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Priest and Patriots

by Charles E. Adelsen
photos by Henry Angelo-Castrillion


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Although they are ancient stone and rock fortresses, the monasteries of Bulgaria are alive in the hearts and minds of her people because of the vital role they played in her battle for independence during the late 19th century. Isolated in the mountains, they provided a perfect shelter for patriotic Bulgarians plotting a dangerous course toward freedom. Valiant monks stood shoulder to shoulder with embattled Bulgarian insurgents and sacrificed their lives for both faith and motherland.

Nestled in the mountains of this country on the eastern edge of the Balkan peninsula, the monasteries are monuments to the persistence of a people’s faith. Treasure houses of a country’s spiritual heritage, they safeguarded the civilization of the past and kept alive artistic, technical and literary skills otherwise lost.

If it were not for the priests and patriots, the thread of Bulgarian national life would have been severed. Behind the cloistered walls of the remote monasteries the faith was nurtured through the long night of Ottoman rule.

Between old Rome in the West and Constantinople, the “new Rome” in the East, Bulgaria was for centuries a fountainhead of exuberant Slav culture and learning and twice was the hub of a farreaching empire.

Bulgaria also experienced five centuries of Ottoman occupation and it was during these years that the monasteries played a vital part in acquiring liberation.

Christianity has had a tumultuous history in Bulgaria. Established as the state religion by Boris I in 864 it came under Byzantine rule when the Council of Constantinople sent bishops. Under Boris’ son, Czar Simeon, Bulgaria experienced her Golden Age from 893 to 927. During this time the church was instrumental in the growth and development of the arts and literature. Because of barbarian invasions in European countries, the Bulgarian civilization was advanced economically, politically and culturally and the country’s influence was felt on neighboring Serbia, Russia and Rumania.

In 1018 when Constantinople conquered Bulgaria the Greek language and liturgy were given preference and the Slavic civilization died. From the Ottoman invasion of 1393 to 1878 Bulgaria was under Turkish domination.

Throughout these five centuries of occupation the Bulgarians remained loyal to the faith which was encouraged by the decision of the Ottomans to grant the Bulgarians an autonomous church in the 18th century.

As cultural and spiritual islands the monasteries preserved the great achievements of Bulgaria’s Golden Age. Today, that accomplishment is visible to the hundreds of pilgrims who visit these monasteries.

The oldest and most glorious of the Bulgarian monasteries is Rila, located in a sheltered valley, not far from the capital of Sofia. Founded by Ivan Rilski, the monastery is a record in stone and lovingly-carved wood of Bulgaria’s long Christian era. It is a study in physical and cultural survival.

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Tags: Christianity Monastery Art Bulgaria