Still a Fortress for Contemplatives

text and photos by Margot Granitsas

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Batshkovo, an Orthodox monastery in southern Bulgaria, lies tucked among the foothills of the Rodope Mountains some twenty miles south of Plovdiv, the Philipopolis of Alexander the Great’s time and the Trimontium of the Roman’s. Barely forty miles as the crow flies from the Greek-Bulgarian border, Batshkovo is crowded with pilgrims on feast days. Unlike other monasteries which have become relic-like as museums, Batshkovo is still much as it was conceived, built, and inhabited more than 900 years ago.

Batshkovo was built in a remote location in mountainous terrain. Hard to reach, it offered both solitude and protection. Its beauty comes from its environment. Built with local stone, the monastery follows the land’s natural contour. Batshkovo thus has its distinct character, shape, and scale, like other cloisters fashioned from its local setting.

Approached on a steep secondary road going into the Rodopes, Batshkovo’s outside walls suggest a fortress more than a place of quiet meditation, prayer, and charity. High walls surround the monastery complex. Two equally forbidding fortified gates are the only access to the interior. These barriers show how monks were protected from marauding warriors and bandits common in the Middle Ages.

Within these walls, however, the mood changes dramatically. Monastic stillness creates a homey atmosphere, a serene and peaceful quietude. The mellow, weathered stone, patches of greenery, a flower garden, arcades overlooking the courtyard, and southern light all combine to create an enchanting place.

Batshkovo’s origins go back to the year 1083, when two army generals from Georgia, now in southern Russia, founded it with the approval of the Byzantine emperor. One of the initiators, Gregorios Bakurian, envisioned entering the cloister only as his final resting place because, he mockingly said, he had done no good from his birth to his old age. Within a few years he got his wish. When he was killed in battle, he was buried next to the monastery’s original church, which contained altars dedicated to Mary, to John the Baptist, and to Saint George.

Over the centuries the monastery has experienced the tribulations endured by Bulgaria itself. In 1199 it was taken over by the Bulgarian Bljar Ivanko, a member of the feudal nobility during the First Bulgarian Empire. In 1205 it came under the rule of the Bulgarian Czar. Then followed a century of Byzantine supremacy. Its most illustrious period arrived during the latter part of the Second Bulgarian Empire. In the 14th and 15th centuries, Batshkovo developed into a center of learning. Scientists and scholars met in the walled compound and exchanged ideas, worked on manuscripts, and copied Scripture and ancient texts. When Ottoman rule enveloped the major part of the Balkans, most of the monastery’s original buildings were destroyed. Only the most remote monasteries escaped major destruction during the period because Turkish occupiers were reluctant to venture beyond the relative safety of the plains and urban centers they controlled.

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Tags: Monastery Art Architecture Bulgarian Orthodox Church Bulgaria