When visitors head to Bulgaria’s southwest, their prime place of interest is Melnik, the picturesque traditional town located among surreal sand pyramids and famed for its red wine.
Near the town, however, one of Bulgaria’s most fascinating monasteries, a delightful example of 16th-18th century religious art and architecture, sits hidden in the hills.
The Rozhen Monastery is located among eroding sandy mounts, with the mass of the Pirin filling the horizon. With medieval origins uncertain, but probable, the monastic complex is a fortress-like compound with the shape of an irregular hexagon. Inside, it is a delightful and peaceful place, with the cobble-stone pavement, a cozy little church painted with medieval murals, and living quarters adorned with wooden porches, with vines climbing on them. An old water fountain is running, filling the air with its murmur.
The monastery we see today is the result of building and rebuilding, painting and repainting, that took place between the 16th and the 18th centuries. Back at the time, the monastery was independent of the Constantinople Patriarchate, which under the Ottomans controlled the Eastern Orthodox part of the empire’s population. The low church was painted for the last time in the early 18th century by a group of artists who made the internal murals and the icon doors. The fact that there were no later additions makes the Nativity of the Mother of God church a rare example of a whole artistic ensemble, united with a common style and artistic concept. In 1715, the church got also stained glass windows. They are still the only ones of this kind in Bulgaria.
Such construction and investment in a fancy art show that the monastery was doing well at the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th century. As the decades progressed, however, the Rozhen Monastery found itself in dire financial straits. To avoid going bust, it said farewell to its independence and became a property of the Iviron Monastery, a Georgian-controlled community in Mount Athos.
This triggered two changes. Georgian monks settled in Rozhen, and a copy of the supposedly miraculous icon of the Mother of God from Iviron was brought to the monastery. It is still here, in the monastic church. Reportedly, it is also miraculous. On the monastery’s feast day, 8 September, the Nativity of the Mother of God, the icon is taken out with a solemn procession, attended by hundreds of believers.
The ownership of the Rozhen Monastery became an issue after the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913. Bulgaria, Greece, and Serbia took the region of Macedonia from the Ottoman Empire and divided it among themselves. The Rozhen Monastery became a part of Bulgaria proper, but as its mother monastery was in Mount Athos, which was in Greece, the latter claimed ownership rights. The issue dragged for years (as well as many more reasons for bad blood between the two countries). It was finally solved in Bulgaria’s favor by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, in the 1920s.
The Rozhen Monastery is connected to the fate of Macedonia in another way. It was the last abode of revolutionary Yane Sandanski. Sandanski believed that Macedonia should be an independent entity within a future Balkan federation. This attracted the ire of his more radical comrades from the VMORO, or Internal Macedonian and Edirne Revolutionary Organisation, who insisted that the whole of Macedonia should be in Bulgaria.
In 1915, a day after he left the Rozhen Monastery on a trip, Sandanski was ambushed and killed. He was buried outside the monastery.
The monastery’s name comes from a corruption of the Bulgarian Rozhdestvo Bogorodichno or Nativity of the Mother of God. The name crept onto a nearby village. Until recently, the Rozhen village was a small, quiet place with several wonderful houses surviving from the Revival Period, but the ill-conceived construction of “new traditional” restaurants and hotels has killed its atmosphere.