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Vardzia is a cave monastery site in southern Georgia, excavated from the slopes of the Erusheti Mountain on the left bank of the Mtkvari River, thirty kilometres from Aspindza. The main period of construction was the second half of the twelfth century. The caves stretch along the cliff for some five hundred metres and in up to nineteen tiers. The Church of the Dormition, dating to the 1180s during the golden age of Tamar and Rustaveli, has an important series of wall paintings. The site was largely abandoned after the Ottoman takeover in the sixteenth century. Now part of a state heritage reserve, the extended area of Vardzia-Khertvisi has been submitted for future inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Soviet-era excavations have shown that the area of Vardzia was inhabited during the Bronze Age and indicated the reach of Trialeti culture. Cave settlements such as Uplistsikhe are known along the Mtkvari River from at least the fifth century BC, while rock cut architecture in the context of Georgian Christianity is known from Zedazeni and Garedzhi from the sixth century AD, and more locally from Vanis Kvabebi, Cholta and Margastani from the eighth century. Four distinct building phases have been identified at Vardzia: the first during the reign of Giorgi III (1156-1184), when the site was laid out and the first cave dwellings excavated; the second between his death and the marriage of his successor Tamar in 1186, when the Church of the Dormition was carved out and decorated; the third from that date until the Battle of Basian c.1203, during which time many more dwellings as well as the defences, water supply, and irrigation network were constructed; while the fourth was a period of partial rebuilding after heavy damage in the earthquake of 1283.
The greater Vardzia area includes also the early eleventh-century church at Zeda Vardzia and the tenth- to twelfth-century rock village and cave churches of Ananauri. The main lower site was carved from the cliff's central stratum of tufaceous breccia at an elevation of thirteen hundred metres above sea level. It is divided into an eastern and a western part by the Church of the Dormition. In the eastern part of the complex are seventy-nine separate cave dwellings, in eight tiers and with a total of 242 rooms, including six chapels, "Tamar's Room", a meeting room, reception chamber, pharmacy, and twenty-five wine cellars; 185 wine jars sunk into the floor document the importance of viticulture to the monastic economy. In the western part, between the bell tower and the main church, are a further forty houses, in thirteen tiers and with a total of 165 rooms, including six chapels, a refectory with a bakery, other ovens for baking bread, and a forge. Beyond the bell tower the complex rises to nineteen tiers, with steps leading to a cemetery. Infrastructure includes access tunnels, water facilities, and provision for defence.
The Church of the Dormition was the central spiritual and monumental focus of the site. Carved similarly from the rock, its walls reinforced in stone, it measures 8.2 metres (27 ft) by 14.5 metres (48 ft), rising to a height of 9.2 metres (30 ft). Both church and narthex are painted; these paintings are of "crucial significance in the development of the Medieval Georgian mural painting". Its patron, Rati Surameli, is commemorated in a donor portrait on the north wall; the accompanying inscription reads "Mother of God, accept ... the offering of your servant Rati, eristavi of Kartli, who has zealously decorated this holy church to your glory". On the same north wall are portraits of the royal founders, Giorgi III and Tamar; she lacks the ribbon that is the attribute of a married woman and her inscription includes the formula "God grant her a long life", while that of Giorgi does not; this helps date the paintings to between Giorgi's death in 1184 and Tamar's marriage in 1186. Episodes from the life of Christ occupy the vaults and upper walls in a sequence, starting with the Annunciation, followed by the Nativity, Presentation in the Temple, Baptism, Transfiguration, Raising of Lazarus, Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, Last Supper, Washing of the Feet, Crucifixion, Harrowing of Hell, Ascension, Descent of the Holy Spirit, and Dormition (the church is sometimes known as the Church of the Assumption, which corresponds with the Orthodox Feast of the Dormition). At a lower level, more accessible as intercessors, are paintings of saints and stylites. On the rear wall of the sanctuary, behind the altar, are Twelve Church Fathers. In the narthex are scenes of the Last Judgment, Bosom of Abraham, Angels bearing a Medallion with the Cross, and three scenes from the life of Saint Stephen; other paintings were lost in the 1283 earthquake. The paintings are not frescoes, but executed in secco, and "testify to contacts with the Christian Orient and the Byzantine world, but applied using local artistic traditions".
Since 1985 the site has formed part of the Vardzia Historical–Architectural Museum-Reserve, which includes forty-six architectural sites, twelve archaeological sites, and twenty-one sites of monumental art. In 1999 Vardzia-Khertvisi was submitted for inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage List as a Cultural Site. From 2012, conservation of the wall paintings in the Church of the Dormition is to be carried out by the Courtauld Institute of Art in conjunction with the National Agency for Cultural Heritage Preservation of Georgia and Tbilisi State Academy of Arts.
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