Vardzia Cliffside Monastery & Khertvisi Castle
Vardzia is a half kilometre long stretch of caves carved out of the cliffside near Georgia’s southern border with Turkey. Begun in the 12th century by King Giorgi III, the main building phase was completed by his daughter, and one of Georgia’s most beloved historical figures, King Tamar. Under Tamar, Vardzia became an important political, religious and cultural centre, and although Tamar was a woman, she was the first female to rule Georgia and was given the appellation King as a gesture of respect from her people.
The first iteration of Khertvisi Castle predates Vardzia although little is known of its history. Given its location perched above the river that serves as a clear access point from modern day Turkey, it was most likely a defensive outpost to ward off invaders. The surviving structures date from between the 10th and 14th centuries.
Legend has it that the complex earned its name when Tamar was still a girl and visited the caves with her uncle. Young Tamar became lost in the caves and when her uncle went looking for her, he was able to follow her cries of “ak var, dzia” (“here I am, uncle“). Exploring the maze of tunnels and caves, it’s easy to see how one could lose their way in a time when no electric lights burned deep in the rock of Vardzia.