FAIRYTALE CHURCH

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Russian Orthodox temple near Shipka honours fallen in 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War

russian church bulgaria

When travelling near Kazanlak in the Valley of Roses (also known as the Valley of Thracian Kings), your attention will be drawn to three monuments on the slopes of the Stara Planina mountain range. The first is the silhouette of the crumbling concrete "flying saucer" of the Communist Party Buzludzha House. The second is the bulwark-ish monument to the 1877-1878 defenders of the Shipka Pass. The third is the golden domes of a Russian-style church that gleam amid the forest above the town of Shipka.

The church is a mesmerising sight with its onion-shaped domes reflecting the low sun. Its colourful ornamentation, bright arches, and green-tiled dragon-scales-like roofs make you think it belongs in a fairytale. Tall trees cast deep shade in the romantic park around it, lending an air of quiet contemplation and mystique.

The bulky Shipka Pass monument and the romantic Shipka church are related. Both are dedicated to those who died defending the Shipka Pass, a crucial battle in the Russo-Turkish war that led to the restoration of the Bulgarian state after five centuries of Ottoman domination. Between August 1877 and January 1878, Russian forces and Bulgarian volunteers fought off, often against almost overwhelming odds, the attacking Ottoman army. Later, their sacrifice and bravery became a symbol of national consciousness and pride in Bulgaria.

russian church bulgaria

The church's architecture, interior and decoration are in the finest tradition of the so-called Russian Revival style

The gold-domed church, along with a monastery, was built to honour the memory and to house the remains of Russian soldiers who died in the 1877-1878 war. Construction was funded by donations and was initiated by the Russian diplomat, Count Nikolay Ignatieff, who was instrumental in the 1877-1878 events, and the mother of the Russian Gen Mikhail Skobelev, whose bravery in the war made him a hero to Bulgarians. The same man, significantly, commands a much more sinister gable in Central Asia as he was responsible for the Khiva Massacre, in today's Uzbekistan.

Construction of the Nativity church at Shipka started in 1885 and ended in 1902. Russian builders designed it in the distinctive style of 19th century Russian clerical architecture, a romantic concoction of the tradition of older wooden churches and the ambition of the empire, demonstrated by its rich ornamentation, gilt domes and a 53-metre spire with bells whose combined weight exceed 45 tonnes. The underground level is more sombre, as it is a crypt for the remains of about 9,000 Russian and Bulgarian soldiers.

The Shipka church was created to be a place of commemoration and quiet contemplation, but also act as propaganda for Russia's role as the liberator of the Bulgarians. When the USSR replaced the old empire the church became the focus of... a property dispute. In 1934, Stalin transferred ownership of the site to Bulgaria, on one condition: that White Russian emigres could never act as custodians.

russian church bulgaria

The Russian church is now the property of the Bulgarian East-Orthodox Church. It is one of several former Russian churches in Bulgaria the most famous being the Russian church in central Sofia. 

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