Sacred Rocks 3 - 500-years old churches


On this trip in the Kyustendil region, we decided to combine a visit to several medieval churches with an average age of about 500 years with a visit to zoomorphic and anthropomorphic rocks in the canyon of the Shegava River near the village of Rajdavitsa.

We leave at 10:00, because it is Sunday after all, and the locations are not very far from Sofia, so there is a great chance to cover them all, despite the relatively short February day.

Our first goal is the Church of the Ascension in Staro Selo. To get there, you have to get off the eponymous turnoff from the Struma Highway, which is located about 40 km from Sofia. Although there is a brown sign for the church on the highway, at the entrance to the village all official visual communication on the subject is suspended, or in other words – there are no road signs or any signs related to the presence of the church. In general, candidates to visit it are left to the mercy of google maps, their own intuition or the responsiveness of locals. We rely on the latter and after a short small talk on behalf of Krasimir to a group of elderly men who smoke in front of the only restaurant in the village square, one of them agrees to accompany us with his car to the church and show it to us, because at times the grandmother who tends to the chapel is there to open it for visitors, but not always.

We follow his car into the streets of the village and soon park in front of the churchyard of “St. Nicholas”, which hosts the half-buried in the ground mediaeval “ Ascension ”. Although dubbed as the “new church”, “St. Nikolai ”is also of enviable age – it was built around 1761, about 1 century before the mass construction of churches in Bulgaria. However, we have come to see the “old church”, so we pass the higher temple, whose facade has been recently renovated with the efforts of the locals and reach the hunkered down “Ascension”. According to data from the Internet, Bulgarian rulers are painted in the frescoes of the church, there is an image of Khan Tervel. However, my knowledge cannot cover such a specific matter, so I simply show in the video below what I have recorded inside the church.

On the way out we are greeted by the two monastery dogs, happily wagging their tails to our attention. Our improvised guide tells us that for years the locals have been seeking funding from all kinds of institutions for the restoration and maintenance of the two temples, but so far without success. When asked if they had addressed the Holy Synod on the subject, he replied that they had been contacted several times, but so far they had reacted only with unfulfilled promises.

In the immediate vicinity is the town hall, and in front of it there is a well-kept garden. I ask what is the role of the two howitzers located in the garden – they were brought here some time ago by a local businessman and have no special historical value.

It turns out that a little further up the road, the remains of a dilapidated monastery were recently discovered, near several centuries-old oaks, after years of searching for it. We are here anyway, so we decide that we will take more time to see the monastery’s remains, too. According to the instructions of our guide, we leave the village, drive on a dirt road, past a pine grove, leave the car and walk another 300 metres to the end of the road, which ends in a ravine. We see some cleared construction and we joke that this is probably the place. However, the centuries-old oak trees described to us are nowhere to be seen, so I walk around the area within a radius of 100 metres and end up near the ruins of the monastery. The locals have really worked hard, it has been cleared of shrubs and it is obvious that there was a building once, there are even fragments from the base of one of the columns of the monastery. There are also two oaks nearby, which have definitely accumulated years on the rings of their stems, but how many they are – no one can say. Are they really centuries-old – probably.

I take a few more shots and we’re heading back to the car. We had some concerns about whether the car would handle the clay, slightly loose road surface, but we climb the slope without any difficulty and head to the next site – a mediaeval church on the outskirts of the village of Cherven Breg, near Dupnitsa. In the village, there is also a church – “St. Nicholas”, built-in 1874. It was probably built upon the ruins of an older, mediaeval temple, because in the basement under the altar were found an older altar, icons, frescoes and candlesticks, for now, they are sealed to be studied by specialists.

Our goal is located in the fields outside the village, about 1 km north. The Church of  St. Spas a.k.a. the Ascension of the Lord dates from the 12th to the 14th century and was built on the foundations of an earlier, much larger early Christian church from the 4th to the 6th century. In 2012, there were field studies, of which there are still to be seen large excavations around the small, half-buried church. The roof has been renovated to prevent leaks in the building and new tiles have been laid on the original stone slabs. During our visit the church was locked, but according to information from the site, there are crumbling fragments of mediaeval paintings with images of St.St. Constantine and Helen and St. Nikolai Mirakliiski, which need urgent restoration.

The place is very quiet, open and at the same time secluded, although there is a dirt road nearby. An almost springlike wind is blowing, clouds are chasing in the sky, and in front of us rises the Rila mountain.

More sites are waiting for us, so we take one last look at “St. Spas ”and we descend back to the village. As always, when you leave something to be photographed for later, you usually skip it and move on. This is what happens with the village church “St. Nikola ” – we take a quick look at it from the car windows, but we drive on because we know that we will lose a lot of time if we stop here.

We drive again through Dupnitsa and head towards Vukovo village, located shortly after Boboshevo, in the direction of Kyustendil. It’s been a long time since noon and we promise ourselves to find a village pub to have a late lunch, but we just hang on to that promise until the end of the trip and survive on waffles and sandwiches. In Vukovo there are two mediaeval churches – “St. Petka ”and“ St. Nicholas. “St. Nikola” is located outside the village, in a deep valley, near the old village cemetery. On the asphalt road to “St. Petka, “we see a sign by the road with a cross and probably the name of the church, but it is so insignificant that we continue to the church, which is located in the village. Although it is more easily accessible and visibly well preserved, there isn’t much information available for “St. Petka”. From the plaque in the churchyard, we learn that it was built in the 16th century, that the frescoes date from 1598 and are fully preserved, and that the church is “an architectural and artistic cultural monument of national importance.” Just above the church you can not miss the local “castle”. Unfortunately, there are no locals around to ask about the curious history of this architectural phenomenon, so we are satisfied only with contemplation and photography.

During my previous visit to Kyustendil, I was surprised by the presence of a large number of rock megalithic sanctuaries in the area, this time I am amazed by the number of mediaeval churches scattered in the surrounding villages. Was the area so densely populated in the Middle Ages that such a large number of churches were built and painted? Even if we assume that most of them were built with the means and efforts of the local population, I wonder how the greater effort was financed, namely their painting.

According to the so-called National Register of temples in Bulgaria, which I found on the Internet, the number of Orthodox churches is 2287, and according to other sources, such as the register of the Directorate of Religions, the total number of churches and monasteries is about 8000.

88 of them are mediaeval or at least as many are marked on the Internet as such. You can find the full list in Wikipedia  

For comparison, according to data from the network, the number of Catholic sites in the world is between 220,000 and 270,000. The number of Eastern Orthodox is between 64,000 and 77,000. Bulgarian churches make up about 10% of the total number of Eastern Orthodox and 2% of the total number of Christian churches in the world.

I admit that I had a hard time reaching most of these figures, and I had expectations that church institutions would be more diligent in describing and cataloguing their property. It is well known that the church, no matter whether it is Catholic or Orthodox, is the world’s largest owner of land and property.

The most adequate sites in Bulgarian, which make some attempt to create directories and lists of existing temples, are private projects. The Directorate of Religions also has a register with the ability to filter and indicate the geographical location of the church, which is not convenient to use, and the website of the Holy Synod has lists of temples by diocese, but in a very rudimentary form. There is no detailed information about the respective temple, just contact details are listed.

In fact, why should the Holy Synod want to make such a directory??!! His target audience visits the nearest church in his place of residence and probably does not care at all what the total number of churches in Bulgaria is, what periods they are from, what is their history, what are their architectural features, etc. According to my observation, such details interest most often people who are as far away from religion and religiosity as possible.

And something else impresses me. According to an article in the Monitor newspaper from last year, 99 new temples have been built in the last 4 years with money from the state budget, and 86 old temples have been restored with funds from European programs for the last 7 years. I don’t know, do we need new temples? Yes, it is clear that on Easter and other church holidays, when it is fashionable to go to church, probably no one will visit the mediaeval half-buried churches in Pastuh, Staro Selo, Cherven Breg and Vukovo. They cannot host many people either. However, I can not help but wonder whether we need 100 new temples, while we have 8000, many of which are collapsing and thus we are losing historical monuments, 500 years old.

Krasimir said during our tour, “for some temples – it’s normal to break down and disappear.  You can’t save everything”. It doesn’t make sense, maybe. In the past, it seemed to me that there was no settlement without at least one religious temple in it. Times have probably demanded it. Villages are disappearing, too. This is the course of history. However, I feel sad that these mediaeval churches, which have stood the test of time for half a millennium, are doomed to oblivion and imminent destruction.

 The next church “St. Ivan”, which we visit today is literally on the road, just before Pastuh village. The temple is unlocked, so I manage to take a few shots with the icons inside. The church was half-destroyed before its restoration, so there are no preserved frescoes inside.

After another kilometre or two down the river, we reach the last mediaeval church for today – “St. Trinity “, located after Pastuh, on the opposite bank of the Struma. We cross the river on an old and very picturesque iron bridge and after about a kilometre of driving on a dirt road along the river, we reach a meadow, from which you can see the church, hidden among several trees. This is the temple with the most picturesque location visited today. The door is permanently locked with a bolt and maybe it’s better this way.

I hope I have motivated you to see at least some of the mediaeval churches in Bulgaria. Visit them while they are still there.

We end with the churches’ visits for today and head to the last point of our tour – the canyon of the river Shegava, near the village of Rajdavitsa. The dirt road allows us to reach the beginning of the canyon, but we decide to hike, so we leave the car shortly after the end of the village. The canyon is very beautiful, it is entered by a well-established path, marked a little amateurishly with empty beer cans and other plastic artefacts. The surrounding rocks rise to a height of 30-40 m, cover a fairly rich palette of colours and in many places protrude in various and bizarre shapes. The sky is quite dark, it’s a twilight hour and we can’t see them very well. At some point, it starts to rain and we decide to finish for today. However, I manage to capture part of the canyon with the drone from the air before the rain forced me to land.

It strikes me that there is a lot of alluvial material in the riverbed, apparently, in the spring Shegava is full of water and fast upstream and carries a lot of stones from the mountain, which here, in its wider spill, deposit in the now dry bed.

We return to Sofia on the old Kyustendil road, very pleased with what we saw, but also quite tired of the many sites and impressions.

How to reach the place

Directions to the newly found monastery near Staro selo

More Sacred Rocks