the paintings, ie dry gypsum mixed with pigments and water was used, and this "paint" was directly applied to the dry stone.


In the eastern part of the complex are located 79 cave dwelling complexes. They are built on 8 floors and have a total of 242 rooms. Also 6 chapels, 25 wineries, in whose floors were stored above the 185 wine jar, showing how important viticulture was to the economy of the monks.


In the west, between the bell tower and the main church, are 40 houses, at 13 levels, with a total of 165 rooms. This section also includes the 6 Chapel, a dining room with a bakery, close to several other bakeries, and a blacksmith shop. The only entrance to this fort is through a hidden tunnel located near the banks of the Mtkvari River.


Thanks to the outer slope of the mountain, the fortress is covered with fertile terraces suitable for agriculture and with the help of human dexterity a complex system for irrigation of the crop is built. Such a fortress seemed impregnable, even to the fierce Mongol hordes. Persian chronicler Hassan Bay Rumli describes Vardzi as a "miracle", as "an inaccessible fortress like the walls of the Macedonian kingdom of Alexander the Great."

Unfortunately, Vardzia's glory days did not last long. Although invincible to Mongol invaders, the fortress was not protected by the vagaries of nature. Only a century after its construction, in 1283, a catastrophic earthquake literally destroyed the site. Nearly 2 / 3 were destroyed from the city, revealing part of the hidden parts of the fortress, and the arrival of the Ottomans finally forced the population to abandon the site after its conquest in the sixteenth century. was destroyed by the Persian troops, which led to the abandonment of the monastery.


In the twentieth century, a small group of monks renovated the monastery and decided to preserve its history for generations to come. From 1985, the site is part of the Vardzia Museum of History and Architecture. The museum includes 46 architectural and 12 archaeological sites. In 2012, the murals in the church were renovated with the assistance of the National Agency for the Protection of the Cultural Heritage of Georgia and the Tbilisi State Academy of Art.


Today it is more a museum than a monastery, but it still serves as a reminder of the extremes of which people are capable of trying to protect and preserve their cultural heritage, but also as a reminder that no one is stronger and more powerful. by Mother Nature.

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