The 1847 church in Bulgaria’s Plakovo has been reopened after decades of dilapidation under the former communist regime and 13 years of renovation and restoration. Photo: BGNES
A 162-year-old church with an original iconostasis built back when Bulgaria was still part of the Ottoman Empire has been completely renovated, and literally reborn, in the town of Plakovo, Veliko Tarnovo District, as a result of a 13-year-long effort, after it had been abandoned decades ago by the communist regime.
The construction of the Bulgarian Orthodox church in Plakovo named “Birth of the Holy Mother of God" (Virgin Mary) was wrapped up in 1847, during Bulgaria’s National Revival period (18th – 19th century).
Bulgaria was liberated from the Ottoman Empire first only part in 1878, and the Ottoman period in its history is known as the Ottoman Yoke (1396/1422 – 1878/1912).
The church in Plakovo was constructed in the mid-19th century with a special permission by Ottoman Sultan Abdulmecid I (r. 1839 – 1861) outlined in a sultan’s firman (decree).
It was built by a disciple of Nikola Fichev (Kolyo Ficheto), a legendary self-taught Bulgarian Revival period architect – although there are suspicions that Kolyo Ficheto was involved in the construction himself.
The Plakovo church is also deemed especially valuable because of an original 19th century iconostasis painted by artists from Bulgaria’s Tryavna School of Iconography.
The renovation of the Birth of the Holy Mother of God church in Plakovo began in 2006, after the temple had been dilapidated and abandoned for over 50 years, starting at the beginning of Bulgaria’s communist period (1944/1946 – 1989).
The 13-year-old long effort of the renovation of the temple has been initiated by town Mayor Petya Kancheva, with several funding contributions on part of Bulgaria’s central government and the local authorities of Veliko Tarnovo Municipality.
“Over the years, we had to prop up the church very massively. We’ve been working on it[s renovation] sine 2006 with funding from the Ministry of Culture, Veliko Tarnovo Municipality, and the government’s Religions Directorate," Kancheva says, as cited by BGNES.
“During these  years, we have carried out emergency repairs, we’ve replaced the roof entirely, we’ve revamped the bell tower, and in the past 3 years, we’ve been working on the restoration of the interior which we finished in full in December 2018," the Mayor explains.
The iconostasis of the Birth of the Holy Mother of God church from 1847 features a total of 60 original icons by artists from the world famous Tryavna School of Iconography.
“What’s unique is the fact that the entire ensemble [of icons] has been preserved since the time [the church] was built," says Assoc. Prof. Diana Toteva, a restorer from the Regional Museum of History in Veliko Tarnovo.
“The purpose of this restoration effort was to showcase a complete iconostasis from the middle of the 19th century," she adds.
It took a total of five restorers from the Veliko Tarnovo Museum and the St. Cyril and St. Methodius University in the city three full years to bring the 1847 iconostasis back to life.
“The icons are the work mostly of Tryavna zografs (icon painters), famous ones. One was Dosyo Koev, the other was Simeon Simeonov, and an artist from Veliko Tarnovo, Nikola Ilyov, also took part," Toteva explains.
The renovation of the church building was completed in 2014 but the restoration of its icons and original church furniture took several more years. Photo: Yantra Dnes daily
The re-opening of the temple in Plakovo shortly after Christmas 2018, on St. Stephan’s Day (December 27), was met with unseen excitement by the residents of the town, who are also looking forward to the Easter holidays of 2019 when the church will hold its first Easter mass in decades.
“This [church] was the center of the town’s life for centuries. There was great interest in when the temple would be completed and opened again. The first service after the great renovation was on Stefanovden (St. Stefan’s Day)," emphasizes Dochka Mihova, a member of the church board.
“We are truly leaving something behind to our successors. How much that will be appreciated, only time will tell," says Mayor Kancheva.
Bulgaria’s Ministry of Culture has provided some BGN 200,000 (EUR 100,000, USD 120,000) for the renovation, plus BGN 46,000 (EUR 23,000, USD 26,000) for completing revamping the original furniture of the church.
Thus, the restorers have restored the original looks not just of the iconostasis but also of the bishop’s throne and the book holder.
The oldest priest who is known to have served in Bulgaria’s Plakovo was Neyko Yerey, who passed away in 1794 at the age of 104, reports local daily Yantra Dnes.
Back 1826, a man named Hristo Stoychev became the town priest. He was the person who initiated the construction of the new temple completed in 1847 after a special sultan’s firman was issued to allow it.
At the time when the church in Plakovo was being built, legendary self-taught 19th century Bulgarian architect Nikola Fichev, popularly known as Kolyo Ficheto, was erecting the church of the Kilifarevo Monastery and the bell tower of the Plakovo Monastery nearby.
He may have at least supervised the construction of the Plakovo church because all ornaments and decorations of the temple are said to be typical of his architectural style.