Typical onion-domed church (photo: Henry Angelo-Castrillion)
The monastery at Rila (photo: Henry Angelo-Castrillion)
Teaching by art (photo: Henry Angelo-Castrillion)
Although they are ancient stone and rock fortresses, the monasteries of Bulgaria are alive in the hearts and minds of her people because of the vital role they played in her battle for independence during the late 19th century. Isolated in the mountains, they provided a perfect shelter for patriotic Bulgarians plotting a dangerous course toward freedom. Valiant monks stood shoulder to shoulder with embattled Bulgarian insurgents and sacrificed their lives for both faith and motherland.
Nestled in the mountains of this country on the eastern edge of the Balkan peninsula, the monasteries are monuments to the persistence of a peoples faith. Treasure houses of a countrys spiritual heritage, they safeguarded the civilization of the past and kept alive artistic, technical and literary skills otherwise lost.
If it were not for the priests and patriots, the thread of Bulgarian national life would have been severed. Behind the cloistered walls of the remote monasteries the faith was nurtured through the long night of Ottoman rule.
Between old Rome in the West and Constantinople, the new Rome in the East, Bulgaria was for centuries a fountainhead of exuberant Slav culture and learning and twice was the hub of a farreaching empire.
Bulgaria also experienced five centuries of Ottoman occupation and it was during these years that the monasteries played a vital part in acquiring liberation.
Christianity has had a tumultuous history in Bulgaria. Established as the state religion by Boris I in 864 it came under Byzantine rule when the Council of Constantinople sent bishops. Under Boris son, Czar Simeon, Bulgaria experienced her Golden Age from 893 to 927. During this time the church was instrumental in the growth and development of the arts and literature. Because of barbarian invasions in European countries, the Bulgarian civilization was advanced economically, politically and culturally and the countrys influence was felt on neighboring Serbia, Russia and Rumania.
In 1018 when Constantinople conquered Bulgaria the Greek language and liturgy were given preference and the Slavic civilization died. From the Ottoman invasion of 1393 to 1878 Bulgaria was under Turkish domination.
Throughout these five centuries of occupation the Bulgarians remained loyal to the faith which was encouraged by the decision of the Ottomans to grant the Bulgarians an autonomous church in the 18th century.
As cultural and spiritual islands the monasteries preserved the great achievements of Bulgarias Golden Age. Today, that accomplishment is visible to the hundreds of pilgrims who visit these monasteries.
The oldest and most glorious of the Bulgarian monasteries is Rila, located in a sheltered valley, not far from the capital of Sofia. Founded by Ivan Rilski, the monastery is a record in stone and lovingly-carved wood of Bulgarias long Christian era. It is a study in physical and cultural survival.
Its first walls were built in the tenth century and twice the monastery was leveled. In 1335 a loyal baron rescued Rila from neglect and disrepair virtually rebuilding the monastery from threshold to rooftop. The oldest lasting edifice at Rila is the chapel of the Transfiguration of Christ, with glowing frescoes more than six centuries old. It is a loving reliquary of faith, of architectural expression and of letters and art all of which survived the crucible of a thousand years of tumult and change.
The 20,000 books in the library are the treasured evidence of what Bulgarians did with the alphabet given to them by the Eastern saints, Cyril and Methodius. These brilliant brothers were largely responsible for the spread of Christianity among the Slavs. They composed the Slavic alphabet and translated Holy Scriptures and the Byzantine liturgical books into Slavic.
Bachkovo Monastery, established in the 11th century by Georgian brothers, stands well guarded in the Phodope mountains where it was occupied by Crusaders, Byzantines, Turks as well as Bulgarians. The monasterys churches are dedicated to the Virgin Mary and to Michael and Gabriel the Archangels. The churches are very much a part of the lives of the villagers. For example, in a crowded chamber of the Church of Michael and Gabriel half-lit with candles and votive lights a mass blessing of babies takes place. While the young priest turns from one tiny head to the next, tapers throw yellow light on old walls that have witnessed generations of such happy gatherings. The room smells warmly of wax, incense and babies each one making joyful noise unto the Lord.
Troyen Monastery, which rises over the banks of the Cherni (Black) River played an important role in the revolution. There in the 19th century the loyal monks of Troyen, members of a clandestine revolutionary group, gave refuge to the patriot Vasil Levski known to Bulgarians as the Apostle of Freedom.
The third largest monastery in the country, Troyen is located in the Balkan mountains, where the air is heavy with the resinous scent of conifers.
Also hiding its band of Bulgarian patriots were the monks of the Preobrazhenski Monastery. The main church is the work of Kolyu Ficheto, respected Bulgarian artist of the nineteenth century who also carved the churchs iconostasis. The monasteries outer walls are decorated with allegorical frescoes explaining the history of Christianity in Bulgaria.
Long described as the center of national culture, the monks of Rozhen Monastery kept alive the native tongue for centuries. At Rozhen, which was built in the 14th century, the monks guarded and preseved the cultural treasures of manuscripts and literature.
Today the monasteries of Bulgaria are monuments to the perseverence of a peoples faith and of a determination of a people never to relinquish their unique Slavness. The involvement of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, especially the monasteries, with the evolvement of national character in Bulgaria, and the growth of arts and letters, explains why the state lavishes so much care in the physical preservation of monastic sites and why the monasteries retain such universal affection.
The monasteries of Bulgaria are like the beads of a precious chaplet. Each one is different, yet each one a link in an unseverable continuity, a brilliant testimony a thousand years long.
Charles Adelsen is a freelance author living in Istanbul.