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Published: September 22nd 2019
It is Sunday morning and we had now been in Bulgaria for a week. Each day had been an education on Bulgaria: its ancient and recent historical treasures, its art & architecture, traditional culture, food and even modes of transportation.
We had seen sites spanning many historical eras: the 20th-
century remnants of the Communist era, Koprivshtitsa’s 19th
-century Bulgarian National Revival architecture, the Ottomans’ 14th
century mosque and 1st
century Roman engineering in Plovdiv. Today’s scheduled jaunt would take us to sites from the early Medieval or Middle Ages period, roughly the 5th
centuries. Our Euromeet host, John, had arranged a day trip to two significant sites built in this time frame: Asen’s Fortress and Bachkovo Monastery.
We had a very light breakfast at the hotel before taking a taxi over to our meeting point at the Ramada Inn on the far edge of Old Town. Our group’s guide, Kamen (‘kay – men’), was very impressive just as all of our guides in Bulgaria proved to be.
From Plovdiv, it was an easy southeasterly 20 km drive through the town of Asenovgrad on the edge of the Rhodope Mountains, and beyond which our destinations are located. Asenovgrad
is an ancient city founded by the Thracians between 300 - 400 BC originally thought to be called Stenímachos (aka Stenimaka). Following the Unification of Bulgaria on September 6, 1885, when Ottoman rule was decisively ended, the reintroduction of Christian religion began and “churches and monasteries are called to carry out spiritual conversion immediately, and therefore their intensive construction begins” (credit: asenovgrad.bg). In 1934, the city was renamed for the 13th-
century Bulgarian Tsar, Ivan Asen II and the fortress we were to visit also takes its name from him as well.
As we passed through Asenovgrad on the way to and from the fortress and monastery, we learned it is also known for some surprising and unusual facts:
Interesting fact #1: Asenovgrad is considered part of a “sacred center,” so it seemed very logical when our guide explained that Asenovgrad is sometimes called the “Little Jerusalem of Bulgaria
.” The town has earned the name because it is home to 5 monasteries, 15 churches, and 58 chapels (the number of each varies according to the source) to serve its population of roughly 60,000 people which is simply astounding.
Interesting fact #2: Asenovgrad’s has a claim to fame as
the Bridal Shop capital of Bulgaria. Most of the wedding gowns in Bulgaria are sold here, if not also made here. Engaged women from all over the country come here to shop for the wedding gown of their dreams!
Soon after passing through Asenovgrad we reached the medieval Asen’s Fortress (Асенова крепост, Asenova krepost) which is sometimes identified as Petrich. It sits high on a rocky ledge near the Asenitsa River just near the curve of the winding mountain road.
Designated as a National Monument of Culture, the fortress and its Church of the Holy Mother of God are thought to have been constructed during the 9th
, and 13th
centuries and though the fortress itself no longer exists, the reconstructed church is nearly all that remains. The church’s architecture is a style I’ve come to admire. The exterior is a solid construction of repeating patterns consisting of 3 bands of flat, elongated red brick and mortar sandwiched between stone layers. Unusual for its time, there is an incorporated belfry; the church dome with small windows is architecturally pleasing, and the roof is made of reddish-orange terracotta tiles.
Gathering our group just by the roadside, Kamen began
to explain the history, and importance of Asen’s Fortress. As he spoke I noticed near us was a rusting ornamental wrought-iron roadside marker with the likeness of the fortress’ Church of the Holy Mother of God depicted on it in bright orange and capped by 3 stylized spearheads. Another photo signpost topped by a small metal cross pointed in the direction of the St. Athanasius the Great Chapel which was built in 1863 by Asenovgrad craftsmen. It’s a shame we had no time to visit it.
A very rocky and sometimes uneven path lead down the side of the mountain to the Fortress Church. Along the way wildflowers were blooming and the mountain sides were as green as far as the eye could see. The day was a bit gray with clouds hovering low over the mountains also accompanied by a thin mist hanging over the valley. Far below us was a tiny house, some ramshackle sheds, and small orchard but no signs of animal or human life that I could see.
At the ground level of the structure, a climb up a steep staircase is required to reach the small church on the building’s second level (the
ground level rooms were for storage of a sort). Both the entrance and church have vaulted ceilings allowing for more paintable surface area. A blind arch separates the nave and entrance or vestibule. Once richly decorated with frescoes, it's still surprising to see how many of these 14th
century paintings, though otherwise faded, incomplete or obscured during restoration, still exist. Some figures and scenes are identifiable – John the Baptist, Sts. Peter and Paul, Helena and Constantine, etc. A few separate portrait icon paintings have been placed around the church.
There is no traditional altar but there is a little stand with a small painting of the Dormition of Mary placed on it. In the painting we see a man with his hands severed as he kneels next to Mary. My friend, Sarah, remembers the interpretation of the painting: "a pagan kneeling at Mary’s bedside trying to drag her down to Hell, his hands chopped off at the wrist by an angel to prevent him succeeding." (See: https://toonsarah.travellerspoint.com/328/
Above the apse is the dome with small windows which brings in natural light to supplement the few large windows that have been restored or added to. The view across
the valley from these windows is beautiful and one can only imagine how inspirational the church must have been with this view, when all the murals were vivid and people gathered here to worship. An added wall plaque shows photos of the church in the very early 20th
century and it is clear how much has been done to restore it since then.
While the church had been spared destruction by the Ottomans for reasons unknown, the rest of the fortress was destroyed. (My thoughts are that the church was spared because it was dedicated to Mary, similar to their position/belief on Maryemana Evi near Ephesus, Turkey, which had been spared and is now a shrine.) Before leaving we climbed to the elevated area which once was the fortress tower, now only a lookout area with the Bulgarian flag waving in the wind.
Since we missed the day trip to the famous Rila Monastery while in Sofia, I had been eagerly anticipating our visit to Bachkovo Monastery. While many beautiful cathedrals and churches can be found throughout Europe, Eastern Europe can claim to have some of the most magnificent monasteries. Bachkovo, the second largest monastery in Bulgaria as
well as a National Monument of Culture, was founded by two Georgian brothers, Grigorii and Abazii Bakuriani and the daughter of Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenus in 1083. Like Rila, the Bulgarian Orthodox Bachkovo Monastery, a stauropegial monastery, is a deeply treasured part of Bulgarian culture.
Less than a mile from Asen’s Fortress our little bus left the main highway only to have to run a gauntlet of sorts on our approach to the monastery itself. Lining the road is a plethora of tiny shops, as well as a café, selling not only religious articles, but Bulgarian pottery, food, clothing, toys, and more. Knowing that Bachkovo is one of the most important attractions in this region of Bulgaria, the locals have taken advantage of this spot to attract the many tourists passing through.
At the parking area just outside of the monastery some of us noticed a vintage, Soviet-built “Moskvitch 2140” car. Manufactured by the Lenin Komsomol Moscow Automotive Plant (LKMAP) from 1976 – 1988, the car style is utilitarian and sensible. Oddly enough, this car sported a US Ford Mustang grill emblem.
Bachkovo Monastery’s arched entry gate is framed by scrolling wrought iron, behind it a vestibule
with a blind arch decorated with paintings of St. Michael, Gabriel the Archangel and angels flanking a medallion portrait of Mary and baby Jesus all on a background of sky blue. Beyond is the lovely first monastery courtyard with its ornamental trees and the beautiful architecture of the churches and other buildings surrounding it.
No place I have previously visited prepared me for the sheer magnitude and richness of the religious paintings in the 3 churches of Bachkovo -- the 17th
-century Church of the Assumption of Mary (Dormition of the Holy Mother of God), the 11th
-century St. Archangels, and the 19th
-century St. Nikolai Church. Whether you’re a religious person or not, it is all truly impressive. The paintings are a source of symbolism and instruction then as now for people who visit and worship here.
Our guide, Kamen, was invaluable with his professorial knowledge of the historical and religious significance of what we were to see here. The Church of the Assumption of Mary was truly extraordinary. Suffice it to say that every surface, including the barrel-vaulted ceilings, dome, and window recesses, were all covered with frescoes.
Even more layers of artwork could be found in the
elaborate 17 – 18th
century iconostasis, icons of silver and brass framed by incredibly detailed woodcarving, silver filigree hanging sconces, and brilliant chandeliers. The most venerated object at the monastery is the silver icon of the Holy Mother of God which had been donated to the church in 1311. Frankly, there were many priceless pieces here and I attempted to take as many photos as possible, but even then there were so many that it would have taken hours to do so, and we still had more to see.
Both here and in the courtyard there was an elderly, though stern-looking monk who kept a sharp eye out for those who might be showing disrespect for the sanctity of the church and monastery in general. Myself and others tried to capture his photo during the day. Evoking a long-past era, the monk’s black flowing garments and his long white hair and beard framed a face which was full of character. Unfortunately, he was the only monk I would see during the visit, and I'm not sure how many monks actually live here.
We were lucky to visit the small St. Archangels Church recognizable by the 1841 Zackary (Zahari)
Zograf paintings decorating the facia of its columned porch. Often closed to the public, the intensity of the 1846 Joan Mosch paintings in the interior were no less phenomenal than that of the larger church we had just visited. This 11th
-century single apse church features a barrel vault ceiling and elongated windows and exit is through a door to a side porch. The church was partially destroyed by a 1928 earthquake but it looked quite intact when we visited. Above exit door is a boxed picture/painting which changes scenes depending on from which side you look at it.
On the long refectory wall across from the St. Archangels Temple church is a lengthy mural termed the “panoramic mural.” Its central section depicts the monastery itself and an Easter procession (or “litia”) emerging from it in which the revered 1311 “Miracle Making” icon of the Blessed Mother is carried. The center section of the mural is bookended by both larger and smaller paintings two of which are St. George and St. Dimiter. This remarkable panorama was painted by Alexi Atanasov in 1846.
In the southern monastery courtyard we visited the St. Nickolai Temple/Church but could not go inside due
to a baptism taking place there. Over the entry was a fresco of St. Nikolai himself and the narthex had many wonderful paintings from 1840, which to some extent were more easily interpreted than others we had seen -- specifically a painting of the “Judgement Day” in which angels wage battle against devils for a person's soul. There above the unfolding scene is a scale weighing good deeds against evil deeds. Another area depicts the creation of Adam and Eve and their subsequent fall from grace. In one corner of the ceiling the painting depicts 3 men, one of which is the painter himself, Zachary (Zahari) Zograf – the young man without the beard.
The other buildings enclosing courtyard contain the monks’ quarters and guest quarters. I noticed the day’s laundry hanging over porch railings to dry or air out. I couldn’t help but smile at the contrast between the old and the new as there along with the laundry were several satellite dishes.
More is available to see if the visitor cares to pay extra for the privilege: the monastery dining room with its enormous marble table, the refectory, the Ossuary temple, etc. It's also possible to
stay at the monastery and online photos show simple but pleasant rooms for very reasonable prices. Had we planned to spend more time in Bulgaria, I would have considered staying at the monastery for a unique and most probably unforgettable experience.
Once back in Plovdiv, we returned to Old Town for lunch and the Dzhumaya Mosque for coffee and dessert. This was our last full day in Plovdiv and we would catch the train back to Sofia the following morning. As we were about to leave for dinner, a heavy evening rainstorm flooded the streets and interrupted electricity at our hotel. Dear friends Regina and John kindly drove several groups of us in their rental car to (and from) the Dayana (Diana) 3 Restaurant since no taxis were available. Even the restaurant experienced some flooding and my purse and passport got wet – but dinner was good, and we said our good-byes to our VirtualTourist friends. It had been a memorable last day in Plovdiv!
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