Meskheti: Georgia's Medieval Time Capsule
Updated: Sep 24, 2020
The serene forest-covered mountains and gorges in Meskheti were once Georgia’s first line of defense against invaders from the Ottomans. Today, however, this little-known historical region in Georgia’s south-southwest is just beginning to see its ancient castles, Medieval monasteries, and pristine nature explored by foreigners.
Meskheti is a mountainous region that straddles the border between Georgia and Turkey, following the mountains along the Black Sea coast. The majority of this region now rests in the Turkish provinces of Ardahan, Kars, and Artvin, but there is still one piece of it in Georgia--the present-day region of Samtskhe.
Here is our list of Meskheti’s top 4 lesser-known sites:
Atsq’uri Fortress sits on a steep rocky outcrop overlooking the place where the Mtkvari River enters a narrow gorge between the Meskheti and Trialeti Mountain Ranges. This made Atsq’uri Fortress an extremely important castle for Georgia’s defense since it controlled access to the primary route between Anatolia and Georgia. Most of this 10th Century Fortress was destroyed by a series of Ottoman invasions during the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, save one tall watchtower and the castle’s outer walls.
Ats’quri Fortress is certainly one of the most striking places in Georgia, not only for its authenticity--it lacks tourist infrastructure and is still largely in its original ruins--but also for its surreal views of the valley which it guards. Standing at Atsq’uri Fortress, it is easy to imagine why this fortress was so crucial during the Middle Ages.
Zarzma Monastery could be seen as Meskheti’s Alaverdi--the tall domed church and the accompanying bell tower and monastical residences are protected by a wall which are surrounded by open pastures with stunning views of mountains on all sides. The existing structure was built during the 13th Century. The exterior of Zarzma Monastery is notable for its unique arched porch which is located on the side of the church. Additionally, the frescoes in Zarzma are still showing their vibrant colors.
This small unassuming church is nestled in an evergreen mountainside just a few kilometers from Akahltsikhe. Although small, this church complex was the primary religious center of the Akhaltsikhe/Samtskhe region during the 9-11th Centuries. The frescoes in Sapara still exhibit their bright reds and deep blues while Biblical figures and individuals from Georgia’s past gaze down on you.
Khertvisi Fortress is located at the confluence of the Paravani and Mtkvari Rivers between Akhaltsikhe and Vardzia. This castle is the most well-preserved, and accurately-preserved, Medieval castle in Georgia. Legend has it that Alexander the Great destroyed the first fortress at this location, but a new one was subsequently rebuilt. Much of the castle’s towers were constructed during the 14th Centuries, however they were later destroyed by the Ottoman invasion of Georgia. Following this attack, much of the castle and surrounding town was abandoned. Today, the castle has been dutifully reconstructed, and ruins of the surrounding town are visible for those with a keen eye.
Meskheti might not be the most well-known of Georgia’s regions, but this region is full of Georgia’s best remnants of its feudal era, such as impeccable preserved Medieval monasteries like Zarzma and Sapara to archaic ruins like Zanavi Castle and Vardzia. Meskheti is the best place in Georgia to witness this country’s Medieval past.
The main road from Borjomi to Akhaltsikhe (ს-8/S-8) is in good condition, but secondary roads, and even the road from Akhaltsikhe to Vardzia, are in poorer condition. It is possible to drive to the sites listed in this post even in a sedan, but take caution during the winter months and after poor weather conditions.
Of the four sights listed here, only Khertvisi has proper tourist infrastructure, such as a visitor center and parking lot.
Atsq’uri Fortress is accessible only by a steep gravel road. It is advised not to drive up this road, so it is necessary leave your vehicle parked on the side of the main road and walk up to Atsq’uri Fortress.