Tablet World

Despite the ravages of occupation and revolution magnificent Orthodox churches and spectacular monasteries have survived

17 March 2017

Chris Deliso from Sofia

The re-emergence of the Russian Orthodox Church since the fall of the Soviet Union is well documented. But Bulgarian Christianity too has flourished since the demise of the Communist Party in December 1989, a month after the fall of the Berlin Wall. To journey through Christian Bulgaria is to pass through more than 1,000 years of history, and to wonder at the survival of the faith.

Today 60 per cent of Bulgaria’s 7.6 million population declare themselves Bulgarian Orthodox, while the presence of more than half a million Muslims in Bulgaria provides a stark reminder of half a millennium of continuous Ottoman rule, since the late fourteenth century.

Since emerging from the communist deep freeze, Bulgaria has seen a strong revival of its historic, and largely Orthodox Christian traditions. Everywhere one goes, from cities to the mountainous countryside, Bulgaria’s rich Christian heritage is on full display, in many hundreds of churches and monasteries both large and small. The most impressive and spiritually significant of them date from the Byzantine-influenced mediaeval Bulgarian Empire and from the 19-century “national renaissance” period (when Bulgarians finally drove the Ottoman Turks from their homeland with the help of Russia and an Eastern Orthodox coalition which included Romania, Serbia and Montenegro).

Conveniently for visitors, many of Bulgaria’s most magnificent churches are concentrated in the capital, Sofia, or within a few hours’ drive from the city. For monastery-hunters, isolated spiritual sites can be found everywhere from the rolling plains of the northeast to the Rhodopi Mountains of the south, and all the way to the Black Sea coast.

Sofia boasts some of the country’s most architecturally superb and historically significant churches. The capital may be dominated by grand old buildings and big boulevards, but the churches are unmissable.

The Church of Sveti (Saint) Nikolai, with its glittering gold domes was built in 1914 for Sofia’s then-Russian community. It contains Byzantine-era frescoes dating from the 11th to 14th centuries. In the church’s crypt, the faithful leave prayers in the form of hand-written letters at the grave of Archbishop Seraphim.

Bulgaria’s historic affinity with Russia is evoked again at the Alexander Nevski Cathedral, occupying an entire square and fronted by gold-plated domes. Designed by a Russian architect in the Byzantine revival style, Nevski Cathedral was completed over a 30-year period, after the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, in which thousands of Russian soldiers lost their lives while fighting to liberate Bulgaria from the Turks. The crypt here (located through a door at the left inside the main entrance) is notable for its large collection of historic icons. Dating from the 5th to the 19th centuries, these icons were gathered from churches all over Bulgaria and represent one of the world’s most important church collections of Orthodox icons.

Just nearby Nevski Square stands the capital’s oldest church, the restored, red-brick Sveta Sofia; named for the Greek word for “wisdom”, the church became the namesake of a city known previously to the Romans as Serdica. The connection between the Bulgarian nation, Christianity and martial sacrifice is again marked here, with the symbolic Tomb of the Unknown Soldier standing just outside. Another small, and working, church from the late Roman period worth seeing is Sveti Georgi Rotunda, originally built in the fourth century, containing murals from the tenth to fourteenth centuries.

The ravages of occupation and revolution have left an indelible mark on Sofia’s churches. After the Ottoman conquest of the city in 1382, many Bulgarian churches were destroyed, and new ones were strictly regulated so as not to overshadow mosques (as is clearly seen by the sunken foundations of tiny Sveta Petka Samardzhiiska, a rare example of a Sofia church built in the early Ottoman period). And the nearby Sveta Nedelya Cathedral – a major city landmark, known for its Byzantine-style frescoes – was almost destroyed in a 1925 bombing by communist assassins. Although over 120 parishioners died in the bombing (including much of the government cabinet), the intended target, Tsar Boris III survived.

Other Bulgarian churches have enjoyed a more placid existence. Just 8km south of Sofia, towards the refreshing Mt Vitosha, the graceful 13th-century Boyana Church occupies a quiet spot in a leafy courtyard. The church, which was never damaged by the Turks, is a Unesco-listed heritage site and contains wall-to-wall mosaics that are among Bulgaria’s finest. The church’s 90 paintings include portraits of medieval royals and the oldest-known depiction of St Ivan Rilski, Bulgaria’s venerated patron saint.

A remarkable detail about the church is that its upkeep has been performed communally for hundreds of years. Today, Snejana Parvanova has inherited this duty; according to her, local records show that at least eight generations of her extended family have been entrusted with looking after the church. And she clearly loves her job of explaining every artistic flourish and historic event to visitors. “For me It is a great responsibility to show the church to visitors from Bulgaria and other parts of the world,” she says.

To see some of Bulgaria’s most spectacular monasteries, it is necessary to venture further out of the capital. Only about an hour’s drive southeast of Sofia, Rila Monastery is Bulgaria’s most awe-inspiring. Set in a thickly-forested mountain vale above a bubbling brook, the grand, red-and-white monastic compound is flanked by colourful balconies, a refectory and arched gates, with the three-domed Church of Rozhdestvo Bogorodichno (Church of the Nativity) occupying much of its inner courtyard. Frescoed outside and in, the church’s paintings were partly the work of Zahari Zograf, Bulgaria’s most renowned iconographer. The hand-carved, 19th-century wooden iconostasis at the altar is equally impressive. Outside, a tall stone fortress tower from the 14th century stands guard.

Rila is very much a working monastery, and Orthodox pilgrims come to seek spiritual advice and listen with bowed heads as monks briskly recite blessings and prayers for individual parishioners. Even if you can’t communicate in Bulgarian, spending some time to reflect in the massive church, amidst incense, candles and chanting is a spiritual experience in itself.
Founded in 927 by the hermit-monk, Ivan Rilski in the nearby forest, Rila was moved to its current location in 1335, becoming a feudal stronghold and protector of Orthodox relics and holy literature during the long Ottoman occupation. The Russian connection was historically strong here too; after a devastating fire in the 15th century, a special agreement between the Russian Monastery of St Panteleimon (located on Mt Athos in nearby Greece) provided funding for Rila to be renewed.

In the 19th century, the monastery again suffered from a devastating fire but was rebuilt with local and foreign donations. By then, it had also become a key centre for transmitting Byzantine spiritual doctrine, training clergy and in general preserving Bulgarian national culture and tradition during foreign occupation.

While at Rila, those interested in learning more about monastic (and local) history can enjoy two on-site museums: an ethnographic museum (containing regional folk costumes, arts and crafts) and an ecclesiastical one that contains historic bibles, manuscripts and religious art - the most astonishing being the late 18th-century Rila Cross. A true labour of love, this double-sided wooden crucifix was engraved by a single monk over a 12-year period, and is engraved with 140 miniature biblical scenes and inscriptions, which include some 650 minutely carved human figures.

Entrance is free at most Sofia churches. And 17 September is the day of St Sophia, and special services are held in churches across the city. Visiting Boyana Church costs 10 leva (4.40 pounds), but the ticket also allows a visit at the National History Museum, located two kilometres away.

Visiting Rila Monastery from Sofia can be done directly through public bus or through travel agencies’ organized day trips; to make the most of the visit, however, it’s worth staying over at the monastery’s rooms or in nearby Rila village, which has services and several small hotels.

Just below the monastery and above the water, a popular restaurant serves specialities like fresh river trout; the monastery is also known for its mekitsi (a kind of fried dough topped with confectioner’s sugar, and often accompanied with sheep’s milk yoghurt), available from a tiny bakery window just above the restaurant.

Bulgaria also has many far-flung religious sites large and small. Some fascinating but less-visited places include the sparse northwest, full of empty rolling hills where occasional signs can lead you down dirt tracks to churches new and old alike. For those planning to visit other parts of Bulgaria, important monasteries include the 11th-century Bachkovo Monastery near Plovdiv in the east, and Dryanovo Monastery, set peacefully in a river gorge 24km from the scenic town of Veliko Tarnovo in central Bulgaria.

Also located in the country’s forested interior, Troyan Monastery is Bulgaria’s third-largest (after Rila and Bachkovo), and known for its vivid frescoes and tranquil setting. From 1872, resistance leader Vasil Levski used it as a secret planning base and the monastery became a field hospital for Russian soldiers in the 1877 war with the Turks.

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