The underground halls of the “mountain queen,” dug out of the solid rock, Vardzia looks like it was taken directly from the pages of Lord of the Rings. In reality it is a cave-palace-monastery built not by dwarfs, but by Georgians in the Caucasus for their fabled queen Tamar.
In desperate circumstances people are often driven to perform feats of mythical proportions. In the late 1100s the medieval kingdom of Georgia was resisting the onslaught of the Mongol hordes, the most devastating force Europe had ever seen. Queen Tamar ordered the construction of this underground sanctuary in 1185, and the digging began, carving into the side of the Erusheli mountain, located in the south of the country near the town of Aspindza.
When completed this underground fortress extended 13 levels and contained 6000 apartments, a throne room and a large church with an external bell tower. It is assumed that the only access to this stronghold was via a hidden tunnel whose entrance was near the banks of Mtkvari river. The outside slope of the mountain was covered with fertile terraces, suitable for cultivation, for which an intricate system of irrigation was designed. With such defenses, natural and man made, the place must have been all but impregnable to human forces. Alas, the glorious days of Vardzia didn’t last for very long. Though safe from the Mongols, mother nature was a different story altogether. In 1283, only a century after its construction, a devastating earthquake literally ripped the place apart. The quake shattered the mountain slope and destroyed more than two-thirds of the city, exposing the hidden innards of the remainder.
However despite this, a monastery community persisted until 1551 when it was raided and destroyed by Persian Sash Tahmasp.
Today the place is maintained by a small group of zealous monks. About three hundred apartments and halls remain visitable and in some tunnels the old irrigation pipes still bring drinkable water.
Know Before You Go
To get to Vardzia from Tbilisi, you must first transfer through Akhaltsikhe. Marshrutka vans for Akhaltsikhe depart from Didube Station every 40-60 minutes or when full starting from 8 a.m. The journey takes around 3 hours and tickets cost 10 GEL.
From Akhaltsikhe, there are four daily marshrutka vans to Vardzia leaving the bus station at 9 a.m., 10 a.m., and 3 p.m. Travel time is over an hour, and the fare cost 5 GEL. Tickets must be purchased inside the station before you board.
A taxi from Akhaltsikhe to Vardzia costs around 50 GEL You can usually find drivers waiting outside the bus station.