Vardzia is a cave-palace-monastery site in southern Georgia (the country where Western Europe meets Eastern Asia) excavated from the slopes of the Erusheti Mountain on the left bank of the Mtkvari River, thirty kilometres from Aspindza.
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, the most famous woman in Georgian history (she was crowned king, not queen) ordered the construction of this underground sanctuary in 1185, and the digging begun, carving into the side of the Erusheli mountain
When completed this underground fortress extended 13 levels and contained a throne room, the Church of the Dormition, dating to the 1180s during the golden age of Tamar and Rustaveliwith, an external bell tower and 6000 apartments, enough to accommodate both the monks of the monastery and the residents protecting them from the attacks of the Mongols . It is assumed that the only access to this stronghold was via a hidden tunnel, whose entrance was near the banks of Mtkvari river, which of course the Mongols never discovered .
The monks who inhabited the new underground city also created a terraced agricultural and irrigation system that fed those inside. In terms of food and water, it is regarded as perhaps the first eco-friendly, self-sustainable structure in Europe. With such defenses, natural and man made, the place must have been all but impregnable to human forces.
But 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 then 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.
The site was largely abandoned after the Ottoman takeover in the sixteenth century.
Since the 20th century 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.
Now part of a state heritage reserve, the extended area of Vardzia-Khertvisi has been submitted for future inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage List.