August 26, 2019

Hiding from the Mongols inside a mountain. Vardzia

In the twelfth century, the Mongol hordes were threatening to overrun Georgia, as they had already done to so many other countries. The warrior Queen Tamar ordered the construction of a hidden city, to provide safety and as a place of resistance should the Mongols succeed in their invasion, and the secret city of Vardzia was born.

The Mongols eventually did conquer Georgia but never discovered Vardzia. The Erusheli mountain in which it was carved extended thirteen levels and boasted over 6000 separate rooms, including a church and a palace. There was only one secure entrance way through a cave and tunnel down by the river below.

The soft limestone, which made the digging and construction of the city relatively straightforward also proved to be its undoing. A massive earthquake in 1283 caused a landslide, removing the protective mountain covering of agricultural terracing, and destroying over two-thirds of the city, leading it to be abandoned by all but a few hardy monks.

The small religious community itself was wiped out in a Persian invasion in the sixteenth century, leading to its abandonment. Today a few hardy monks have returned and the Church of Dormition has been rebuilt although many of the twelfth-century paintings have survived on the cave walls.

It is a fairly easy to walk around and explore Vardzia, although it is not for the claustrophobic or those not happy with uneven steps, as many of the most interesting rooms are still hidden in the mountainside.

As you enter the city and get closer to the remains of the palace you will leave the easy pathways with metal handrails and then bend double as you go up and down small tunnels with uneven steps. The lighting is generally good, but carrying a torch would be a good idea.

The inhabitants were very well organised. There was a water source deep inside the mountain, which is able to be visited today, which was then moved around the settlement with irrigation pipes. In the excavated city, and don't forget two-thirds has been destroyed, areas were set aside for baking bread, the ovens built into the rock can still be seen, pharmacies, and forges for making metal implements.

Perhaps the most surprising, and to be honest most pleasant aspect of living here, would have been the ready availability of wine. Twenty-five wine cellars have been discovered, for both the making and storing of wine, and most rooms in which the people of Vardzia slept in, have a wine jar sunk into the floor.

The subterranean life might have been difficult at times, but at least there was always a glass of wine to keep you going. I think I might have been quite happy living here!

It is a bit of a trek to get here by public transport, and easier to get a day trip from Tbilisi. And when I say a day trip, it does take a very long day to get here and explore Vardzia. The small mini-buses leave from the old town part of Tbilisi around 8 AM and don't get back until midnight. However, it is well worth the time it takes to visit this incredible hidden city.

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  1. Great story. Rare to see somewhere not destroyed by the Mongols.

  2. Living underground but with lots of wine, not a bad trade off!