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What are the Rock-Hewn Churches of Ivanovo?

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  • Written By: Brendan McGuigan
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 09 September 2016
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The Rock-hewn Churches of Ivanovo are a series of various religious structures in Bulgaria. They are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and have been since 1979. Rock-hewn Churches of Ivanovo consist of roughly forty distinct churches, and more than three-hundred other religious structures, such as smaller chapels, and monastic cells.

Beginning in the early-13th century, Christian monks began to settle in the area around Ivanovo. They began to carve out dwellings for themselves, as well as churches and chapels in which to worship. These monks continued to inhabit the Rock-hewn Churches of Ivanovo until sometime in the 17th century, when they were largely abandoned.

The Rock-hewn Churches of Ivanovo are most famous for the beautiful frescoes that cover the walls, and which date to the 13th century. Five of the churches contain these frescoes in very well-preserved condition, and they are considered the best remaining example of medieval Bulgarian art.

The Rock-hewn Churches of Ivanovo were founded as a monastic community in the early-13th century, by Joachim, who would later go on to become the Patriarch of Bulgaria. Over the next centuries, the Rock-hewn Churches of Ivanovo were regularly visited by the rulers of the Bulgarian Empire, such as Ivan Asen II, who donated substantial amounts of money to their upkeep.

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Portraits of these donors are still found on some of the walls, such as the mural of the Tsar Ivan Alexander found in the Holy Virgin church, holding a small model of the church itself. Although it is somewhat uncertain, it is thought that the portrait in the Buried Under Church is of Tsar Ivan Asen II. Similarly, there is a portrait in the Demolished Church of Teodora, the wife of Tsar Ivan Alexander, who later became a nun.

As the Ottoman Empire established dominance in the region, this patronage slowly diminished, and the strength of the Rock-hewn Churches of Ivanovo waned. For visitors to Bulgaria, the Rock-hewn Churches of Ivanovo offer a wonderful opportunity to view the religious art of the Second Empire. These frescoes are rich and detailed, and are some of the most well-preserved of any cave murals left in Europe today. The surrounding area is also quite beautiful, with the river Rusenski Lom running not far away.

The Rock-hewn Churches of Ivanovo offer a nice counterpoint to the monastery of Rila, as well, which most travelers will also visit. Although both feature stunning murals and frescoes, the Rock-hewn Churches of Ivanovo are much more accessible to some people. Rila can seem overwhelming in its size and scope, while the Rock-hewn Churches of Ivanovo are small enough to allow a visitor to truly take them in within a half day trip.

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