by Ani Ivanova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

The 80-year-old sexton at the St Aleksandr Nevskiy Cathedral in Sofia explains how to ring 12-ton bell

Aleksandr Nevskiy Cathedral 3.jpg

If you are in Sofia at the weekend, you can't fail to hear the bells that mark the beginning of services in the St Aleksandr Nevskiy Cathedral. Their mighty tones echo throughout the city centre and, some say, even further, provided the weather is calm.

The sound of the 12 bells, which weigh a total of 25 tons, is not created by machinery, but by the hands of an 80-year-old former maths teacher.

Every Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning, Maria Zabova climbs the 220 steps leading to the cathedral's belfry to ring the bells. She sometimes comes on weekdays, too – on major Christian holidays as well as on special occasions, for example the arrival of foreign secular or clerical dignitaries.

These have included Bill Clinton, Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Peter VII of Alexandria. She also works on national holidays, and for special events such as the liberation of the Bulgarian nurses from Libya in 2007.

The peal of the bells usually lasts 20 minutes. But not always. In 1996, when the former king and future prime minister, Simeon Saxe-Coburg, returned after a 50-year exile, they rang for over two hours.

The same happened when a reputedly miracle-working icon of the Holy Virgin arrived from Jerusalem in 2000.

"You have to be very strong physically to endure the cold, wind, and heat, especially at my age," Maria says.

In winter, there are severe winds (the bell tower is 53 m, or 174 ft, high), and the temperature is about 10 degrees lower than at ground level. In summer, it is at least 10 degrees higher, and rising in the evening because of the bells that have been heated by the sun.

"You need strength and faith for this job," she adds. "I thank God that he has given me good health. He looks after me. I have never been ill and have recovered from accidents, such as a car crash and falling down a shaft, without treatment. And I have never missed my duties."

Which is remarkable, when you consider that Maria has been pulling the bell ropes since 1981, when she began assisting her predecessor, Uncle Iliya, the longtime former bell-ringer and sexton. Four years later, she was officially appointed "holiday bell-ringer." The job pays a pittance, but she does not mind: "I would even do it for free."

Born in Chirpan in 1929, Maria graduated from the St Joseph French College in Plovdiv. She came from a wealthy family, which was a problem for her after the Communists came to power in 1944. "I was declared 'unreliable' because I came from the bourgeoisie.

Every year, for three years in a row, I took all the necessary exams and tried to enrol at university, but they would not allow it."

Eventually, she was accepted, but not to study medicine, the subject she originally wanted. Instead, she took mathematics and physics at Sofia University, because there were places available. Maria went on to work as a maths teacher.

How do mathematics and physics marry with belief in God? "They go together very well. Mathematics is an exact science and so is God's science. Science, my life, my faith, are all one and bound up together."

Her family background and education were not her only problem.

Aleksandr Nevskiy Cathedral

"Those with Western education were treated with contempt," she explains. But her religion turned out to be an even bigger woe. "I had been singing in the choir of the St Marina Church in Plovdiv since the age of 14. When the Communists took over, I continued singing, despite the risks."

There were dangers indeed: in those days Bulgaria followed Marx's maxim that religion is the opium of the people and the authorities kept a watchful eye out for possible "addicts." Offenders were punished and expelled from university or dismissed from work.

"I had problems at university because I went to church. I was thrown out of DKMS, the Communist Party's youth organisation, which meant I would be expelled from university too." Maria had to resort to cunning, joining the choir of the St George Church and then the one of the Sveti Sedmochislenitsi Church. "They lost track of me, even though I was right here under their eyes."

Eventually, the militia caught her singing in the choir of the Sveti Sedmochislenitsi Church and had her sacked from her teaching post at the 26th High School. She later moved to the St Aleksandr Nevskiy Cathedral. To evade militia spies who were watching the churches, Maria used another trick: she wore a wig.

Maria finds the present state of things natural after years of atheism. "We are now seeing the fruit of the very thick curtain that was drawn across church and religion – all you see nowadays is people's violence, dissoluteness and callousness. Churches are empty, while restaurants are full."

Maria is convinced that God rewards her faith with her continued good health and luck. It was in Nevskiy Cathedral she met the man she later married, Ivan Petrov, a theologian and a self-taught singer, a chorister and also a soloist at the Sofia Opera House. The two have three daughters and nine grandchildren.

Maria's family is used to her regular weekend engagements – it is not a job, but a vocation fostered by faith. "A choirboy might not turn up sometimes, but I can't do that because a service can't start without bells."

Aleksandr Nevskiy Cathedral

A narrow spiral staircase leads to the belfry. Once there, not even out of breath from her ascent, Maria unlocks the small metal door and steps into the balcony with its incredible panoramic view of Sofia. She ignores the view and concentrates on the bells, to ensure they are correctly positioned – then puts on gloves and earplugs.
Maria rings 12 bells simultaneously.

They remain stationary, a system of different ropes and pedals moving only their clappers. Their song is not the standard seven tones, but is a symphony of tones and semitones. This effect results from the proportionate weight of the bells, each one being half as heavy as the next in line; the heaviest weighs nearly 12 tons and the lightest is only 10 kg.

Maria first moves the largest bell, but soon leaves it in the hands of one of the church's heirodeacons, or deacon monks. Her right hand sets the tempo, which comes from the four largest bells, while with the rope in her left she plays the melody on the five other bells. A foot pedal works the mechanism for the shrill chimes of the smallest bell. Standing on a metal pedestal in the centre of the platform, eyes closed, she looks like a conductor completely engrossed by the music of a great orchestra.

Maria composes her melodies herself. "I use mathematics; I fit the strikes to the rhythm. You need to have both physical strength and a good ear for music for this job." Anybody who listens to the sound of the cathedral bells will notice this. The chimes can be lively and cheerful at the beginning of the service, for example, or slow and mournful for funerals. You can hear both this month – the two largest bells will be played alternately, on 17 April, Razpeti Petak, or Good Friday, and then all the bells will chime joyfully on midnight on 19 April, to usher in Velikden, or Easter Sunday.

Aleksandr Nevskiy Cathedral

St Aleksandr Nevskiy Cathedral Bells Trivia

The cathedral is the largest on the Balkan Peninsula after the St Sava Cathedral in Belgrade. Its bell tower is 53 m, or 174 ft, high and has 12 bells. The heaviest weighs 12 tons, while its clapper alone weighs 780 kg.

The bells were cast from lead, silver and copper in Moscow in 1912.

They were transported to Odessa over the course of a whole year, then shipped to Varna and carried on to Sofia by train. A special vehicle, also brought from Russia, was used to transport them from the railway station to the church.

They were installed in the belfry with the help of pulleys and a team of oxen. To raise them to the top of the tower, the oxen had to walk as far as the National Bank building (today the Bulgarian National Bank) half a mile away. One man died during the operation.

The bells are arranged in a semicircle by size: first the smallest, then the middle ones below them, and finally the biggest two on either side, several feet above the floor. The two largest bells are decorated with icons of Jesus, the Holy Virgin, King Boris, Aleksandr Nevskiy, Cyril and Methodius, St Sophia and St Ivan Rilski, and the Kingdom of Bulgaria's coat of arms as well as seraphim and some colourful ornamentation.

Sofianites first heard the bells on 13 March 1913. Although the church was not yet consecrated, the Holy Synod gave permission to sound them because the date was significant – it was the day the Adrianople Fortress was captured by the Bulgarian army.


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