Type: stati | Historic Period:
Aladzha Monastery is one of the numerous rock monasteries1 in Bulgaria that existed in 13th – 14th century. Archaeological research has led to the discovery of remains of over a thousand similar sites within the country.
From archaeological point of view the rock monastery by Varna is somewhat closer to monasteries that have been built, not carved into a rock. Its premises are situated next to each other and their functions are clearly distinguishable. Most of them are located on the ground floor. Individual elements allow determining where the main monastery church, the refectory and the kitchen, the monks’ cells, the requiescat church and the crypt of the monastery have been.
In the Middle Ages they were covered on the outside by the rock itself but as a result of an earthquake or collapse the entire front part was demolished in the 17th or 18th century.
The rock monasteries
These unique cult monuments are common on a vast territory including almost the entire South-East Europe and the Near East.
The historical literature says that their occurrence is related to the occurrence and spreading of Christianity. It is known that the cave is a basic symbol in the most important Christian sacraments of Christmas and Resurrection. The later symbolisms of Christianity associate the cave with life hereafter, and with the underground sacred place where the bodies of the dead are laid, but where the supreme knowledge and symbols are kept away from desecration. This explains the presence of cave dwellings in the eremites’ lifestyle and practice and the early monk brotherhoods of 4th – 6th century, and the rock monasteries from the medieval period seem to continue that tradition.
Most of the rock monasteries are concentrated on the Balkans, along the North Black Sea Coast and in the Near East. This is not accidental – it is known that these areas have been the cradle of Christianity. There are rock monasteries on the territories of Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, the Ukraine, Russia, Georgia, Armenia, Turkey, Israel and Greece.
Rock monasteries are a rare phenomenon in Western Europe. Rock monasteries exist in Spain and Italy, but the cave premises are just a detail of the overall architectural complexes.
The rock monks’ dwellings occupy a special place in the religious life of medieval Bulgaria. Hewn out or shaped up in natural caves, away from populated centres, they overwhelm with the extraordinary variety of building methods and architectural solutions. The rock dwellings can be either single cells hewn out in the rock, or large complexes situated on two or more floors connected by passages, landings, terraces and staircases hewn out in the rock.
Archaeological research has led to the discovery of remains of hundreds of rock churches, sketes and cells on the territory of Bulgaria. Of them, only the St. Dimitar Basarbovski monastery by Ruse functions nowadays, and some others like the Aladzha Monastery, St. Archangel Mikhail monastery by the village of Ivanovo, Ruse district, etc. have been declared cultural monuments of national significance and function as historical reserves and museums.
Seven churches, tens of sketes and cells and over 50 frescoes recorded in the global Register of cultural monuments under the protection of UNESCO have been preserved in the St.Archangel Mikhail monastery.
The cult of cave
A cave dwelling carries the pre-historical memory of the bosom of the Mother Nature, a reliable shelter against the hostile and incomprehensible natural forces.
For pre-historical man the cave was his first home fireplace. This is the place where man made his greatest discovery –fire. Man populated the visible and invisible world with divinities and demons, and drew their images on the rough walls of the cavev. This is how the first cult mural painting emerged, and from a home fireplace the cave turned into a temple.
The religious beliefs from the pagan period enriched man’s concepts of the cave. Having accumulated considerable knowledge of himself and the surrounding world, he involved new elements in his cult symbolism. He had already been aware of the great sacrament of conception and death. That is the reason why he compared the cave with the womb of the Mother Earth made pregnant by the Sun God, and at the same time the cave is the entrance to the world hereafter, to the underground world of the dead.
The later symbolism of Christianity associates the cave to the world hereafter, to the underground sacred place where the bodies of the dead are laid, and where the supreme knowledge and symbols are kept away from desecration.
Through the idea of resurrection from the grave or the unity of the spirit with the God, the cave acquires symbolic, transforming power. In the hagiography of St.Yoakim Osogovski it is written: “… The Kingdom of heaven resembles yeast, and like yeast decomposes and transforms flour into delicious bread, so the eremite’s body cleanses from everything earthly in the cave’s womb, his flesh burns up, the transforming power of the Earth throws away anything unholy, unnecessary, in order to achieve the immaterial. And to preserve only a thin body cover carrying the light of the God’s blessing, having turned into imperishable and eternal because of that…”
The monastery church
The main monastery church is situated on the ground floor in the most western part. For the Christians the church is the “God’s home”, inhabited inconspicuously by the God surrounded by a suite of angels and saints. The more important public worships were held there, and the liturgy takes the primary place among them. A part of it is the Eucharist (the “Holy Communion”).
The semicircular niche in the eastern end of the church bears witness that the altar used to be here. The remains of a stone table are a part of the “Holy table” – the holy and unblemished sacrificial altar where the bloodless oblation was offered.
The altar area was separated from the remaining part of the church by a wooden iconostasis. It had a rich decoration of frescoes3, the greater part of which were destroyed after the monastery abandonment.
A small recess, the so-called “singing place”, is hewn out in the northern wall of the church, and this is the place of the church choir. Two stone benches are preserved to the left of the “singing place”, where older monks or important guests used to sit. A small round opening is saved in the church ceiling, which symbolizes the Christian temple’s dome in this particular case. A stone staircase hewn out in the church floor leads to the other premises at the first level through a narrow passage.
Cemetery requiescat church
There is a small room to the east of the refectory, the greater part of which is missing. The semicircular altar niche hewn out in the eastern wall and the stone staircase going down to the crypt (bone-vault) tell us that this was the requiescat church of the rock monastery. The bodies of dead brothers had been laid out there, and night wake rituals of the deceased were performed in this church.
The traces of plaster on the surviving northern wall and a small fresco detail show that this church had mural painting as well.
The cemetery church had yet another use. A large niche was hewn out behind the altar area and it was accessible through a side manhole located probably in the missing front part. A wooden ladder was fixed in the niche and through a chimney-like opening it led to the chapel at the second level of the monastery.
The crypt is located in the lowest part of the first level. It was separated from the entrance landing by a stone wall.
The medieval crypt contained only two graves. Their small number evidences that the practice of digging out the bones of the dead monks after seven years of being buried in the grave and laying them in a common bone-vault, existed in this monastery as well.
The area immediately in front of the crypt is the entrance landing to the monastery. It was accessible from the surrounding area by a wooden or rope ladder which was pulled up at night.
The entrance landing was carefully shaped, and there was a wooden door at the bottom of the steps hewn out in the rock and leading inside the monastery. The big niche to the right of the entrance landing used to be an auxiliary room.
Three other graves were hewn out on the entrance landing. A silver ring-stamp dating from 17th – 18th c. and found in one of the graves evidences that the burials were of the late medieval period.
The second level is actually just one larger niche and the monastery chapel is situated in its eastern end. The monks accessed the chapel by a wooden ladder fixed to the floor of the cemetery church.
The chapel is the only room of the rock monastery where most of the original frescoes from 13th – 14th c. were preserved. The mural on the ceiling, presenting one of the basic stories in Christianity – the Ascension, is preserved the best. The style of drawing the individual figures and the colour range and ornaments give grounds for assuming that the frescoes were painted by artists from the monastery by the village of Ivanovo.
Lit up by the candles the images on the walls become alive. A radiant angel with a mysterious smile holds one of the ends of a blue sky circle, from which Jesus Christ is thoughtfully looking down at the sinful human world. A small ship, which is a symbol of someone’s Christian soul, cleaves the waves of the sea of life under the cross sign, to achieve eternal life.
Why was that temple of prayers built at such a high place?
The answer is hidden in the medieval principles of the “Divine light”, “Hesychasm”1 professed by the monks at the rock monasteries. Going up the steps to the chapel every day, the hesychasts of the rock dwelling would submerge in full silence and sunk in deep internal prayer would search for the “Divine light”.
The mural painting of each monastery church used to be of significance for the life of the orthodox Christians. The faces of Jesus Christ, the God’s mother with the New born child and other saints, who, with their being present, had the task to help a believer in the daily struggle that God and Devil were battling within his soul.
In the monastery church the worshiper could touch the holy images in the frescoes and icons and chase away the evil power from his body. Kneeling in front of the miraculous icons with his head bowed down, he felt secure in the protection of the holy images.
Skilful masters or their students of more famous or less famous painting schools were invited to paint the walls of churches, chapels and other cult premises related to the Christian religion.
The frescoes of the monastery church in Aladzha Monastery covered the walls entirely, but after the monastery was abandoned, most of the frescoes had been destroyed.
We are provided with some more information about the mural painting from the notes of K. Shkorpil and a preserved water-colour copy by the artist Milen Sakazov dating back to the 1930’s. The image of the Virgin Mary was occupying a central place. In the water-colour copy we can see her sitting in a high throne, holding the Baby on her lap with her right hand. Another layer of frescoes can be distinguished along the periphery of the painting, especially in the bottom part.
The comparative dating of the top layer places it back to the 13th or the beginning of the 14th century. In this case the bottom layer ,where we can see just a hand supporting a book (probably a part of a painting of Jesus Christ, Pantokrator), is maybe from the 11th – 12th century.
The monks’ cells are situated on the left side of the passageway after the staircase. They were used by the monks for both rest and daily prayers which, according to the monastery statute, is an important condition for achieving spiritual perfection.
The cells were separated from one another by wooden or rock partitions. Immediately above the entrance, openings in the rock can be seen in the ceiling where wooden posts were fixed. Curtains of hand-woven fabric or simple straw-mats were hung there, functioning as doors.
Small niches can be noted in the walls where the monks put icons or other objects.
The first cell is bigger than the others. Supposedly, the abbot of the monastery used to live and accept guests there. The rest of the cells are small-sized and lack in any facilities whatsoever; most probably the monks slept on straw mattresses stuffed with grass or leaves from the forest.
These extremely poor conditions and the small cell size suggest that this was a monastery of eremites.
Refectory and kitchen
A large room of irregular shape is entered into through a narrow opening at the end of the corridor. A small semicircular niche is hewn out in its north-west wall. The fireplace of the monastery kitchen used to be there.
The life of seclusion the monks’ brotherhood led, suggests that food was scarce.
The refectory used to be in the left, larger part of the premises. The refectory is one of the important places in a monastery. It carries deep symbolic meaning the commencement of which could be traced back to “The Last Supper” and the common tables of the early Christians.
An important detail underlining the ritual performed in the refectory, is the small apse hewn out in the eastern wall. The abbot used to sit underneath it, and the apse itself represented the “Divine presence” in the rite of the brothers’ table.
To the west of the basic rock complex, among the dense vegetation, another group of caves situated at three levels, is hidden. The Shkorpil brothers called them “the Catacombs” by analogy to the cult centres of the first Christians.
The remains of several premises are located at the first level. A semicircular niche showing that the premise is an early Christian church was hewn out in the middle of the north wall of the largest premise.
There is one more large room at the second level. Supposedly, it used to be a crypt (bone-vault).
In one of its corners we can see an entrance that leads to an ancient Christian tomb through a narrow passage. A cross is cut into the east wall above the graves, and we can see the letters “alpha” and “omega” on the sides. From them, as if we can hear the Saviour’s words:”I, Jesus Christ, am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last ”.
The rocks on the right of the tomb hide one more mystery. A small entrance is cut out in them and buried under slid down soil. Where it takes and what secret it hides is unknown. Legends say that it is the beginning of an underground labyrinth where the treasures of this one and twelve more monasteries were hidden during the Ottoman invasion at the end of 14th c.
The indented cross and the findings dated back to 4th – 6th century give grounds to assume that the Catacombs were inhabited in the early Christian age. Later, in 13th -14th century, along with the Aladzha monastery, they formed a larger monks’ complex.
Other monuments close to Aladzha monastery
The remains of two more architectural monuments partially researched by the Shkorpil brothers are located to the east of the basic monastery complex. These are the foundations of a 40-metre high three-nave basilica with three absides, and a small fortification next to it. The ceramics found provide evidence that the basilica and the fortification date back to the early Christian period (5th – 6th c.)
Information given by the famous Byzantine chronicler – Emperor Constantine VII Bagrenorodni (913-959) reads:”... in the lands of South Scythia ( nowadays Dobrudzha ) and along the Black Sea coast there were many Christian centres destroyed by the Barbarians...”
This gives grounds to suggest that the Catacombs, the basilica, the fortification, and maybe the basic rock complex as well, were one of the earliest Christian centres on the Balkans in the 4th – 6th centuries.