IVANOVO'S MEDIEVAL FACES

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Murals in rock churches, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, continue to mesmerise

Ivanovo medieval rock churches-5.jpg

Churches and monasteries hewn into rocks at often precipitous heights were a clever solution that Christians from the Balkans and the Middle East employed for centuries to achieve a crucial goal: the creation of abodes far from the crowds in places where conventional buildings would be hard to construct. Since the dawn of religion they have enlarged existing caves into rooms that resembled church interiors, complete with naves, altars and apses, and murals. They also lived in caves, in cells scattered around these churches, often forming large compounds. Tucked away in isolated spots, often in narrow river canyons, they provided solitude from laymen and security from invaders.

The rock churches are hewn in the precipitous cliffs of the Rusenski Lom river

The rock churches at Cappadocia, in Turkey, are the best known example, but you do not need to travel all that way to Anatolia to see such structures and art. Bulgaria has several sites of this kind, and one of them is even a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Around 20 kms from Ruse, the bends of the Rusenski Lom River embrace about a dozen churches and monastic cells hewn into the rock. In the 12th-14th centuries they made up a monastic complex. As a bonus, the Ivanovo Rock Churches are part of the Rusenski Lom Nature Park. Covering over 5 acres, it is a place of greenery, rock formations and running water, home to a number of rare and endangered species.

A Transfiguration scene

The tranquility of the location explains, at least partially, why monks seeking solitude began settling here in the 12th century. In the following century, the complex grew into a major spiritual centre, and during the reign of King Ivan Asen II (1217-1240), one of the monks, Ioakim, secured a significant donation from the king for the construction of the monastery's first rock church. The king and Ioakim were obviously on friendly terms – when Ivan Asen restored the Bulgarian Patriarchate, he appointed the monk as its first head.

The close ties between the kings in their capital Tarnovo and the monastic complex, which at the height of its existence had 40 churches and 300 cells accommodating up to 800 monks, never waned. At least two other kings, Georgi Terter and Ivan Aleksandar, made donations to the monastery and were depicted in murals there, along with their wives. Georgi Terter is also thought to have been buried there in the early 14th century.

The popularity of Ivanovo's monastic compound was based on its endorsement of the spiritual trend of the times: Hesychasm. Born in Byzantium, it spread rapidly throughout the Balkans. It was a mystical tradition that promoted silence and meditation in solitude as the shortest way to salvation. In the 14th century Hesychasm attracted so many adherents that Serbian kings were forced to forbid nobles to take the vows, as their departure opened significant gaps in the military and the state administration. According to historians, the swift success of the Ottoman invasion in the same century can be partially attributed to the Hesychasm unwillingness to react to the dangers of the physical world.

Judas gets his 30 pieces of silver

Life in the Ivanovo monastery, however, extended beyond the salvation of the soul. The complex had a busy scriptorium, which produced bibles and other ecclesiastical manuscripts for the churches in the region.

The Ottoman invasion brought all this to a halt. The region experienced a number of battles and later the Ivanovo monastery was stripped of its privileges as a large land-owner, thus leaving the already diminished monastic community without the means to survive. In the 15th-16th centuries the monastery was abandoned, and the elements and treasure hunters took over. The wooden stairs that once used to connect the cells and the churches rotted, and the names of the churches were forgotten.

The monastery was not completely obliterated from memory, however. The people from the nearby villages continued to use some of the churches and as they did not remember the names anymore, they gave them new ones: Pismata, or the Letters, Gospodov Dol, or God's Gully, Zatrupanata, or the Buried Church. One of them is known simply as The Church.

The crossroads for the mediaeval Ivanovo rock churches, on the Ruse-Veliko Tarnovo road, is marked with a road sign with a peculiar design. It represents a spiral that symbolises the Bulgarian historical evolution from the Middle Ages to Communism

In 1979, UNESCO included the Ivanovo Rock Churches in its list because of the combination of historical importance, natural settings, architecture and the artistry of the murals. A fine example of Bulgarian medieval art, they follow the trends and canons set in Constantinople, but with a distinctive local twist. The saints depicted in them are more humane and lively, and their creators showed a clear interest in depicting landscapes, drama and emotions, which is why some scholars are eager to see them as a precursor to Renaissance art.

Nameless and devoid of their libraries, monks and memories, the painted rock churches at Ivanovo are now the ghostly remains of a long-gone world of prayer and mysticism.

  • COMMENTING RULES

    Commenting on www.vagabond.bg

    Vagabond Media Ltd requires you to submit a valid email to comment on www.vagabond.bg to secure that you are not a bot or a spammer. Learn more on how the company manages your personal information on our Privacy Policy. By filling the comment form you declare that you will not use www.vagabond.bg for the purpose of violating the laws of the Republic of Bulgaria. When commenting on www.vagabond.bg please observe some simple rules. You must avoid sexually explicit language and racist, vulgar, religiously intolerant or obscene comments aiming to insult Vagabond Media Ltd, other companies, countries, nationalities, confessions or authors of postings and/or other comments. Do not post spam. Write in English. Unsolicited commercial messages, obscene postings and personal attacks will be removed without notice. The comments will be moderated and may take some time to appear on www.vagabond.bg.

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.

Discover More

WAR & PEACE IN CENTRAL SOFIA
Squirrels and small children frequent unkempt alleys under towering oak and beech trees; а romantic wooden gazebo is often decorated with balloons forgotten after some openair birthday party; melancholic weeping willows hang over an empty artif

SOFIA'S BEST-KEPT SECRET
In 1965, Dimitar Kovachev, a biology teacher from the town of Asenovgrad, was on a field trip to Ezerovo village.

WHAT IS DZHULAYA?
How often do you hum, while driving or doing chores, Uriah Heep's song July Morning? Is it on your Spotify?

MYSTERY CAVE
Bulgaria has its fair share of intriguing caves, from the Devil's Throat underground waterfall to Prohodna's eyes-like openings and the Magura's prehistoric rock art.

RHODOPE'S MANMADE LAKES
Owing to its geological history, the Rhodope mountain range – in contrast to the nearby Rila and Pirin – lacks any impressive Alpine-style lakes. However, where nature erred, man stepped in.

IS RACISM IN BULGARIA ON THE RISE?
"We are fascists, we burn Arabs": the youngsters start chanting as soon as they emerge from the metro station and leave the perimeter of its security cameras.

HOW WOODROW WILSON AND CHARLES DARWIN CAME TO SOFIA
The names of foreigners, mainly Russians, are common across the map of Sofia – from Alexandr Dondukov and Count Ignatieff to Alexey Tolstoy (a Communist-era Soviet writer not to be confused with Leo Tolstoy) who has a whole housing estate named after him.

EMBRACE THE PAST
Picturesque old houses lining a narrow river and tiny shops selling hand-made sweets, knives and fabrics: The Etara open air museum recreates a charming, idealised version of mid-19th century Bulgaria.

JESUS CHRIST ASTRONAUT
Christ was an alien. Or if He was not, then four centuries ago there were UFOs hovering over what is now southwestern Bulgaria.

OF SHPAGINS, TANKS AND ALYOSHAS
Unlike other countries in Central and Eastern Europe, which removed, stashed away or demolished most remnants of their Communist past as early as the 1990s, Bulgaria is a curiosity.

VARVARA'S IRON TREE
Agroup of friends meet each summer at the seaside, a small community who know one another so well that boredom becomes inevitable, and so do internal conflicts. And death.

TAILLESS CATS AND MADMEN MAKING POLITICAL DEMANDS
Descendants of millennia-old rites, the scary kukeri, or mummers, are the best known face of Bulgarian carnival tradition. Gabrovo's carnival is its modern face: fun, critical, and colourful.