Monasteries accompany Christian civilization from its roots. They originated with the hermits who appeared in the second half of the 3rd and the beginning of the 4th c in the desert regions of Egypt. The lonely hermits denounced all earthly goods and joys and took the road of suffering and isolation in their attempt to rise to the purity of Christian faith on earth. St. Anthony the Great (251-356) is said to be the father of monkhood and the founder of the first community of monks – St. Pahomius. He also created the first monastic statute (tipik), which established the rules of spiritual activity, everyday life and labour of the monastic brotherhood. Later the monastic movement developed in Palestine with the well-known saints Euphtimius the Great, Theosius the Resident and Sava the Sanctified.
The monasteries soon found their place in Christian societies. Monachism was also transferred to Byzantium and soon acquired major importance. In the middle of the 4th c there were dozens of monasteries in the vicinity of Constantinople. One of the most important among them was ,,St. John the Precursor”, established in 463 by Consul Studios and for that reason also called the Studiyski monastery. Many important figures of learning worked in it, for example Theodor Studit (died in 826) who headed the struggle against iconoclasm. During the many centuries of its existence the monastery has been an important centre of religious doctrines, education and art and had a strong influence on the Bulgarian Church and monkhood.
An important place for the development of Bulgarian culture is attributed to the monasteries on the Athonite Peninsula (today’s Northern Greece), also called Mount Athos (Sveta Gora), which remain untouched by the events of history. In the course of nine centuries the monks from different Orthodox countries built a true monastic republic and participated in an intensive process of cultural interaction. The Bulgarian monastery ,,St. George Zograph” appeared in the 10th c. It has a unique role in the development of Bulgarian culture. Old Bulgarian literature was also created in other monasteries of Athos among which special place is attributed to the Great Monastery of ,,St. Atanasius” and the Hilendar monastery. Dozens of Bulgarian educationists worked there and created invaluable monuments of literature and art.
When Christianity spread in the western provinces of Byzantium, which covered present-day Bulgarian territories, the first monasteries were founded there. We learn about that from written monuments and remnants of Christian temples – for example, the churches ,,St. Sophia” and ,,St. George” in Sofia, the basilicas in Nesebar and some others.
The Slavs, who settled on the Balkan Peninsula in the 6th-7th c, worshipped their pagan gods and destroyed most of the Christian ritual buildings. The Proto-Bulgarians, who settled later, were also pagan. In union with the Slavic tribes they founded in 681 the Bulgarian State.
Under the influence of Byzantium however Christianity gradually found more and more adepts among the Slavs and the Proto-Bulgarians and spread in the country. In 865 Kniaz Boris converted the population of the Bulgarian State and Christianity became the official religion.
Soon after that the old pagan ritual buildings were transformed into Christian churches. The first monasteries appeared. Building of monasteries on a broad scale started after the VIII Ecumenical Council in Constantinople in 869-870 and according to its decisions the Bulgarian people became part of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
One of the first big ritual buildings that emerged on the foundations of a pagan temple was the Great Basilica in the capital Pliska. A monastic complex was formed round it. But the centre of religious and political life was soon transferred to the new capital Preslav. As early as the summer of 870 the construction of new Christian cross-domed churches began. Monasteries were constructed after the Byzantine fashion. They included an impressive yard surrounded by functional buildings, in the middle was the church with a refectory, a farm yard, etc. One of the first monasteries in Preslav was that of the Kniaz – ,,St. Pantaleymon”, situated on the left bank of the river Ticha. The most representative and rich among Preslav monasteries was the one in the foothill of the Zabuite Hill. It was a centre of education, translation and art and, together with the rest of the Preslav monasteries it contributed greatly to the establishment of the Preslav Literary School.
The capital Preslav was alive with theological and literary activities, architecture, painting and other arts were flourishing. Stone-cutting, wood-carving, goldsmithery, painted ceramics were well developed.
During the reign of King Simeon the religious and cultural development was extremely intensive. In the beginning of the 10th c a monastery complex was built round the famous Round Church.
In 905 the ,,St. Naum” monastery was built on the banks of the Ohrid Lake and the Bulgarian educators Kliment and Naum set the foundations of the well known Ohrid School.
During the rule of King Peter (927-970) were set the foundations of the largest Bulgarian monastery – the Rila monastery. In the foot of Ruen Peak appeared the Batoshevo monastery ,,St. Dimiter”.
During the period of Byzantine rule (1018-1186) many of the big Bulgarian monasteries were destroyed (those in Preslav and Ohrid) but new ones were created – the Bachkovo monastery in 1083, for example.
Anew stage in the development of Bulgarian monasteries began after the reinstatement of the Bulgarian State in 1186. The period 13th-14th c marked the highest point in the development of religion, education, literature and art. Many new churches and monasteries were built. Some of them were situated in urban centres, others – in the vicinities, and still others were erected in deserted places, away from worldly bustle. Very important are the literary centres in the capital Turnovo and the near-by territories, the Kilifarevo monastery, connected with the activity of one of the most prominent figures of Orthodox monasticism Teodosiy Turnovski. The foundations of the Evtimiy School, which is very important for the development of Bulgarian and Slavic literature, were set in the ,,Holy Trinity” monastery.
The most important spiritual movement in the Orthodox Church in the 14th c, Hesychism, contributed to the creation of new monasteries – that of Grigoriy Sinait in Paroria (Strandzha Mountain), the rock monasteries along the rivers Russenski Lorn and Cherni Lorn, the hermit settlements by today’s villages of Cherven and Ivanovo.
In the 14th c the spiritual culture of Bulgaria was flourishing and this made the role of monks still more important. They were popular among the people and secular power sought support from them. The monastic centres were centres of spiritual culture which played a great role in the preservation of national independence and identity of Bulgarians. Monasteries are the incarnation of cultural and educational activity of their time and are some sort of universal multicultural institutions. It can’t be otherwise since during the Middle Ages ,,everything begins with God and ends up with God”.
Towards the end of the 14th c the Ottoman hordes conquered the Balkans and established their complete dominance. Bulgarian statehood was in ruins, people were deprived of their rights. In those dark years the Orthodox Church was still alive and was the only support for the Bulgarian people.
The cultural activity died down for almost a century. Towards the middle of the 15th c most of the brilliant mediaeval monasteries were destroyed and burnt down. Only a small number of them survived (mainly situated in far-away spots difficult to approach) – the monasteries of Rila, Dragalevtsi, Boboshevo, Kapinovo, Etropole, Rozhen and some others.
In the last quarter of the 15th c the Turkish authorities demonstrated certain religious tolerance and some of the monasteries reestablished their activities due to the support of local dignitaries. As a result of the prohibition of Turkish authorities, instead of the old temples rising proudly, the new buildings were small, modest and churches were half-dug into the ground. Inside however they were richly decorated with wall paintings. Such are the monasteries of Dragalevtsi, Kremikovtsi, Poganovo and others. Prominent educators like Constantine Kostenechki, Vladislav Gramatik and many others copied and wrote books, which were a continuation of Bulgarian tradition.
In the 16th c the wave of violence was still raging over the country. Many spiritual centres in the Rhodope Mountain, the Turnovo and Sofia region were ravaged. To top it all, the Bulgarian Church was subjected to the Greek Patriarchate
in Istanbul. Greek became the official language of the Church and the highest priests were all Greeks. As a reaction to the attempts at destroying Bulgarian nationality the acting monasteries intensified their spiritual and educational activity and in this way saved Bulgarian culture from assimilation. Such centres are the Rila monastery, the monasteries of Cherepish, Glozhene, Bitolya, Kurilovo and others. The monastery of ,,The Holy Trinity” at Etropole, also called Varovitets, became an important literary centre.
The period of National Revival gave a new strong impetus to the development of Bulgarian monasteries. The economic prosperity of the population grew, donations were on a mass scale as an expression of the growing feeling of national belonging. Unprecedented activity for building new churches and monasteries spread all over the country. Some monasteries were restored and others were built anew. Architecture, wood-carving, goldsmithery, blacksmithery, weaving, book illustration were in their flourish.
In 1704 for example was decorated the chapel ,,The Holy Trinity” in the ,,Assumption” monastery in Arbanassi. Later the churches in the Kilifarevo and Kapinovo monasteries were renovated and in 1732 that in the Rozhen monastery.
Construction was even on a larger scale at the end of the 18th c and the beginning of the 19th c. This was the time when the major monastic buildings were built.
Builders like Kolyo Ficheto, Alexi of Rila, Dimiter of Sofia, Kosta of Debra, and Ivan of Mlechevo gained popularity.
Painters like Dimiter and Zachary Zograph, John the Icon-painter, John Popovich of Elena, Nikola the Icon-painter of Samokov, Yonko Popvitanov, Toma Vishanov, and Dimiter Tomov created impressive mural paintings, benchmarks in the history of Bulgarian pictorial art.
The activity of monasteries during the period of National Revival was marked with a creative upsurge, faith in the future of the Bulgarian nation and in the fulfillment of the national cause – liberation of Bulgaria and establishment of an independent state of all Bulgarians.
After the liberation of Bulgaria from Turkish oppression Bulgarian monasteries continued their development in the national state. Some were renovated and are still being renovated today. Their development in the 20th c however is inconsistent and not always in the positive direction.
The totalitarian regime in the country practiced the doctrine of militant atheism. The monasteries were neglected and there were no funds for their upkeep. The attitude of authorities towards priests and monks was strongly negative, the number of monks decreased and young people were -not allowed to serve the faith. For decades most of the monasteries were left untended, with few exceptions, which were considered representative by the authorities.
In the first years of democratic changes the monasteries were not among the priorities of society. The end of the 20th c marks a growing concern for monasteries and measures for their preservation are taken today.
It is difficult to establish the number of monasteries on the territory of Bulgaria through the ages. It is considered that in 13th-14th c in some regions there were groups of about 10-20 monasteries round Turnovo, Nesebar, Sofia, Melnik and the banks of the Ohrid and Prespa Lakes. Today there are more than 120 monasteries and the greater part of them are functioning.