Archaeology: Inside the wild Vardzia cave town

Written by By Staff Writer

The town of Vardzia was founded in the early 600s by Roman emperor Titus. Despite being surrounded by a belt of mountains, its stone walls gave it a peaceful atmosphere.

By the time Alexander the Great visited Vardzia around 480 BC, the city had developed such a mystique that Greeks and Romans alike studied its strange way of life to learn the secret of its secrets.

The isolated settlement, now surrounded by lush forests, is full of surprises. It has some striking cave houses, while other structures appear out of nowhere. One place stands out — a castle-like complex just to the east of the modern city.

1 / 10 Credit: Visitors to Vardzia can leave their shoes at the entrance to the town, where a code lies hidden underneath the sandstone floor. Credit: Courtesy Bela Belaz

Vardzia took on its distinctive look during the 10th century. The fortress walls on the east were built in the 12th century. Yet the most spectacular cave house remains in an underground valley.

The claim to fame of the hidden settlement was cracked only in the past couple of years, when it was discovered by Russian journalist Sergei Wexler. After extensive research, Wexler reported that the ancient site belonged to a site held by the Visnogorsk monastery in the 10th century.

Archaeologists were previously unable to find the graves of people associated with the site, as the site was concealed within a heap of rubble.

Treasure trove

The ruins are perfectly preserved, which makes them a treasure trove for any archaeologist.

Located in an open valley, with peaks in the background, the ruins lie in direct sunlight and can be explored by foot. The hills of the nearby Nizhny Novgorod region provide excellent walking routes.

Irina Achimova, head of the archaeology department at the Pskov State Museum of Russia, has been working at the site for the past two years. “We visited the location, but were not able to enter. One day I wondered what was wrong, and from the depression in the earth I realized I had no experience of those caves,” she said.

The most remarkable discovery is a pink-colored underground chapel. One of the rooms contains a fresco in blue, with gold and red-yellow walls — a stark contrast to the pink walls — showing scenes from the Bible, including scenes of heaven and heaven returning.

Walk on underground corridors, and imagine yourself walking among waves and water. The underground lanes are named after famous people, places and people from history.

David Bowie’s father was buried in a cave in this cave in the early 1900s. Credit: AFP/Getty Images

The dense forested area surrounding the site is home to rare wild mammals and insects. The site has also been home to rare plants and archaeological artifacts.

The highlights

The celebrated cave house isn’t the only cave house in the area. A second cave house was found nearby. The second cave house was later renamed the Sino-Kaikadze cave house, after the Khabarovskro Art Association and its poet Tsar Khabarovski.

The sandstone floor in the entrance of the cave houses are covered with leaves, branches and even fish. Though the town is rich in history, visitors are still impressed by the caves.

Children of Vardzia. Credit: Courtesy Bela Belaz

“Young children still come to the desert to visit the cave houses — they are intrigued by these colorful relics of history. They can come and touch the mud floors and go inside the rooms they see on the map. Their eyes are just taken with this amazing place,” said Achimova.

The sights and sounds

The great deluge that struck western Georgia at the end of May was unfortunately timed with the onset of summer, with spectacular rains crashing against the cave houses.

Perhaps its most valuable possession is a well. The vats, every 15 feet, contain water and have a capacity of 200 cubic meters. It has become an intrinsic part of the site. On the other hand, the steepest part of the rock wall was covered with marble, making it inaccessible for the craftsmen who used to work at the site.

The visitor’s guide claims that the cave homes are built with nothing but natural materials. This is true, if we look at the impact of the global warming in Vardzia.

“It is getting wetter,” said Achimova. “In the current climate, it is raining many times a year, and the more often it rains, the more mountains and rivers flood in the desert.”

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