The Rila National Park, Bulgaria’s largest national park, is situated in the southeast of the country about 100 km south of the capital, Sofia, and is a breathtaking space of mountains, lakes and forests. Nestled deep within is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Rila Monastery, its location emblematic of the deeply entrenched pride many Bulgarians hold for sites such as this.
The area where the monastery exists has been a spiritual space since the 10th Century, when St. Ivan of Rila gave up all worldly possessions in favour of a pious and ascetic life as a hermit. He lived in a cave deep within the forest, where he held night-time vigils. The monastery was built near the aforementioned cave, which it is still possible to visit. There is some debate as to whether he founded the monastery himself, or whether that honour should be attributed to his students. While nothing that was written at this time survives, the monastery is home to a library which holds many important religious scripts dating back to as early as the 11th Century.
When speaking with many locals about what to visit in their country, the Rila Monastery frequently popped up. Is this merely because it is a stunning complex situated in equally fantastic surroundings? Or is there something deeper lying below the surface?
To explore this issue, I wanted to find out more about the relationship between the authorities and the Church in 20th Century Bulgaria. To do so, I spoke with Emil Efendulov, whose great grandfather was a priest during the Communist era. When I asked him about the relationship between the Communist authorities and the church, he reflected how “priests were only prosecuted if they got involved in politics”. Indeed, his great grandfather “lived a long happy life and never landed in hot water because of his beliefs and practices”. He describes how, although frowned upon, public discussion of Christianity was not officially banned. Moreover, religious schools were not closed (although their funding was obviously completely cut off); Emil’s grandfather actually attended one.
This situation seems completely at odds with popular Western understanding of 20th Century Communism in Eastern Europe. How is this so?
Emil’s suggestion is that “the Communists didn't really care about the church all that much. Nobody cared… We lived though 500 years of Ottoman rule and that really weakened the church's hold on people's minds. By the time we were freed, while most people identified as Eastern Orthodox Christians, only a handful of avid believers were left. The 50 years between gaining independence and the revolution did bring somewhat of a comeback for the Church, but it didn't really gain all that much power.”
Emil’s allusion to the Ottoman rule is crucial in understanding the issue. During the 18th-19th Centuries, Bulgarian culture was under threat from all directions, in what Bulgarians refer to as the ‘double yoke’ (dvojnoto robstvo): while the Ottoman’s occupation continued, the Greek cultural power and influence was spreading. Bulgarian National Revival was a cultural movement that grew out of opposition to these threats, and was the beginnings of the Bulgarians starting to assert their own identity.
Emil suggests that “in the last 100 years of slavery the church did play a huge role in resurrecting the Bulgarian identity. Churches and chapels were few and small, but we have huge, amazing monasteries that are hid high in the mountains and are in a nutshell impenetrable fortresses.” Sound familiar?
He describes how “the monasteries preserved the Bulgarian culture until the time came to reinvigorate it and spread it out once again.” Indeed, the Rila Monastery can be seen as a bastion of Bulgarian National identity, not only through its appearance as an “impenetrable fortress”, but also through its library, which was a key educational hubduring the era. Furthermore, following a fire in 1833, the Monastery was rebuilt and today the “domes, black and white arches, and bright swaths of medieval-style paintings earned it a reputation as a masterpiece of Bulgarian National Revival architecture.”
Perhaps the Rila Monastery is so close to the hearts of many Bulgarians because of its inherent links with the period of Bulgarian National Revival, visible in its architecture, the history of its library, and its wider role as a defender of the nation. In short, it has been an “impenetrable fortress” of ‘Bulgarianness’ throughout the years. No mean feat in a history when this has often come under threat.
Special thanks to Emil Efendulov for his insight.