Bulgaria’s National Museum of History, Boyana Church Welcomed 20,000 More Tourists in 2016

Bulgaria’s National Museum of History is housed in a former government residence of Bulgarian communist dictator Todor Zhivkov (in power 1954/56-1989) in the Boyana Quarter in Sofia’s suburbs. Photo: National Museum of History

Almost 300,000 tourists visited Bulgaria’s National Museum of History in Sofia and the sites that it manages, including the world-famous Boyana Church, in 2016.

The exact figure of 296,800 visitors is an increase of about 6.5% compared to the 278,949 tourists the Museum and its subsidiaries welcomed in 2015, according to the data released by Bulgaria’s Ministry of Culture.

The National Museum of History is housed in a former residence of the Bulgarian communist dictator Todor Zhivkov in Sofia’s Boyana Quarter.

It also manages the medieval Boyana Church, a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its 13th century (Pre-)Renaissance frescoes and murals; the 11th century Zemen Monastery located in the town of Zemen west of Sofia known for its unique architecture and murals; the Church in the town of Dobarsko in Southwest Bulgaria built in 1614, and known for its frescoes painted by artists from the Dobasko School of Art; the Radetski Museum Steamship in the Danube town of Kozloduy which was used by Bulgarian rebels led by revolutionary and poet Hristo Botev during the April Uprising of 1876.

In 2016, the Boyana Church “St. Nicholas and St. Pantaleon, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979, remained the most visited branch of Bulgaria’s National Museum of History. It saw 54,277 visitors compared with fewer than 50,000 in 2015, with international tourists outnumbering Bulgarian visitors 2:1.

The medieval Boyana Church on the outskirts of Sofia is known for its Pre- or Early Renaissance art securing for it the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Photo: National Museum of History

The early 17th century Dobarsko Church in Dobarsko, Southwest Bulgaria, as viewed from the outside. Photo: National Museum of History

The second most popular branch of the Museum in 2016 was the “St. Theodore Tiron (also known as St. Theodore of Amasea) and St. Theodore Stratelates” Church in the town of Dobarsko, Razlog Municipality, in Southwest Bulgaria. It welcomed a total of nearly 37,000 compared with 35,000 in 2015.

Learn more about the (Pre-)Renaissance Boyana Church and the Dobarsko Church in the Background Infonotes below!

The Radetsky Museum Ship in the Danube town of Kozloduy, which is the only sailing museum in Southeast Europe, had 12,063 visitors in 2016.

The vessel is a replica of the original Austrian steamship built in 1851 in Budapest, and hijacked by Bulgarian rebel leader Hristo Botev’s 200-strong rebel unit in May 1876 in order to cross the Danube to fight the forces of Ottoman Turkey in the April Uprising, a large-scale rebellion which eventually led to Bulgaria’s National Liberation.

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The Radetski Steamship is one of the most famous historical monuments connected with the Bulgarians’ 1876 April Uprising against the Ottoman Empire. Photo: National Museum of History

Background Infonotes:

The Boyana Church “St. Nikola and St. Panteleimon” (St. Pantaleon) is a medieval / Early Renaissance Bulgarian church located in today’s Boyana, a suburb of the Bulgarian capital Sofia. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979. It is a two-storey tomb church, with the lower storey designed as a crypt (tomb), and the upper storey – as a chappel for the family of the local feudal lord.

The earliest construction of the Boyana Church took place at the end of the 10th and the beginning of the 11th century AD when a small one-apse cross dome church was erected. It was expanded in the 13th century when it was turned into a two-storey family tomb church by the local feudal lord, Sebastokrator Kaloyan, ruler of Sredets (today’s Sofia, known as Serdica in the Antiquity period), and his wife, Sebastokratoritsa Desislava, as testified by a donor‘s inscription in the church from 1259 AD. (Sebastokrator (pronounced sevastokrator) was a senior court title in the late Byzantine Empire and in the Bulgarian Empire. It comes from “sebastos” (“venerable“, the Greek equivalent of the Latin “Augustus”) and “kratоr” (“ruler“). The wife of a sebastokrator was named sebastokratorissa in Greek and sevastokratitsa in Bulgarian.)

A second expansion dates back to the mid 19th century, during Bulgaria’s National Revival period, when residents of the then village of Boyana funded further construction. After Bulgaria’s National Liberation from the Ottoman Empire in 1878, local residents wanted to tear down the Boyana Church in order to build a bigger one in its place but was saved by Bulgaria’s Tsaritsa-Consort Eleonore (1860-1917), the second wife of Bulgarian Tsar Ferdinand (r. 1887-1918).

The unique murals of the Boyana Church also date back to different periods. The oldest layer is from the 11th-12th century, while the 240 most valuable mural depictions from the second layer date back to 1259 AD. There are also murals from the 14th century, the 16th-17th century, and 1882. The world famous murals from 1259 AD, which have been described by many scholars as Early Renaissnace or precursors of Renaissance Art, are the work of the unknown Boyana Master and his disciples who are believed to have been representatives of the Tarnovo Art School in the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD).

They have sometimes been described as belonging to the tradition of the so called Byzantine Palaiologos (Palaeologus or Palaeologue) Renaissence. In addition to the many biblical scenes, the murals at the Boyana Church feature depictions of Sebastokrator Kaloyan and Sebastokratoritsa Desislava as donors, as well as of Bulgarian Tsar Konstantin Asen Tih (r. 1257-1277 AD) and his wife, Tsaritrsa Irina. Two other small churches preserved in today’s Sofia are also attributed to the donorship of Sebastokrator Kaloyan. The frescoes of the Boyana Church were restored several times between 1912 and 2006. The Boyana Church was first opened for visitors as a museum in 1977.

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The “St. Theodore Tyron and St. Theodore Stratelates” Church in Dobarsko was built in 1614 (there are also hypotheses that the original church was built earlier – according to one inscription, in 1112 AD), i.e. during the period of the Ottoman Yoke (1396-1878/1912) when Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire. It is a small three-nave basilica known for the typical architecture from the time of the Ottoman Yoke when the Bulgarians (and the other Christians) were banned from building new and large churches, so the builders would expand the existing churches deeper into the ground.

Thus, from the outside, the Dobarsko Church, not unlike hundreds of other Bulgarian churches from this time period, seems like a minor building which is 8.37 meters long and 6.5 meters wide. However, inside it is 5.2 meters tall. With its three naves, it differs from most of the other churches from that period which had just one nave.

The walls and ceiling of the church in Dobarsko are fully decorated with frescoes and murals, primarily of warrior saints such as St. Demetrius, St. Theodore Tyron, and St. Theodore Stratelates.

The church is known for a mural of the Transfiguration of Jesus which in numerous articles in the Bulgarian media has been described as depicting Jesus Christ as “an astronaut rising inside a rocket”, with the Earth’s atmosphere and stratosphere in the background, and a mural of God’s Resurrection in which Jesus Christ is said to be descending into hell inside a “space capsule”.

These media and popular culture interpretations have been criticized by experts as denigrating the true cultural value of the Dobarsko Church and its frescoes but have nonetheless captured the public’s imagination and have contributed to the site’s popularity. The critics point out that what is perceived as a “space rocket” or a “space capsule” is in fact a common depiction of Jesus Christ’s heavenly light found in numerous frescoes and icons elsewhere, at least in the Eastern Orthodox world.

Another alternative interpretation of the frescoes of the saints in the Dobarsko Church argues that their halos seem like helmets, and, for some unknown reason, their arms appear to be “Western [European] halberds”.

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