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Sofia`s Mount Athos
We are in Sofi a and perhaps we do not have the time to visit the largest Bulgarian monasteries – the Rila, Troyan, Bachkovo Monasteries, to which there are one-day tours. So, we shall concentrate on the smaller monasteries closer to the capital, called the Little Mount Athos or Sofi a’s Mount Athos. The specifi cs and fate of these comparatively more modest medieval literary centres is different. But even though they are not so famous, Orthodoxy preserves its traditions here and has always served to strengthen the faith of the Bulgarians. An impressive fact is that in Sofi a eparchy alone there are 97 monasteries, and Sofi a’s district encompasses 57, of which 42 functioning monasteries.
The Saint George Kremikovtsi Monastery (13th C), as most Sofia monasteries originated in the Second Bulgarian State. Its donor was probably King Ivan Alexander. After the fall of Sofia region under Ottoman domination, the monastery was repeatedly destroyed
and rebuilt, with the help of the local population. One of the donors was the Sofia boyar Radivoy, who rebuilt the monastery in memory of his children Todor and Dragana. Their portraits, colourful and realistic, are masterpieces of church painting. The Kremikovtsi Gospel has been preserved, which is a paragon of the art of calligraphy, a fact that gives grounds to believe that the Kremikovtsi Monastery was a literary centre and most probably assisted the nearby monasteries of Seslavtsi and Eleshnitsa. Today it is a functioning nunnery.
            North of the village of Seslavtsi, on the southern side of Stara Planina is situated the Saint Nicholas Seslavtsi Monastery. It was built near the Kaleto fortress in the 14th century, and later, during the 16th century it was revived. The monastery murals are impressive with their freshness and colour. Today it is not functioning.
The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Eleshnitsa Monastery dates back to 1499, according to a marble tablet found at the foot of Murgash Mt. The church is small, probably not to attract attention, and only the cross distinguishes it from an ordinary building. Its interior, however, is a real gallery of masterpieces. The oldest frescos date back to the 16th century and in conformity with the canon are in darker shades, whereas the later ones are brighter. One of the most noteworthy scenes, The Day of Judgement, was painted in 1864.
The Saint John of Rila German Monastery (10th C) is from the time of the First Bulgarian State, when the adoption of Christianity was followed by intensive church construction. The monastery was built in the narrow valley of the Lozen Mountain, only 15 km away from Sofi a. In the period of the Second Bulgarian State it established itself as a literary and enlightenment centre. The National Museum of Church History and Archaeology keeps a remarkable manuscript, The German Collection, and another one, Mineus Prologue, is kept at the National Library. The monastery established close contacts with the Bulgarian Zograph Monastery on Mount Athos and today it is still part of the Ephoria. The present-day stone church was built in 1885. Of the earlier church, parts of the iconostasis, the bishop’s throne and some icons of the Samokov School are preserved.
Now it is a functioning monastery, and the renovated monastery buildings receive visitors – laymen and guests.
The Saint Spas Lozen Monastery (13th C) originated near the Urvich Fortress in the time of the Second Bulgarian State. After its fall under Ottoman domination, the monastery was destroyed and rebuilt only in the late 17th century. A literary school was founded here and the monastery developed as an important cultural centre. In 1847 father Kiriyak from Shumen restored the church. The three domes were raised and the interior was decorated with murals. In 1869 Nikola Obrazopisov from Samokov and Hristaki Zografski painted remarkable frescos – biblical scenes and the images of the Holy Brothers Cyril and Methodius, John of Rila, Euthimius of Tarnovo. So many images rarely occur in other monasteries. Today it is a functioning convent.
Saint Archangel Michael Kokalyane Monastery (13th C) rises opposite the Urvich Fortress and witnessed the desperate battle of King Ivan Shishman for preservation of the integrity of the Bulgarian state. Destroyed and rebuilt, in the 16th century the monastery acquired its present-day form and became a stronghold of the Bulgarian spirit. Today’s stone church was built after the Liberation. A functioning monastery.
Northeast of the Kokalyane Monastery stick up the ruins of the Urvich Fortress and of the Saint Nicholas Urvich Monastery, razed to the ground together with the fortress.
            The Holy Apostles Peter and Paul Pasarel Monastery is tucked away in the high ridges of the Plana Mountain. It originated in the 15th century, probably as a chapel, and it is very humble on the outside – without narthex or dome. But on the other hand, it is richly decorated with mural paintings, valuable as subject and colour. Among them is the fresco of the church-donor, Abbot Vasil Ivanov from Sopot, kneeling with a scroll in hand. This posture is unique in the Bulgarian religious painting.
The Dormition of the Theotokos Dragalevtsi Monastery was built at the site of an earlier church. The earliest information about it is contained in the Vitosha Diploma by King Ivan Shishman (1371 – 1393), kept in the library of the Zograph
Monastery on Mount Athos. It is the gem in the crown of monasteries, called Little or Sofia’s Mount Athos. An impressive fact is that it was spared by the Ottomans. Here, spiritual life never abated. The donor’s inscription above the church entrance says that it was renovated in 1476. The new murals date back to the 17th – 19th centuries. In the 16th century the monastery was already a centre of the Sofi a Literary School. It was involved in the national struggle for liberation. The monastery extension is of later times. Here is the residence of the Bulgarian Patriarch Maxim.
The Holy Prophet Elijah Iliyantsi Monastery (12th C) is located in the north-western outskirts of the capital city. The ancient church is hidden under venerable elm-trees. It is modest – one-apse and without a dome, reconstructed repeatedly and decorated with frescos from the 14th –15th and 18th – 19th centuries. Today the monastery is functioning, without monks.
The Saint John of Rila Kurilo Monastery is located 15 km northwest of Sofia, at the foot of the Balkan Mountains. It was founded in the time of the First Bulgarian State, by the ancient Beligrad Fortress. After the destruction of the fortress in the 13th century, the monastery was reconstructed by monks of the neighbouring villages. Among the donors are two
Stoyans, bakers from Sofi a. The small church is vividly wall-painted. During the Revival the monastery was a spiritual and educational centre. The National Museum of Church History and Archaeology keeps a 16th century Tetraevangelia and a large stone candlestick of 1497 from the Kurilo Monastery, which is no longer functioning.
The Holy Virgin Iskrets Monastery was allegedly founded in the 13th century. Destroyed after the fall under Ottoman domination, it was reconstructed only in 1602. The modern murals date from 1843. They feature abundant plant motifs, under the infl uence of the Rila Monastery. Next to the church there is a small hexagonal structure for baptising ceremonies, unique for the monasteries in the surroundings of Sofi a. Today the monastery is functioning, without monks.
The Nativity of the Holy Virgin Osenovlak Monastery is situated at the foot of the Balkan Mountains, outside Osenovlak village. In the 16th century it was called The Seven Thrones. Nearby there was a Roman fortress, called Latin Kale. The architectural design is unique. The church is large, three-apse, with a small cylindrical dome lit by 8 little windows. The rectangular spaces on the arms of the main cross are enclosed by walls, divided into 7 chapels (thrones). Hence the name The Seven Thrones. Noteworthy is the big wooden chandelier “Horo”, carved by Osenovlak masters in 1815. The large iconostasis icons were painted in 1770, and the clapper was forged in 1799 and bears the initials of Sophronius, Bishop of Vratsa. During the Revival Period there was a school here and the monastery kept up the spirit of the local population. Today the monastery is functioning, without monks.
The St. St. Cyril and Methodius Lyulin (Gorna Banya) Monastery is situated on the northern side of the Lyulin Mountain in Gorna Banya quarter, amidst a thick beech wood. Legend has it that it was founded in the second half of the 13th century and was called Holy King. Here, in a little church the relics of the Serbian King Stefan Uros II Milutin (1281 – 1320) stayed overnight before they were taken to the St. Nedelya Church. After the Ottoman invasion the monastery sank into oblivion and was restored only in 1875. The stone church dates from the same year. Today the monastery is functioning, without monks.
The Saint Athanasius the Great Nedelishki Monastery is located 17 km west of Dragoman. The date of its foundation is unknown. Only an inscription on its southern side indicates it was reconstructed in 1846. Thirty years later, the artist Giga Simeonov painted the murals in the open narthex. Notable are the scenes The Day of Judgement, The Banishment of Adam and Eve from Eden, but most remarkable are the stone embossments made by masters from Radomir district. Today the monastery is not functioning.
East of Dragoman, in the scenic gorge of Nishava River, is situated the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Razboishte Rock Monastery. There is no record of the history of this monastery, but some scholars relate it to the early Christianity in these parts and date it to the 4th – 6th centuries. The church, perched on the rocks under a stone visor, has no preserved wall-paintings. Probably they were whitewashed during its renovation in 1841. Today it is a functioning nunnery.
            The Saint Nicholas Malo Malovo Monastery (16th C) is situated 12 km northwest of Dragoman, near Malo Malovo village. The one-nave, one-apse, domeless building is typical of the churches in Western Bulgaria. Here again the frescoes were whitewashed but fragments are preserved in the altar apse. Today the monastery is not functioning.
The St. Mina Obradovtsi Monastery is situated 7.5 km northeast from the center of Sofi a, in Benkovski quarter, on the southern bank of the Vladaya River. There are two chapels in the monastery: The Holy Unmercenaries Cosmas and Damian, and The Holy Apostles Peter and Paul. On November 11th the monastery celebrates the name of Martyr Mina, and on November 1st, the Day of the Holy Unmercenaries Cosmas and Damian, a sacrifi cial meal is made for health.
The Intercession of Our Most Holy Lady Knyazhevo Monastery is some 4 km from the centre of Knyazhevo quarter, at the foot of Vitosha Mountains. It is a functioning convent. There are guest rooms. On October 1st, the Intercession of Our Most Holy Lady is celebrated and a sacrifi cial meal is cooked. Donors’ portraits and icons painted by Nikola Obrazopisov are preserved in The Holy Virgin monastery church.
For those who are staying in Sofi a for a longer time and wish to see more historical monuments, we list several other monasteries in the area, which have survived over the years: St. Petka outside Bankya, St. Petka Vladaya Monastery, St. Nicholas Kladnitsa Monastery, St. Petka Bistritsa Monastery.
If you cross the threshold of some of these holy places, do light a candle for those before us, for us, for those who will come after us. This is the tradition.
            The Klisura monastery St Petka was originally built on an old road that connected Sofia to the village of Breznik. The fi rst church is believed to have been erected more than 300 years ago, though in 1954, it collapsed under the burden of its years. A new church was built in its place by Mother Superior Maria Magdalene (1896-1978) and still functions there.
Little else is known about the place. Yet one cannot help gasping at the marvelous wallpaintings with quotes from the Bible, seen on all sides. Indeed, colourful frescoes with citations are painted on the outside walls of the church, the residential buildings, the gates and the surrounding wall, strengthening the impression of spirituality and sanctity, which emanates from the entire place. Obviously, all of the external paintings have been made in recent years, but this does not reduce their value in any way. In fact, these stand out even brighter against the old, low buildings of the residential part, some of which obviously made of adobe (sun-burnt bricks).