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Samtskhe Javakheti

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Top things to do in Samtskhe Javakheti Top things to do in Samtskhe Javakheti David and Bonni, flickr.com

What to do in Samtskhe-Javakheti

Samtskhe-Javakheti is a region in the south of Georgia.  The southern and northern portions of the Mountains are split into two separate regions:- Meskheti and Javakheti. The geographical feature including mountains and rivers create unforgettable landscapes here -the healing springs in Borjomi and ancient cave cities in Vardzia. The region is very diverse - mountains, springs, and lakes.

Samtskhe-Javakheti’s location at the crossroads of three civilizations contributed to the intense development of relations between the ancient cultures of Georgia, Asia, and the Middle East. Archaeological remains show that the area was inhabited and developed by the Bronze Age. Most monuments were well preserved and are waiting for you to tell their stories. Samtskhe-Javakheti is recommended for the horse-riding, mountain biking, rafting, hiking and skiing (cross country and downhill as well as off-piste). Getting to the region from Tbilisi became also quite easy.  A new road brings you there for two hours.

Khertvisi Fortress

Khertvisi fortress - is one of the oldest fortresses in Georgia. It is situated on the high rocky hill in the narrow canyon at the confluence of the Mtkvari and Paravani Rivers. The fortress was first built in the 2nd century BC. The first record of Khertvisi is part of a legend, in which it was one of the first fortresses that Alexander the Great came across in Georgia. An inscription on a damaged stone reads “The King of the Kings” and is dated from 985. A small church located in the central part of the fortress was built in 985 and had been ruined by invaders - the present building is its reconstruction from 2000. The present walls were built in 1354. The fortress suffered many raids between the 13th and 16th centuries, however, parts of it have remained unharmed - it still has a tunnel leading to the river and a twenty-meter high tower which is still in good condition.

Khertvisi Fortress

Zarzma Monastery

Zarzma Monastery - was founded in the 8th century by St. Serapion of Zarzma, however, the original construction of that time has not survived. The stone slab set above the entrance of the small chapel next to the bell-tower is the earliest of all historical monuments of the monastery. There is an inscription narrating a real historical fact dating back to the end of the 10th century curved on that slab. The stone with the inscription is older than the building as it was brought from another, currently nonexistent building. The monastery is located on top of a hill and it includes a church bell tower, a chapel, ruins of two churches and a spring. The murals of the church have survived till nowadays with the mix of traditional religious motifs and portraits of the members of the local noble house of Jakeli, as well as with the portraits of several other historical figures. Presently Zarzma is an acting monastery.

Vardzia

Vardzia complex - is one of the must-sees of Georgia. This rock-cut monastery is a very impressive cultural and architectural monument. It is located about an hour's drive south-east from Akhaltsikhe, on the left bank of the Mtkvari River. The caves excavated from the slopes of Erusheti Mountain stretch along the cliff for about 500 meters and up to 19 levels. The caves are interconnected by a complex system of tunnels. Vardzia was established by King George III and its main construction period is during the king's and later his daughter's (Tamar) reigns - second half of the 12th century. At that time the town grew quickly and consisted of over 3,000 caves that could accommodate 50,000 people at a time. Vardzia complex had living quarters, refectories, barns, wine cellars (Marani), stables, drugstores, and even libraries. The town also had an aqueduct and a sewer system. After a heavy earthquake that considerably destroyed Vardzia in 1283, it was rebuilt. One of the buildings constructed during that period is the two-story bell tower (only one story survived till our times), that forms kind of entrance to the complex.

Vardzia

Tmogvi Fortress

Tmogvi Fortress - is a ruined stronghold on the left bank of the Mtkvari River, a few kilometers from the cave city of Vardzia and not far from Khertvisi fortress too. The fortress is first mentioned in sources from the 9th century. It was built as a defensive complex to control the trade route between Armenia and Kartli (nowadays in eastern Georgia). Tmogvi gained importance after the neighboring town and fortress of Tsunda was ruined around 900 AD. By the beginning of the 11th century, the fortress had passed under the direct control of the United Kingdom of Georgia. The medieval Georgian writer, an honorable political figure and philosopher, Sargis Tmogveli, lived and worked here. In 1088, the castle suffered from an earthquake. Between the 11th and 16th centuries, the fortress belonged to many major local noble families. In the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire gained control over Tmogvi and the fortress was under Turkish occupation until 1829 when it was transferred to the Russian Empire. The castle of Tmogvi was built on top of a mountain and it expands over 3 hills, joined and encircled by a wall (150 meters long, 3 meters wide), which supplements the natural defense offered by the cliffs. A number of towers were built on each hill. A secret tunnel connects the castle with the river to provide access to water even during a siege. The western part of the fortress is better preserved. The ruins of an old village, located on both banks of a river, can still be seen.

Tmogvi Fortress

Saphara Monastery complex

Saphara Monastery complex - is one of the most interesting monuments of Georgian architecture. It is located close to Akhaltsikhe, deep in a gorge, hidden by the mountains and away from residential areas. First records of the monastery date from the 10th century and by 13th century it became the residence of one of the local nobles, rulers of Samtskhe - Jake. In the 13th-14th centuries, the monastery included 12 churches and chapels. The earliest monument of the complex is a single-nave church of Dormition of Mother of God constructed in the X century which is famous for its icons decorated with sculptures. The main temple of the complex is St. Sabah's church at the end of the 13th century. Inside one can see murals depicting local nobles of Mandaturtukhutsesi family. The name of the architect of this church(Pharezasdze) has survived till nowadays - it is mentioned in the inscription carved on one of the window framing slabs. The monastery is surrounded by a wall with an observation tower and even has a fortress where people from neighboring villages used to hide during times of war. These were built at the turn of the 13th and 14th centuries. All other chapels and churches scattered on the territory of the monastery were built between the 14th and 16th centuries. While during the Soviet times the monastery was turned into a Pioneer youth camp, its monastic status was re-claimed in 1988 and is still functioning today.

Phoka Monastery

Phoka Monastery was built in the name of  St. Nino of Cappadocia who is said to have brought Christianity to Georgia. Saint Nino came to Georgia passing by Javakheti and she stopped near Pharavani Lake where she saw an angel, who gave her a letter addressed to the pagan King. In the 11th century, a cathedral was built at this very spot. During the invasions that took place in the 17th century, Javakheti, and the cathedral were destroyed but the remains of the original stone church and original frescoes have been well preserved to the present time. In the early 19th century Georgia regained the territory. At the end of the 20th century, two Orthodox Christian monasteries were established in Phoka. The St. Nino Nunnery and a monastery located one and a half kilometer from the village. Both monasteries are still open and in use. At Phoka Monastery the nuns make 18 different types of cheese, including their famous blue cheese.

Phokani Cheese

Chule St. George Monastery

Chule St. George Monastery is dating back to 1308. The church is located in the foothills in the vicinity of Adigeni. The site was home to the monastic community already in the 11th century, however, only in the 14th century, it became an important religious and cultural center of southern Georgia. One of the medieval manuscripts (written in the oldest Georgian script - Asomtavruli) even mentions the name of the artist who frescoed the interior of the church at the end of the 14th century. The frescoes present a group portrait of the local Nobel family, Jaqeli, who were the patrons of the monastery. The monastery shares many common features with the nearby Zarzma and Saphara monasteries. After the Ottoman conquest of the area, the Chule monastery declined and had been completely abandoned by 1595. The locals, still Christian at that time, saved the bells and some other church items by burying them in the adjacent wood. The bells were accidentally discovered in the 1980s and donated to the Akhaltsikhe local museum but were eventually turned over to the monastery once it was restored to the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate in October 1999. (source: Wikipedia) Its access road passes through a narrow rocky ravine covered by coniferous forests and a tight passage through the hills and it makes a really nice walk.

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