The Besarbovo Rock Monastery: A Lamp of Bulgarian Faith – Bulgaria, Europe

If you happen to be in the town of Russe and you are done with sightseeing, you could drop by the village of Besarbovo to visit the only still working monastery in Bulgaria. From the bus city station the bus passes through the village and then stops. On the way back you catch it from the same spot. The bus schedule is arranged in a way that gives the visitor enough time to see the monastery, relax for a while and then head back.

The bus stops in the center of the village where anybody can show you the way to the monastery. There are also sign boards, but they are not very visible; you’ll see them only once you’ve headed towards the holy shrine. The rock soars high up on the left side of the road. It then turns right and goes round the iron fence surrounding the monastery that looks like a small oasis among the surrounding wilderness. Above it one can see windows and doors as if decorated in a fairytale.

Not a single soul is around, but the garden gate is open. A white board greets the visitor with the iconographic letters, “Besarbovo Holy Shrine”. We step inside and find ourselves in a rock garden that continues further on, with benches and a well dug by Saint Dimitri. At the foot of the rock, there are two rooms and a cave refectory built in 1956. In what once used to be a bone vault, today we find a documentary exposition with photos, information about past researches on the monastery and a church plate.

On the left there is a ladder; its 48 stairs take us up to a rock platform. There we find the niche where the Reverend Dimitrii used to sleep, as the legend has it. To its right is the rock church, built by hollowing out the rocks, which still holds holy masses. Its southern wall is made of stone blocks. This gives the clue to the way other churches in rock monasteries used to be built in the past, but there are no preserved church frescoes, or information.

The iconostasis, with icons dating back to the mid 20th century, more precisely 1940, was made in Russe. The most precious thing now is the hagiographic icon of the saint depicted in full size. Around him one can see 10 hagiographic scenes from the year 1803, with an inscription in Romanian (Cyrillic letters) and Greek language. To the left of the church is a living space with two cells. High up in the rocks where the rest of the cells used to be once, today the visitor finds only fortified terraces accessible for tourists. During research works in the 1980s, some interesting medieval graffiti were discovered on the rocks, depicting deer, a horse rider, horses, etc.

There are around 300 rock dwellings. In Isihast times they used to be inhabited by hermits, striving to achieve unity with God by leading an ascetic life, far from the civilization, deeply engrossed in themselves through constant prayer and complete silence. The monastery itself, however, has only a few of these dwellings. It is the part of the chain of the famous rock monasteries close to the village of Ivanovo, down the valley of the Russenski Lom River, as well as the rock monasteries close to the nearby medieval town of Cherven.

The monasteries date way back when many rock monasteries were built on the territory of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom. Rock monasteries flourished then. The fact is explained with the various religious movements active in those times, with a hermit kind of life and soul purification and finally, with the generous donations made by the king’s court in Veliko Tarnovo. The earliest historic sources about the existence of the monastery at this location date back to the 15th century; found in Turkish documents about the Nikopol administrative district, where “the Besarba monastery” – an estate of 14 village households – is featured.

The monastery’s most famous inhabitant was Saint Dimitrii of Besarbovo. He is even mentioned in Paisiy Hilendarski’s book “Istoriya Slavyanobolgarskaya”. According to the records about the saint’s life, the Reverend Dimitar lived in the village of Besarbovo. He was famous for his attitude towards living creatures, an example of which was his vow to walk with one foot bare – the foot with which he once stamped upon some small chickens out of carelessness. He led a humble life and decided to go to a monastery. He set out along the Lom River and soon found a cave with a monastery. Dimitar chose to stay and lead a hermit life there until he died.

During the Russian-Turk War, General Ivan P. Saltikov transferred the saint’s relics to Bucharest and placed them in the patriarch church of St. Konstantin and Elena where they remain today. It is believed that Bucharest was chosen due to its proximity to Russe and its connection to the Bulgarian population. The relics are highly valued by the Romanians since they consider the saint as their heavenly patron. Today the memory of St. Dimitar of Besarbovo is celebrated by the Orthodox Church on October 27, both in Bucharest and Besarbovo.

In 1978 the Rock Monastery was proclaimed an archeological cultural monument of local importance. However, it goes beyond being an archeological relic of the past. Its greatest architectural, cultural and pilgrimage value is that it is the only rock monastery in Bulgaria that is still active.

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