Bulgaria’s Varna to Turn Major 9th Century Monastery with Scriptorium from First Bulgarian Empire into Cultural Tourism Site
Bulgaria’s Black Sea city of Varna has taken the first step to restore and promote as a cultural tourism site what apparently was one of the largest monasteries in the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD) known as the Knyazheski (Royal) Monastery.
The ruins of the Knyazheski Monastery are located in Varna’s suburbs, in an area known as Karaach Teke (Ottoman Turkish for “Khanqah of the Black Elms”).
The monastery was built at the end of the 9th century AD or the beginning of the 10th century AD, i.e. during the reign of Bulgaria’s Knyaz (i.e. King) Boris I Mihail (r. 852-889; 893 AD) or the reign of Tsar Simeon I the Great (r. 893-927 AD).
It had a huge scriptorium with an area of 400 square meters which was a major center for the production of medieval books in Old Bulgarian, after the First Bulgarian Empire adopted Christianity in 865 AD, and introduced the Slavic Script in 886 AD (first the Glagolithic alphabet invented by Byzantine scholars St. Cyril and St. Methodius in 855 AD, and then the Bulgaric (Cyrillic) alphabet developed by their disciples St. Kliment Ohridski (St. Clement of Ohrid) and St. Naum Preslavski (St. Naum of Preslav)).
It has also been hypothesized that Knyaz Boris I Mihail was personally a donor of the Knyazheski Monastery, and/or that he became a monk there in 889 AD upon deciding to step down from the throne, and/or that he was buried there.
The Knyazheski Monastery in the Karaach Teke area is one of a total of six archaeological sites (the other being the Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis; the Large Roman Thermae; the Small Roman Thermae; the Bishop’s Basilica of the Ancient Thracian, Greek, and Roman city of Odessos (Odessus); and the Aladzha Monastery) for which the Bulgarian government granted Varna Municipality management rights in order to develop them as cultural tourism sites.
The Bulgarian Orthodox Church and Varna Municipality have now erected an 8-meter-tall cross on the site of the ruins of the Knyazheski Monastery.
The cross was paid for with donations, and is said to be the first step made by Varna Municipality towards turning the archaeological site into a cultural attraction, reports bTV.
According to Prof. Valentin Pletnyov, Director of the Varna Museum of Archaeology, the Knyazheski Monastery had unique architecture that was unusual for medieval Bulgaria.
“The monastery features architecture that is unique for Bulgaria’s Middle Ages, which has parallels only in Byzantium, in Egypt,” the Museum Director says.
“This [monastery’s] scriptorium [may have been] Europe’s largest at the time,” notes in turn Father Vasiliy Shagan, a local priest.
The ruins of the major medieval monastery were found ca. 1899 by Czech-Bulgarian archaeologist Karel Skorpil, after the discovery of a seal of Knyaz Boris I Mihail in a nearby vineyard.
Full-fledged archaeological excavations began only in 1995, and have been led by Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov from Veliko Tarnovo University “St. Cyril and St. Methodius”.
Unfortunately, the ruins of the major medieval monastery have been used as a picnicking site and thus vandalized. For example, the still standing part of the 1,200-year-old walls of the monastery church has been used as a barbecue.
The restoration of one of the major monasteries in the First Bulgarian Empire is expected to cost about BGN 4 million (app. EUR 2 million) for which Varna Municipality plans to seek EU funding.
The idea to turn it into an attractive cultural tourism site has been around for a long time. Varna’s suburbs feature the sites of at least two other major medieval monasteries – the Aladzha Rock Monastery from the Late Middle Ages, which is a well known tourist attraction, and the ruins of the Early Christian monastery in the area known as Dzhanavara, which have been affected by vandalism, not unlike the ruins of the Knyazheski Monastery.
“Our intention is to set up a visitors’ center… [The site will be accessed] from a road that is [on the plateau] 200 meters above [it]. There will be a visitors’ center with an observation ground, and then stairs descending down to the monastery. A fence should also be built,” stipulates Pletnyov.
“We can exhibit the monastery in Dzhanavara as an Early Christian site from the 5th-6th century AD, the Monastery in Karaach Teke as a site from the 9th-10th century, and Aladzha Monastery as a site from the 13th-14th century AD. It is very realistic to establish this as a major route for pilgrims,” he adds.
The ruins of the Knyazheski (Royal) Monastery are located in the suburbs of Bulgaria’s Black Sea city of Varna, in an area known as Karaach Teke, on a terrace of the Frangen Plateau. The monastery dates back to the 9th-10th century AD, i.e. the height of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD). The archaeologists believe it is connected to several important Ancient Bulgar settlements and necropolises in the Varna region which have been explored.
The Knyazhevski Monastery in the area known as Karaach Teke (Ottoman Turkish for “Khanqah of the Black Elms”) was built at the end of the 9th century AD or the beginning of the 10th century AD, i.e. during the reign of Knyaz (i.e. King) Boris I Mihail (r. 852-889; 893 AD) or the reign of Tsar Simeon I the Great (r. 893-927 AD). That was after the First Bulgarian Empire adopted Christianity in 865 AD, and introduced the Slavic Script in 886 AD (first the Glagolithic alphabet invented by Byzantine scholars St. Cyril and St. Methodius in 855 AD, and then the Bulgaric (Cyrillic) alphabet developed by their disciples St. Kliment Ohridski (St. Clement of Ohrid) and St. Naum Preslavski (St. Naum of Preslav)).
The Knyazheski Monastery complex in the Karaach Teke area, which is believed to have been dedicated to the Holy Mother of God (Virgin Mary), features unique architecture, which is untypical for the Bulgarian and even for the Byzantine architectural tradition, a view supported by Prof. Georgios Velinis from the Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, Greece.
The Knyazheski Monastery has a total area of about 10 decares (app. 2.5 acres) even though less than half of that has been explored since the rest of the plot is in private properties.
The Bulgarian archaeologists have found there a large monastery church, a huge tower with a chapel, a huge scriptorium with an area of 400 square meters (a building that was 40 meters long and 10 meters wide), which may have been Europe’s largest scriptorium in the 9th-10th century, a library, a school, monastic dormitories, an altar table, Bulgarian, Byzantine, Serbia, Turkish, and Venetian coins, and over 5,000 fragments from the frescoes from the monastery church.
The ceramic vessels discovered there include both items (such as amphorae) imported from Byzantium, and Bulgarian ceramics styled according to a form of art known as the painted ceramics from Veliki Preslav from the end of the 9th and the beginning of the 10th century. The archaeologists have also found there numerous artifacts such as crosses and coins from the time of the Second Bulgarian Empire (13th-14th century). One particularly interesting find is a bronze cross with the images of the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Seals of three of the most important rulers of the First Bulgarian Empire – Knyaz (King) Boris I Mihail (r. 852-889; 893 AD) (canonized as St. Knyaz Boris I the Converter for making Christianity Bulgaria’s religion), his son Tsar Simeon I the Great (r. 893-927 AD) (known for both his military skill and expansion and the Golden Age of Old Bulgarian culture and literature), and his grandson Tsar Petar I (r. 927-969 AD) (canonized as St. Tsar Petar of Bulgaria the Pious, known for his long peaceful reign) have also been found on the site of the Knyazheski Monastery.
In its northwestern part, the buildings in the monastery complex have been preserved up to a height of 3 meters.
The Knyazheski Monastery is said to have been the largest religious center in the First Bulgarian Empire outside the capitals Pliska (680-893 AD) and Veliki Preslav (Great Preslav) (893-970 AD). Its scriptorium for the production of medieval books in Old Bulgarian is believed to have been especially impressive; it was one of medieval Bulgaria’s largest buildings rivaling in size the imperial palaces in Pliska and Veliki Preslav.
The interior of the scriptorium was divided into 12 symmetrical rooms. The massive walls indicate that the building had a second floor, a hypothesis later confirmed by the discovery of collapsed arches. The building was made using both bricks and stone, an Antiquity technique of building with mixed materials similar to the construction technique of the Great Basilica in the early medieval Bulgarian capital Pliska.
During the excavations of the scriptorium, the archaeologists have found over 30 iron styli and lots of bronze book locks. Despite its size, the scriptorium’s space seems to have become insufficient for the scope of the literary activity there, and the building had to be expanded to the south.
The Knyazheski Monastery waned in the late 10th century. At first the archaeologists thought it may have been destroyed in the Bulgarian-Byzantine Wars in the second half of the 10th century but later found evidence that it was demolished by a landslide, a natural disaster that affects Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast around Varna to this day. After the landslide, the ruins on the site of the monastery were turned into a settlement with dugouts and small stone homes. The settlement survived until the 16th-17th century, i.e. long after Bulgaria was conquered by the Ottoman Empire at the end of the 14th century.
It has also been hypothesized that Knyaz Boris I Mihail was a personal donor of the Knyazheski Monastery, and/or that he became a monk there in 889 AD upon deciding to step down from the throne (leaving it to his first-born son, Knyaz Vladimir Rasate (889-893 AD) who attempted to restore paganism and was thus deposed and blinded 4 years later), and/or that he was buried there. These hypotheses are yet to be proven convincingly.
The ruins of the monastery were discovered ca. 1899 by Czech-Bulgarian archaeologist Karel Skorpil, the founder of modern-day Bulgarian archaeology. The discovery came after a lead seal of Knyaz Boris I Mihail was found in a nearby vineyard. The seal features the ruler’s image on one side, and an image of Jesus Christ on the other, with inscriptions stating, “God, help you servant Mihail, Archon of Bulgaria” on both sides.
It was Skorpil who first hypothesized that Bulgaria’s Knyaz Boris I was the donor of the Knyazheski Monastery based on the discovery of the seal and of inscriptions in Old Bulgarian.
In the first half of the 20th century, the site was also explored by archaeologist Bogdan Filov, later a pro-German Prime Minister of the Tsardom of Bulgarian during World War II. During that period, about half of the total territory of the monastery complex was expropriated for archaeological research but the rest remained in private properties.
The first full-fledged archaeological excavations started only in 1995. The Knyazheski Monastery has been excavated by Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov and Assist. Prof. Rosina Kostova from Veliko Tarnovo University “St. Cyril and St. Methodius”, and Prof. Valentin Pletnyov, Director of the Varna Museum of Archaeology.
In 2013, the archaeologists found the monastery’s so called holy well, i.e. the sacred spring, also known with the Greek word “ayazmo”, a spring or a small body of water revered by pagans and/or Christians. Next to it, they found a pillar capital with a depiction of seven leafy branches symbolizing the Tree of Life. This find has led the researchers to believe that the monastery was dedicated to the Holy Mother of God (Virgin Mary).
Bulgaria’s adoption of Christianity as the formal and only state religion took place in 864-865 AD under the leadership of Khan / Knyaz Boris I Mihail (r. 852-889; 893 AD).
As a result of the successful reigns of Khan (or Kanas) Krum (r. 803-814 AD), Khan (Kanas) Omurtag (r. 814-831 AD), Khan (Kanas) Malamir (r. 831-836), and Khan (Kanas) Presian (r. 836-852 AD), by the middle of the 9th century the First Bulgarian Empire had become a huge empire spanning from the Black Sea in the east to the Adriatic Sea in the west, and from the Northern Carpathian Mountains in the north to the Aegean Sea in the south, including the entire or part of the territory of modern-day Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Greece, Turkey, Albania, Macedonia, Hungary, Moldova, and Ukraine. However, the major peoples inhabiting the Bulgarian Empire – the Ancient Bulgars (whose religion is known as tengriism) and the Slavs as well as the local Thracian population and others – worshipped different gods according to their own religions and mythologies. This was true even though there were entire areas in the then Bulgarian Empire which had been Christianized in earlier periods, and even though the first Khans from the House of Dulo are believed to have been Christians who were baptized by the imperial court of the Eastern Roman Empire, i.e. Byzantium: Khan (Kanas) Kubrat (r. ca. 630-ca.660) who founded the so called Old Great Bulgaria in 632 AD on the territory of much of modern-day Ukraine and Southwest Russia; Khan (Kanas) Asparuh (r. ca. 680-700) who expanded the state to the southwest technically creating modern-day Danube Bulgaria around 680 AD; and Khan (Kanas) Tervel (r. 700-718/721) who saved Europe from an Arab invasion during the siege of Constantinople in 717 AD. This led Khan Boris I to decide to unite the different ethnicities in the First Bulgarian Empire with a new common religion, and to pick Christianity (even though the adoption of Islam and Judaism were also offered to him by foreign emissaries) because Bulgaria was then the only still pagan major European power, and he wanted Bulgaria to be treated as an equal by the Byzantine Empire in the east and the successors of the Frankish Empire in the west.
While Khan Boris I initially intended to adopt the Western form of Christianity from the Pope in Rome via the Kingdom of the East Franks (East Francia in modern-day Germany) because Byzantium had been Bulgaria’s major geopolitical foe, he was forced to change his decision after an unsuccessful war with the Byzantines imposed on him the adoption of the Eastern form of Christianity as part of a peace treaty signed in 863 AD. This resulted after the First Bulgarian Empire had had to fight simultaneously Byzantium in the southeast and Great Moravia in the northwest. Thus, in 863 or 864 AD, a mission from the Patriarch of Constantinople Photios came to Pliska and converted the Bulgarian Tsar, his family and high-ranking dignitaries, who were baptized as Christians. Khan Boris I became Knyaz Boris I Mihael – taking the name of his baptist, Byzantine Emperor Michael III (r. 842-867 AD), and in 865 AD there was baptism en masse of the entire Bulgarian population. Thus, even though the subsequent years saw the first major clashes between the Pope in Rome and the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople over the “Bulgarian Question”, i.e. whose diocese the large and powerful newly baptized First Bulgarian Empire should belong to, Bulgaria remained in the camp of Eastern Orthodox Christianity subsequently helping pass it on to later emerging nations such as Serbia and Russia, and thus modifying forever the history of Europe.
Bulgaria’s adoption of Christianity, however, went far from smoothly, and not only because of the clashes between the Pope in Rome and the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople over whose diocese the newly converted Bulgarians should belong to. In 865, conservative Bulgar aristocrats from all 10 komitats (administrative regions) of the First Bulgarian Empire revolted against Boris, who now took the Christianized title of Knyaz (i.e. King) in order to restore the old religion, tengriism. Knyaz Boris I managed to suppress the revolt executing 52 Bulgarian boyars (heads of noble families). According to some sources, he also had their entire extended families executed. Until the end of his life, Knyaz Boris was haunted by guilt about the harshness of his measures and the moral price of his decision in 865. In his later correspondence with Pope Nicholas I, the Knyaz asked whether his actions had crossed the borders of Christian humility, for which the Pope offered forgiveness: “You have sinned rather because of zeal and lack of knowledge, than because of other vice. You receive forgiveness and grace and the benevolence of Christ, since penance has followed on your behalf.”
Knyaz Boris realized that the Christianization of Bulgaria gave Byzantium great influence over the domestic affairs of the Bulgarian Empire. Thus, juggling the differences of Rome and Constantinople, he eventually managed to get Byzantium’s Ecumenical Patriarchate as well as the Pope in Rome to recognize an independent (autocephalous) Bulgarian Archbishopric, which was created in 870 AD in an unprecedented development for Europe because independent churches had been only those founded by Apostles or Apostles’ disciples. For example, the Papacy in Rome had been challenging Constantinople’s claim of equality to Rome on the grounds that the Church of Constantinople had not been founded by an Apostle of Jesus Christ. Nonetheless, this development was also a success for Byzantium, and during the decade after 870 AD, Pope Adrian II and his successors kept trying desperately to convince Bulgaria’s Knyaz Boris to leave Constantinople’s religious sphere.
Knyaz Boris I Mihail sealed the success of his deed, the adoption of Christianity, in 886 AD when Bulgaria welcomed the disciples of St. Cyril and St. Methodius, St. Kliment Ohridski and St. Naum Preslavski, helping them to teach thousands of Bulgarian clergymen to serve in Bulgarian. Thus, Bulgaria adopted the Bulgarian script, also known as the Slavic script – first the Glagolithic and then the Bulgarian (Cyrillic) alphabet. This allowed Knyaz Boris, and his successor Tsar Simeon I the Great to declare Bulgarian (also known as Old Bulgarian or Church Slavonic) as the official language of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church during the Council of Preslav in 893 AD (which also moved Bulgaria’s capital from Pliska to Veliki Preslav (Great Preslav)). As all over Europe religious services were held in the “official” church languages Latin and Greek, this “nationalization” of the liturgy language by Bulgaria became another exceptional development in medieval Europe after the recognition of the independent Bulgarian church.
The dawn of Varna‘s history dates back to the dawn of human civilization, the Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis being especially well known with the discovery of the world’s oldest find of gold artifacts dating back to the 5th millenium BC.
Ancient Odessos is considered the precursor of the Bulgarian Black Sea city of Varna. It was founded by Miletian Greek colonists at the end of 7th century BC, the earliest Greek archaeological material dating back to 600-575 BC.
However, the Greek colony was established within an earlier Ancient Thracian settlement, and the name Odessos had existed before the arrival of the Miletian Greeks and might have been of Carian origin. Odessos as the Roman city of Odessus became part of the Roman Empire in 15 AD when it was incorporated in the Roman province Moesia. Roman Odessos is especially known today for its well preserved public baths, or thermae, the largest Roman single structure remains in Bulgaria, and the fourth largest Roman public baths known in Europe.
The First Bulgarian Empire (680-1018 AD) conquered Odessos (Varna) from Rome‘s successor, the Eastern Roman Empire, or Byzantium, in the late 7th century. It is even believed that the peace treaty in which the Byzantine Empire recognized the ceding of its northern territories along the Danube to Bulgaria was signed in Odessos.
The wall (rampart) that the first ruler of Danube Bulgaria, Khan (or kanas) Asparuh built at the time as a defense against future Byzantine incursions is still standing. Numerous Ancient Bulgar settlements around Varna have been excavated, and the First Bulgarian Empire had its first two capitals Pliska (681-893 AD) and Veliki (Great) Preslav (893-970 AD) just 70-80 km to the west of Varna.
It is suggested that the name of Varna itself is of Bulgar origin. In the Middle Ages, as a coastal city, Varna changed hands between Bulgaria and Byzantium several times. It was reconquered for the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) by Tsar Kaloyan (r. 1197-1207 AD) in 1201 AD.