On the border with Azerbaijan, Davit (or David) Gareja is perhaps the most remarkable of all Georgia's ancient sites, and the most interesting easy day trip from Tbilisi. Although this isolated group of monasteries is somewhat tricky to reach, their location, architectural uniqueness, history, and important frescoes will amply reward your efforts. This is one of the easternmost outposts of Christendom. From here it is no more than four km to the border with Azerbaijan.
Comprising about 15 old monasteries spread over a large, remote area, its uniqueness is heightened by a lunar, semidesert landscape which turns green and blooms with flowers in early summer. Monstrously neglected during the Soviet era, Davit Gareja has since seen some restoration and is now again inhabited by monks. Two of the key monasteries, and the most visited, are Lavra (the only inhabited one today), and, on the hill above it, Udabno, which has beautiful frescoes (not to be confused with the village Udabno several kilometres north).
David-Gareja is actually the overall name for 12 monasteries in the immediate area: Kolagiri, Pirukughma, Patara Kvaburi, Kvavbebi, Lavra, Udabno, Maghazana, Berebis Seri, Chichkhituri, Dodo's Rqa, Natlismtsemeli, and Tsamebuli. (A 13th monastery, Bertubani, is now on Azerbaijani soil. It is particularly noteworthy for its frescoes from the beginning of the 13th century, especially those depicting Queen Tamara and her son Giorgi IV Lasha). Apart from the parent monastery of Lavra-and to a certain extent the monastery of Udabno-the others are extremely difficult to get to; some are accessible only on foot and are of limited interest because of their ruined state. Natlismtsemeli, 12 km northwest of Lavra, is said to have a portrait of David the Builder. To take in a reasonable number of caves will take a minimum of three hours, round-trip from Lavra. Dress code is important here, since the monastery is now home to an ever increasing number of monks. They particularly ask that men wear trousers and women wear skirts or trousers and no shoulder-revealing tops.
The original monastery was founded in the sixth century by David, one of the 13 Syrian Fathers, who settled in a natural cave on the slopes of the Gareja hills. This was the spot around which the monastery of Lavra developed. Disciples of David joined him to carve out additional caves from the soft sandstone, and so the complex flourished. Two of David's disciples, Dodo and Lukiane, went on to found Dodo's Rqa and Natlismtsemeli. These two ascetics are buried in the Church of Peristsvaleba on the first level of Lavra. The church dates from the ninth century and was founded by Ilarion Kartveli, who greatly contributed to the monastery's growth in other ways as well.
Precedents for cave complexes such as David-Gareja can be found in Uplitstikhe outside of Gori in the secular vein, and throughout Syria and Cappadocia in the ecclesiastical context. It is widely believed that the so-called Syrian Fathers- Georgians who studied a mode of asceticism in the Middle East and brought it home-were responsible for the growth of cave architecture. It certainly flourished in Georgia, as single caves hewn out of cliff faces grew into a community of caves interlinked by passages and internal staircases, sustained by terrace gardens and sophisticated water-gathering systems. Thus did David-Gareja, Zedazeni in Kartli, and the great cave complex of Vardzia in Javakheti evolve.
In the 11th century the monastery was partially destroyed by an invasion of the Seljuk Turks. During David the Builder's reign (1089-1125), the monastery's development began anew. During the reign of David's son, Demetre I, it received considerable royal patronage. This patronage, in conjunction with Georgia's newly acquired power in the Middle East, allowed for a period of prosperity that lasted until the Mongol invasion in the 13th century. The 12th century saw the construction of the monasteries of Udabno, Bertubani, and Chichkhituri, as well as the enlargement and reorganization of the older ones.
Under Father Superior Onopre Garejeli, the David-Gareja complex became the most important center of culture and education throughout east Georgia. A distinct school of manuscript illumination and fresco painting also developed here during the 12th century.
The monastery of Udabno is considered the center at which this school began, but the apogee of the style can be seen in the frescoes at the monastery of Bertubani. What makes the frescoes at David-Gareja special is their break with Byzantine canonic themes, which are replaced here for the first time with treatments of local religious themes, specifically, the life of David Gareja, the Georgian saint and founder of the monastery.
The Mongol invasion of the 13th century effectively destroyed life at the monastery. Treasures were carried off, manuscripts burned, frescoes defaced. A century later a monastic community was re-established here and restoration work undertaken. But Tamerlane's invasion in the 14th century reversed these efforts. This cycle-rebuilding followed by invasions-lasted throughout the 15th century. Unfortunately, the forces of ruin triumphed during this phase particularly, and it is to this date that scholars ascribe the end of the Gareja school of fresco painting. In 1615, the Safavid Persians led by Shah Abbas killed the monks at David-Gareja and destroyed all remaining works of art and manuscripts.
Not until the end of the 17th century was there any attempt to revive the monastery, when King Teimuraz (1605-1664) bestowed his royal patronage upon it. Invasions throughout the 18th century and the rise of the town and secular education in the 19th century effectively impeded the growth of David-Gareja. From the second half of the 19th century up to the 1920s, only a few monks lived there. Only in 1988 was work allowed to begin once more to make David-Gareja the thriving community it once was. Archaeologists, art restorers, and Georgian Orthodox monks work shoulder to shoulder to raise from the ravages of predatory invaders and indifferent time the mysterious glory of this complex.
During the Soviet era the area was used for military exercises, and some of the first demonstrations of the perestroika period in Tbilisi were protests against this vandalism. Ironically, the Georgian army then used the area for training in the mid-1990s. These manoeuvres were stopped when protesters camped in the firing range.
Entrance to both Lavra and Udabno is free, but you may want to leave a donation at Lavra. It takes two to three hours to explore both places at a leisurely pace.
It's pretty much a lunar landscape in many places, but it's transformed from April to early June when the steppe flowers bloom; the dominant species is the bearded grass Botriochloa ischaenum, with other grasses such as Festuca sulcata, Stipa capillata, S. lessingiana and S. pulcherrima. There's a healthy population of snakes, lizards and rabbits, and a remarkable range of raptors, such as eagles, vultures, buzzards and owls, that prey on them. In addition there are wolves, bats in many of the caves, and there were goitred gazelles until relatively recently. May and June are the best time for flowers and birds, notably nesting vultures and displaying chukar, as well as huge tadpoles.
THE MONASTERY OF LAVRA
The Lavra monastery is on three levels, with buildings dating from many different periods. The watchtower and the outer walls are from the 18th century.
The monastery is open every day from morning to evening. Water is a problem in this clime, so you probably should bring a canteen filled in Sagarejo. The water from the fountain at the car park will make you sick. A monk or an archaeologist might be willing to act as guide as a kindness. This can be arranged only on an impromptu basis and on the spot. In summer you should try to attend the huge festival, Garejoba, begun in 1975, which is celebrated at Lavra on the second Sunday of May.
You enter by a gateway on the middle level which is decorated with reliefs illustrating stories of the monks' harmony with the natural world. From the gateway you go down past the 17th-century Church of St Nicholas to the lower level, where the caves of Davit and his companions are.
Climbing to the main entrance of Lavra, be sure to note the channels cleverly carved into the smooth sandstone to allow water to funnel into a collecting basin at the bottom. Also note the small steps carved into the stone to facilitate access to the
water-gathering system. The large stone portal through which you enter the monastery was erected by Onopre Machutadze, who was appointed Father Superior in 1690. Once inside you can better see the multi-tiered structure of the monastery and appreciate the sophistication of the builders who so cleverly camouflaged the full extent of the complex within the contours of the stony slopes.
The caves sunk into the hillside to the southeast (left as you enter) are the basis of the complex from which everything else grew. It was here in the sixth century that David chose a natural cave in which to live and worship. Other caves were carved out of soft sandstone by his disciples, and feature churches like those found in Syria and Cappadocia: caverns with a kind of barrel vaulting. Certain caves reveal an interesting construction consisting of staggered rows of brick covered in stucco. Many of the monks' quarters here also contain small meditation chambers carved out of the wall. Following an early Christian ascetic tradition, the monks would shut themselves in these rooms no larger than holes without food for days at a time.
The monastery grew up the side of the cliff face and then across the lower level to the west, before climbing south again as higher levels were created to accommodate the increasing number of monks who flocked here. On the first level in the northwest you can visit the Church of Peristsvaleba (the Transfiguration). This ninth-century church features a 14th-cenlury iconostasis and the tombs of Dodo and Lukian.
As you climb higher toward the south, skirling the central courtyard, you come upon two caves that functioned as a bakery and a refectory. The bakery is distinguished by two holes in the roof (one allowing light to enter, the other for smoke to depart). Much of this area still has not been excavated. Looking out over the central courtyard to the terraces joining the east and west sections, you can see a lot of the new planting that has occurred here, the continuation of a 1,300-year tradition of terraced plots.
Continuing to the upper yard, you can visit the 16th-century tower of Aleksandre II, King of Kakheti, who came here for extended periods of prayer. Though badly defaced by graffiti, his room at the top of the stairs reveals, through the eastern style of the interior decorative carving, the strong influence that Persia had over this region at the time.
Monks are now living in the monastery again, but you can't enter their quarters (caves in the rock above those of Davit and his companions), and you should refrain from making too much noise. They will also be offended by inappropriate clothing.
Leaving the complex through the back gate of the upper yard, you can climb the steep slope of the hill behind the monastery to drink at the only spring in the area. Inside the first large cave, only five minutes away, is the spring called David's Tears, where the first hermits found water. It was consecrated as a holy place sometime between the 11th and 13th centuries. The water is clean and cold, a good place to stop before setting off for the longer, more difficult hike to Udabno.
THE MONASTERY OF UDABNO
The monastery is a difficult, one-hour hike from Lavra. It is one km up to the top of the mountain. A guide would be advisable if you can find someone to go with you. From the upper level at Lavra, take the path that winds right around the cave of the spring and up to the top of the mountain.
When you come level with a watchtower overlooking Lavra, take the path leading straight up the hill. In 10 to 15 minutes you will reach a metal railing. Follow this to the left and up to the top of the ridge, then along the far side of the ridge (where the railing deteriorates to a series of posts). The plains and low hills below you now are in Azerbaijan, and the caves alongside and above the path are the Udabno monastery. Some were churches or chapels or rooms, and their inner walls still bear frescoes painted by the renowned fresco school that flourished here between the 10th and 13th centuries.
Be careful as you walk through the tall grass-there are many snakes in this area. The same is true of any walk you might take in the fields in the immediate vicinity of the monastery complex. The view of Lavra from the top of the mountain is stupendous.
It is not, however, the sole justification for making the effort to visit Udabno. This cave monastery was home to one of the most important schools of monumental painting in Georgia from the ninth to 13th centuries. Some of the fruits of that school have survived, and fragments from the late tenth and early 11th centuries can be seen in and around the monastery's refectory and main church. These extraordinary wall paintings reveal both a distinctive Georgian style and a national hagiography of great importance.
On the north wall of the main church are fragments of a large cycle of wall paintings devoted to the life of David Gareja. Taking up the middle register of three rows of paintings, the cycle probably extended onto the destroyed south wall as well. The loving portrayal of animals, specifically the deer to the right of David and Lukian, suggests the sensibility extolled at this school. The deers' presence refers to a legend about the time that Lukian and David were wandering here with nothing. Lukian asked, "How will we survive?" David replied, "God will provide." Immediately, deer arrived and gave them milk.
Below, on the north wall in the lower register, can be seen local Kakhetian princes, doubtless connected with the patronage of the monastery and this church. The conch of the apse shows a Madonna and Child with angels. The Last Judgment on the east wall is the oldest wall painting of this subject that exists in Georgia.
The refectory is decorated with scenes from both the Old and New Testaments, including the Hospitality of Abraham and the Last Supper. The recessed apse in the east wall contains a painting of the Deesis. Also included throughout the refectory are saints who comprised the 13 Syrian Fathers, one of whom, the younger Simeon of Aleppo, is known to have been the spiritual father of St. David. St. David himself is also depicted here.
The monasteries of Lavra and Udabno are well worth the trip into this austere part of Kakheti, topographically so unlike the rich vineyards of the Alazani plain. They're akin to the cave monastery of Vardzia in feeling, though smaller in dimensions. The ability to wander through the depth of space as well as the multiple tiers makes you feel as though you have penetrated some of the mystery here that the longitudinal emphasis of Vardzia somehow denies. Lavra, nestled and hidden between those sharp and clean diagonal slopes, an ensemble for the painter or photographer just can't be beat.
There’s no public transport to the remote site, but it’s possible to do a day trip from Tbilisi using a marshrutka from Didube to Gardabani (one hour, hourly from 9am to 5pm), and then hiring a taxi in Gardabani. Most drivers will do the round trip for around 60 GEL including waiting time. Many Tbilisi tour agencies run day trips to Davit Gareja, with the benefit of lunch, comfortable transfers by coach or car, and guides (especially useful at Udabno, where some of the caves are a little tricky to find).