Literary Excerpts

An Underground Lair for a Warrior Queen

by David Farley
Vardzia The church at Vardazia monastery is still active. Photo by Blend Images/Alamy Stock Photo, courtesy of Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers.

In an excerpt from his book Underground Worlds: A Guide to Spectacular Subterranean Places, David Farley explores the 12th-century Vardazia Cave Monastery in Georgia.

GEORGIA — Vardzia was a massive complex: six thousand apartments. Thirteen floors. Twenty-five wine cellars. A meeting room, a reception center, and a pharmacy. There was even a throne room and a church. This isn't an eccentric urban apartment building. It's more like a human anthill. At least that's what the Vardzia Cave Monastery in Georgia looks like at first sight.

Started in the late twelfth century, the Vardzia cave complex in southern Georgia lies about forty miles from the town of Akhalsikhe. Like most underground lairs, Vardzia was constructed in the interest of self-preservation. Though the complex was begun by her successor, it was Queen Tamar, who ruled over a vast swath of land in the Caucasus that stretched from Azerbaijan in the south to Cherkessia in the north, who really put her stamp on the cave complex.

Tamar began her rule in 1184. And because of her age — some sources say she was just 25 years old when she took power — and possibly her gender, her reign saw a perpetual series of men trying to usurp her. No one succeeded. Contemporary Georgians revere this "warrior queen" for her strength and courage.

Fearing invading Mongols would wreak devastation upon the population, she ordered more caves be dug into the mountain. And so that the Mongols or any other outsiders could not penetrate the complex, the only way in and out was via a secret door on the embankment of the Kura River.

The cave complex was dug in a few different phases: chipping at the rock began during Giorgi III's rule in the mid-twelfth century. Toward the end of the century, now during Tamar's reign, the Church of the Dormition was created. In the third phase, the complex was deepened and enlarged, and a system of running water was constructed in the early thirteenth century. At this point, there were six thousand dwellings in the cave city. There were also at least 25 different wine cellars in the complex, which makes sense, as contemporary Georgians claim wine was first cultivated in Georgia. The monks also planted gardens on the various terraces on the cliffside. Fortunately for them, the soil in this part of Georgia is extremely fertile. The gardens, along with the irrigation system they created, made the cave city self-sustainable.

Tamar began her rule in 1184. And because of her age — some sources say she was just 25 years old when she took power — and possibly her gender, her reign saw a perpetual series of men trying to usurp her. No one succeeded. Contemporary Georgians revere this "warrior queen" for her strength and courage.

In 1283, about one hundred years after the digging at the cliffside began, a massive earthquake did serious damage to the monastery, destroying about two-thirds of the structure. But this didn't stop the devoted and determined monks from staying and rebuilding, from persevering, like the generations and generations of troglodyte religious friars who would come after them. Then, in 1551, the Persians marched through the area and further destroyed Vardzia, killing all the resident monks at the time and leaving the monastery abandoned.

The most important part of the Vardzia — at least for the monks who have resided here over the centurie — has been the Church of the Dormition. Carved into the rock, the spacious room measures 27 by 45 feet, with 30-foot-high ceilings, and every inch of wall and ceiling space is plastered with stunning murals. Painted between the late twelfth and sixteenth centuries, the murals have had an indelible influence over the development and evolution of later Georgian mural painting. Art historians delight in the vaults of the upper walls, where the life of Christ — from the annunciation to the last supper to the crucifixion to the Virgin Mary's ascension (and everything in between) — is colorfully portrayed. On the north wall are depictions of former Georgian rulers, including Giorgi III and Tamar the Great; beneath the image of the great queen is the inscription "God grant her a long life." On the same wall is a portrait of Rati Surameli, who comes from the noble Georgian family that financially supported the monastery. The inscription next to his image reads, "Mother of God, accept the offering of your servant Rati."

Though Vardzia was abandoned in the mid-sixteenth century (after the Persian attack), monks eventually gravitated back to the cave city in the 20th century and took up the troglodyte life once again.

Today the population of the Vardzia caves is limited to just seven monks whose raison d'être has been to help preserve the monastery and guard against its further deterioration. From a distance, you can see where the cliff side of the cave city caved in from the earthquake, exposing the honeycomb that existed inside the mountain. Here the monks still live like their brethren from past centuries, getting their drinking and bathing water from an ancient underground spring.

Visitors have access to about three hundred rooms and corridors. With many winding, twisting passageways ascending and descending, exploring Vardzia can be a dizzying journey, but there are very few sights in the world as unique.

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Excerpted with permission from Underground Worlds: A Guide to Spectacular Subterranean Places, Copyright © 2018 by David Farley. Published by Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers.