Between Heaven and Earth: the Rock Churches of the Ivanovo
Once, the rock churches of Ivanovo drew hermits, kings and pilgrims. Now, it’s the tourists’ turn. At the beginning of the 13th Century, a monk named Joachim was so charmed by the picturesque cliffs near the Rusenski Lom River that he decided to settle there with his three disciples. The beauties of the place and its proximity to the diocesan centre of Cherven attracted votaries’ attentions to the church that Joachim carved out of the rock. The hermit quickly became popular and soon began welcoming eminent visitors. One was King Ivan Asen II, who donated a considerable amount of gold to the church complex.
Four centuries earlier Ivan Rilski, Bulgaria’s first known hermit, had refused to meet King Peter, angered by the rich gifts that he brought. Joachim was a completely different anchorite. He accepted Ivan Asen’s donation with such gratitude, it seems, that soon afterwards he was invited to move to the capital city of Tarnovo and was in time elected a patriarch.
However, Joachim did not neglect his monastery, whose official name was St Archangel Michael but is now better known as Ivanovo. The cloister was enlarged during his tenure and it became a tradition with the rulers in Tarnovo to support it. A century after it was founded, it became one of the richest monasteries in the country.
King Ivan Alexander (1331-1371) was just following the rule of bestowing generous gifts on the monastery. But he is the only Bulgarian monarch whose image can still be seen on the walls of the Holy Virgin Church, the main and largest of the six preserved churches of the complex. To see Ivan Alexander, however, you’ll need comfortable shoes and a tolerance for heights. To visit the rest of the churches, you need to make arrangements in advance with the Regional History Museum in Ruse.
Ivanovo Monastery, which is located 22 km, o 14 miles, south of Ruse, comprises over 300 cells and about 40 chapels and churches. They were hewn out of small natural caves and niches on either side of the river by ascetics and Hesychast monks seeking seclusion from the vanity of this world. It takes a lot of time and effort to visit the whole complex. The easiest thing to do is to climb up the steep path at the end of which, 28 m, or 125 ft, above the road, lies the entrance to the Holy Virgin Church.
Besides Ivan Alexander’s portrait, the wall depict his second wife Theodora, as well as a few saints and early Christian hermits. Looking up at the ceiling, however, you will find a rare mural. The scenes of Holy Week and the life of St John the Baptist are among the few extant first-class examples of Bulgarian medieval art. Because of these, the monastery was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.
Art was not the St Archangels Michaels Monastery’s only distinction in its heyday during the 13th and 14th Century. The king’s donations made the cloister a major centre of culture. Its monks copied manuscripts, wrote books and theorised about Hesychasm. This mystic movement put special emphasis on contemplation as the means of discovering the divine light of Jesus manifested to his disciples during his Transfiguration on Mount Tabor. According to one story, the Hesychasts contemplated their own navels. For some, this was a sign of the despair that overtook the Bulgarians at the first attacks of the advancing Ottomans.
By an ironic quirc of fate, the monastery fell into decay because of these same invaders. A graffito inscribed on the wall of the Holy Virgin Church by a Father Raphael in 1746 says that only a few pilgrims visited the site in his days.
At the beginning of the 21st Century, however, the monastery complex boasts many more visitors. Some are religious tourists, other simply drawn to scenic places. Both groups are extremely lucky. Until some 20 years ago, only the artists restoring the rock church could step inside.
Rock Church at Work
The only functioning rock monastery in Bulgaria, St Dimitar Basarabovski, is situated near Ivanovo, 14 km, or 9 miles, south of Ruse. This saint, who was a shepherd before becoming a monk, is little-known in this country. He is greatly respected in Romania and is even hailed as the patron saint of Bucharest, where his relics are kept. The monastery was first mentioned in a Turkish register of the Nikopol Sancak, or district, in the 15th Century, and was fully restored in 1937 by a monk named Hrisant. The steepy rising steps on the left side of the yard lead to a church, two monastic cells and a terrace for tourists carved out of the rock.