What makes Bulgarian monasteries interesting and worth visiting? Many things – not least the fact that due to Bulgaria’s specific historical development, they are among the few “living” historical sites preserved to the present day. Most monasteries are still in use and open to the public. They will take you on a journey back in time and show you what monastic life was like 500 years ago or more.
The history and treasures of Bulgarian monasteries are closely connected with the national spirit and cultural progress. The story of each monastery is quite intriguing and full of heroic moments.
Bulgarian monasteries are famous for their magnificent iconostases, true masterpieces of woodcarving and painting. Their icon collections are unsurpassed in beauty and craftsmanship. Some icons date as far back as the 14th century. Most monastic churches are lavishly decorated with splendid frescoes and wall paintings.
Bulgarian monasteries are nestled at the foothills of mountains or perched on hilltops at picturesque sites in the countryside. They offer a unique insight into the Bulgarian spirit and talents.
The distinguished monasteries in Bulgaria are over 120. Here are just some of them:
Rila Monastery: Bulgaria’s largest and most beautiful monastery lies at the heart of Mount Rila, 123 km south of Sofia. Founded in the 10th century by John of Rila (Ivan Rilski), a hermit and mystic who was canonized as a saint after his death, the monastery was destroyed and rebuilt several times in the next centuries. The exquisite architectural ensemble impresses with its size and skilful combination of stone and wood. The monastery is ringed by mighty walls, giving it the outward appearance of a fortress. Once you get inside, however, this impression is dispelled by the harmonious beauty of the interior. church within.
The monastery church is remarkable for its five domes, richly coloured frescoes executed with superb craftsmanship, and magnificent iconostasis, a masterpiece of Bulgarian Renaissance art. Next to it rises Hrelyo’s Tower (built in the 14th century), which you can ascend in order to visit the top-floor chapel. The ethnographic collection on view at the monastery’s museum is most notable for its carpets and silverware, while the treasury contains a wealth of objects, including icons, mediaeval gospels and manuscripts.
Bachkovo Monastery: Located 30 km south of Plovdiv in the Rhodope Mountains, the monastery was founded in the 11th century by Georgian monks The ossuary with its exquisite architecture and wall paintings dates from that time. The Church of the Archangels was built in the l2th century. In the early l6th century, the monastery was destroyed by the Ottoman conquerors but rebuilt at the end of the century. Of great interest are the monastery refectory (1601), the Church of the Assumption (1604) with murals dating from 1643, and the domed Church of St Nicholas (1837), decorated in 1840 by Zahari Zograf, most famous Bulgarian 19th-century painter. In the monastery’s treasury, you can see an icon from 1311 made of pure gold.
Troyan Monastery: Located near the town of Troyan, legends suggest that this monastery was founded long before the l5th century. It flourished around 1600, but subsequently declined. In the early l9th century the monastic brotherhood rebuilt the monastery. The main church was built in 1835 and decorated by Zahari Zograph in 1847-1849. The spacious residential wings with roomy verandas were built in 1835-1855. In 1865 a tower was raised in the monastery courtyard, with a chapel on the top floor and a belfry.
Rozhen Monastery: Located 35 km from the town of Sandanski, southwest Bulgaria, is one of the few mediaeval monasteries in Bulgaria to have survived relatively intact to the present day. According to documents kept at Mount Athos in Greece, the monastery dates back at least to 890 – for comparison, Bulgaria’s biggest monastery, the Rila monastery, is believed to have started functioning in 917. The monastery church, dedicated to the Nativity of the Holy Virgin, later gave its name to the nearby village of Rozhen (Rozhen comes from the root of the Bulgarian word for nativity, rozhdestvo). Nowadays, the monastery is well-maintained and open to the public all year round. The monastery’s feast day is on 8 September, when people from all over the area come here to take part in the celebrations.
Aladzha Monastery: Located 14 km from the city of Varna and close to the Black Sea resort of Golden Sands. This is one of the few preserved and accessible rock monasteries in Bulgaria, dating from the time of the Second Bulgarian Empire (12th –14th century), and it was most likely inhabited until the 18th century. It consists of monastic cells and a small church hewn into a sheer cliff. Differently coloured 13th-14th century frescoes are still discernible on its walls, but only few of them are preserved. The church has a wood-carved iconostasis.