The territory of Assenovgrad municipality, which is comprised within the boundaries of the Chervenata Stena Biosphere Park, has an exceptional cultural and historical resource, integrated into an original and unique natural environment. This is the gateway place of the most convenient passage through the Rhodope Mountains, connecting Thrace with the Aegean Sea is. The system of cult objects of different ages is of great interest and particular importance.
Assenovgrad can be proud of the millennial cultural and historical heritage. The lucrative combination of the mountain with the plain, the mild climate, the fertile soils and the fact that here is the most convenient passage through the Rhodopes are the reason the town of Assenovgrad and the area around it to be inhabited since ancient times. The glory of the Assenovgrad region as a sacred center, formed through the Antiquity, is further developed by the emerging Christian religion and culture.
The largest concentration of holy places in Bulgaria – four monasteries, thirty-three churches, sixty chapels, sanctuaries – some of them from the deepest antiquity – are located in the municipality. This proves the uniquely high Christian culture of the territory. Assenovgrad is also known as “Little Jerusalem”. Monuments, inherited from the Thracians, are in abundance here. In the area of Assenovgrad, four sanctuaries of the Thracian Rider, the most revered by the Thracians deity during the Roman epoch, were found. One of the most interesting prehistoric sites on the territory of Asenovgrad municipality is located in the village of Dolnoslav in the site of Lodkite. There, the first and the only one until now Neolithic cult center in Bulgaria and the world was discovered. According to archaeological data, a Thracian settlement existed in the outskirts of today’s town and continued its life during Roman times.
The area of the Chervenata Stena Biosphere Park is distinguished by a number of architectural, natural, ecclesiastical sites, which are undoubtedly among the most significant cultural and historical monuments. Here are some of the more famous ones.
The Bachkovo Monastery ‘Assumption of the Holy Mother of God’
It is the second largest monastery in Bulgaria and also one of the three stauropegic monasteries (the other two are Rila and Troyan). It was founded in 1083 by the brothers Grigorius and Apasi Bakuriani /Pakourian/, who were Byzantine military officers at that time. The monastery has existed for over 900 years and all that time it has dominated on the others and has largely determined the overall appearance of the entire network of Christian religious sites in the region.
Continuously built up and renovated, today the monastery complex includes buildings from the 11th-12th centuries, the 17th century and the 19th century, united in a harmonious architectural ensemble. The Bachkovo Monastery also preserves remarkable works of applied arts – magnificent church utensils, manuscript bookcases and others, some of which are preserved in the monastery museum and others in the church’s historical and archeological museum in Sofia. In the 30s of the 20th century, 103 manuscripts and 252 old-style books were found in the monastery. There are many chapels to the monastery, two of which are located in the core zone of the Biosphere Park and are the subject of numerous visits by the local people and tourist as well, including the famous local “lithuania processions” (a similar tradition is preserved only in Constantinople and Ephesus). The first and older lithological procession is what takes place every year on the second Easter day. The journey starts from the buffer zone of the park – the Bachkovo Monastery, where the Miraculous icon of the Holy Mother of God is taken out of the temple and accompanied by many believers passes the road through the Kluvia area and continues to the core zone of the park next to the chapel of Archangel Michael, located next to the rock niche where the icon was hidden.
The second lithologic procession takes place 25 days after Easter. It was founded as memorial of the relinquishment of an icon of the Holy Mother from the Bachkovo Monastery of the church ‘The Holy Mother of God Annunciation’, where the icon is now known for its miraculous power. This icon is carried by the city of Assenovgrad to the Bachkovo Monastery and back.
It is one of the best best examples of Renaissance art. The place was a Thracian sanctuary in antiquity. Located 4 km to the East of Assenovgrad, it is one of the monasteries inherited from the medieval times. The time of his construction has not been determined precisely. It was founded during the second Bulgarian state, but it was destroyed three times during the Ottoman rule. It was rebuilt in 1836. It was recovered several times and the evidence for that are the preserved epigraphic monuments as well as some of its architectural elements with ancient layers, remained partially on them. A high stone wall and large two-storey residential buildings with open verandas surround a courtyard in the middle of which the congregational church rises. Besides this, there is another farm yard. A nearby holy water source is also comprised to the complex. Unlike other monastery churches in the region, the temple here is domeless, with a vast narthex. The survived frescoes in the temple are dated from 1840 and were made by the famous painter of Tryavna Krustyu Zahariev and his sons. The icons are from Tryavna painter Petre Minev and Zahari Zograf. According to the legends, the monastery became the center of revolutionaries and conspirators, preparing the April Uprising in the region. After the Liberation, a spiritual school opened here for a while. The Muldava Monastery is deeply revered for its spiritual activity as well as for its undeniable artistic and architectural merits and as a fortress of the Bulgarian culture in the region of Assenovgrad.
Monastery ‘St. St. Kirik and Yulita and St.Paraskeva’
It is 3 km far to the west of Assenovgrad in an area where archaeologists has located a Thracian sanctuary. This is one of the monasteries, which was impacted significantly by the Bachkovo monastery in regards to the architectural, artistic and cultural-spiritual aspect. At the beginning of the 18th century, one of the most skilled grammarians of the Slavonic-Church books, hieromonk Sidor, worked in this monastery. Nowadays, the complex includes the gathering church ‘St. St. Kirik and Yulita and St. Paraskeva’, monastery buildings, holy water source and a chapel. The architectural, fresco and icon richness of the monastey as well as the educational and literary activity it developed in the past, make it a remarkable monument of culture in the area of the Chervenata Stena Biosphere Park.
The Arapovo Monastery ‘St. Nedelya’
The monastery originated near an ancient holy water source (a holy spring) in the 19th century. The Arapovo Monastery of St. Nedelya is a Bulgarian Orthodox monastery, situated some six kilometres east of the town of Assenovgrad, not far from the village of Zlatovrah /called Arapovo until 1934/. It was founded in 1856 near the holy water spring by hiermonk Sophronius, a former abbot of the Muldava Monastery. The monastery is the only one built during the time of the Ottoman rule without any traces of its existence before that. The Bulgarian people, who lived in Assenovgrad and Plovdiv, hoped that cloister to repel the so-called Greek mania, which featured that time. That is why in 1868 a school for poor children from the region was founded here. Throughout its activity until the Liberation, the Arapovo Monastery has contributed significantly to the catalysis of the Revival Processes in Assenovgrad, and has supported not only the spiritual salvation of believers but also to their national liberation.
It is the symbol of Assenovgrad and the region of the Biosphere Reserve. The emblematic for town Assen’s Fortress is located two kilometers from Assenovgrad in the direction of Smolyan. It gives you a perception for the historical significance of the town as a defender of the Bulgarian lands from the attacks, coming from the south. The earliest archaeological finds date from the V-IV c. BC when the Thracians, who appreciated the inaccessibility of the terrain, built a fortification here. Although the fortress walls are not quite preserved, the church ‘St. Holy Mother Petrichka’ is almost entirely preserved and is currently a working temple. There is evidence that the fortress existed there still at the time the Thracians (known as Petrich fortress) before its renaming in 1934 after the name and honor of Tsar Ivan Assen II. Built on a cliff top, the mound is strategically located at the beginning of a passage that connects Thrace with northern Greece and the Aegean Sea. Nowadays, the fortress is among the main cultural and historical sites in the region, a national cultural monument with a built-in visitor center at the entrance.
The rock phenomenon ‘Belintash’ is an ancient prehistoric and Thracian sanctuary. It is located in the Dobrostan mountain massif, in the high mountain part of Assenovgrad municipality – the buffer zone of the biosphere park. The rock plateau is about 300 meters long and about 40 meters wide, its height is 50 meters. Besides ‘white’ or ‘good stone’, the name of the rock (translated from ancient Thracian languages) means ‘smart stone’ or ‘stone of knowledge’. Some call it simply the “Rhodopes Stonehenge”. The chronological period of existence of the sanctuary is determined to date back in the end of the Copper Age until the end of the 4th century/ beginning of the 5th century AD. It was probably an “ancient observatory,” from where the Thracian priests from the local Bessi tribe observed the stars. Cut from a human hand, still in ancient times, rough steps lead to a rocky plateau, dotted with hundreds of small and big holes – sacrificial altars of the priests. Belintash is also associated with the cult of the Thracian god of Sun – Sabazius.
Museum of History in Assenovgrad
The Museum was set up in 1971 in an adapted for the purpose building, which was built in 1895 to function as the Home of the Officer. At present, the museum consists of four departments: Archeology, Ethnography, History XV-XIX Century, Modern and Contemporary History. The development of Assenovgrad from ancient times until the time of Unification can be tracked here. The Museum Exhibition covers an area of 200 sq. m. and exposes 1000 museum units in three halls and 3 departments. The Archeology department introduces life in our region since 7000 BC. Stone and bone cannons, cult and household objects are exhibited there. The find from the land of the village of Muldava is exceptional – a deer-shaped ceramic vessel. Stone axes with holes, flat bone idols, ceramics and others of that kind show evidence of human development through the chalcolith. Of particular interest is a clay feminine idol, a symbol of fertility, with an artistic naturalistic deformation of the body as an object of cult.
The museum is a part of the National Museum of Natural History at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. This is the largest collection of Neogene vertebrates in Bulgaria in size. The impressive palaeontological collection of the museum is an outstanding scientific and cultural wealth that continues to grow. In addition to corals, ammonites and other fossil invertebrates, the collection presents predominantly fossil mammals. It is the largest collection of Neogene vertebrates in Bulgaria. The scientific collection of late Miocene mammals counts to over 30.000 specimens. New fossils, extracted from tonnes of fossil sediments stored in the museum landfills are constantly added to them. The collection includes numerous remains of fossil horses, antelopes, predators, proboscideans (mastodons and deinotheriums), monkeys and others. The most impressive exhibition unit is undoubtedly the well-preserved skeleton of the ancient elephant-like proboscidean Deinotherium Giganteum, almost 7 meters in length and over 10 tonnes in weight.
St. George School
The exposition of the Museum of History, devoted to education and culture in Assenovgrad since the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century is located in the St. George School. It is the first school in the town which was specially planned and constructed for the purpose just before the Liberation. In one of the halls on the second floor a schoolroom, reconstructed in that epoch style, can be seen. In another one, the air of the Gandhi bookshop is recreated.
Situated in a beautiful and well-preserved house of a rich Greek merchant from the middle of the 19th century, the museum shows the home life and the domestic culture of the Renaissance. When the Greek family emigrated from Bulgaria in 1906, the building got in use as a school. The house is furnished in a typical way for its time, costumes from that period are exhibited, as well as paintings by the Assenovgrad painter Kosta Forev, depicting local customs and holidays. The deep basement contains objects related to the production back from antiquity until the middle of the 20th century.
The rich cultural and historical heritage in the buffer and transition zones of the proposed biosphere park, in combination with the unique natural features of conservation signifigance – habitats and species in the core zone, are a proof of the great potential of the region. That allows the compilation of nature conservation activities with educational programs, cultural and historical projects, folk festivals and local traditions, aimed at the local people and visitors. The rich cultural and historical heritage of the region, local traditions and productions fully fits into the biosphere reserves concept of the Seville Strategy from 1995.