Uplistsikhe (Cave Town) the 1000 BC cave homes of 20,000 people

Uplistsikhe (Cave Town) the 1000 BC cave homes of 20,000 people

Uplistsikhe is located in Georgia, 10km from Stalin’s home town of Gori. It’s carved into the rocks on the left bank of the River Mtkvari. It’s often referred to as Cave Town (not to be confused with the Cave Monastery, Vardzia in the south) and has a significant position in Georgia’s religious, political and cultural history. Uplistsikhe literally translates to “Lord’s Fortress” and its history dates back to the I-II millennium BC, making it one of the oldest civil settlements in Georgia.

Uplistsikhe began as a religious centre, a place of Pagan worship with temples dedicated to the sun goddess. People began to live here at the dawn of the Iron Age in 1000 BC and then, thanks to its location on the Silk Road, it became popular for caravans to stop off at.

When Christianity spread to Georgia in the 4th century, Uplistsikhe became less important than Christian centres like Tbilisi. However, when Muslim rule was established in Tbilisi in the 8th-9th centuries, Uplistsikhe rose up once again as a centre of Christian resistance. It became home to the Kings of Kartli and Uplistsikhe’s population grew to 20,000. However, when Tbilisi was reclaimed in 1122 Uplistsikhe’s population rapidly decreased again.

Mongols invaded in the 13th century and destroyed a large part of it. Left abandoned, Uplistsikhe fell into disrepair. The earthquake in 1920 caused further ruin to the structures. But while this fortress town is heavily damaged there’s still plenty to explore.

 

How to get to Uplistsikhe

 

Take a marshrutka or mini van from Tbilisi to Gori (this is explain in my Gori blog post). In Gori, negotiate with a taxi driver – there will be many – to take you to Uplistsikhe, wait for you and bring you back to Gori. This costs between 20 to 30 GEL. I paid 30 GEL but I’ve read reviews that said they only paid 20 GEL.

I split the cost with my friend, the more people you have the cheaper it’ll be for you. The driver suggested we stayed for 1 hour but if I went again I would want at least 1.5 hours to explore the caves.

Alternatively you can take a marshrutka (old van) from Gori bus station for 1 GEL per person (you pay when you exit). However, the marshrutka stops near the bridge, 1km from Uplistsikhe. As I had my large backpack this wasn’t an option for me. To return to Gori, you go back to the bridge and wave down a marshrutka heading for Gori, if they have room, they’ll pick you up.

Entrance to the Cave Town is 7 GEL. There are audio guides available for 10 GEL but I was keen to explore the caves straightaway so didn’t get one. There are guided tours available for 25 GEL, which if I went again I would take because, as you’ll see in the pictures below, it’s difficult to tell one cave from another.

 

River Mtkvari
River Mtkvari

 

Uplistsikhe (Cave Town)

 

There were once 700 caves in Uplistsikhe but only 150 remain. Uplistsikhe has a unique architecture due to its extensive and varied history, going from Pagans to Christians, to fighting off the Muslim invasion and succumbing to the Mongols. The caves have suffered from erosion so you need to use your imagination to picture what it was like back in 500 AD. Even now several of the caves are buried underground.

By the entrance there is a small museum which displays an audio movie. I missed this. Often in Georgia things aren’t well signed posted at tourist sites. But luckily the toilets were.

 

Entrance to Uplistsikhe
Entrance to Uplistsikhe

 

The cave town is split into three parts (upper, middle, lower) with a main street running through and little staircases branching off to the various caves. Steps are carved into the rocks and there is some climbing involved. Wear appropriate shoes because the rocks are dusty and slippery in parts. I wore my hiking boots.

It’s also incredibly windy. I went in May and the wind almost knocked me over. Keep this in mind and tie your hair back. There aren’t many barriers and some large drops so you have to be careful.

 

Tourists walking over Uplistsikhe
Tourists walking over Uplistsikhe
View of the top section
View of the top section

 

The guidebooks talk of rooms used for pagan sacrifices, and everyday buildings like a bakery and pharmacy, and prison cells scattered around the complex. But I’m not sure how they identified these from what the caves look like now.

Many of the caves had circular holes in the ground, these were used as places to bake bread. Some of the underground holes/caves were probably used as wine cellars. The tunnels connecting the caves could have been the emergency escape routes, these were fun to explore. There is a long dark tunnel that leads from the complex, all the way to the river bank. I was warned not to walk along the river bank as many sections are blocked off.

Uplistsikhe
Uplistsikhe

 

Inside the caves

 

There are hardly any decorations inside the caves. While a few have carvings in the ceilings, they are hard to make out. Some ceilings have holes to allow smoke to escape from fires, and to let in light. But overall the caves are bare.

 

Cave complex
Cave complex
High ceilings - someone important lived here
High ceilings – someone important lived here
Huge cave - Uplistsikhe
Huge cave – Uplistsikhe

 

Uplistsikhe’s last inhabitant

 

A typical thing to see in Georgia are stray dogs and Uplistsikhe has its own – a happy ginger pup. I saw a tourist give him some water in a paper cup, but the dog proceeded to tear it up instead. He seemed fairly well kept and I like to think he is the last remaining inhabitant of Uplistsikhe.

He seemed keen for us to follow him over the rocks and into the caves and he happily posed for photos in his home.

 

Uplistsikhe's last inhabitant
Uplistsikhe’s last inhabitant
He's giving us a guided tour
He’s giving us a guided tour

 

Video of Uplistsikhe

 

This is a video I took while walking up the slopes. It shows there are a few steep parts and how windy it is.

 

 

The Chapel

 

A small modest church from the 9th century is open on the top of the complex. I read that archaeological excavations have revealed artefacts like, gold, silver and bronze jewellery, and ceramic bowls and sculptures. Most of these are displayed in the National Museum in Tbilisi. But the almost bare chapel remains and is typical of Georgian churches built during this period.

 

Walkway to the chapel
Walkway to the chapel
Steep walk down to the chapel
Steep walk down to the chapel
Typical simple chapel
Typical simple chapel

 

Overall

 

A big reason why I wanted to visit Georgia was to see the natural and historic sights – its caves, mountains, monasteries and canyons. There’s a lot packed into this small country. Many people try and do day trips from Tbilisi to see everything. I didn’t do it this way, I preferred to travel and stay over at different cities. However, a perfect day trip from Tibilsi is to Gori, Stalin’s museum and Uplistsikhe.

Uplistsikhe has been on UNESCO’s tentative list since 2007. Unfortunately, not much progress has been made on making it a World Heritage Site. Given its location and exposure to the elements on the cliff face, plus the hundreds of tourist trampling over it a day, I don’t think Uplistsikhe will be in its current state in 30 years, unless action is taken to conserve it. So I recommend visiting sooner rather than later.

2 Replies to “Uplistsikhe (Cave Town) the 1000 BC cave homes of 20,000 people”

  1. What an amazing place! It gives you an awareness of a sweep of history and the constant changes that take place in human life. It is very thought provoking and reminds us that Brexit will be a small incident in European history, despite the fact that it has taken over our politics at the moment. The Silk Road seems to have been very important in spreading different ideas and thoughts in the ancient world. The barren landscape and wind are inviting and the caves are very interesting and your whole visit to Georgia seems well worth the effort. I did not even know they existed; so have enjoyed this blog.

    1. Thank you Sandra 🙂 I often like to imagine what it would have been like to be a trader, traveling along the silk road back in the day, stopping off at places like this along the way.

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