Exploring the Churches and Caves of Georgia
My name is Mariam and I live in the nation’s capital, Washington, DC. I am originally from Tbilisi, Georgia- born and raised. In addition to visiting Georgia every year, I have lived there for 23 years and believe it or not, I still have not seen it all. In terms of its size, Georgia is smaller than South Carolina and slightly bigger than the state of West Virginia. Despite its small size, Georgia has a wide variety of things to offer travelers: beaches, hiking, camping, mountain resorts, lakes, skiing, ancient cathedrals and churches, caves, and delicious food. All of this to say that if you chose to travel in that part of the world, you will love it. I know that I am biased, but I have yet to meet someone who has traveled there and did not like it.
I got back from my most recent visit in September. This trip may have been one of the best, not only because I got to meet my newborn nephew, but because I got to see several breathtaking sites I hadn’t been to before in Kutaisi. Kutaisi is the second largest city in Imereti region of Georgia with a lot of incredible things to offer. It used to be the capital of Georgia from the 10th -12th centuries. These days, Georgian Parliament meets in this city. During our trip there we got to see some ancient churches align with a couple of mesmerizing caves.
A Scenic Road Trip
The ride from Tbilisi was beautiful and scenic. Unfortunately, we only had a couple days at our disposal and could not stop everywhere we wanted to. Just keep in mind, if you drive to Kutaisi from Tbilisi you will be passing Mtskheta, Gori, and Surami, which are cities very much worth stopping at.
Our first stop was the Prometheus Cave, discovered in 1984 and open to the public in 2012. The tour guide told us that the mountain was where Prometheus was chained, legend has it, was visible from the cave and that is where it got its name. I don’t think that the age has been determined yet, but it is believed to be at least 500,000 years old.
In Search of Caves
I have been to a few caves in Mexico but this was truly something special. I think the thing that shocked me the most was its size. I still remember the feeling of anticipation and excitement as I was descended on the stairwell that led to the cave. Once I entered, there they were beautiful stalactites, stalagmites, cave pearls, and curtains all illuminated in different colored lights. It was truly breathtaking. The words or photos won’t do it justice; you just have to see it for yourself.
We were able to visit six halls. The air feels amazing with a temperature of 14 degrees Celsius all year long. One of the halls was called “Love Cave”. The tour guide told us they have had a few wedding ceremonies inside this cave, which I thought was pretty cool. This hall showcases a rock that looks like the face of a woman- also a neat sight.
It turned out that the archeologists are still working on its premises so several halls are not yet open to the public. It is my understanding that they will be offering snorkeling, underwater diving, crawling, and climbing once they are open. So needless to say, I will be going back once that happens. We also learned that apparently, it takes 100 years for a stalagmite to grow one centimeter.
Towards the end of the sixth hall, we approached an underground river where the boats were waiting to take us outside. I remember it took my eyes a few minutes to readjust back to the sunlight once we got out of the cave.
Lunch Break Time
We had lunch at the restaurant near the cave, which was huge with a lot of outdoor seating constructed in the Imeretian style. Had I known I would be blogging about this trip, I would have taken more food pictures than just that of my tomato and cucumber salad and Khinkali. There is a lot that can be said about Georgian cuisine, but I can tell you it is pure deliciousness.
Back to Caves Again
Our next stop was Sataplia, which is located on the outskirts of Kutaisi. This cave was discovered in 1935 but was closed to the public during the Soviet days. In the recent years, the cave and the surrounding nature reserve was remodeled and opened up for tours in 2011. The name “Sataplia” means “place for honey”. It was named after the Sataplia mountain that used to house many families of wild bees. Nowadays there is only one bee family left on this mountain.
Sataplia is located 360 meters above the sea level and is 900 meters long. Our first stop here was a conservation center, where we were able to see the footprints of dinosaur species of camptosaurus. These footprints presumably date back 100 million years. After visiting the center, we entered the cave itself. It was beautiful but significantly smaller than the halls at the Prometheus cave. In one of the halls, we saw a 180 million-year-old stalagmite, which was quite impressive.
Sataplia has beautiful trails, forests, and viewing points to offer. It even has a glass walkway, similar to the Grand Canyon Skywalk. The view of Kutaisi from this walkway is spectacular. I am a bit scared of heights, so I did not spend much time there. What I enjoyed most in Sataplia was breathing fresh mountain air and walking around its beautiful trails.
Seeking Ancient Churches
We dedicated our second half of the day to three ancient churches in Kutaisi. We first visited Bagrati Cathedral, built in the early 11th century during the reign of King Bagrat III. It is regarded as a masterpiece in the history of medieval Georgian architecture. In the 20th century, it was included in the UNESCO World Heritage Site list. Bagrati Cathedral had been in ruins for many years and was recently restored. Currently, there is a lot of controversy about this restoration, because some believe that it has lost its ancient appeal. I personally disagree and think that they did a great job restoring its original look. One of the employees of the cathedral told us that it would have been completely collapsed if not for this restoration.
Our next church to visit was Motsameta Monastery, located on the top of a cliff in a scenic location with views of the Tskhalsitela River (Red Water River) and surrounding gorges. The word “Motsameta” means martyrdom in Georgia. The history tells us that the monastery stands on the site where amongst other victims, two Georgian brothers were executed by invaders in the 8th century, for their refusal to convert to Islam. You have probably guessed that the name of the river is also linked to this story as the bodies of the massacred victims were thrown into this river. According to the legend, the Lions brought up the bodies of the two brothers, and now their remains rest in the tomb inside the church on two carved lions. Some believe that if you climb three times through the small passage underneath the saints’ tomb, your prayers will be answered.
A Favorite Attraction
My personal favorite was the Gelati Monastery, which dates back to the 12th century. Something about the aura of that place filled me up with overwhelming positive emotions. The building of this complex was initiated by the King of Georgia, David the Builder, who is buried in the gateway outside of the church. The monastery was completed in 1130 in the reign of David’s son and successor. Some additional buildings were added to the monastery throughout the 13th and 14th centuries. Gelati Monastery was recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site and is also a center of education and culture in ancient Georgia with the Academy establishing themselves there during David’s era. Gelati’s architecture, mosaics, and wall paintings are all beautiful. I was especially impressed by the mosaic of Saint Mary, who is represented in the dome of the Monastery. The largest piece of this mosaic masterpiece is 1 centimeter long.
We left Gelati after the sun went down; it was a gorgeous sight. Overwhelmed with the centuries of history and beauty, we continued our travels in the direction of Batumi, Georgia.
About Mariam Gogebashvili
My wonderful and beautiful friend Mariam Gogebashvili wrote this article. Mariam grew up in Tbilisi, Georgia. During her senior year of high school, she had an opportunity to participate in a U.S. State Department-funded youth exchange program, which gave participants an opportunity to spend a year living with American host families in the United States. This was a life-changing experience for Mariam from personal as well as professional perspective. She met some of the most incredible people and formed bonds that will last a lifetime.
Mariam feels that her year in the U.S. would not have been as exceptional if not for her host family, who introduced her to American culture and values along with giving her many opportunities to travel around the U.S. After completing the program, Mariam returned to Tbilisi and continued her studies at Tbilisi State University majoring in Western European Languages and Literature.
With the help of her American host family, Mariam was able to return to the U.S. to pursue a Master’s degree in Business Administration. She now works as a Program Manager at American Councils for International Education in Washington DC. American Councils is an international nonprofit organization that focuses on creating educational opportunities for people. She works on various academic exchange and educational programs in Higher Education programs division. She has been with American Councils for over 6 years and loves her job. It allows her to travel and meet people from all over the world and most importantly she feels that her work is helping make a difference in people’s lives.
Mariam is passionate about traveling and hopes that she will be able to do more of it in the coming years.