St. George Church – Pautalia – Velbadzhd – Kolusha Quarter, Kyustendil, Bulgaria

The medieval church “St. George” in the southwestern Bulgarian city of Kyustendil is located in the Kolusha Quarter (Kolusha was formerly a small town absorbed by Kyustendil in 1939). It was constructed in the late 10th-early 11th century, the period of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD) or in the early years of the period after it was conquered and was part of Byzantium (1018-1185), while its earliest preserved medieval frescoes date back to the 11th-12th century.

The St. George Church in Kyustendil is a cross-domed temple which is 10 meters long and 8.7 meters wide, with three apses, and no narthex. It is one of the oldest preserved medieval churches in Southwest Bulgaria; the different layers of murals inside it date back to three different time periods the 11th-12th century, the 15th-16th century, and the 19th century. The inscriptions on the medieval frescoes are in Greek.

According to the website of the Kyustendil Regional Museum of History, which manages the St. George Church, there are speculations that this was where Tsar Mihail III Shishman (r. 1323-1330) (also known as Mihail Asen III), ruler of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396), was buried after his death in the Battle of Velbazhd in 1330. In this battle, the Kingdom of Serbia routed the Bulgarian forces taking them by surprise, which allowed it to expand to the south in the geographic regions of Macedonia, Epirus, and Thessaly. According to the mainstream view based on historical sources, Tsar Mihail III Shishman was buried in another 11th century church of the same name – the St. George Church in the town of Staro Nagoricane in today’s Republic of Macedonia.

The medieval St. George Church in Kolusha was the main temple of the local Orthodox bishop during the period of Ottoman Yoke (1396-1878/1912), i.e. when Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire. It was also the main temple of Kyustendil even though at the time it was located outside of the city. This continued until 1816 when a new church in the style of the Bulgarian National Revival period (18th-19th century) was built in Kyustendil in 1816.

In the 19th century, the St. George Church was badly damaged by the Ottoman Turks but the medieval foundations of its arches survived. An auxiliary building from the Bulgarian National Revival period has been preserved next to the church; today it houses a museum of Revival period icons and books.

The church was rebuilt in 1878-1880, immediately after Bulgaria’s National Liberation in 1878, with funding donated by donor Dyado (“Grandpa”) Stoyan, a resident of Kolusha. During this first restoration, the restorers built additional structures such as arched roof, a vestibule, and a bell tower.

The medieval church St. George in Kyustendil was first named a cultural monument by the Bulgarian authorities in 1927. It received the status of a monument of culture of national importance in 1968.

The temple was first studied in 1906 by historian and archaeologist Prof. Yordan Ivanov; further exploration efforts followed in 1921 by French-Ukrainian historian Andre Grabar, and in 1931 by historian and archaeologist Nikola Mavrodinov.

The first restoration of the church was started in 1974-76, and continued in 1979-1985. In 1985, the additions made to the temple during the reconstruction in 1878-1880 were removed so that the church regained its original medieval structure. The restoration efforts were continued in 1990, when the researchers also started to reveal the preserved medieval murals; the final stage of the restoration of the St. George Church in Bulgaria’s Kyustendil began in 2004.

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Archaeology in Bulgaria. and Beyond
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