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10 August 2022

Davit Gareja - Keshikchidag, the Border-Straddling Monastic Marvel

A group of ancient Christian hemit caves known as Davit Gareja in Georgia and Keshikchidag in Azerbaijan straddles the border on a semi-desert scarp. Could the site’s management offer an opportunity for cultural cooperation?

Davit Gareja - Keshikchidag, the Border-Straddling Monastic Marvel

Image: MehmetO/Shutterstock 

Lonely Planet travel guidebooks have described the ancient monastery site of Davit Gareja as one of Georgia’s most remarkable historical sites, a collection of holy Christian establishments with a sense of “uniqueness heightened by a lunar, semi-desert landscape.” The main tourist attractions here are the reconsecrated monastic buildings of Lavra and the nearby hermit[1] caves of Udabno, climbing a steep scarp that rises to form a panoramic ridge overlooking Azerbaijan. Some cave ruins still partially preserve frescoes dating back to the 10th century. The sites themselves are even older, originally dating from the 6th century when ascetic monks from Syria arrived in the region to practice and spread a meditative form of early Christianity.   

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Udabno caves. Image:Mark Elliott 

The Lavra-Udabno site is just one of at least 15 such complexes dotted about the surrounding area, including fortress-style towers once used to send messages between the monastic communities. These communities reached their peak activity between the 10th and 13th centuries, increasingly enjoying Georgian royal patronage. In 1154 King Demetre I of Georgia retired here to spend most of the last two years of his life in reflection and prayer. 

This was the start of a ‘golden age’ for the monasteries. A distinctive school of painting is now associated with the complex – many of the portraits of Georgian royal personages are the only images of such historical figures to have survived. The monasteries were sacked in 1265 by Mongol forces during the Berke-Hulagu War and again in 1399 by Timur, but the communities were re-established each time.   

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The 6000 martyrs of Davit-Gareja. Image: oca.org 

Worse was to come in 1616 when some 6000 monks were massacred on Easter night by the armies of Safavid Shah Abbas I. The victims were collectively declared saints en masse by the Georgian church. Their bones were collected in the 1660s by King Archil and placed in a reliquary within the restored Transfiguration Church at Davit-Gareja. Some say that these relics still exude a spontaneous aroma of myrrh, a ‘miracle’ that helped draw more devotees as the monastery returned to life.  

However, the community dwindled during the later 19th century, and eventually, the site was largely forgotten. Indeed much of the region was used for Soviet artillery practice from 1948 and particularly after 1979, when the area’s perceived similarity to Afghanistan made it seem like a good place to test military manoeuvres. Shelling was stopped in 1987 following demonstrations from increasingly vociferous Georgians, worried about the destruction of these cultural sites. Following Georgian independence, the Lavra Monastery and two other sites were reconsecrated, allowing a small number of monks to return.