Blog: WHS #676: Churches of Ivanovo

After an overnight stay in the pleasant border town of Ruse, located at the Danube and connected to Romania by a bridge, the WH Travellers community went into the countryside via inland roads. We entered the Roussensky Lom national park, which is on Bulgaria's Tentative List. The official description of it has only 2 sentences: it is a "unique combination of natural beauty and cultural elements" and it is home to endangered birds of prey such as falcon, vulture and buzzard. Maybe they should work on that OUV statement a bit more…

The entrance

What is special is that there is already a WHS in the park: the Rock-hewn Churches of Ivanovo. That is our main goal of this morning. The Rock Churches comprise a complex of former monasteries, churches, cells and chapels, carved out of the rock by monks during the 13th and 14th centuries. The interior walls are covered with murals, which are regarded as special examples of medieval Christian art from this region.

To visit you pass through a forest via a gradually sloping path. Along the way there are beautiful views over the nature reserve and I found it wonderful to walk here in the glorious weather.

The only accessible rock church can already be recognized from a distance by its wooden extension. This seems to protect visitors from falling out of the cave chapel from a great altitude. The church itself has been roughly cut out of the rocks, perhaps it’s a widening of a natural cave. The monks used to climb in via a rope ladder along the 38-meter-high, steep cliff. Nowadays at the end of the walking path there is a narrow opening in the rock through which you can step inside.

A Last Supper

The ticket seller / guide at the door wanted to write down our nationalities - "for visitor statistics". We start to enumerate enthusiastically: Canada, Australia, Switzerland, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Austria, Scotland ... He quickly gave up and just wrote 'international group'. He did give us 1 Lev per person group discount though.

We all just fitted in the interior of the rock church - that's how small it is. That in addition to a woman who sits there all day to sell souvenirs such as fridge magnets. The guide gave us a short explanation of the murals and said that the other rock churches in the area are too unsafe/unstable to let visitors in. The quality of the murals is also less good: the ones in the main church were extensively restored between 1983 and 2002. The ceilings and part of the walls are painted with biblical scenes. Especially the ceilings must have been heavy work. They are low but very uneven.

Holy man

In all it's pretty nice, but as with many of the other Bulgarian sites one wonders: it's so small and how special is it anyway (artistically or otherwise)? It was placed on the List in 1979 at the same time as 3 other small Bulgarian WHS. This already in the second year after UNESCO started the World Heritage List. So Bulgaria was very early and the rules about OUV and management were not as strict as they are now.

Published 15 September 2018

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