Uplistsikhe – the Lord’s Fortress

So a few weekends ago, two volunteers stopped by in Gori on their way home from Tbilisi back to their homes in the west of Georgia. They arrived dragging a huge, incredibly heavy, bright red duffel bag up my 5 flights – one of them, Helen, had picked up a care package from home at USA2Georgia in Tbilisi and was taking it back with her. Helen is a G14, in my group, and we know each other. She brought along a G13, Sarah (there are 5 of us!), who will be heading home in a few months. She had never been to Uplistsikhe, an ancient cave town, just about half an hour outside of Gori … so, off we went.

We walked up to Gori’s marshutka/bus/taxi/bazaar station, where Sarah deeply impressed me with her language abilities. Vastly superior to mine, but then, pretty much anyone’s are. She negotiated a fair price with a pretty friendly taxi driver, and we drove through villages by the river chatting with him. He said he had been a soldier in Iraq – did you know that Georgia sent military there? 2,000 between 2003-2008, according to Wikipedia.

The day was cool and cloudy, but a bit of blue sky peeking through, perfect for a little bit of a hike. Uplistsikhe is perched up on the top of a very steep hill, with a small church at the summit. There is a big sign at the entrance with some history, and a bit of interpretive signage identifying buildings, but not much beyond that. We all regretted not having read up on the history of the place before we came. Here’s the scoop:

“Located in Eastern Georgia, Uplistsikhe (literally “Lord’s Fortress“) is an abandoned rock-hewn town which once played an important role in Georgian history. The place was founded in the late Bronze Age, around 1000 BC, and continued to be inhabited until the 13th century AD. Between the 6th century BC and the 11th century AD, Uplistsikhe was one of the most important political and religious centers of pre-Christian Kartli – one of the predecessors of the Georgian state.

Archaeologists have unearthed numerous temples and findings relating to a sun goddess, worshipped prior to the arrival of Christianity. When Christianity arrived in Georgia, the city lost importance in favor of the new centers of Christian culture, most notably Mtskheta and Tbilisi. Nevertheless, life continued in Uplistsikhe. Christian structures have been built, and for a short time Christianity and the old faith coexisted in the city.

After the Arab conquest of the royal city of Tbilisi, Uplistsikhe’s second heyday began when the town became the residence of the kings of Kartli, during which the town grew to a size of around 20,000 people, evolving into an important caravan trading post. When Tbilisi was recaptured in 1122, Uplistsikhe faced an immediate and rapid decline, culminating in the destruction of large parts of the city during the Mongol conquest in the 13th century and the subsequent abandonment of the rest of the town.

The cave town, covering an area of almost 40,000 square meters, can be divided into a lower, a central and an upper area. The central area, which contains most of the rock-cut structures, is connected to the lower area by narrow tunnel. Most of the rock-cut structures are without any decorative elements, aside from some of the larger structures which contain some stone carvings.

At the top of the complex is a Christian stone basilica, dating from the 10th century. The rock-cut structures include a large hall, called Tamaris Darbazi, pagan places of sacrifice, dwellings, as well as functional buildings, like a pharmacy, a bakery, a prison, and even an amphitheater. The rock-cut structures are connected by tunnels, while other tunnels had the purpose of an emergency escape route.

Uplistsikhe is remarkable for the unique combination of styles from rock-cut cultures of the region, most notably from Cappadocia (in modern Turkey) and Northern Iran. Most of the unearthed artifacts can be seen at the National Museum in Tbilisi.”

From Atlas Obscura

There weren’t too many people around – apparently in summer, it’s swarmed, I shudder to think … the heat, the masses of people, the climbing … yeach! So glad we went in off-season. We climbed up, stopping to take photos of course, :-), here are a few:

Here are a few shots of the church, which was small and very beautiful. We had to tie aprons around our waists so that we were nominally wearing skirts (mine kept falling down), and wrap scarves around our heads.

The last photo – my favorite, perhaps.  We were all the way at the top, even a little bit above the church, and this is what we saw:

View from the top, to the west. I believe that's the Mtkvari River, which flows through Tbilisi.

We just stood in silence and appreciated it for a while.

Then we started hiking back down. We got a little turned around, went down a few wrong paths, it was kind of funny … we finally found a long flight of stairs, kind of hidden, back down to the main path.

The tunnel out!

When we started down, we weren’t sure where it led … but all’s well that ends well, we made it home in plenty of time for dinner at the Sports Cafe and a leisurely evening drinking my host grandmother’s cherry cognac at my place afterwards. All in all, a very satisfying day.

Next weekend I am going to Batumi, all the way to the southwest, with fellow PCV Karen. We are staying at an apartment I found through Airbnb, and meeting up with some of my favorite volunteers, whom I don’t see very often because they live too far away! Batumi has a very, very different look and feel from Eastern Georgia where I live, so I’ll try to take some good photos and post them. Until then …

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