David Gareja - A Treasure in Isolation

In the summer of 1987, a group of Tbilisi students began protesting Russian troop movements that were happening far away in the deserted Kakheti region of Georgia. The country was still controlled (occupied would be a better word) by the Soviets, who were fighting the last, losing stages of a war in Afghanistan. The Kakheti wasteland - a world of treeless slopes, sheep, rock and hardened people - was being used as a training area because of its supposed resemblance to the hills of the war zone. The Georgian youth weren't protesting the war, though, and they were only nominally protesting Russian rule.
The group was trying to save one of the great treasures of the Caucasus.
David Gareja cave monastery (also called "Davit'garejis," "Keşiş Dağ məbədi" and "დავითგარეჯის სამონასტრო კომპლექსი") is among the most unique, hauntingly historic and beautiful places we've been on the trip. It further proves a point - if you want to see amazing things with very few other tourists around, come to Georgia. This is a country of astounding history.
In the sixth century, a small sect of Assyrian monks arrived in Georgia. They split up when they reached the Caucasus, with some settling further east, near present day Tbilisi, and some heading to the foothills. A monk named St. David, drawn to the desolation and purity of Kakheti, decided to build a monastery there, high up on a bluff overlooking present-day Azerbaijan. For three centuries, it grew slowly - the few devotees who kept up the site lived very simply in small hollows dug into the rock. Then, in the 9th century, the Georgian kingdom began to flourish, and the monastery took on a special role in the religious lives of the monarchy.
With royal support - from such notables as David the Builder and Queen Tamar - David Gareja expanded and thrived in the 9th to 13th centuries. It was during this period that the most notable caves were cut into the rock, and when the monastery's extraordinary frescoes were painted.
The wall paintings are especially important because of where they are and what they’ve endured – nearly one thousand years of graffiti has taken its toll on some of the images, not to mention the wind and sand. Most of the frescoes lie just a few feet within cave walls, unprotected by doors, open to the elements. Some are even on exterior surfaces. The biggest threat, though, came not from exposure, but from Russian artillery fire.
In the 13th century, the entire population of David Gareja was massacred by the invading Mongols. Some two hundred years later, a small contingent of Christian Georgians had reoccupied the monastery, but the place remained sparsely and sporadically populated – there were regular attacks by both Persians and Ottomans. A new height was reached at the end of the 16th century, but in 1615, six thousand monks were killed here by the Persian Shah Abbas. Then, the Bolsheviks arrived and banned access to the entire area. The caves deteriorated some simply from disuse, but it was when military training began in Kakheti, in the 1970’s, that things really got bad. Russian tanks ran shelling sessions along the ridge, and frequently targeted the church caves. Huge amounts of damage were done. Some chambers were lost forever.
From Tbilisi or Signaghi – the two most logical starting points for tourists visiting the monastery – it takes about 1 ½ to 2 hours to reach the site by car. There are no buses or other public transportation options. For the last 45 minutes of driving, the road is extremely rough and the landscape becomes increasingly barren and empty.
We watched hawks and eagles skim the low grass. Men on horseback herded cows and sheep across the brown earth. There were no other cars. The road was washed out to bare rock in some places.
David Gareja is enormous - there are several hundred caves spread over a few kilometers - but there are two main, accessible parts. The first section is called Davit Lavra; the immediate group of buildings just beside the "parking lot," this is a fairly compact warren of caves and ancient walls. It has been re-inhabited by monks, who have closed off the majority of the chambers. There are a few visitable caves and a recently refurbished, uninteresting chapel. It's worth about twenty minutes of your time - the views are excellent, the structures are fun to look at. There's a little shop that sells icons and candles, and nothing else (plan on bringing your own food and water, if you need it). Our taxi driver tried to convince us that this was the complete monastery.
In fact, it's just the beginning. A twenty minute hike up the hill from Davit Lavra (find the trail immediately next to the shop) leads to the the back side of the ridge, just above the border with Azerbaijan, and to Udabno. The lower desert stretches into the distance. The trail gets rougher, and a little scrambling is required. There are no guardrails - a fall would likely be deadly.
At first, there are only a few small hollows in the rock, with no adornment and rough-hewn walls. As the trail continues, though, the caves become more elaborate. Frescoes begin to appear on the inner walls, then on the outer faces. Near the end of the ridge, the caverns become truly engrossing, the painting more intricate. One of the most famous paintings, this 10th century depiction of the last supper, graces the wall above the old monk's cafeteria - the strangely carved rock along the floor was once a low table.
A visit to Udabno won't be forgotten. It is truly a magical experience, coming face to face with these frescoes - a thousand years old, unprotected, painted on cave walls in the desert. One feels a rush of discovery, and a sense of utter loneliness. There are no signs, no guides, no admission fee, no opening times, barely any other people. If you can get there, you are simply there.
Emerging from the caves into the light, the emptiness of the landscape is captivating. This part of the monastery feels ancient in a way few other places can - there is not a single mark of modernity in sight, there are no voices. On the day we visited, there wasn't even a gust of wind. It seemed that we had stepped back a millennium.
The student group was successful, in 1987, in putting an end to the Soviet military maneuvers at the monastery. This kind of effective protest was almost unheard of in the USSR, and some historians mark the event as the genesis of the Georgian independence movement. Sadly, ten years later, the Georgian military began training at David Gareja, and it took another popular protest to put an end to the shelling.
Because the Georgian international border with Azerbaijan technically runs along the ridge-top of Udabno, there is currently a low-grade dispute between the two countries over who owns the monastery. There is another part of David Gareja that is some 2 kilometers into Azerbaijan, and several other, more inaccessible compounds on the Georgian side.
Of all the places we've been, I can't say that there are any more striking or moving than this one. Driving back through the bare nothingness, we couldn't think of anything to say - the taxi driver pointed at huge eagles, young boys sat motionless on tall horses, the sun got very low in the sky, the rocks turned blue and red. We sat in the car both melancholy and excited, feeling that we'd made a discovery - one of the greatest triumphs of traveling.
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