Small church on a wooded mountainside
Architecture,  Bulgaria,  History

Asen’s Fortress and the Church of the Holy Mother of God

Asen’s Fortress is built on a cliff overlooking the Asenitsa River in Bulgaria’s Rhodope Mountains, and is impregnable on three sides. It isn’t surprising therefore that there has been a fortification here since the time of the Thracians, who fortified it in the 5th century BC. The fortress was rebuilt during the time of the Roman Emperor Justinian as one of a series of fortresses erected to defend the Empire against invasions by Slavic tribes.

The fortress has since seen three periods of substantial construction, during the 9th, 11th, and 13th centuries. The third of these periods was under Tsar Asen II, who in 1231 undertook the largest expansion and rebuilding of the fortress; hence its present-day name.

Views from the path to the fortress

Blue sign with red image of church
The path to the church

The fortress tower (all that remains of the main fortress) is at the highest point and below it the Church of the Holy Mother of God. I would describe as a chapel rather than a church, it is so small.

When I visited with my Virtual Tourist friends it was raining, and the white marble path leading to the church was slippery in places. I was glad when it changed to concrete steps and then to a flatter track. It wasn’t far to walk; once we arrived our guide told us about the typical Byzantine style in which the church is built, with a crypt on the ground floor and main church above.

It is constructed from brick and stone, in decorative layers. What appear to be bricked-up windows (reminiscent, to me at least, of those often see in England because of earlier window tax laws) are in fact deliberate ‘blind arches’; this is another design element very typical of medieval Bulgarian architecture.

Looking up at a brick building
Church of the Holy Mother of God

This was one of the first churches in the country to have an attached bell tower; that way it could be used for defence and as a place of refuge if the fortress came under attack. The tower is considered to be the earliest preserved example of its kind in the Balkans.

The church was spared destruction in the early 15th century when a feud between two brothers, Syuleiman and Musa Kesedzhi (who were battling to succeed their father Sultan Bayazid), led to the rest of the fortress being razed to the ground. The reason for its being spared is unknown; but it allowed local Christians to carry on using the church for prayer. As a result the church is still largely intact, albeit restored (in 1936, after an earthquake, and again in 1991).

The crypt

We started our visit in the crypt, which was possibly originally intended as an ossuary although never used as such. I found it very atmospheric if plain. You are in no doubt here that you are in a fortress church – look at the width of the walls.

The upper church

The walls of the upper church, on the contrary, are covered with the faded remains of 14th century Byzantine frescoes. Our guide pointed out some of the most interesting, including the Assumption of Mary above the entrance door. He told us this image is commonly painted on the west wall of Bulgarian Orthodox churches and showed us a painting of how it would once have looked. A pagan is kneeling at Mary’s bedside trying to drag her down to Hell, his hands chopped off at the wrist by an angel to prevent him succeeding.

Religious painting in a wooden frame
How one of the frescoes once looked

Other paintings are of saints including John the Baptist; the apostles Peter and Paul; Constantine and Helena; and of Bible scenes including the Baptism of Christ, and His trial by Pilate. I tried my best to get photos although it was very dark inside.

Leaving the chapel, a number of those in our group climbed further, to the fortress tower itself. From there you can get great views of the mountains and of Plovdiv, as well as looking down on this church. My friend Kirsty kindly let me have a couple of her photos to share.

I stayed below, wary of more slippery steps (accident-prone as I am!) I enjoyed chatting with friends while soaking up the views which were beautiful despite the drizzle.

View of wooded hills and distant mountains
The view from near the fortress
View of wooded hills and distant mountains
The view down the valley

This little church is still in use today. What an amazing setting this must be in which to come and worship.

I visited Bulgaria in 2019

18 Comments

  • Anonymous

    Now why didn’t my comment show this time? I wrote it two days ago and have just checked back to see if it had appeared, but no. Great post, very Old Testament that picture of the bleeding stumps!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      This is really odd, because I saw your comment at the time, approved it and replied. And I still see it, further down this list between Leighton’s comment and Margaret’s. Can you not see it (and my reply) there? Do you see theirs OK? So bizarre!

  • leightontravels

    Such a dramatic and lush setting, the photos you took are wonderful. The drizzle, boring as it is, did add some atmospheric myst to the pictures. Bulgaria is right on my doorstep now, and in ‘normal’ times I wouldn’t think twice about hopping over the border. However, cases seem to be on the rise once again as we look wearily towards the end of August and our trip to Montenegro. Hope you are doing well.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks for the kind words about the photos 😀 I agree the drizzle added to the atmosphere. Bulgaria is definitely worth a visit once border crossing is easier again. We’re keeping all our fingers crossed at present for a short break in Paris in a few weeks time!

  • Anonymous

    Pity about the drizzle but you made a wonderful job of taking the pictures anyway. The one of the pagan having his hands chopped of is very old testament, isn’t it. I’d never seen or heard of anything like this before. Beware of slippery steps, YES! I’ve also got to beware of slippery stones going downhill as a few pebbles underneath one’s foot can be enough to start the slide to a broken ankle.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks for persisting with reading and commenting Marie 🙂 That story about the pagan really struck me because as you say it feels very Old Testament but it actually refers to a New Testament era event – like you I’d never heard anything quite like it in relation to Christianity. And you’re right, going downhill can be much more dodgy, something I try to remind myself BEFORE going up!

  • I. J. Khanewala

    Those Byzantine frescoes are something amazing. So very different in style from the western churches, and, in spite of the fairly rigid iconography, it still left so much scope for regional variation. Some of the frescoes in your photo are still beautiful.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks, yes, those Byzantine frescoes are wonderful, even here where they are not well-preserved. We went to other churches that were almost overwhelming in their riot of colours! I must share some photos of those too in due course.

  • Regína Hrönn Ragnarsdóttir

    A lovely travel-blog, Sarah, which brings back good memories from Euromeet. Your photos from the inside of the dark church are very good 🙂

    I remember the painting very well of the pagan with the chopped off hands kneeling at Mary’s bedsite as it was the first time I had seen such a painting.

  • CliffClaven

    That was a memorable day – as they all were during the Euromeet in Bulgaria. I remember, too, having a vague sense of déjà vu when I saw the fortress and church. I checked an old diary at home: I had been there before. It was during my second summer of study and research in Bulgaria – in 1973!!

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