Picturesque cloister etched into the rocks
The labyrinths of the Aladzha Monastery hide treasures and monk ghosts
14 July, 2017
One of the monastic cells.
Narrow tunnels link the cells.
One of the few preserved frescoes.
The ruins of the main church.
The Aladzha Monastery sparkles like a fine diamond among the numerous rock cloisters and churches in Bulgaria. One of the country's best preserved, it is situated 15km north of the major Black Sea port city of Varna and only two kilometres away from the Golden Sands Resort. Its original name is unknown, while the name Aldzhida is derived from Turkish and translates as multi-coloured, most likely inspired by the once bright tones of the rock-hewn frescoes.
Etched into the soft limestone rocks in a region inhabited from the early Antiquity, the Aladzha Monastery was completed in the 11-12th century, at a time when the life of a hermit was already widespread in the Bulgarian lands. Ascetic monks are believed to have inhabited the area even earlier, based on the painted early-Christianity tomb found nearby, as well as coins and ceramics from the time of emperors Constantine the Great (4th century) and Justinian (6th century).
According to some historians, the monastic cells were hewn into the rocks as far back as the 4th century, as evidence showed that it was the time Christianity found its footing in the area of modern Varna.
The monastery represents a complex of monastic cells, common rooms and chapels, etched directly into the limestone rocks on two levels above the ground and connected via an outdoor staircase. The lower floor houses the cells, the kitchen, the living room and a small chapel, while the upper one is occupied by the spacious monastery church. The ruins of about 20 rooms and 3 temples have survived to present day.
Each floor ends in a chapel, with the best preserved one on the last level and it is also the only one boasting well-preserved murals dating back to the 14th century. Its south wall shows fragments from five standing figures of saints. Even better preserved are the frescoes on the ceiling, which depict Christ sitting on a throne in the centre, painted in a circle with a wide ornate framework and a halo. There is a medallion partially portraying a figure in each of the corners of the ceiling composition, most likely representing the four Evangelists.
To the west of the main part of the monastery, at the foot of a rock shore, another set of rooms is situated, called the Catacombs and dated back to the early Christianity (4-6th century). They are also constructed on two levels –residential lower one and a complex of five ossuaries.
The Aladzha Monastery reached its zenith during the Second Bulgarian Empire under the influence of the Hesychasm teaching, which relies on the principles of contemplation and seclusion. Life in the monastery declined at the beginning of the Ottoman rule, even though the cells remained partially inhabited until the middle of the 20th century when the complex was converted to a museum. Only the legends of monks' ghosts appearing among the ruins and endless underground labyrinths concealing untold treasures are left to roam the area.