Perched on an outcrop of rock above the Chaya River in the Rhodope, Bachkovo Monastery is a place packed with all the hallmarks of Bulgarian-ness.
Its mediaeval ossuary preserves the only mural portrait of a Bulgarian king. The last patriarch before Bulgaria fell under the Ottomans, Evtimiy of Tarnovo, is believed to have been exiled and to have died there. The fortress-like complex is one of the finest architectural creations of the Bulgarian national revival period, and some of the frescoes are by Zahariy Zograf, the most prominent Bulgarian artist of the 19th Century.
Few of the many visitors that come here to see this gem of a monastery and to pray to its supposedly miraculous icon of the Mother of Christ are aware that Bachkovo Monastery was founded in 1083 by foreigners, the Byzantine aristocrat Gregory Pakourianos and his brother Apasios. Historians disagree on whether they were Georgians (the founding statute of the monastery is in Greek and Georgian) or Armenians (their family name sounds more Armenian than Georgian).
Whatever the brothers' origin, in the following decades Bachkovo Monastery became a centre of Georgian monasticism and one of the places where Georgian and Byzantine culture merged. The monastery was independent of the Constantinople Patriarchate and, even when Bulgaria took over the whole region in 1344, the Bulgarian king, Ivan Alexander, donated money to it.
In 1364, the area fell under the Ottomans. The monastery not only survived, but the first Bulgarian monks started to settle in at the turn of the 14th-15th centuries, a trend whose consequences would be felt later. In the 16th Century the monastery became a religious foundation of Sultan Süleyman I and could levy many taxes, allowing the community to grow and become richer. The 17th Century saw the monastery flourishing, a situation reflected in its buildings and frescoes. The last evidence of Georgians resident in the monastery is from 1699, and over the following decades Bulgarians and Greeks struggled for control of the place, and eventually the Constantinople Patriarchate took over. The Bulgarians, however, got the upper hand in 1894 when, at the monks' request, the authority over the monastery passed to the Bulgarian Exarchate.
Blending foreign origins and a strong connection with Bulgarian history, Bachkovo Monastery is a mosaic of beautiful scenery, intriguing architecture and curious details, and is the site of one of the biggest annual gatherings of Christian Gypsies in Bulgaria.
From the outside, the complex has the formidable look of a fortification, typical for Bulgarian monasteries of the 19th Century, although only part of it is from this period and the rest is a 20th Century reconstruction. The monastery has two courtyards, the main one containing the beautiful Assumption church, with its ornate brick-and-mortar walls. Built in 1604 on the site of the mediaeval church of the Pakourianos brothers, it houses 17th Century icon-doors, among the oldest preserved in Bulgaria. For devout visitors, the supposedly miraculous mediaeval icon of the Virgin Mary is the main focus of interest, and the queues in front of it are at their longest on 15 August, the feast of the Assumption, which is also the official feast day of the monastery. The nave holds something else worthy of quiet contemplation: the graves of Exarch Stefan and Patriarch Kiril. Both men played a crucial role in preventing the deportation of Bulgarian Jews to extermination camps in March 1943.
The mystic atmosphere of the main church is one of the monastery's defining features
A 1643 mural covers the narthex of the church, including a fine portrait of a couple of donors, richly dressed in fur and gold-brocaded clothes: Georgi and his son Konstantin, from the Vlasi village in Thessaly in mainland Greece.
While the monastery's main church dates from the 17th Century, the smaller St Archangel's church that is attached to it is from the 13th Century. It has two floors, but gaining entry is usually impossible, leaving the visitor with only the consolation of looking at the frescoes by Zahariy Zograf on the colonnade.
More curiosities and charming details are to be found around about, such as the giant tortoise shell and antlers adorning the vaulted gate to the second yard (again, usually closed to visitors), where the Zahariy Zograf-painted St Nikola church is to be found. The largest outdoor mural of 19th Century Bulgaria adorns the outer wall of the refectory and, in spite of the presence of some saints, it is more secular than religious. It depicts the founders of the monastery complex at the height of its glory, with a group of richly-dressed pilgrims among whom researchers have identified real people from Plovdiv. Inside, the refectory is just as interesting. Cavernous and covered with didactic murals, including one of the Judgement Day, there is a large marble table placed there, according to its inscription, in 1701. The monks used to eat at it for more than two centuries.
The oldest preserved part of Bachkovo Monastery is outside the main complex. Sitting at the end of an easy path, the two-storey church with ossuary was built in 1083 by Gregory Pakourianos as "a resting place for my bones." Sadly, he was never buried there, as he died in battle three years later and his body was never retrieved from the battlefield. It is the oldest church of its kind in the Orthodox East. At ground level is an ossuary, and the upper storey is for prayers. Rare frescoes from the 12th Century adorn its walls, and among the later additions is the 14th Century portrait of Bulgarian King Ivan Aleksandar.
Bachkovo Monastery, however, is more than just a museum experience and a larger-than-life history lesson. It is one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in Bulgaria and attracts huge crowds at important religious feasts. This popularity has resulted in some not very spiritual consequences, such as the proliferation of taverns and souvenir stalls, whose chalga music and smell of kebapcheta sometimes overpower the monastic atmosphere of sanctity and tranquility.
Then there are the Gypsies. The people of the Kalaydzhii clan live in small communities all over Bulgaria and congregate at the monastery for one of their annual gatherings, where old friends can meet up and young boys and girls may find a partner.
Meet the donors: The lively faces of two 17th Century donors look you from the walls of the narthex of the main church; pay as well attention to their rich clothes
Monks pour blessed water for pilgrims during the 15 August feast
Zahariy Zograf murals on St Archangels' church colonnade
More secular murals adorn the exterior wall of the refectory
Open fire preparation of sacrificial lamb soup for the 15 August feast
A lamb and a priest, awaiting the beginning of the ritual sacrifice
You know that you have found the (usually closed) entrance to the monastery's second yard when you see a giant tortoise shell hanging over your head
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.