The Cave City of Vardzia is remarkable. Situated in the European country of Georgia at the juncture of Eastern Europe and Western Asia it has an over eight hundred year history. Yet you would be forgiven for wondering why such a place was built in the first place. The words why and how spring immediately to mind.
1185 saw a woman, Tamar, on the throne of Georgia. This was a first for the country and extremely unusual in the Europe of the twelfth century. Her reign nevertheless, saw a flowering of culture and she wished to build a monastery. There was, however, a problem: the Mongols.
The Mongol empire had been inexorably expanding and little Georgia was under threat constantly. What better an idea, then, for their fabled Queen to have her monastery carved from solid rock. It looks like it is the ruins of some giant Tolkien city, Minas Tirith in ruins. Yet this was not to be the home of dwarves but of monks – and many of them.
Desperate times lead to desperate measures and to help her people avoid the Mongol onslaught, Tamar commanded that an underground sanctuary be built. The town of Aspindza was chosen and the secret work began under the nearby Erusheli Mountain.
The queen was twenty five years old when the construction work began and had been on the throne only a year. Nobles tried persistently to usurp her position, on grounds of her relative immaturity and of course her gender but she ruled for 29 years. A warrior queen she is still revered by many in Georgia.
Vardzia would be a massive construction job now but in the twelfth century it was a gigantic, epic labor one which was fuelled by both the adherence to the Christian faith and the Georgian determination that their lifestyle and culture should not be destroyed by the invading Mongols.