Countryside near Akhaltsikhe.
Samtskhe-Javakheti is one of the most geographically diverse regions in Georgia. The northern portion of the region is formed by the Meskheti and Trialeti Ranges. These mountain ranges have steep, rocky slopes and are densely forested. The area around Akhaltsikhe is a large triangular-shaped valley which runs from Atsk’uri to Adigeni to Aspindza, with Akhaltsikhe in the middle. The Mtkvari River forms a valley which is nearly a kilometer deep between Aspindza dn the Georgia-Turkey border. The Javakheti Plateau forms the eastern third of Samtskhe-Javakheti. This area is largely flat, with the exception of the Samsari Range, which was formed by volcanism. Due to the high elevation, the Javakheti Plateau is largely barren, with only low-lying bushes and grasses, giving the area a desolate feel. The Javakheti Plateau also has some of Georgia’s largest lakes, such as Paravani Lake and Tabatsquri Lake.
In Georgian history, Samtskhe-Javakheti is called “Meskheti.” Meskheti is a large historical region of Georgia which once included the Turkish provinces of Ardahan, Kars, and Artvin along with parts of the Shirak Province in Armenia. This region served as the primary gateway between the Turks/Ottomans and Georgia.
The region was a part of the first proto-Georgian society--the Kingdom of Diaokhi, which was mentioned by the Hittites and Assyrians in the 12th Century B.C.E. The Diaokhi Kingdom had developed in close geographical proximity to the Urartu Kingdom--the proto-Armenian kingdom which was located in present-day Armenia, northwestern Iran, and eastern Turkey. Urartu would later develop into the various Armenian kingdoms that would form Armenia. This means that this part of Georgia has an history dating back to the Bronze Age of ethnic, social, economic, and political intermixing between the Georgian and Armenian peoples.
The region was on the periphery of the first truly Georgian state--the Kolkheti Kingdom, which lasted between the 4th Century B.C.E. through the 1st Century C.E. Meskheti suffered greatly form the Arab invasion of 737 C.E. During the Georgian “Golden Age” (11th-13th Centuries), the entirety of Meskheti was part of the Kingdom of Georgia, which was ruled by Davit Aghmashenebeli and Tamar Mepe. It is during this time that Vardzia had reached its zenith. The city of Akhaltsikhe played an important role in facilitating trade between Anatolia and Georgia, and its prominence within the kingdom increased as well.
Following the collapse of the Kingdom of Georgia in the 15th Century, Meskheti fell to the Ottoman Empire, and Kars became the region’s predominant center, with the Georgian region of Samtskhe-Javakheti falling on the periphery between Georgian influence and Ottoman influence. Following the Treaty of Constantinople (1724) between the Russian and Ottoman Empires, Georgia was divided in two. It wasn’t until 1878 that Samtskhe-Javakheti would be fully reunited with the rest of Georgia.
Due to Samtskhe-Javakheti’s mountainous topography and geographic isolation from the rest of Georgia, the region never fully developed an industrial economy.
Akhaltsikhe is the largest city in Samtskhe-Javakheti and is the region’s capital city. The city was first mentioned in historical sources in the 9th Century. The first name of the city was “Lomsia.” The city was destroyed in the 11th Century and its reconstruction began in the beginning of the 12th Century. During the Mongol invasion of Georgia, Akhaltsikhe was never destroyed, giving the city greater regional importance over other cities which were destroyed.
Akhaltsikhe is best known Rabati Fortress, which is located on a hilltop overlooking the city center. Rabati Fortress is one of Georgia’s most well-known castles, perhaps only bested by Narikala in Tbilisi. The fortress along with Akhaltsikhe was built in the 9th Century by Guram Mampal. The fortress was the residency of the House of Jaqeli--the local noble family which ruled the area. The domed church in the castle was constructed between the 9th-10th Centuries. The fortress withstood various Turko-Mongol invasions, and was the location of a series of battles between the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire over the fate of Samtskhe-Javakheti. It took 18 years for the Russian Empire to finally conquer Rabati Fortress and therefore annex Samtskhe-Javakheti into the Russian Empire. The fortress was extensively renovated between 2011-2012.
Rabati Fortress is in the center of Akhaltsikhe.
Borjomi is a fairly small town located in a narrow gorge between the Meskheti and Trialeti Ranges and along the Mtkvari River. As a small town, Borjomi is dependent on tourism and its famous mineral water. Borjomi was first established in the Middle Ages, but remained a fairly small settlement until the 19th and 20th Centuries when the Russians began building sanatoria in the area. In fact, Russian viceroy to the Caucasus Mikhail Vorontsov made Borjomi his summer residence. Notable sites in Borjomi include its central park which includes a mountain-top Ferris wheel, similar to the one in Mtatsminda Park in Tbilisi and the Romanov Palace in Borjomi. Also found in Borjomi is the main tourism center for the Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park, which has some of the best tourist infrastructure in Georgia.
Akhalkalaki is the primary town on the Javakheti Plateau and is situated on the western side of the Samsari mountain range. Humans have been inhabiting this area since the Bronze Age. The oldest settlement in Akhalkalaki is located at the confluence of the Paravani and Murjakheti Rivers, where the ruins of Akhalkalaki Fortress are located. The fortress was built in the 11th Century by King Bagrat III. Today, only small portions of the fortress’s walls and the remnants of the domed church remain standing. The city was badly damaged in 1538 and again destroyed in the 16th Century after a series of Mongol invasions. It wasn’t until the 17th Century that the city was rebuilt, particularly after King Erekle II attempted to liberate Akhalkalaki. The city is known for its large Armenian population. Throughout much of the city’s history, Armenians have been by far the largest ethnic group, oftentimes being more than 90% of the city’s population.
Vardzia is located in a deep valley formed by the Mtkvari River as it cuts through the Javakheti Plateau. The site is located about an hour’s drive away from Akhaltsikhe. It is thought that the area was a settlement in the Diaokhi Kingdom, but Vardzia’s primary history began in the Middle Ages.
Vardzia began as a humble monastery constructed by King Giorgi III (1156-1184). Between the death of King Giorgi III and the marriage of Tamar Mepe (1184-1886) Vardzia was again expanded. This is when the Church of the Dormition was carved. The caves that Vardzia was built into were incorporated into an expansion plan of the monastery that was built by Giorgi III. By this time, Vardzia had become a major monastic and political center not just for Meskheti, but for the entirety of Georgia. In 1283, Vardzia was heavily damaged by an earthquake, but was partially restored by nobleman Beka Jaqel-Tsikhisjvareli. Vardzia managed to escape damage from Mongol invaders, but was sacked by the Persians in 1551, and finally abandoned after the Ottomans invaded in 1578.
Of particular significance are numerous murals found in the monastic complex of Vardzia which depict the Georgian royal family, particularly Tamar Mepe.
At its height, Vardzia was over to 10 stories tall. There were over 600 rooms located in Vardzia, including a dining hall, bakery, and a forge. Vardzia’s natural defense was bolstered by man-made engineering features, such as complex irrigation tunnels, hidden entrances, and a unique system of terraced farming.
Atsq’uri Fortress sits on a steep rocky outcrop overlooking the place where the Mtkvari River enters a narrow river gorge between the Meskheti and Trialeti 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. Atsq’uri Fortress was built during the 11th Century. During the second half of the 16th Century the fortress was taken by the Ottomans. In 1770, a joint Georgian-Russian army attacked Atsq’uri Fortress in an attempt to take it from the Ottomans, but it was unsuccessful. Unfortunately, much of the castle was destroyed in these series of invasions.
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.
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.the Fortress sits on a rocky outrcrop at the confluence of the Mtkvari and Paravani Rivers, meaning that this castle had the ability to control access to and from Akhaltsikhe from the south and east. 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.
Okros Fortress is a large fortress ruin located in Adigeni Municipality, near the village of Shoka. The defensive walls of the fortress stand to a height of 10 meters. This is one of the largest castle complexes in Georgia, and was one of the primary defensive fortifications of the ruling Jaqeli noble family. The Fortress was constructed in the end of the 13th Century or beginning of the 14th Century. During the various Turkish invasions into the region, Okros Fortress served a major defensive bastion for the Georgians. The fortress is composed of two main parts--a lower and upper yard. The two yards are separated by a large wall with a series of small guardtowers. Along the northern end of the upper yard is the primary tower of of the fortress.
Photo by Shermazana Photography
Zarzma Monastery is located in the village of Zarzma, in Adigeni Municipality. The monastery Samtskhe-Javakheti’s version of Alaverdi Monastery, in that it is the largest, best-preserved, and most well-known church in the region. Zarzma dates to Georgia feudal era. There is little information on when exactly the church was first constructed, however, the existing church was built in the 14th Century. In 1577, the new proprietors of Zarzma Monastery--the Khurtsidze family--had turned the first floor of the monastery’s bell tower into a chapel for St. John the Evangelist. 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 color, meaning that this monastery has some of the best examples of medieval Georgian artwork in the country.
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. There are ruins of a fortress complex including watchtowers and defensive walls around the monastic complex, indicating that at one point in the past Sapara was a true fortified complex. 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. By the 19th Century, the monastery was largely abandoned. Following the region’s annexation into the Russian Empire, a Russian Orthodox monastery was established here in 1893, but that only lasted until the creation of the Soviet Union.
Photo by paata.ge
Abuli and Shaori Megalithic Sites
These two sites are Bronze Age settlements located in the Samsari Mountains. The nearest settlements are Gamdzani and Poka. Like many Bronze Age settlements, Abuli and Shaori Fortresses were built with large stones fit together without using mortar or a binding agent. Abuli Fortress is the larger of the two megalithic sites. It is composed of an inner structure and a series of two outer walls. The main walls are 3-5 meters high.
Photo by paata.ge
The main marshrutka route reaches Akhaltsikhe via Gori-Khashuri-Borjomi. Many marshrutkas from Kutaisi and Tbilisi will not have a final destination in Borjomi since they must drive through it to reach Akhaltsikhe. Akhalkalaki can be reached either by a marshrutka from Tbilisi or Akhaltsikhe.
Additionally, there is one daily train that runs between Tbilisi and Borjomi as well as a twice daily train between Borjomi and Bakuriani.
Access to Samtskhe-Javakheti by road can be achieved from four directions: the შ-1/Batumi-Akhaltsikhe Road, the ს-8 (which goes through the city and connects to the ს-1/E-60 in Khashuri), and the ს-11. The region also has a road link to Turkey via the ს-8 and Armenia via the ს-11.
1: Zarzma Monastery
2: Okros Fortress
4: Sapara Monastery
6: Abuli and Shaori Fortresses
8: Khertvisi Fortress
9: Atsq’uri Fortress