Cloister among sand pyramids

The Rozhen Monastery holds a copy of a wonder-working icon from Mount Athos

When looked from afar, the Rozhen Monastery resembles a fortress.

The Rozhen Monastery “Nativity of the Virgin Mary” is the largest cloister in the Pirin Mountain and one of several Medieval Bulgarian sanctuaries preserved in a relatively good condition to this day. It is situated 8km east of the country's smallest town, Melnik, not far from the picturesque sand pyramids of Melnik.

The Rozhen Monastery “Nativity of the Virgin Mary” is the largest cloister in the Pirin Mountain and one of several Medieval Bulgarian sanctuaries preserved in a relatively good condition to this day. It is situated 8km east of the country's smallest town, Melnik, not far from the picturesque sand pyramids of Melnik.

The monastery's early history is unclear. It is believed to have been established in the 13th century, but evidence of its existence during that period is circumstantial. The earliest unequivocal references to the cloister date back to the 16th century when the monastery was thriving. It was during that time that the south wing of the complex and the main church were built, while the dining-room and the church frescoes date back to the end of the century. The south facade of the church was painted at the beginning of the 17th century, and by the middle of it the then-new ossuary, built outside the monastery's walls, was painted too.

During the 18th century the monastery fell on hard times, lost its independence and became a convent for the Georgian Holy Monastery of Iviron on Mount Athos. It was during that period that the monastery obtained a copy of the wonder-working icon kept in the 'mother' monastery - the icon of The Virgin Mary Portaitissa. The original icon stood guard at Iviron's gates, hence the name Portaitissa, which literally means gatekeeper. The copy was created in 1790 and is believed to perform miracles.

Built in its current form during the 16th-18th century, the modern monastic complex includes a cathedral with a chapel, an ossuary and farm and residential buildings. The residential buildings are arranged in an irregular hexagonal pattern, enclosing a beautiful courtyard, in the centre of which stands the cloister's church. The high stone walls with narrow windows resembling embrasures, and the gate heavily reinforced with iron, lend the Rozhen Monastery the look of a fortress.

The oldest part is the south wing, which houses the dining room. The north and the east wings are modelled after the south one and built in the 18th century. The interiors of the monastery buildings boast a special dynamic and diversity. Typical of the 19th century Bulgarian Revival Period architecture are the spacious wood galleries with verandas, stairs and railing running outside the monastic cells and the guest rooms on the second and third floors.

The monastery's “Nativity of the Virgin Mary” is a three-nave, three-apse, domeless church with a two-part narthex and open galleries to the south and west. The north side of the narthex is shaped like a chapel dedicated to Saints Cosmas and Damian. The church was painted in the 16th century but a serious fire in the 17th century left the naos frescoes seriously damaged and so they were redone in the 18th century. Just some fragments of the original layer were preserved, while the 18th century frescoes are the work of icon-painters from Ioannina, nowadays Greece.

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