Are you Buddhist?
I thought that was a strange question to ask, but replied that I wasn’t. Satisfied with my answer, the monk then proceeded to anoint my forehead with oil and say a quick blessing to give me luck in the new year. Apparently all religions except Buddhists are allowed to receive this blessing. I wonder if it will still work on agnostics…. but anyway…
Basarbova Rock Monastery
That was our introduction to the rock hewn monastery of Basarbova. The Ruse region is famous for its multitude of rock hewn monasteries, but Basarbova is the only one that is still used for religious purposes. Basarbova wasn’t an extremely large or popular monastery back when it was established in the 13th century, but it has been recently revived and is now a peaceful and calm place to stop.
The patron saint of the monastery is St. Dimitrii of Basarbova, and legend has it he originally lived life as a Shepard but after stepping on a birds egg he decided to instead live life as a monk. He came to the natural caves in the area and lived a simple and pious life. Legend has it that sensing his time on earth was nearly over, he went to the river and lay down to die. The river washed his body away, but his spirit appeared to a local blind girl who was able to lead the villages to the relics. Later, as his relics were being transported to Russia, the cart carrying them broke down in Bucharest, where they are still kept today. St. Dimitrii is now also the patron saint of Bucharest.
The monastery has recently been renovated, and works are still continuing. Buildings have been added which extent out of, and connect to the caves within. Fresh, clean spring water bubbles from a fountain in the courtyard. Basarbova is a must visit as it is the only place to see caves still being utilized for religious reflection.
Ivanovo Rock Monastery
Back in the 13th century, rock hewn monasteries and monks living in caves was all the rage in Bulgaria. The ascetic life was en vogue and Ivanovo is the greatest example in Bulgaria of religious life during this time. The Tsar of Bulgaria personally supported Ivanovo and sponsored the church to be built.
There is a long history of churches in caves in Bulgaria, and from a nearby lookout you can see four other cave churches that are no longer open to the public. Ivanovo was special as it was sponsored by the Tsars and had to utilize some pretty unique problem solving during it’s construction. It is imperative that churches during this time have their entrances to the west. With the other four older cave churches this wasn’t a problem as the natural cave opening was on this side. However with Ivanovo they faced a challenge. There was a cave opening on the western side, but it was 38 meters above the ground, along a sheer cliff face.
So how do you enter a cave that is 38 meters above you? The medieval solution was to slowly and surely build a wooden walkway, hugging the side of the cliff and secured into the rock. I’m not sure just how long and how difficult it would have been to do such a thing, but there is one thing I know for certain – it would be a terrifying journey! But don’t worry, you don’t have to enter that way anymore. The archaeologist who first excavated the area created a small entrance on the eastern side.
So what’s special about Ivanovo rock-hewn church? Well like other churches from this area, the church is covered top to bottom in brilliant paintings. But unlike other churches, the paintings at Ivanovo are all original and un-restored from the 13th century. When you are not standing utterly in awe of being in the presence of such old works of art, you can start to examine some of the intricate complexities which also make these works of art special.
The first point of interest is near the original entrance to the church. Churches from this period usually would contain a picture of the donors who made it’s construction possible holding a model of the church and presenting it as a gift to God. Ivanovo also contains this element, except that the donors are the Bulgarian king and queen during the brief period of Bulgarian independence during the medieval ages, and the model they hold shows a cave.
The second interesting feature is the blend of medieval Bulgarian and Hellenistic (Greek) elements. For example, the clothes and faces of the people in the frescoes were undoubtedly inspired by local villagers and by the clothing typical during this time period, but many of the architectural elements painted in the frescoes show a Greek influence, with columns and statues dominating. And here is where we get to an even more interesting element. In the background of one of the scenes, the artists have depicted something common in Greek architecture at the time – a statue of a naked man – the one and only time that an image of a completely nude body has been found in church art.
It’s a good idea to visit this amazing church soon though….
With all it’s amazing frescoes and art, it’s no wonder that the church is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. But with this prestigious listing comes with many restrictions. The church is to be preserved, not restored. This means that the paintings must remain intact and in their original state. But it’s not easy to accomplish such a feat in such a natural environment. Things like the weather, storms, and exposure to light are slowly and surely taking their toll on the frescoes. But it’s something even more unpredictable which might finally cause the destruction of the church – earthquakes. Earthquakes have already caused damage to the church, with some fragments of rock coming dislodged from the roof and falling to the floor. With each rock fragment lost, so to is a piece of extraordinary fresco.
Getting to Basarbova and Ivanovo
The best way to visit these two attractions, located only a 15 minute drive from each other is to hire a car. There are plenty of options available in Ruse.