Angels in the desert: The secret of David Gareja monastery

Ancient inscriptions at David Gareja Monastery Complex, Georgia

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.

Hiking along the border between Azerbaijan and Georgia at Davit Gareja

A modern altar against ancient cave paintings in David Gareja, Georgia

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.

A taxi ride through the Georgian countryside

The Davit Gareja monastery complex in Georgia

Colours of the Georgian desert

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.

Visiting the David Gareja Monastery complex

A tombstone at David Gareja, Georgia A prayer room at a cave monastery in Georgia

Living quarters in Davit Gareja, Georgia

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.

Hiking at David Gareja monastery

A lone chapel at Davit Gareja monastery

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.

Frescoes at Udabno monastery, David Gareja

Frescoes at Udabno monastery, Davit Gareja

David Gareja monastery frecoes

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.

A chapel in a cave monastery at Davit Gareja

Cave paintings in Georgia at David Gareja monastery

Modern offerings at David Gareja Frescoes and paintings at David Gareja Monastery

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?

Cave monastery of David Gareja in Georgia

Frescoes at Davit Gareja

Cave monastery at David Gareja, Georgia

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.

Cave frescoes at David Gareja

What’s the best secret place you’ve ever discovered while travelling?

Getting there:
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.

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41 Responses to Angels in the desert: The secret of David Gareja monastery

  1. Maria 30 June, 2013 at 00:41 #

    The fresco paintings are incredible – Must be amazing to stand before them.

    • Naomi Alyssa 1 July, 2013 at 18:39 #

      It was. And, especially, to stand before them when no-one else was around.

  2. Tyrhone 30 June, 2013 at 23:33 #

    I love places like that. There is something about seeing these unique places without hordes of tourists around that makes them seem more visceral. I went to a place in Turkey called Cappadocia, and although more tourists around, we rented a scooter, drove out and about and found some deserted cave/cathedral things with old christian paintings. It was pretty cool.

    • Naomi Alyssa 1 July, 2013 at 18:41 #

      Completely!! I haven’t been to Cappadocia yet, but so cool that you went off to explore it on your own. Sometimes, that’s where the best secrets are ;)

  3. Digital Nomads 1 July, 2013 at 01:27 #

    It must be so peaceful, loved the paintings. Who knows, maybe one day we can make it there too :)

    • Naomi Alyssa 1 July, 2013 at 18:43 #

      Completely peaceful. No sound by the wind and the rocks beneath your feet. Very surreal and powerful experience.

  4. Jessica J. Hill 1 July, 2013 at 02:03 #

    Beautiful words and stunning imagery! I love discovering secret places, far away from the hustle and bustle of a the tourist central. My favorite was probably the cave at Pang Mapha in northern Thailand. It’s about 7 km long, with a river running through it, and three of us had it all to ourselves, along with fireflies and birds. Amazing.

    • Naomi Alyssa 1 July, 2013 at 18:45 #

      How cool!! I’d never heard of that place before…maybe I can check it out the next time I’m in northern Thailand!! ;)

  5. This Battered Suitcase 1 July, 2013 at 04:21 #

    Wow, this is so beautiful. You’ve made me put Georgia at the top of my “must-see” places in the next year or two.

  6. Oleah 1 July, 2013 at 07:13 #

    whoa, that’s amazing. it’s so cool that you got to go a place filled with such rich history.

    xoxo, Oleah
    xthesimplethingsx.blogspot.com

    • Naomi Alyssa 1 July, 2013 at 18:51 #

      Very rich – and to feel like the only people to see it was so strange, so special!

  7. Kathleen 1 July, 2013 at 15:02 #

    wow! this is wow!

    • Naomi Alyssa 1 July, 2013 at 18:52 #

      That’s pretty much what I said when I first saw them, haha ;) Thank you kindly!!

  8. Kirsten 6 July, 2013 at 12:08 #

    Love the scene & the feelings you invoke with your writing & photography! Now I guess I’ll be adding Georgia to my already way too long list of places to visit ;)

    • Naomi Alyssa 10 July, 2013 at 10:28 #

      Thank you kindly, Kirsten – that means a lot :)

  9. Jackie D 11 July, 2013 at 15:13 #

    What a cool looking place. For some reason — and I know this is not at all the same thing, but the paintings on the walls make it at least semi-relevant — it reminds me of the Lascaux caves in France, another place I haven’t yet been but that I want to visit because I feel like it would be looking into an entirely different world.

    • Naomi Alyssa 20 July, 2013 at 11:01 #

      Oh God. Have you seen Cave of Forgotten Dreams? SUCH dream fodder!

  10. Oceana | Barefoot Beach Blonde 12 July, 2013 at 14:23 #

    This is such a well written piece! I’m totally blown away by how well you’ve recreated the amazing scenes at the monastery. Thank you!

    • Naomi Alyssa 20 July, 2013 at 11:03 #

      Wow, that really means a lot, Oceana! Thank you kindly :)

  11. Gabriela Isakova 17 July, 2013 at 23:13 #

    Amazing! I enjoyed very much reading this ! Thank you :)

  12. Anne 23 July, 2013 at 04:29 #

    What an amazing place. I’d love to visit Georgia and have this surreal experience, it really does seem like such a unique place. Your writing and your photos are amazing!!

    • Naomi Alyssa 23 July, 2013 at 13:49 #

      It really took the cake. Completely unique experience, in all my travels!

  13. Morgan 23 July, 2013 at 08:31 #

    Beautiful site and story. It would have brought me to tears!

    • Naomi Alyssa 23 July, 2013 at 13:54 #

      It was a very powerful experience. The first time I turned that corner and saw one of the frescoes, I actually started saying ‘Oh man oh man oh MAN!’

  14. Dana Carmel @ Time Travel Plans 25 July, 2013 at 10:20 #

    I’ve encountered monasteries like this hiking in the Ihlara Valley in Cappadocia. The frescoes I saw look similar to those in your pics. It’s amazing to witness places like this – little bits of history that seem so far removed from our present world.

    • Naomi Alyssa 26 July, 2013 at 13:57 #

      Aaaaaaand added to the travel wishlist. Sounds amazing!!

  15. Emile 8 August, 2013 at 15:45 #

    I was searching for informations about David Gareja and I found your travel website with these very beautiful photos.
    It seems it is exactly this kind of place I want to go : old stones shaped by men, old stones shaped by nature and lovely landscapes :)

    I’ve seen you give us some indications about transports on this page. Maybe you can say how many time we need to go by taxi from Sagarejo to David Gereja and do you think it’s possible to come on the evening, enjoy sunset, pitch a tent somewhere (is it allowed?), enjoy sunrize and then catch a taxi to come back to Sagarejo ?

    I’ve seen on openstreetmap website (http://www.openstreetmap.org/?way=80399833#map=15/41.4452/45.3693&layers=C) that there is some paths around the monastery complex. It’s probably worth to hike on them and do you think there is also other nice places around the monastery complex where it’s worth to go for hiking or camping ?

    • Naomi Alyssa 10 August, 2013 at 14:40 #

      Check yo facebook messages – there’s adventures to be had! ;)

      • Emile 10 August, 2013 at 16:02 #

        Yes, thank you. I have seen it. I replied to you yesterday morning on FB :)
        I think your answer can be interesting for other travellers.
        Would you mind if you (or I) add it on this page in order to share informations with everybody ?

        • Naomi Alyssa 15 August, 2013 at 13:45 #

          Bam! Almost missed this ;)

          To best honest, if you wanted to pitch a tent out in the wilderness by David Gareja, I think you could – there’s a LOT of uninhabited land out there, you could probably even go just a few hills over from the monastery. BUT PLEASE KEEP IN MIND: I do NOT know what any laws might be about foreigners camping in Georgia. Don’t blame me if you get in trouble!!

          I think your best bet would be to get a taxi from Sagarejo to the monastery (maybe a 30 minute drive?) and then just ask the monks for permission to camp near the monastery. They’d probably be fine with it.

          Also, I’m sure there are lots of paths around the monastery that you could go hiking on – that’d be real DIY adventure! But again, I’d ask the monks permission if you’re going to be directly in the area around the monastery. It is their home. NOT TO MENTION, there could be poisonous snakes or scorpions or god knows what in the desert, so if you have any Russian on you, I’d also try and ask the monks about that. And for the love of God, don’t get lost! There’s nothing out there!!

          Basically, what you’re proposing is a very scrappy, DIY, inventive adventure. I love that kind. Have fun but be smart, talk to the monks as best you can and see what they say.

          Happy travels! And write a blog about it :)

          • Defne 21 March, 2014 at 03:56 #

            Hey Emile, how was your adventure?
            I happen to live very close to Davit Gareji, and I’m sure that if you had decided to camp there, it must have been quite an experience ;) maybe you can share it?
            Hope you liked Georgia :)
            All the best!

  16. George 16 August, 2013 at 10:46 #

    Enjoy…Georgia is an amazing country, full of mysterious places.. motherland of angel souls )

  17. Aleksandre Manelashvili 16 August, 2013 at 18:28 #

    Good day to all!

    The story about why frescoes in Cappadocia are similar to Georgians and what connects Georgia to that place …

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Nino

  18. Levan 21 August, 2013 at 23:15 #

    I think Commies count as rather recent invaders.
    We got plenty of ancients too, but none with that amount of asshattery.

  19. Łukasz Lech 11 September, 2013 at 05:15 #

    I’ve also been in David Gareja and I’ve found that monastery in the rocks above. I’ve also learned that it’s disputed area, but the pilgrims are going there and they are leaving their prayers in one of the stone chapels.

    • Naomi Alyssa 13 September, 2013 at 20:43 #

      Yeah, we did see remnants of that in all the small, fresh offerings around in the rock chapels…beautiful to think that this place is still in use, even after all these centuries.

  20. Ramces Dungog 19 December, 2013 at 15:16 #

    Hello friend Naomi,

    Wow.. i could not image that journey and I love your article and it brings me back to that adventure .. i really appreciate to stumble you in that journey..

    you both are angels…

    hope our path will cross again..

    br,

    RAMCES

  21. Travelyn 4 January, 2014 at 15:06 #

    Wonderful article on such an amazing wilderness. The desert landscape is awesome. What an experience and the frescoes are wonderful. On my list! Thanks for such a great post.

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