September 25, 2019

The ancient caves of Uplistsikhe

15km north of Gori in central Georgia lies the cave dwellings of Uplistsikhe. Situated high above the River Mtkvari, and surrounded by rich agricultural lands, it is one of the oldest settlements in Georgia, with archaeological findings showing that there have been signs of habitation for over 3,000 years, since the Bronze Age.

Georgia does have fair few troglodyte dwellings. There is the religious site at Davet Gareja and the impressive hidden city of Vardzia. Uplistsikhe stands out due to its age, although that has led to the site being somewhat weather warn. From a distance, it looks unexciting, slabs of rock with a few caves in it.

As you get closer and explore you see some of the features that the other sites do not have. In particular the ornate decorations inside the rock-hewn rooms. Originally Uplistsikhe was a place of pagan worship and temples were built for ancient gods.

These were adapted to churches as Christianity took a hold over Georgia in the fourth-century, although still few people actually lived here.

The Arab invasion of Tbilisi in the eighth-century changed that. Uplistsikhe was a strong, defendable fortress for the Georgians. It became a base for royalty with the Kings of Kartli basing themselves here, and its population swelled to over 20,000.

Along with throne rooms, halls and churches, more and more dwellings were cut into the soft limestone rock.

At its height, Uplistsikhe boasted an amphitheatre, bakeries, pharmacies wine-making facilities and cellars, and even a prison. These were connected by streets, or pathways, cut through the rock, as well as stairs and tunnels.

Unlike Vardzia, Uplistsikhe was not hidden and rose above the surrounding areas. The Mongol invaders of the 14th century targeted the city and, although not destroyed as was often the case with the Mongols, it was totally abandoned, and has been damaged by earthquakes, including a large destructive one in 1920.

Many of the caves are unable to be entered, particularly on the lower levels, as they have collapsed and are filled with rubble. Uplistsikhe is on the UNESCO world heritage list, which has at least given a bit of focus on preservation, if not restoration, and large concrete and metal poles have been inserted into caves to ensure their survival.

It is a cheap taxi journey from Gori, which itself is only an hour from Tbilisi by train. If it is a busy day there will be no need to negotiate with the taxi driver to stay, it will be easy to pick up a lift back to Gori. The site is easy to walk through, although there are some big drops which are not fenced so take care, particularly if wet.

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