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Georgia

Davit Gareja Cave Monastery

Rock-hewn monastery complex with hundreds of cave structures tucked away into the mountainside 

Davit Gareja is a rock-hewn Orthodox monastery in the Kakheti region of Georgia. It is not far from the  border with Azerbaijan. The climate is often described as semidesert.  

Hundreds of cells, churches, refectories and living quarters have been hewn into the rock face at the steep slopes of Mount Gareja. Saint David, an Assyrian Monk, founded the monastic complex in the 6th century and it was steadily expanded during the following centuries.

The monastery complex has been an important center of religious and cultural activity for hundreds of years and this reached its height between the 11th and 13th centuries. The monastery complex was always closely linked with the royalty of Georgia, but the downfall of the Georgian monarchy did not put an end to the monastic activities at Davit Gareja. Neither did the attacks by the Mongols in the 13th century, or the attacks of the Persians in the 17th century.

It wasn’t until the Bolshevik takeover in 1921 that the monastery was closed down and became deserted. During the late Soviet years the monastery became a training ground for the Soviet War in Afghanistan and this caused considerable damage to the murals within the complex and caused a public outcry among Georgians. When Georgia restored its independence, the monastery was revived and it is once again a center of religious activity as well as an important destination for pilgrims and tourists alike. The inside of the cave structures has been covered with numerous  murals and fresco paintings, a number of which have survived the test of time.

Since the Soviet border-drawing process did not have any regard for cultural borders, especially when religious heritage was involved, today parts of the monastery complex are technically located within Azerbaijan and this has sparked a minor border dispute between the two countries. Given the religious and cultural importance of Davit Gareja, Georgians have stated it to be unacceptable that the site would be split between two countries, and have offered a land swap, but a final agreement has yet to be achieved. 

Know Before You Go

After a hike up the mountain next to the monastery, you can see views of the Azerbaijani border. When climbing down the other side of the mountain, you come across the caves built into the side of the mountain. These caves contain traces of fresco paintings, some of which are fully intact. Some may argue that this is more interesting than the monastery itself. Since the area is not frequented by tourists, you can also see some interesting wildlife.  

The nearest village is Udabno. You can take a marshutka there or a direct bus from Freedom Square in Tbilisi. It leaves at 11 AM and maybe other times as well. The hike up the mountain can be quite steep. Wear the proper footwear.Take a bottle of water and some food as you will get non there. Toilet paper may also be useful as it only has squat toilets. The area is not as developed as much of Georgia so do not expect tourist facilities and paved roads.

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