Churches in the village of Raduil
The valley of Kostenets is located on the eastern side of the Rila Mountains, not far from the ski resort of Borovets. In contrast to the valley of Malovitsa on the west side of the ski resort, this valley is not frequently visited. The capital of the valley is the City of Kostenets, a few kilometers from which there is a beautiful waterfall in a ravine (Kostenets Waterfall) that inspired the national poet Ivan Vazov. A few kilometers west one finds the town of Dolna Banya, which has hot springs and several local spa centers. At the end of the valley are the villages of Maritsa and Raduil.
One of the unusual things in these villages is the number of chapels around them. In the Mountains and forests surrounding them there are thirteen chapels used by the locals, and this is in addition to the Churches within the villages themselves. No one knows the origin of the tradition and its reasons. It is very possible that the area was a concentration of hermit monks, similar to that of the monk Ivan Rilski on the other side of the Mountains. The number 13 alludes to the fact that there was a sort of Laura (center) of hermit monks in the area, since it was common throughout the Christian world to establish new monasteries of 12 or 13 monks.
Another possibility is that the area of Raduil was a settlement of Bogomil Perfects that lived in caves in the canyons, we know of groups of Bogomils that served in Tsar Samuel’s army, and we know that Raduil was a place of gathering and building up of the power of the tsar in preparation for his decisive battle at the gates of Trajan. Armies usually camped in places where there was a civilian base of support, and where supplies could be found, such as flocks of sheep that could be used for food (to this day the village of Raduil excels in large flocks of sheep that go up to graze in the Mountains). so it is possible that the village started as a Bogomil community that had 13places of Perfects around it,
The beauty of the village of Raduil is its location at the confluence of two Rivers: the Ibar River, which begins at the summit of the Ibar Mountain, and the Maritza River, which begins at the summit of the Musala Mountain, the 2 Rivers meet in the heart of the village and begin their long journey (500 km) to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. In other words, The village of Raduil is at the foot of the highest Mountain in the Balkans, where 2 Rivers burst our from the Rila Mountains in magnificent canyons. In the walls of the canyons there are caves that were probably used by monks in ancient times. These monks may have been from the Bogomil community, “perfect” who dedicated themselves to connection with God, and they were the ones who reported to the army that the valley was free of enemies and because of that were allowed to settle there in it safety.
From the village several routes lead to the 13 chapels. These are small and beautiful buildings, which are usually located in the heart of the forest and are used for personal prayers. All the chapels are open and maintained and you can simply enter them and look for a moment of silence, you just need a local guide to find them. One of the most beautiful things that can be found there is woodwork by the artist Vilan Zakaria from the Elenite restaurant.
In the center of the village of Raduil there is a new Church, where you can also find wooden works by Vilan, especially the Iconostasis. At the end of the village is the old Church with paintings from 150 years ago by the artists from the Samokov painting School. On the hill above the village there is an inactive Monastery that was established in honor of a miracle that happened to a group of soldiers from the village during the First World War. They were surrounded by superior enemy forces, but Maria brought down a thick fog on the battlefield and thanks to her intervention they were able to escape. This phenomenon is also known from the City of Samokov and is called “Maria’s Cloak” – an appearance of the Mother of Humanity as a protector and shield.
A visit to the chapels and Churches of Raduil, together with the Monastery in Samokov and the historical Churches in Tsari Mali Grad is an authentic exposure to the traditional Bulgarian folk Christianity, which still exists in the villages below the surface. In Raduil there is a day of pilgrimage to each of the 13 chapels, and a central holiday day where they meet in the center of the village and cook 13 pots of “sacrifice” in honor of the 13 chapels.
In 986, one of the most influential battles in world history took place, the “Battle of Trajan Gates”, in a Mountain pass 60 km from Sofia on the road to Plovdiv. The battle was between the forces of the Bulgarian Tsar Samuel and the forces of the Byzantine Emperor Basil the second. Surprisingly, the Bulgarians won and as a result gained 30 more years of independence, enough time to shape their religion and belief, strengthen the spiritual center in Ohrid, and maintain a cultural and religious golden age that inspired future generations. In the end, Basil II defeated the Samuel in 1014 and enslaved his kingdom, but what happened in the Balkans during those years could no longer be reversed.
The sequence of events that led to this battle was as follows: in 986, ten years after Basil II’s ascension to power in Byzantium (he replaced Yohanan Tzimiskes as emperor and ruled for 50 years), he managed to establish his rule militarily, politically and socially, and decided to act against the Bulgarians who harassed his forces The locals in the Balkans were a competition for the hegemony of the Byzantine Empire. Basil II set out on a war campaign with 20,000 soldiers from Adrianople, through Plovdiv to Sofia, with the aim of besieging and conquering Sofia, and from there continuing to the strongholds of the Komoitopoli brothers in the western Balkans.
But the siege of Sofia, which took twenty days, failed miserably. The besiegers managed to break out of the City and damage the siege machines, the supplies did not arrive in time. In addition to this, reports began to arrive that the Bulgarian Tsar Samuel was stationed in the Rila Mountains with large military reserves threatening the Byzantines’ flank. The Byzantine army retreated from Sofia and encamped on its way in the valley of Ichtiman (it is assumed that the Bulgarian army encamped in the valley of Kostenets nearby). At night, rumors began to spread in the Byzantine camp about an imminent Bulgarian attack and this news caused panic. In the morning, an unorganized retreat of the troops through the Mountain passes began; the Bulgarians under the leadership of Samuel took advantage of this, attacked the Byzantine camp and thereby caused a greater panic. The Byzantine army disintegrated and the different units were trapped in the forests and valleys of the Mountain pass. The army was almost completely destroyed as battles ranged during that entire day, and only the Armenian elite unit managed to rescue itself and the emperor while suffering heavy losses.
The defeat at the gates of Trajan caused the decline of the emperor’s status and the beginning of a rebellion against him in Asia Minor led by the general Bardas Phokas and lasting for three years. Following this, Basil II appealed to the Russians for help, in exchange for bringing his sister to King Vladimir, transferring estates to his control, and granting commercial and religious rights to the Russian kingdom, as part of the package deal that includes the conversion of the Russians to Orthodox Christians. And so it happened! In 988, Prince Vladimir was baptized into Christianity, and on the other hand, the Russians sent 6,000 soldiers to help Basil II and these were the main factor in suppressing the rebellion. From that time on, Russia became Orthodox Christian and was affiliated with Byzantium.
On the Bulgarian side, following the battle at the gates of Trajan, Samuel moved the capital from Preslav in northeastern Bulgaria to Ohrid in Macedonia, which once again became the spiritual and religious center of the Slavic Balkan. The Bulgarians occupied large areas in northern Greece, western and eastern Balkans, including areas of Albania, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Croatia. Independent Slavic kingdoms started to appear in these regions, which were subjected to the authority of the patriarchate in Ohrid, which became Archbishopy later on but kept its important role and influence.
It so happens that, there were also some factors at work behind the scenes. The day of the battle was August 17, a day considered sacred by the Bulgarian Bogomils, who used to gather in the days before it at the heights of the Rila Mountains (later the tradition was adopted by the Danube White Brotherhood). Hence the time of the battle was considered a blessed time by Samuel’s soldiers, many of whom belonged to the Bogomils, and part of their success was probably due to religious enthusiasm.
The connection to the Bogomils explains Samuel’s choice of the Rila Mountains as the place where he built of his power. The putting together of the fighting force took a few weeks and began even before the siege with the news of the advance of a Byzantine army towards Sofia, during which places of gathering of the soldiers were probably established and these became the villages at the foot of the Mountains, especially the villages of Raduil and Maritza.
It is likely that there was another reason for the gathering of Samuel’s soldiers in the Rila Mountains and for choosing the specific day of the battle: the monk Rilsky is the saint of the Bulgarians and the location of his Monastery in the heart of the Rila Mountains was a pilgrimage site. The feast of the monk Rilski is on August 18 – the day after the date of the battle, so it might be that the choice of the day of the battle was due to its symbolic importance to all Bulgarians. The spiritual center of the empire was the Rila Mountains and the Rila Monastery, so it was fitting that the Bulgarian army would gather near there. In other words, the Bulgarian army had a base of popular support in the Rila Mountains, and a source of recruiting fighters and helpers from among the general public and Bogomil adherents. In addition, summer was a time when tens of thousands of people from all over Bulgaria traditionally gathered in the Rila Mountains, and they probably were a great help and source of manpower to the army.
At that time, the Bulgarian army relied on the “ambush” tactics and Mountain warfare, the main forces were foot forces that excelled as good archers and therefore had an advantage in fighting in the Mountain passes. Emperor Basil II advanced with his army towards Sofia and entrusted a general named Leon Melissenos with the responsibility of supplying the army and securing the base. However, he did not fulfill its role properly and instead of guarding the Mountain passes retreated to Plovdiv, thereby exposing Basil’s flank and helping him to reach a decision to end the siege and start with the dangerous retreat.
It is possible that the reason Leon retreated to Plovdiv and was unable to deliver supplies was local resistance by the Armenian Paulicians in the vicinity of Plovdiv, or attacks by the Bulgarian soldiers from their bases in the Rila Mountains on the convoys. From any angle we look at it, we can conclude that the local population was extremely sympathetic to Tsar Samuel, and what explains this is the deep religious disagreement between them and the Byzantines, and their identification with King Samuel who accepted their faith.
The year of the battle 986 should also be taken into account. It was a time of religious awakening towards the millennium – a thousand years after the birth of Jesus. Tsar Samuel ruled in the years 976-1014 and brought about a religious and cultural renaissance. The victory at the gates of Trajan allowed him to maintain an island of justice, enlightenment and tolerance, in the heart of a chaotic world, through which the new Jesus influence of the second millennium could reach the world. The greatness and beauty of his time can be seen in the oldest Church in Sofia (St. George’s Church), where there are paintings from his time, including a mysterious angel on the ceiling. Other paintings from Samuel’s time are in the Sofia Cathedral in Ohrid, the special feature of which is a strong emotional expression.
Today, at the site of the battle at the Trajan Gates, there are remains of a Fortress from the time of the Second Bulgarian Empire, and next to it is a small Museum room commemorating the events of the period and the battle in 986. Near the citadel there are signs showing the history of Tsar Samuel and the different stages of the struggle between the Komitopoli brothers and the Byzantines, on the way to the re-liberation of Bulgaria. The new road between Sofia and Plovdiv currently passes through the Trajan tunnel, so the foot crossings themselves remain orphans.
Dunov claimed that in the Rila Mountains there is an energetic triangle, whose vertices are the Seven Lakes on one side, the Musala Mountain on the other and the Rila Monastery as the third vertex. Rila Monastery will be detailed in the itinerary of Christian Bulgaria, below are a few words about the sacred geography of the Musala Mountain.
The Musala is the highest peak in the entire Balkans, close to 3,000 meters. There is no other Mountain of its height in the entire area, from the Alps to the Caucasus, and in addition to that it is a hydrological centre point (water sources) and is considered an energy centre of the southeastern Balkans, because it is where the River system of most of Bulgaria, parts of northern Greece, and European Turkey, up to the borders of Romania and Macedonia begins.
You must ask: what is the connection between a River system and energy?
Ancient Civilizations thought there was a connection between the two, therefore they consecrated Rivers such as the Nile or the Ganges and connected their source with their outlet to the sea. One of the most important principles on the spiritual path is that every energetic thing manifests itself in something physical, and every physical thing transmits energy through it. The earth we live on maintains around it and within it an energy field called the astral-light. In fact, there are theories (Gaia) that claim that it is a living being that knows how to regulate itself and maintain constant conditions in a changing environment; therefore it is networked with energy lines, like the meridians in our body. For this reason, different places on earth have different functions, some are more charged and some less. In the sacred geography of the earth, the connection between different places is maintained by Rivers, as the circulatory system connects the different cells of our body. The blood reaches everywhere, but flows in defined channels.
Human Civilization is largely River Civilizations, along which the big cities developed, but they can be linked to the Mountains from which the Rivers come. The source of the water system of the southeastern Balkans and the plains of Bulgaria is the Rila Mountains, the heart of the Rila Mountains and their center is the Musala peak, therefore it was considered sacred in ancient times and was a place of pilgrimage and abode of enlightened teachers.
From one side of the Musala peak, the River Iskar originates and flows, which is the longest River within the territory of Bulgaria alone (nearly 400 km). The drainage area of the River Iskar is 9,000 square kilometers, half of the State of Israel. It is the oldest River in the Balkans, a relic of the old days when the Rila Mountains were higher, on its way it crosses the Balkan Mountains (it is the only River that manages to do so and hence it predates them). The Iskar drains the Vitosha Mountain and the Sofia area, flows into the Danube and from there flows into the Black Sea.
From the other (eastern) side of the Musala peak area, the Maritza River originates and flows, which is the longest in the southeastern Balkans (close to 500 km, including additional countries to Bulgaria). This River passes through the Thracian lowland, crosses Plovdiv and the Rhodope Mountains, passes through Adrianople in Turkey and spills into the sea on the border of Greece and Turkey, in front of the holy island of Samothrace. Along the Maritza River there are many impressive Megalithic sites, including mysterious and complex Dolmens and stone circles, the Thracian tomb of Alexandrovo, and more. The drainage area of the River is 53,000 square kilometers – twice its area of the State of Israel, in older days it was called Evros.
From the third side of the Rila Mountains, the Nestos and Struma Rivers flow to the Aegean Sea. The Struma River starts from the Vitosha ridge and is about 400 km long, its valley is the western border of the Rila Mountain massif, the waters of the Rila Monastery flow into it and so does the snow that falls on the western peaks of the ridge, it flows into the sea near Thessaloniki and connects the Rila Mountains with the Macedonian plains The fertile, along the length of the Struma River passed one of the main roads leading to the Balkans.
If water is a conductor of electricity, or in other words “energy”, if water “remembers” and connects us to the subconscious, then the Musala is connected through the Rivers that flow at its feet to the Danube and the Black Sea on one side, and the Aegean Sea – the Mediterranean Sea on the other. The water connects the Mountain with Bulgaria’s two most important cities, Sofia and Plovdiv, and other ancient centers of culture that once thrived.
According to Dunov, the consecrated Orpheus would go up every year along the Maritza River to Lake Maritza, which is the source of the River and is located south of the Musala peak. The lake is inside a sort of circular basin (Circus) which was a place for pilgrimage, similar to Lake Popovo in the Pirin Mountains. The lake is surrounded on three sides by cliffs that look like a chair of honor inside which there is a sort of sacred platform on which Orpheus used to sit. Dunov used to climb the Musala peak every year, before he started with the climbs to the Seven Lakes.
There is a turquoise alpine lake called Musalenski surrounded by a circle of high peaks, topped by jagged cliffs in a comb pattern. Among the prominent rocks, you can see gaps through which the stars can rise at sunrise, a sight reminiscent of the shape of ancient astronomical observatories.
The Musala area is reached by cable car from the ski resort of Borovets. From there you can climb to the top, a walk of several hours, or take a shorter walk to the lakes at its feet. Borovets is the second most important ski resort in Bulgaria (after Bansko) which was established at the end of the 19th century as a hunting estate for the kings of Bulgaria.
On the summit and near the lakes there are Mountain huts where you can eat or spend the night in very basic conditions.
Near Borovets there are two beautiful nature trails: one is a walk to the black rock towering above the Maritza River canyon, and the other is a descent to the Iskar River canyon from the other side of Borovets and a walk on a bridge trail called Beli Iskar over the River.
Twenty minutes’ drive from Tsari Mali Grad is the City of Samokov, which is the historical capital of the region north of the Rila Mountains. Samokov is not far from the Borovets ski resort, in the center of fertile valley and at a crossroad. In the past it also had a small, but important Jewish community.
The City developed in the 16th century as a mining center, and became one of the centers of the Bulgarian revival movement, as well as a vibrant cultural, spiritual and economic center. In the 19th century Samokov became a center for the production of iron and copper vessels for the Ottoman Empire. The blowers of the workshops were helped by water wheels driven by the power of the many streams in the area, the mines in the nearby Mountains provided the raw materials, and the merchant families in the City (including Jews) reached all over the Balkans. With Bulgaria becoming independent in 1877, Samokov maintained its position and continued to develop. At that time, a large synagogue was built, which is currently undergoing renovation and reconstruction. The Jewish family that “set the tone” was the Arie family, and today their house is used as an ethnographic Museum.
Samokov was a center of art in the fields of painting and wood sculpture, most of which were done in a religious context. Artists from Samokov became famous all over the Balkans and decorated many Churches in Bulgaria. In fact, there was a unique School of Icon painting in Samokov founded by the townsman Dimitar Zograf who studied in the monasteries of Mount Athos. A statue of him can be seen at the entrance to the municipal Museum and a gallery of interesting Icon paintings can be seen on the second floor of this Museum. The painting of Dimetar and his friends were not limited only to the Christian religious context, but they also painted in homes and public institutions and even in synagogues and Mosques. Works of the Samokov School of painting can be seen in the abandoned local Bayrakli Mosque, which is part of the Museum.
In addition to painting, Samokov had a unique artistic wood carving tradition, and to this day it is one of the arts in which the people of the region excel. The wood craftsmen carved the beautiful Iconostasis screens that separate the holy from the body of the Church in Orthodox Churches and decorated them with thousands of plant motifs, representations of figures, animals and scenes from the New and Old Testaments. A magnificent Iconostasis is found in the Monastery of the Cloak of Mother Mary, which is a nunnery from the 18th century, located in the heart of Samokov and still active today.
The Monastery was named after the patron saint of the City – Mary Mother of Jesus, who miraculously saved Samokov and the story goes like this: in the 18th century a private army of marauding soldiers planned to attack and rob the City, but Mary intervened and covered the entire valley with a thick fog, so that they could not find their way and retraced their steps. In the painting above the entrance to the Monastery, Maria is seen putting all the people of Samokov under her cloak.
Tsari Mali Grad
North of the Rila Mountains, not far from the Seven Lakes, is the Citadel Museum of Tsari Mali Grad. It is a large complex that has been adapted for tourism, including an ancient Church, a rope park, Museum rooms, and a reconstruction of the Fortress from Roman times. All of these are located in a beautiful forest with wonderful vantage points to Mount Vitosha to the north and to Rila Mountains in the south. Near the complex there is a small craft market, a special cable car and walking paths lead to the Fortress at the top of the hill.
The place was inhabited as far back as the Thracian period, as evidenced by the cups carved into the rock they left behind, representing different zodiac signs and constellations. The Romans built a large Fortress here that also existed in the Byzantine period and was rebuilt in a magnificent way during the time of Emperor Justinian. Byzantine coins were found at the site with the image of Galla Placida, the daughter of the Byzantine emperor Theodorus I, whose famous tomb is in Ravenna. In the Museum rooms there is a beautiful display of life of the Roman soldiers in the Fortress and their armory and belonging.
In the Middle Ages a Church was built on the pagan holy place in the site. It was destroyed over time, but was restored in its original form, while maintaining the sacred proportions and arrangements according to the best of the Byzantine tradition. In the lower part of the Fortress another Church has been restored from the Ottoman period, built in honor of Sveti Petka, the patron woman saint of the Balkans, it has beautiful painting and woodwork, part of which is original from the 17th century.
The area of the Fortress is large, the walls have been restored according to ancient construction techniques and the visit to the site is impressive.
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