Under the wing of God's Mother

The Bachkovo cloister is the second largest in Bulgaria after the Rila monastery

From a bird's eye view the monastery looks like a small but well-fortified citadel.

Huddled in the folds of the Rhodope Mountains, in the valley of the Chepelare river, and yet located only 30 kilometres away from the town of Plovdiv, there stands Bulgaria's second largest monastery - Bachkovo. Built in the 11th century, the cloister is steeped in history and ranks among the most frequently visited sights in Bulgaria. It is believed that since its foundation in 1083, to the present day, it has never stopped functioning - not even for a single day.

Georgians Grigory Pakourianos, a high-ranking military commander of Byzantine emperor Alexius I Comnenus, and his brother Abasius are considered to be the monastery's founders. The monastic statute compiled under the founders' order is preserved in records written in Greek and Georgian. According to it, the secular and church authorities, including the Metropolitan of Philippopolis (now Plovdiv) had no right to interfere into monastic affairs.

Initially the monastery was a faith centre for the Georgian monks in the Balkans and in the first centuries of its existence non-Georgian monks were even not admitted. These rules gradually changed and from the 13th-14th century the monastery fell under absolute Greek domination. In the middle of the 14th century, under the rule of Tsar Ivan Alexander, it was brought into the fold of the Bulgarian state for a short period. The preserved portrait of the tsar in the monastery's ossuary testifies to that.

The region around the cloister fell under the Ottomans in 1364 but the monastery itself did not cease to exist. After the collapse of the Tarnovo Kingdom in 1393, Euthymius, the last Patriarch of Tarnovo, was confined in Bachkovo. During the Ottoman rule the monastery managed to keep its stauropegial status (i.e. it was directly subordinate to the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church) which was repeatedly confirmed by certificates of the Ecumenical Patriarchs under whose powers the monastery has been since the end of the 14th century. Till the end of the 19th century, Bachkovo remained a predominantly Greek monastery and passed under the jurisdiction of the Bulgarian Exarchate as late as 1894.

In its present configuration, the cloister is known since late 19th - early 20th century. The monastery buildings form two rectangular yards, northern (original) and southern (added in the 1830s). From the beginning of the 20th century, part of the residential buildings were destroyed by fire and later restored.

The cathedral church of the Assumption of the Holy Mother of God is modelled after the triconch churches of Mount Athos and was built in 1604 upon the foundation of the older church which dates back to the times of the Pakourianos brothers. It is fully restored and well maintained while the iconostasis of the early 17th century is among the earliest preserved samples of woodcarving art in the Bulgarian lands.

Its lower part is a rood screen made of freestone, with wooden parts built over it: a row of the so-called regal icons and two rows of smaller ones. The icons of the feast row date to the 17th century while those of Christ and Holy Mother of God were painted by the monk Jacob of Athos.

The second church of the monastery, that of the Sts Archangels, is dedicated to the leaders of the Host of Heaven - Archangels Michael and Gabriel. It is located to the west of the cathedral church and is adjacent to it. In the southern yard the church of St Nicholas was built in the 1830s. Its frescoes were made by eminent Bulgarian painter Zahari Zograf. The monastery's old refectory is of special value. It was built in the 17th century and the monks have been using it for over two centuries.

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