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Monastery of Vanis Kvabebi

Fifty-four km from Akhaltsikhe (12 km from Vardzia) is Lake Tsunda on the right bank of the Artaani Mtkvari. Not far from the lake, on a small cliff, is a wonderfully ornamented hall-type church dating from the 12-th century, built by Ichkit Gurghenisdze. Especially note the 13th-century carving over the entrance arch. A famous town existed here as early as the fourth century ВС. A citadel on the site served as an administrative and religious center in the fifth century AD but lost importance in the ninth and tenth centuries, when the fortified town of Tmogvi became preeminent.

One km from Lake Tsunda are the fortress and the ruins of the fortified town of Tmogvi. Look across the river to one of the peaks of the Erusheti Mountains and you can see the remains of the fort. Built in the tenth and 11th centuries, it later served as administrative center for the Georgian provincial governor. Below the fortress on the cliff wall are many monks' caves. Lower down on both banks of the river are two bridges and several palaces. This is the site of the town of Tmogvi, which was destroyed by earthquakes in 1089 and 1283.

Three km from Tmogvi on your left and up the hillside is the monastery of Vanis Kvabebi. A sign marks the path (approximately an hour's walk) to the many-tiered cave complex carved out of the rock face. Begun in the eighth century, Vanis Kvabebi was a women's monastery, whereas Vardzia was for men. Among the structures of the complex are cells, storerooms, hall churches, stair tunnels, a water system with ceramic pipes, defensive walls, and a small domed church restored in the 1180s by Ichkit Gurghenisdze. On the highest tier the little domed church is covered in stucco upon which inscriptions and drawings have been made, all dating from the second half of the 15th century. One of the inscriptions is two lines from Shola Rustaveli's epic poem The Knight in the Panther's Skin. This is the oldest existing record of the poem. Vanis Kvabebi had belonged to Ichkit Gurghenisdze, but by the end of the 12th century, like Vardzia, it had already become a monastery belonging lo the crown.