Monday, October 8, 2018

Traveling in Southern Bulgaria: Bachkovo Monastery


The first thing one notices when walking into the Bachkovo Monastery – the third largest in Bulgaria – is a plaque posted in Bulgarian, English, and Hebrew.

"In this holy monastery lie Patriarch Kiril and Exarch Stefan who in a selfless display of courage and humanity played a decisive role in preventing the deportation of Bulgaria Jewry to the Nazi extermination camps in 1943."
"Were the world blessed with more individuals of such valor and nobility as that shown by Patriarch Kiril and Exarch Stefan, surely more Jews would have been spared their tragic end."

Here in the entranceway of one of the largest and oldest Eastern Orthodox monasteries in Europe is a sign of how the Bulgarian Orthodox Church – along with brave politicians and ordinary citizens – went out of its way to protect and save Bulgarian Jewry during World War 2. The country's Jewish population before the war was approximately 48,000. Not a single Jewish citizen was sent to the camps. Unfortunately this amazing story also has a tragic side. More than 11,000 Jewish residents of Macedonia, Serbia, and Thrace – areas under Bulgarian rule during the war years – were deported and died in the camps.




Not much else is Jewish in the Rhodopes – a mountainous range stretching from southern Bulgaria into northern Greece. My wife and I had arrived for a week's vacation in Bulgaria and the central Rhodopes were our destination for three days of exploration. We had lived and worked in Sofia – Bulgaria's capital – in 2009-2010 and had traveled extensively around the country, but one thing we had missed was a visit to these picturesque mountains.

Our first stop, just before we arrive at the Bachkovo Monastery, is the medieval mountaintop Asen's Fortress, named for Tsar Ivan Asen II who ruled the region from 1218 to 1241 during the Second Bulgarian Empire. Not much is left of the stronghold, built to repel advances of the Crusaders' Latin Empire; the fortress was captured twice, first by the Byzantines and then by the Ottoman Turks. The mountain site is more famous for the Church of the Holy Mother of God, which dates from the 12th-13th century.  This remarkably well-preserved two-story structure, with its 14th century murals and cool interiors, is used today by the Bulgarian Orthodox church.

Bachkovo Monastery was originally founded in the year 1083 as a seminary for youth. Although it survived the Turkish invasion it was later looted and restored in the 15th century. The Cathedral Church of the Virgin Mary dates back to 1604. Across from the church is a colorful panorama mural depicting the history of the monastery; the painting is quite modern as it was completed in the mid-19th century.


After our visit to the monastery, we head south, the highway running along mountain streams and curving through thick green forests. We begin making our way steadily upwards into the Rhodope Mountains.

Read the second part of this series: Traveling in Southern Bulgaria: Rhodope Mountains

This article was originally published in The Jerusalem Post.

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