Going underground: Exploring Uplistsikhe, Georgia's oldest cave town
An hour's drive from Tbilisi, Uplistsikhe is one of the oldest human settlements in the country
A lunar-looking landscape consisting of a rocky, pock-marked massif, with panoramic views of mountains and green fields demarcated by a meandering river, is topped with rock-hewn caves crowned by a basilica.
I am at Georgia’s Uplistsikhe cave town, which translates to “castle of the gods”. Georgia is famous for its ancient cave towns, and this is one of the oldest in the country. Built on a sandstone outcrop above the Mtkvari River, Uplistsikhe is located 15 kilometres from the town of Gori, the birthplace of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Legend has it that the cave town was built by slaves, with pagan temples dedicated to the sun goddess. It has had a tumultuous history, falling under Christian and then Arab rule (when it was a thriving caravan trading post between Asia and Europe), and it features architectural elements dating from the Iron Age to the late Middle Ages. In the early Bronze Age, it was a prominent farming community.
“It was a residence of kings during the Arab conquest, and a shelter for shepherds down through the ages,” explains Sophie, our local guide. From the sixth century BC to the late Middle Ages, people lived in the more than 700 caves that perforate the rock, connected by twisting staircases, cobblestone streets, alleys and tunnels. At its peak, the settlement housed almost 20,000 people.
It was a residence of kings during the Arab conquest, and a shelter for shepherds down through the ages
The cave town was in existence for almost 3,000 years, until it was ravaged by the Mongols in the 13th century, and subsequently abandoned. Many important parts were also destroyed by an earthquake in 1920. But since 1957, archaeological excavations have uncovered the settlement’s many treasures, which lay hidden under layers of sand and mud. Many temples dedicated to the sun goddess, built before Christianity arrived here, have been unearthed and, in 2007, the Uplistsikhe cave complex was put on the tentative list to be considered a Unesco World Heritage Site.
I climb the steep staircase that sprawls across the rock face. The cave town sprawls over an area of more than 40,000 square metres and is built across three levels. A cold wind lifts off the River Mtkvari, which runs below the complex, and shepherds and their herds dot the fertile valley. Sophie explains that the town can be divided into a lower, central and upper area – and most of the rock caves are in the middle.
It feels like an open-air museum, with narrow alleys and staircases, and small squares hewn out of the rock. Lizards dart behind large boulders, and pink wildflowers sprout from cracks in the rock faces. I see pagan sacrificial pits – small circular depressions gouged out of the ground, where the blood of animals would have been offered up in ancient times. A large cave with a pointed arch and a decorated ceiling was probably used as an amphitheatre, where religious plays were performed. I admire the ingenuity of using one specific cave as a pharmacy, with pigeonholes for storing medicines where archaeologists have discovered traces of herbal cures.
Another of the caves was used as a granary and yet another as a bakery, where, in ancient times, people baked their own bread. There is also a unique prison, with 80-metre-deep holes dug into the floor. Sophie explains that only one prisoner could stand there, serving as a warning to other people in the community.
Some caves have columns carved into the rocks, others have triangular roofs, while a few ceilings are carved to resemble wooden logs and winepresses are occassionally carved into the floors. Most of the caves are stark and have no decorations, but contain ornately carved ceilings. Some have walls darkened by fires. Many of these structures are connected by a network of tunnels.
The most majestic structure is Queen Tamar’s hall – a grand ceremonial space used for the coronation of kings and queens, with a central stone seat and a ceiling that looks like it was crafted from wooden logs. Near the top of the city, there’s a three nave basilica carved into the rock, built over a former pagan temple.
At the very top of the complex is a 10th-century stone basilica, made of stone and brick, which is a functioning church to this day. It is one of the few structures that survived the Mongol invasion. Inside, it’s a pocket of tranquillity, with frescoes on walls and candles burning in front of the altar.
Many of the artefacts unearthed here, including gold, silver and bronze jewellery, and fragments of pottery and ceramics, are displayed at the National Museum in Tbilisi. There is also a small museum at the foot of the cave city, where a few additional articles excavated from the site are located – from arrowheads to glazed ceramics and jugs.
On our way back, we take a different route – a secret tunnel carved out of the rock that was supposed to be used in case of emergencies. As I climb down the rickety staircase, out of the tunnel into the bright sunshine, it feels like I am emerging from a time machine.
Flights from Dubai to Tbilisi from Dh1,155 with FlyDubai and from Dh1,685 with Emirates. Uplistsikhe is a one-hour drive from the Georgian capital
Updated: February 20, 2020 12:42 PM