About 10km east of Gori along the Mtkvari Valley, visible from trains along the main line, is the cave-city of Uplistsikhe. The Silk Road ran along the hills to the north (hence the positions of Gori, Kaspi and Mtskheta, all on the north side of the Mtkvari), and Uplistsikhe was a trading centre by at least the 5th century BC. Later it became more isolated and was inhabited by monks until it was destroyed in the 13th century by Chinghiz's son Khulagu.
This impressive and once enormous cave city (admission 10 GEL, guide in English 10 GEL; 9am-6pm) is one of the oldest places of settlement in the Caucasus. Uplistsikhe was founded in the late Bronze Age, around 1000 BC, but developed mainly from the 6th century BC to the 1st century AD. This was one of the principal political and religious centres of pre-Christian Kartli, with temples dedicated principally to the sun goddess. Archaeological findings from the 4th to 6th centuries AD speak of an ongoing struggle between Christians and adherents of the old religion.
After the Arabs occupied Tbilisi, Uplistsikhe became the residence of the kings of Kartli. A main caravan road from Asia to Europe ran just north of the city, which became an important trade centre with 20,000 people at its peak. Uplistsikhe’s importance declined after King David the Builder retook Tbilisi in 1122 and it was irrevocably destroyed by the Mongols in 1240, along with its natural surroundings – there used to be forests here. What you visit today is the 40,000-sq-metre Shida Kalaki, or Inner City, constituting less than half of the original whole. Almost everything here has been uncovered by archaeologists since 1957, when only the tops of a few caves were visible.
The city is laid out over nine hectares, rising from east to west up a mountain slope. The south side of the site drops steeply to the Mtkvari (Kura) River, which served as natural protection. Moats surrounding the city also acted as an obstacle to its numerous invaders. The ultimate decline of the city can be attributed to Tamerlane and the Mongol invasions of the 13th century. A series of earthquakes, and the decline of trade caused by the collapse of the Byzantine Empire, combined to weaken the city to such a degree that by the 15th century only shepherds used the caves as shelter from the elements.
Over the centuries the site has suffered greatly from the elements, although channels were built to carry off storm water and prevent flash floods (drinking water was brought 5-6km from a spring just 44m above, through a beautifully engineered system of ceramic pipes and a tunnel). Most of the caves have been at least partly eroded away, so that it takes a considerable feat of the imagination to really understand what the city was like.
Uplis-Tsikhe is the prototype of the cave monasteries that developed later at Vardzia and David-Gareja. At Uplis-Tsikhe, an entire town (streets, churches, storerooms, palaces, and residential dwellings) was carved into the soft stone of the mountainside. As the city grew, wooden structures were either added to the caves or built to stand alone. All of these dwellings have since disappeared. The caves, plus remnants of streets and city walls, have afforded archaeologists a good view of the demarcation of neighborhoods and their functions within the community.
The southern part of town was the trading center, where the stalls of the merchants and artisans' workshops were located. The small pits dotted throughout the surface of the stone slope were originally used for pagan ceremonies; later, after Christianity was introduced, they were used for food storage. All the small side-streets joined with Central Magistrate Street, which divided the city in half. You can climb it going towards the ninth-century Three-Church Basilica at the summit. The tour of the ruins is only for the able, starting by scrambling up rocks past grain pits to the remains of a theatre built in the 2nd or 3rd century AD, complete with orchestra pit; the auditorium side has now all collapsed into the river and been washed away, and the stage roof is held up by concrete pillars. There's even a bread oven in the middle of the stage.
The central part of town was the primary residential area for craftsmen and their families. West of the main street are dwellings from the late Hellenistic period. Situated at the edge of the cliff that drops dramatically to the Mtkavri below, this settlement has a number of caves carved in imitation of architectural motifs, including gabled entrances and coffered ceilings. These date back to AD 200-300.
The northwestern part of town features a medieval palace and the administrative district. Before reaching the Three-Church Basilica, turn left off the main road to the Hall of Queen Tamara. Although Tamara never lived here, this deluxe cave dwelling was an apartment for the towns rulers. Scholars speculate that the western area was reserved for the king, and the northern and southern portions housed other political leaders. Two columns, which stood here until the 19th century, separated the central room into two naves. Note the stone carving on the ceiling, designed to simulate wooden beams. Niches were carved into the wall for storage and entrances to side chambers were carved through the stone.
The marani (wine-storage room) next to Tamar's Hall, one of three in the city, dates from after her time. There's an underground prison, 8.5m deep, just below Tamar's Hall, and to the south is what must have been a pharmacy, with eight layers of storage spaces (about 15cm cubes), where traces of herbs and wrapping parchments have been found. To the north of Tamar's Hall is another hall, now roofless, which was once a church - there's very little left except for the stumps of four columns, and a basin for the blood of sacrificed animals. Further up there's a very obvious conventional church, a three- nave basilica built of red brick in the 9th-10th centuries, which survived the Mongol onslaught, although all 5,000 resident monks were killed. The church's frescoes were all whitewashed in the 19th century.
Above Tamara's hall is one of Uplis-Tsikhe's largest cave dwellings: the Three-Naved Cave Basilica. Now in ruins, this basilica has four columns that separated the space into three naves. The structure functioned as a religious hall in antiquity and became a Christian basilica in the sixth century. The basilica was destroyed by the Persians in the seventh century but was restored in the 12th to 13th centuries and converted into a residence and bakery.
The Three-Church Basilica, near the end of the uncovered main street, dates to the ninth to tenth centuries and functioned until the 15th century when the last of the clergy were killed. Their graves were discovered in the church in 1986. The walls were covered with tenth-century frescoes which were plastered over in the 19th century during the Russification campaign against the Georgian Orthodox Church.
Along the perimeter of the town's eastern portion you can still see sections of the old defensive walls dating to 920, which remained intact until the 15th century.
Touring the site
Uplistsikhe is strategically located, with a deep valley to the east and cliffs to the west. Entering the main part of the site, you pass through what was the main gate, at the head of a small ravine, then wind your way up the main street. Over to the left, on the southwest edge of the site overlooking the river, you’ll see a cave with a pointed arch carved in the rock above it. Inside, the ceiling is carved with octagonal designs in a similar style to Caracalla’s Baths in Rome. Known as the Theatre, this is probably a temple dating from the 1st or 2nd century AD, where religious mystery plays may have been performed.
Further up the street and down to its right is the large pre-Christian Temple of Makvliani, with an inner recess behind an arched portico. The open hall in front of the portico has stone seats for priests, and two rounded holes in the floor for the blood of sacrificial animals.
A little further up on the left is the big hall known as Tamaris Darbazi (Hall of Queen Tamar). Here there are two columns built into the cliff and a stone seat dating from antiquity. The stone ceiling is cut to look like wooden beams, and there is a hole to let smoke out and light in. This was almost certainly a pagan temple originally, though the great Christian Queen Tamar may have occupied it later. To its left is an open area with stone niches along one side, thought to have once been a pharmacy.
On the other side of Tamaris Darbazi is a large cave building with the remains of four columns – probably originally a sun temple, used for animal sacrifices, and later converted into a Christian basilica.
The 10th-century church near the top of the hill is the Uplistsulis Eklesia (Prince’s Church). This triple-church basilica was also built over a pagan temple, probably the most important one. On the way back down you'll pass the market, with its stone stalls, and may finish by going down through a 41m long tunnel (designed to be used by water carriers, or could also have been used for emergency escape route) to exit on the track beside the river. Its entrance is by a short flight of narrow metal steps, behind a reconstructed wall southeast of the Theatre. The tunnel leads to a village immediately to the west, whose inhabitants were removed in 1968 (though at least one house is clearly in use again). You might be tempted to set out to walk back to Gori along the north bank of the river, but you should be aware of the deep gullies blocking the way.
Uplis-Tsikhe is one of those eerie places that confirm so eloquently the Old Testament injunction against vanity. Looking over all the burrows in the soli stone and feeling the wind erode the structures even as you sland there, you can't help but be spooked by all this troglodytic ambition and what remains of it.
GETTING THERE & AWAY
The easiest way to visit Uplistsikhe is by taxi from Gori. Marshrutkas leave Gori bus station a few times a day for Kvakhvreli (20 minutes), the village across the Mtkvari River from Uplistsikhe. It’s about a 2km walk from village to site, as you have to go downriver to a bridge then back along the other side. A bus wii pass the railway station (by an odd one-way system), forking left in the first village, Khidistavi, and then turning left at an English sign marking '5km to Uplistsikhe'. After a bridge across the railway the bus heads to the right through the village of Kvakhvreli (where local electrichka trains call at the station) and follows the river for 1.5km; get off where the bus turns right (away from the river), carry on by the river and head left over the bridge after five minutes.
Coming by train from Tbilisi (the Borjomski platforms west of the Voksal), it takes about 1 hour 45 minutes to Kvakhvreli; trains leave Tbilisi early in the morning around 07.15 and in the afternoon around 16.00. From Kvakhvreli station turn right off the platform and go about 1km down the road to the river, turn right and follow the bus route to the bridge; to return it's best to wait at the station and take a bus to Gori if one turns up before a train. There are usually no taxis waiting at the site. It takes another ten minutes to walk back westwards to where the road ends at the gate to the ruins (9.5ha in area). It runs below cliffs of weathered yellow sandstone which act as a heat trap, with bushes in bloom and bees and butterflies even in winter, as well as rare lizards and two species of hamster. The best time to visit is late afternoon or early evening, when the setting sun brings a special warmth to the rocks.