Vardzia is a monastery dating back to 12th century AD, located on the banks of the river Mtkvari, and it is one of the most important historical sites in Georgia. The location, in the middle of a huge gorge, offers unforgettable views. Even today some monks still live in those caves.
The popular story behind the name is that the young Tamar, who later became the Queen of Georgia, went out hunting with her uncle Giorgi and got lost in the caves. Giorgi searched for her and eventually found her, because she shouted out from the rock cave above “Aq var dzia”, or “I am here uncle”, which in local language is close to the word Vardzia, meaning ‘am here uncle’.
The cave monastery grew into a complex stretching along the mountain side for as long as 800 meters, to the depth of 50 meters. It used to house around 2,000 monks, with over 13 churches, 25 wine cellars, baths, libraries and numerous dwellings connected by tunnels and stairs. During an enemy attack the complex could host up to 20,000 people.
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.
Four distinct building phases have been identified at Vardzia: the first during the reign of Giorgi III (1156–1184), when the site was laid out and the first cave dwellings were excavated; the second between his death and the marriage of his successor Tamar in 1186, when the Church of the Dormition was carved out and decorated; the third from that date until the Battle of Basian c.1203, during which time many more dwellings as well as the defenses, water supply, and irrigation network were constructed; while the fourth was a period of partial rebuilding after heavy damage in the earthquake of 1283.
Since 1985 the site has formed part of the Vardzia Historical–Architectural Museum-Reserve, which includes 46 architectural sites, 12 archeological sites, and 21 sites of monumental art. In 1999, Vardzia-Khertvisi was submitted for inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage List as a cultural site.
On the banks of the river directly below it is a service area which is home to several shops and restaurants. Steps lead from the car park in front of the shops up to the ticket office. Behind the ticket office is a paved road which leads up to the upstream side of the complex, from where visitors are conveyed through a combination of external paths, stairs and internal tunnels along a one-way system to the far end of the complex. From there they can descend down stairs and tunnels to a path that leads them back to connect with the road just up the hill from the ticket office. If visitors ignore the signs and take the path then they will have to ascend up the cliff side through narrow tunnels against the flow of traffic.
Opening Hours: Every day from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Entrance Fee + Guide: The Vardzia entrance fee is 7 GEL (€2.30), plus 10 GEL (€3.30) for the optional audio guide.