One of the most important Georgian historical sites, accessible via a mountain road full of cows impersonating cars.
Sapara is a monastery complex in Southwestern Georgia, in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region near Akhaltsikhe. It is considered one of the most important historical sites in the region, but it is sadly often overlooked. Most tourists head straight to the cave city of Vardzia, which I also went to, and disregard Sapara altogether. All 3 of them are marked on the map below and as you can see, the Sapara monastery really is close enough that it’s a shame if you don’t visit.
The name Sapara translates to hidden in Georgian, and the monastery is hidden indeed. It is situated deep within the mountains and perched on a cliff edge. Its orange brown bricks blend perfectly with the surrounding forests and slopes and you almost don’t see it until you drive right up to it. Unfortunately Sapara cannot be reached by public transport, so when I visited in 2018, my boyfriend and I hired one of the taxi drivers to take us there. The guy was quite a character who immediately adopted us after hearing we came from (former) Yugoslavia. He ended up driving us around for two days and kept trying to take care of us in the rather pushy, but friendly Georgian way.
Our first stop was the Sapara monastery and on the way there he decided we were practically kin due to our Balkan origins, so he started to educate us about the local facts and food. He almost killed us by forcibly braking and stopping next to a bakery, where he bought us a huge amount of freshly baked Georgian white bread, shotis puri. He insisted it was the best bread in the world and that we just had to try it, so we did. It was still warm and quite soft inside, a bit like the Balkan lepinja. We knew he wouldn’t take any money back for the bread, so we give him a tip at the end.
We drove further into the mountains, up a narrow winding road, which was suddenly full of cows impersonating cars. I guess that was normal and our driver didn’t even slow down, he just kind of slalomed around the mooing cows.
The views of the countryside we were driving through were quite beautiful, so we stopped on top of a hill to take some photos and out came the famous Georgian shots. He brought out the Georgian Chaca, grape pomace liquor and some Russian vodka, as he had several bottles in the trunk. I was really thankful for the bread we ate earlier, since we kept downing shots on an empty stomach and I was getting a bit worried how he was going to drive afterwards.
The beautiful Georgian countryside
Even though I don’t approve of driving under the influence, I turned a blind eye when we continued on towards Sapara, which we could already see in the distance. When we got there he waited for us at the parking lot while we went in to check out the monastery complex and I’ll admit I was a bit nervous about leaving all our bags in the car, despite his friendly nature. But I figured our dirty laundry wasn’t particularly valuable and since we agreed to pay at the end of the journey, the promise of money would surely prevent him from leaving, so I went with it.
The Sapara monastery was built in the 10th century by Sarkis Jakeli, a local ruler who later became a monk at the monastery. The complex is composed of many buildings, such as the Church of Assumption, which was built first, many chapels, a fortress with walls and towers, farm buildings and a bell tower, which were added sometime between the 10th and 14th century. The domed church of St. Saba was built last, in the late 13th century, and was considered one of the most architecturally important churches of its time. Its walls are decorated with beautiful carvings and frescoes, which managed to relatively survive the Turkish raids in the 16th and 17th century. The monastery was mostly abandoned then and all of its treasures and paintings were taken to safe places in the surrounding villages. There are records of a single monk living at Sapara in the 18th century, but the monastery was fairly neglected until the 19th century, when service was restored under the Soviets. The Russian Orthodox church established their monastery there until the collapse of the Soviet Union and today Sapara is once again an active monastery, with a few dozen monks and novices of the Georgian Orthodox church.
Impressions of the Sapara monastery
Visiting Sapara: Not all of the buildings are open to the public and the fortress with its walls and farm houses mostly lies in ruins. You can however visit the churches and take a look around the complex. The monks are quite strict regarding the dress code required for entering any of the churches and taking photos, so I didn’t take many. It is free to visit and if you come during any of the services you may get the chance to listen to the men’s choir singing religious songs in Georgian.