At the end of the world, you’ll find angels.
They hide behind boulders, they wait inside caves, and they peer out from the rock.
Far outside the cities, out in the depths of a wilderness of red and blue stone, far isolated from the noise and the energy of human activity, lies a place engulfed in stillness and a silence. Here, in the midst of nothing, is where a small group of men decided to make their home.
They brought the angels with them.
As the taxi lurches over crumbling asphalt and between green hills, I think about how badly these men must have wanted to get away from other people. We’re two hours from Tbilisi, far out in the Georgian countryside, and there’s not much out here besides birds of prey, stretching steppe and the rare lone shepherd. The last village we passed was nothing but a shell, all the concrete houses empty and all the doors broken. The silence here feels inherent. And it deepens as we enter the desert.
After about an hour, green steppe gives way to dry rock in reds and yellows. A driveway appears after one hill, and then a low stone building. At the end is a man in a long, black robe, square cap, and dark glasses. He watches us arrive, but doesn’t say anything in welcome. We’ve arrived at David Gareja, a cave monastery complex at the far end of Georgia by its border with Azerbaijan.
The monk gestures us inside with just a nod.
The David Gareja monastery complex has been around since the 6th century, and makes up some of the oldest human settlements in this region. Only one monastery is currently active, and it’s here that we can see what makes this complex unique: its cells, churches and chapels that are hewn directly into the rock.
From the monastery’s perch on a hill, the view of the desert opens on all sides. Lines of reds, yellows, and even pale blues stretch across the landscape, old leftovers from when this landscape was first formed. But, neither the monastery nor the views are really what we’re here to see. From a path behind the main complex, we begin hiking up the hill. A simple iron railing leads our way, rusting away at some points and then reappearing, half-hidden, in the weeds ahead.
At the top of the hill, a new desert expanse appears in front of us, completely empty, crossed by just a few quiet roads. We are the only ones out here, staring from Georgia into Azerbaijan.
We turn east and head along the side of the hill, staying close to the thin trail. One misstep and we’d take a rough tumble down to the desert below. At first, the ridge of the hill doesn’t offer much of interest, just boulders and shrubs, but then – suddenly – we turn one corner and run right into broad staring faces.
It’s a shock to encounter them out here, in a this wasteland that we’d think completely uninhabited if we hadn’t met the four or five monks that live below. But here, at the edge of nothingness, suddenly rises a cave with frescoes that are over 800 years old.
And right now, we are the only people seeing them.
What a curious feeling, to encounter these paintings in the middle of nowhere. How have they survived all these centuries? They’re not perfect – some angels and saints have been vandalised by unscrupulous visitors or had their eyes scratched out by ancient invaders – but the colours are surprisingly intact, with hues that match the desert.
Never in my life have I seen anything like this. Churches and monasteries are the realms of Christian frescoes, not the wilderness outdoors. Did the monks who built these cave churches and painted these desert frescoes do so, because they wanted to stay connected to the land around them?
Out here, hidden in the far desert, at the fringes of one of the least touristed countries I’ve ever visited, I can’t help but feel that we’ve discovered one of the most mysterious secrets that travel can show us. You can stand stunned by the cosmopolitan chaos of East Asia, the ancient towering cathedrals of Europe, or the relics of empires in South America, but this site, this desert, this silence and these angels are unlike anything I’ve seen. They stand alone, silent, and utterly other.
I am lost in the feeling of having nothing to compare this place to.
And, for a few hours, the mystery, the allure, the paintings, and the angels are all ours.
The easiest way to reach David Gareja from Tbilisi is by hired taxi. There’s no public transportation that far out in the desert! We went to Samgori Metro Station and negotiated with a taxi driver to drive us there and back (with a wait time of about 2-3 hours for him while we explored the site) for about 90 lari ($55) total. Between the 3 of us, that made 30 lari ($18) each.
If you’re feeling really bad-ass, you can attempt to get there [partially] with public transportation by taking a marshrutka (minivan) to Sagarejo from Samgori Station, then hiring a taxi from Sagarejo to David Gareja for about 40 lari ($24). But, as you can see, it was cheaper for us to hire a taxi for the group.
The monastery is free to enter but a donation or purchase (I recommend the wine!) at the gate is appreciated.
Update: As of April 2014, there’s a direct shuttle bus from Tbilisi to the monastery called the Gareji Line. Entrepreneurial!