By Tika Bujiashvili & Tazo Miresashvili
There are only three rock-hewn towns in Georgia. They are Uflistsikhe, Vardzia and David Gareja. According to archaeologists Uplistsikhe is one of the oldest urban settlements in Georgia and the witnessed key events of Georgian history. The city is laid out over nine hectares, rising from east to west up a mountain slope.
There is a legend about Uflistsikhe. Uflistsikhe was a residence place of a leader of local tribe. The leader had a power like God, so the fortress was called Uflis-tsikhe, which means Lord’s Fortress. According to the legend Uflistsikhe was built by slaves. They were given picks, which had one part of gold and another- iron. The slave should work so much that only golden part should be left. Only after that they were given freedom and the golden part of the pick as a gift. Though, it’s just a legend because no one would give a slave so much gold. But two things are important in the legend: the first is that we know how hard the slaves worked on building a city and the second is that the Georgians used gold in that period and legend of fleece of gold is real.
When Christianity was declared as an official religion in Georgia in the IV century AD, Uplistsikhe lost its importance. Nevertheless, life still continued there. Christian structures were built, and for a short time Christianity and the old faith coexisted in the city. When the Muslim conquered Tbilisi in the VIII and IX centuries AD, Uplistsikhe reemerged as a principal Georgian stronghold and became the residence of the kings of Kartli and the town grew to a size of around 20 000 inhabitants.
From 700 caves in Uplistsikhe, today there are only 150 remained. Most of them are damaged. There are several reasons of damage. The main reason is that the rock where the city is built is too soft. Another reason is a 1920 year’s earthquake. During the soviet period the site was used by shepherds. Even today the caves are covered with soot.
The Uplistsikhe cave complex was destructed in the XIII century by Mongols. Since then it was abandoned and was used only occasionally as a temporary shelter in times of foreign invasions
There were several halls in Uflistsikhe: Throne Hall, Nice Hall, Grand Hall, Blackberry Hall, Long Hall, Red Halls, Queen Tamar’s Hall, Marani (Wine Cellar) and even Apothecary. Although the Queen never lived in there, this deluxe cave dwelling was an apartment for the town’s rulers.
The Marani, next to Tamar’s Hall, dates from after her time. There’s an underground prison, 8.5m deep, just below Tamar’s Hall, and to the south there is an apothecary, with eight layers of storage spaces (about 15cm cubes), where traces of herbs and wrapping parchments have been found.
There is a three-nave St.George’s basilica church, built in the VI century in Uplistsikhe. The church doesn’t have a foundation it is built on a rock and wasn’t destroyed during 1920 earthquake. It’s said that yolk was used during the building of the walls. The church was damaged and rebuilt many times. Even today you can see clay pots in the yard of the church. It is said that when a child was born the family poured some wine in the clay pots. When the child was 16 they brought the wine to the church and left there with a clay pot. The basilica was destroyed by the Persians in the VII century but was restored in the XII-XIII centuries. Later its frescos were whitewashed in the XIX century. Today Sunday liturgy is held there every Sunday, though the first one was held 10 years ago.
The entrance of Uplistsikhe was a 41m length and 3m width rock-curved tunnel in the V-VI AD.
Archaeological excavations have discovered numerous artifacts belonging to different time periods, including gold, silver and bronze jewellery, and samples of ceramics and sculptures which are safekeeping of the National Museum in Tbilisi. Uplistsikhe is on the tentative list for inclusion into the UNESCO World Heritage program and is a popular destination for tourists visiting Georgia.
You can easily reach Uplistsikhe from Gori. It is 30 min. drive in a mini-bus (to Kvakvreli) and costs 1 Gel. To view the whole site takes 2 hours.