As a city that remembers its glorious past as one of Bulgaria's mediaeval capitals, and its importance in the 19th century as the nascent Bulgarian nation struggled for independence and recognition, Veliko Tarnovo has a collection of churches that have witnessed or played a part in many historic events.
In the Middle Ages, Tarnovo was not only a political and administrative capital, but also a major religious centre. In and around it were dozens of churches and monasteries, where priests and monks of all ranks were busy with prayer, philosophy, and writing. The Ottoman invasion of the 14th century brought all this to an end, but some of the churches survived. You will find them clustered around Tsarevets hill, where the main fortress of mediaeval Tarnovo used to be. All of them are now museums.
St Dimitar Solunski, or Demetrius of Thessaloniki, is the smallest, but the most beautiful and the most important of these. It is also the oldest. Sitting at the foot of Trapezitsa hill, on the bank of the Yantra River by the modern road to Arbanasi, it is where an event present in all Bulgarian history textbooks happened. Here, on the feast of St Dimitar in 1185, two Bulgarian aristocrats, brothers Asen and Petar, proclaimed a rebellion against the Byzantine emperor. At the time, Bulgaria had been under Byzantine rule for almost two centuries, and Asen and Petar wisely used the most powerful propaganda tool of the time: the prophetic dream. They claimed that they had seen St Demetrius leaving his traditional home in Greek-dominated Thessaloniki and moving to Tarnovo, offering his protection to the rebellion.
The revolt succeeded and both Asen and Petar were crowned kings of Bulgaria in St Dimitar church.
An earthquake destroyed the church in the 13th century, but a replacement was built over the remains in the 15th century, which, together with a cemetery, survived the Ottoman rule. It finally collapsed during the devastating earthquake of 1 June 1913, which ravaged about 80 percent of the buildings in the city.
The church you see today, a beautiful toy-like concoction of bricks and tiles, is a 1970s reconstruction based on the layout of the St Dimitar Solunski where Asen and Petar ended the Byzantine power.
The St Dimitar Church played a crucial role in Bulgarian history as the location where, in 1185, the successful rebellion that led to the restoration of Bulgarian independence from the Byzantine Empire started
The Ss 40 Martyrs church, at the foot of Tsarevets hill, is better known by tourists. Its neatly hewn stones and shining roof tiles are signs of a recent, and not very good, restoration. The western facade is the only part of the original church, built by King Ivan Asen to commemorate a decisive victory in 1230. The king did not stop with the construction of the church: he turned the project into a propaganda piece. He described his victory in length on one of the columns in the church, and added some older inscriptions, by two of the greatest rulers of Bulgaria before it fell to the Byzantines. Khans Krum and Omurtag were both pagans, but that did not matter. The most important thing was that their inscriptions reminded the visitor that the Bulgaria of the Asen dynasty was the proper and lawful heir of the older Bulgaria.
In the 18th century, Ss 40 Martyrs was turned into a mosque, but after Liberation in 1878 it became one of the most symbolically laden locations in Bulgaria. Its connection with the great King Ivan Asen was the reason why, on 22 September 1908, King Ferdinand I declared Bulgaria's full independence from the Ottoman Empire there.
The 1913 earthquake, however, was too much for the church. The building basically lay in ruins until renovations began in the early 2000s. Meanwhile, archaeological research led to an astonishing discovery. With some very circumstantial evidence, an aristocratic grave was identified as belonging to another great king, Kaloyan. Historians still argue whether the skeleton was his or not, but this did not stop the 2000s "patriotic" propaganda. In 2006, the supposed Kaloyan was reburied in the church, with a pompous and extremely lavish state ceremony.
Seen between one of the arches of the Vladishki, or Bishop’s, Bridge is the Ss 40 Martyrs Church
Along the same bank of the Yantra, there is another mediaeval church worth visiting. Ss Peter and Paul dates from the 1230s, and preserves murals from the 13th, 15th and16th centuries. It, too, was severely damaged in 1913, and was restored in the 1980s.
The top of Trapezitsa hill is crowned by a building that claims to be not merely a church, but a patriarchal cathedral. The Assumption of Christ, however, is not a proper church. It was built in the 1980s, roughly over the place where Tarnovo's main church supposedly used to stand, before it was demolished by the Ottomans. Unlike the other mediaeval churches of Tarnovo, where restoration works made use of documented evidence, the new "patriarchy" is more of a fantasy of what the original might have looked like. The modernistic murals, dedicated to the suffering and triumph of the Bulgarian people, rather than Christianity, add to the strangeness of the place.
The churches in Tarnovo that are still in use date from the 19th century, and were built when the Sultan allowed the Eastern Orthodox church to construct new places of worship. They are scattered amid the Revival Period houses in the Varusha neighbourhood, on Orlovets hill, where the core of old Tarnovo is, and continue to serve the local community. If you have the chance and want a more authentic experience, visit them during a major religious feast.
In the 1840s, St Nikolay became the home of the city's first Bulgarian school. The belfry was erected in 1872
The oldest of these, St Nikolay, was built in the 1830s, and is distinguished by the domed cupola of its belfry. In the 19th century, it housed a popular Bulgarian school and was a centre for the Bulgarian movement for independence from the Greek-controlled Patriarchate in Constantinople. This fight was crucial, as it defined Bulgarians as a separate nation within the Ottoman Empire for the first time and paved the way for the movement towards full independence.
Ss Cyril and Methodius was built by famed architect Kolyu Ficheto in 1860, and immediately became a hotbed of the church independence movement. It has a nice collection of icons by the renowned school of Tryavna, and a beautiful belfry with a dome in the shape of an inverted ipomoea flower. Ficheto used a similar design for the Ss Constantine and Helen church, which he built in 1873. Like its sister, it has Tryavna school icons, but also boasts some pieces by Nikolay Pavlovich, one of Bulgaria's first proper artists.
Built by Kolyu Ficheto, Ss Constantine and Elena had two wooden columns by the main entrance, that would freely rotate in their spaces, reportedly serving as an early earthquake alarm system. According to some accounts, the columns stuck in their places a year before the devastating 1913 earthquake, due to the dislocation of underground layers. In the 1980s, the columns were removed and the church was closed for conservation issues that are yet to be solved. The church remains closed and looks abandoned
Tarnovo's main cathedral, the Nativity of the Mother of Christ, is visible from afar, as it sits on a prominent elevation opposite the Tsarevets hill. Its green domes and bold architecture are in the architectural style that became dominant after 1878, but the story of its construction is one of destruction.
Yes, it is the 1913 earthquake again. When it hit, it obliterated the older cathedral that had been built in the 1840s by Kolyu Ficheto and which had witnessed the coronations of princes Alexander I of Battenberg in 1879, and of Ferdinand I in 1887. The replacement was constructed in 1924-1934, and its murals are sufficiently patriotic: besides the usual Christian themes, they depict the Bulgarians adopting Christianity in the 9th century, and the exile of the last Bulgarian patriarch after Tarnovo fell to the Ottomans. The bells were made in Russia, and their inscriptions commemorate the Russian army crossing the Danube during the 1877-1878 war with the Ottoman Empire.
The Nativity of the Mother of Christ is built atop of a hill that according to local tradition was inhabited by the Bulgarian medieval aristocracy. The current building appeared after the devastating 1913 earthquake destroyed its predecessor. The cathedral is the burial place of Bishop Kliment (1840-1901), who was an early Bulgarian politician, authored Bulgaria's first short novel and first original theatre drama, and was twice a prime minister
The interior of the Nativity of the Mother of Christ cathedral was decorated during Communism, in the 1950s, by some of the most distinguished artists of the time, including Dimitar Gyudzhenov, famed for his paintings of major Bulgarian historical figures and events
The Ss Cyril and Methodius church was built in the 1860s by the community of settlers who arrived in Tarnovo from a number of towns and villages in the central Stara Planina mountain. The belfry was built in 1885 and has a still functioning clockwork mechanism
High Beam is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.