Written by Staff Writer at CNN
Georgia’s Vardzia City, in the lush Samos Mountains , was briefly the country’s capital and most important seat of government during the reign of King Solomon Varikid II from 1090 to 1306.
But before Varikid II became a figure of antiquity, the town was home to a small population of outcasts and slaves.
First settled by Native Americans, this Pictish settlement was visited by the Moors and finally absorbed into the Roman Empire and transformed into Vardzia in the 11th century.
This is a hidden hidden destination. CNN
King Varikid II, patron to such giants as Aristotle and Epicurus, was able to gather around 40,000 people to meditate in sacred rock caves that are home to 2,000-year-old burial tombs.
In the popular imagination, the city has long been associated with horror as it was considered a place of torture where adults were beheaded, and sacrificed children and women were hung in large body bags in “casket cities” — where money was exchanged for slave laborers.
But today, the Musina Kastel I dungeon in the heart of the ancient city has been put on public display by the National Center for Archaeology in Georgia. More than 2,000 skeletons and effigies have been re-created to reveal what life was like in the 10th century, on top of some 500,000-year-old remains excavated from the cave.
According to longtime resident Haliya Icheba, the cemeteries of Vardzia actually represent the vanished lives of the people of the town. She calls it an extraordinary snapshot of the people of Vardzia as a whole at that time.
Aside from being home to the most significant hill monastery in Georgia and the largest grouping of Phoenician tombstones in the region, Vardzia offers a unique example of what life was like in the area during this time.
Here’s what it’s like to explore and appreciate the beauty of the region’s caves:
Caves under the Sun
Vardzia is best known for its incredible dark rock-walled, masonry crypts. These are carved within the limestone that runs under the streets and harbor the identities of people whose lives came to an end here, buried alongside the dead of their own families.
The city’s crypts are very well preserved.
Nezarev dating back 2,000 years. CNN
Vardzia provides a unique opportunity to see them under the morning sun — an opportunity many visitors miss, says Habib Bershami, who co-wrote a guide to the city.
The tomb of the Semple family from Vardzia. CNN
A relic of a secular age
Nalchik, the town where Moses washed and served the people on Mt. Gvozdenadze, has become one of the main attractions of the trip.
The gateway to the Holy Land — a revered place for religious pilgrims — it’s also a place of pilgrimage for Hippocrates, as well as Genghis Khan and, of course, Jesus.
Cave over the Mountains . CNN
Nalchik has the region’s oldest surviving synagogue, including the oldest scroll ever discovered in Georgia .
Gatza itself offers the best modern day views of the ancient city.
In the same location as one of Vardzia’s main cemeteries, it’s worth checking out the roadside cafe Route 62, tucked away on the edge of the fortress. With pineapples and traditional Georgian dishes on offer, the tranquil setting is an ideal stopover to recharge.