Knyazheski (Royal) Monastery – Asparuhovo Quarter, Varna, Bulgaria

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).

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Archaeology in Bulgaria. and Beyond