David Gareja  desert occupies south-eastern part of East Georgia, with its closest edge in a distance of some 60 km south-east from Tbilisi, in far south of Katheti region. This is a very specific area with multicolor hillocks, dry gorges and gullies, small areas of green land with trees and shrubs. This place had been inhabited sins the Pre-Christian era, but afterwards humans abandoned it, until the VI c. AD, when one of the 13 Assyrian fathers, St. David, called “Garejeli” choose that area as a place of his hermitry.  St. David came together with his disciple  –  Lukian and they settled in a small natural cave.  Shortly after this many other hermits joined them so by the times when St. David was still alive three new cut in the rock save   heavens,  were  established  –  St. David’s Laura, so called Dodorka Monastery in the Virgin, founded by one of St. David’s disciple St. Dodo on the horn-shape rock extension and John the Baptist Monastery.  The very first church was also constructed here in times,  when  St. David was still alive.  One local  noble lay-man, certain Bubakar, converted  into orthodoxy and baptized by ST. David built a small church on the lower terrace of the nowadays Laura, dedicated to one of the greatest  Christian miracles  –  Saint Metamorphoses.  After their death  St.  David and Lukian were buried in this church.

Both the initial and the very first of subsequent hermit sells  were simple in shape and small in size, almost undistinguishable from natural caves. The situation changed in mid-IX century when the monk very famed both in Georgia and Byzantium, St. Illarion the Georgian  (who continued his hermi-try in Thessaloniki where he passed away) was elected the head of David-Gareji  brotherhood.   The most importantly, he has extended the initial small church of  St. Metamorphoses to its current configuration  –  a  single nave structure with the room attached from the north.  Following this initial modification this church should have been reconstructed for several  times, the latest of which took place in early XIX c.  The protheses, entire southern wall and some other less significant elements are as well of the later times. All consequent builders of the monastery considered this design as a sample to be followed.  And truly, all main churches of other save havens of David Gareja are almost identical to or alikeof this first sample.  However, in each particular case features of the main space and northern room may differ to some extent  from the original (as in case of Dodorka X c. church with configuration resembling  two-nave  construction).  Thanks to Illarion the Georgian’s efforts , a new,  cut in the rock small complex was constructed on Laura territory with pilasters, capitals, etc.  This was the outset of tradition of establishing of that kind of churches with strong architectural features  as if they were built, not cut in the rock spaces.  They were typical in the second half of IX  – beginning  X cc. A group of so called ”domed” churches  is the most interesting among those cut in rock structures. There are perfect samples of that kind of “domed” churches  in  Dodorka  and Sabereebi  complex and in several  other places.  Cutting of refectories, several auxiliary rooms and other spaces in rock could have been s    started in the same period.  Famous Gareji  wall painting school was  founded in those times,  with numerous  first  samples  performed  during  its lifespane,  interrupted in the school that fells on turn of IX-X cc  are  preserved in Dodorka  domed church, several temples of  Sabereebi  complex and other places.

From  the  late  X century  the  nature of  construction in the monastery alters once again, when the ensembles  gain complexity and their diversity increases.  In parallel to this process  less  attention is paid to tidiness and clarity of cut.  Main temples of “Udabno  Monastery”  of the  first half of XI c., or of John Baptist shelter of XI c. and of so called “Bertubani” ensemble of XIII c. are all unsettled  and  inaccurate from architectural point. The  only exclusion  from this “flow” is a relatively large single-nave church of John the Evangelist  of the turn  of XII-XIII cc. , located on the upper  terrace of the Laura monastery. It seems  that  in this period main religious, expressive  and  artistic stress is focused on  wall painting.  The best  of its samples are  represented  in the above mentioned main churches  of the monastery complexese coupled  with wall paintings of “Udabno” and “Bertubani” monastery refectories. Several  other  minor constructions  have  been  adorned  with wall,  painting  as well,  for  instance  –  minor churches  (Ascension and Annunciation XIII-century  churches of the Udabno  monastery),  hermit  sells and small  chapels   (lots of samples of XI-XII cc. wall painting can be found in Udabno  and John Baptist Monasteries).  Apart of elaboration of highly original way of  delivery of canonic religious scenes and use of paints obtained from local clay layers  –  the main culprits  in  achieving absolute exclusivity  of colors, artists of Gareji  have invented  a new style of iconography  as well  in particular, the rule of expressing  of almost all important  moments of  St. David Garejelli’s  life  was invented and  followed  here that is the most noticeable at Udabno main church and Bertubani   refectory.  The  solid  tradition of painting of all church  building  donors  has been established  in  Gareji  as well  –  frescoes of the suzerains  of Kakheti  and  Kings  of  Georgia  that  ruled  the country  in  XII c. namely  of David IV the Builder,  Demetre I,  George III  and  perhaps  of  Queen  Tamar  with  the  Prince- Consort  and  the Crown –Prince can be  seen  in the main  temple of  Udabno  monastery,  coupled  with  the  portraits  of  Queen Tamar  and  her son – King Giorgi IV Lasha  in the main temples  of  St. John the Baptist  and  Bertubani monasteries.  Portrait  of  Demetre II  Devoted,  performed in the end of XIII c.  can be seen in Annunciation church of Udabno  monastery. The period from X to XIII century is the peak of the monastic activities at Gareji, with at least 12 active monasteries within the area.  Turn of XIII-XIV cc. is the beginning of sufferings descended upon this safe heaven.  From that period onwards gradual abandonment of the monasteries had been taking place.  Udabno and Bertubani  complexes  were closed as a result.  Final devastation of Gareji took place in 1616, after the invasion of Persians led by Shah Abbas I. Several attempts of Georgian kings towards possible restoration of the monastery all vent in vane, until the very end of XVII century, when in 1690 the monk  Onopre  Machutadze  was granted  the position of the head of the monastery.   St. David’s Laura, St. John the Baptist and  Dodorka  monasteries were restored at that time.  Development and restoration activities certainly with various intensity  had been in progress till the very beginning of XIX c.  For instance defective walls of the  Laura  and of John the Baptist monasteries were refurbished in 1695, a bell-tower of John the Baptist church was erected in the beginning of the XIX c. etc.

Particularly many hermit sells in all of the three above mentioned monasteries were either built or restored in this period.  Many of them were adorned with fretwork  performed on the calcium gypsum surface;  in some cases the ornamentation was  performed on the by means of mirror incrustation.  Many of them were damaged or perished in XX century as was  the decoration of King Giorgi XII’s (II-nd half of the XVIIIc.)  room  in the Laura.  The special Gareji – type low iconostases were invented here as well, made  of calcium gypsum and adorned with frescoes  (unfortunately all of them are in bad repair, with only small section preserved till now).  Partially survived adoration of the same type can be seen in King Alexander ‘s  tower located on the upper terrace of the Laura. It should be mentioned,  that  since  the very  moment  of  its  restoration  in  the  final  decade  of  XVII century,  Gareji  Monastery  had  become and  till the last days of independent  Georgian Kingdom  remained  the  most  influential centre  of  Georgian  spiritual  literature  and  education.  All  of the   patriarchs and  patriarchs of  Kartli, many  high rang clericals, theologians and canonists previously were members  of Gareji  community. Despite  uninterrupted  attempts  of  Georgian  Kings  towards  reanimation  of David Gareja , its full  scale restoration  has  never  been  achieved.  Moreover,  the  Dodorka  monastery  was  repeatedly  annulled  in  the second  half  of XVIII century. The rest of the monasteries  kept their  activities  through XIX century  however  with  gradually  decaying  significance both for the country and the church.  In 1919, in the chaos  followed  after  the revolution,  David Gareja  has been  absolutely  abandoned  until the early  1990-ies,  when  the  new  community  of  hermits  re-appeared in the  monastery.

We visit David Gareja monastery in our one day tour from Tbilisi to David Gareja.