History of churches
Author: ROUSSEV IVAN
1/ The cathedral church of Varna’s metropolitan bishop is called ‘Sv. Atanasii’ (St. Athanasius). It is not known since when the church has been functioning as a cathedral, but its old origins are out of doubt. It was built either in the 16th or in the 17th century and was originally a small building half dug into the ground. This is evident from the description made by the famous Russian researcher of Bulgarian Studies Yuriy Venelin, who had visited the church in 1830 and noted that half of it was dug into the ground. The church burnt down in 1836. Following the fire it was reconstructed and extended. The construction works were facilitated by the changed conditions in the Empire, as well as by the large-scale building campaign that had become necessary after the destruction of the town in 1828-1829 and supported by the Sublime Porte. In 1838 the construction was accomplished and the church was consecrated. Its new architectural appearance represented a three-aisled pseudo-basilica with a balcony (emporion), a rich interior design and an exonarthex. An exceptional landmark of its decoration is the wood carving of the iconostasis and the metropolitan’s throne, in all probability made by wood carvers from the Tryavna School.
2/ Distinct by its long history is the church of ‘Uspenie na Presveta Bogoroditsa-Panagiya’ (Assumption of the Virgin Mary into Heaven) – nowadays popular with the population of Varna under the name of ‘Malkata Bogoroditsa’ (The Little Mary). There are two preserved inscriptions in Greek language, throwing light upon its history. The earlier one reads as follows: “This holy temple of our Most Holy Virgin Mary was founded with the support and at the expense of all pious Christians in this town 1802”. It has been assumed that a mistake might have been made in inscribing the year and “1802” was hewn into the stone instead of “1602”.
Varna’s church ‘Uspenie na Presveta Bogoroditsa-Panagiya’ had functioned prior to the 19th century, too – it’s proved by the inscriptions, it’s proved by its architectural appearance (small, one-aisled, half dug into the ground, undergone a few general reconstructions and an extension of the naos to the west), it’s proved by the icons it possesses, as well as by other preserved inscriptions. Years ago, the local historian V. Dimov found an inscription on a slab with dimensions 155/35 cm behind the altar of the church, where the name Mitso and the year 1774 are to be read. The most convincing proof of the church’s long history is an icon still to be found in it today, which has been dated by the specialists in the 13th century after careful examination. Even if we assume that it has been brought here from another place, it’s indisputable that this dislocation has taken place in the distant past, in a time leading to the early history of The Little Mary.
3/ Similar to The Virgin Mary, the church of ‘Sv. Georgi’ (St. George) was half dug into the ground, built upon the foundations of an older building from the 13th-14th century. It was located in the region of the Roman Thermae (baths). In all probability this was the church ‘St. Theodor’ mentioned by the Russian Dolzhnikov. It was small and rarely used. In the 1860s the Bulgarians decided to deprive the Greeks of the church but were withheld, whereupon they turned the ground floor of the Bulgarian community center (library) into their own church called ‘Sv. Arhangel Mihail’ (St. Archangel Michael). On March 12, 1860, at the insistence of the Russian vice-consul Alexander Rachinski, the first ever liturgy on Slavic language in Varna was held in this temple. It gathered the Bulgarians together and gave the initial impetus to the so called National-Church Struggles in the town. St. George existed until 1948when it was demolished. The temple’s icons dating back to the 17th-19th centuries were transferred to other churches.
4/ The church of ‘Sv. Dimitar’ (St. Demetrius) has been built on the protruding part of the coast above the breakwater (on the cape that has been indicated by some seafarers under the name of “Varna”) close to the region of the today’s Naval Museum. The contemporaries depicted its architectural style as being “Byzantine”. It has been assumed that this is one of Varna’s oldest temples. During the Russian siege of Varna in 1828 the Turks used it as a look-out. Part of its alter collapsed due to a landslide probably before the war had started, and was completely demolished during and shortly after the siege. This happened on the order of the Turkish military engineer Pepe Mehmet Pasha in 1834 during the construction of the fortress of Varna. Some of the temple’s icons were transferred to the church of the ‘Sv. Dimitar’ (St. Demetrius) monastery in Evksinograd.
5/ The chapel of ‘Sv. Prorok Iliya’ (St. Prophet Elijah) was built in 1869 together with and close to the ‘Paraskeva Nikolau’ hospital, in the region of what is today the Museum of the History of Medicine. It was served by priests from the churches of ‘Uspenie na Presveta Bogoroditsa-Panagiya’ and ‘Sv. Atanasii’, who used to serve in it only on festive days and on the patron saint’s day. In 1828 the ‘Sv. Prorok Iliya’ church was built on the same place, but later destroyed by the Russian artillery. The contemporaries describe the church as being of the “Byzantine” style, with vaults and columns. On the basis of the icons that have survived its destruction, the Škorpil brothers and G. Dimitrov have assumed that the old church dated back to the time prior to 1485.
6/ The ‘Sv. Marina’ (St. Marina) Church was located close to ‘Sv. Atanasii’ in the direction of the sea and the Varna Cap. Like the others, it had also been built in the “Byzantine” style, half dug into the ground. The church was half destroyed by the Russian artillery fire in the war of 1828-1829. According to some sources it was completely demolished in 1837 and in 1841 a Greek primary school was built in its place, which, however, burnt down later. Other authors claim that the church continued its existence until the beginning of the 20th century, more properly until 1928, when it was demolished. The patron saint’s icon was preserved and later brought to ‘Uspenie na Presveta Bogoroditsa-Panagiya’ where it is still being kept today. According to professor L. Prashkov the icon was painted in the late 16th or the early 17th century, which is a circumstantial evidence for dating the church’s construction. A silver cover (revetment) has been put on it, inscribed with the names of the metropolitan of Varna Grigorii, the churchwarden (epitrop) Atanasii Sivroglu, the priest Dimitar as well as the year of the “silver plating” of the icon, which was called “wonder-working” - 1698.
7/ ‘Sv. Paraskeva’ (‘St. Paraskeva’) – today a chapel on ‘8 noemvri’ Street, opposite to the Museum of the History of Varna – was built in 1785 in the time of Metropolitan Filotey (1783-1797). The funds for its construction were endowed by two merchants and ship owners – Rode and Petar Ishpekov. On the basis of icons preserved in the temple the local historian Georgi Dimitrov dated its construction in the 18th or even in the 15th century. It is, however, not known if these icons did originally belong to the church. Dimitrov also supposed that an icon of St. Nicholas proves that an older church dedicated to the saint had existed on the same place earlier. Most of the travelers who visited the town in the 19th century informed about the temple. It was four steps dug into the ground. Thanks to donations collected by the local population at the end of the 19th century the church was thoroughly restored and extended and a stone fence was erected around its precincts.
8/ ‘Sv. Arhangel Mihail’(St. Archangel Michael), the church of the Bulgarian community in Varna, was located on the first floor of the Bulgarian school’s building, which was erected in 1861. The consecration of the church took place on February 14th, 1865, and three days later, on February 17th, the first Sunday of Lent (called Sirni Zagovezni), a festive liturgy was held. Initially, Sts. Cyril and Methodius were declared patrons of the temple but later it was called ‘Sv. Arhangel Mihail’. The first liturgy was served by the priest Konstantin Danovski who, together with priest Ivan Gromov, has brought the liturgical objects from the church of the Hadarcha (Nikolaevka) village. ‘Sv. Arhangel Mihail’ was decorated by the iconographers Vasil Hristov Bedelev and Nikola Vasilev from Shumen, who were specially invited for the case, as well as by Alexander Popgeorgiev from Yambol.
9/ The idea of building a chapel dedicated to Sv. Nikola (St. Nicolas) in Varna belonged to Aleksandar Rachinski, the Russian consul in the town. With the help of Varna’s metropolitan Porfirii (1847-1864) he built it inside his residence in the house of Zalamoolu Kosta in the Greek neighborhood. The chapel was consecrated on April 12, 1861 by archimandrite Filaret, priest Ivan from the village of Kazandzhilar, and priest Konstantin Danovski. It was maintained by means of Russian private and state funds and the liturgies were held in “Slavic” language. Between 1868 and 1875 the chapel was situated in the home of archimandrite Filaret who used to serve in it, followed by priest Konstantin Danovski who used to serve in the chapel after the death of the archimandrite in 1875 and until the Russo-Turkish War from 1877-1878. After the war, the chapel was moved to the house of Petar Yanev located opposite to the Musalla Hotel and different priests from the town used to serve in it.
10/ The church of ‘Sv. Nikolai’ (St. Nicolas), which was the last one to appear before the Liberation (1878), was built by the master craftsman Yanko Kostandi form Varna with the donation of the merchant Paraskevas Nikolaou who was in the same town but was a Russian subject who lived and died in Odessa. Art. 26 from Nikolaou’s testament defined the amount of 50 000 rubles that was to be used for the erection of a temple dedicated to St. Nicolas in Varna. It also contained the condition that the building had to be “with vaults and made of stone or brick”. The construction started in 1859 and finished in 1865. This was the first cross-domed temple built in modern times in the Western Black Sea coast region. Only later would this style of church building start to be applied more broadly in the other settlements of the area.
During the Ottoman period, two monasteries functioned in the near surroundings of Varna – ‘Sv. Dimitar’ and ‘Sv. Konstantin i Elena’.
11/ The Monastery of ‘Sv. Dimitar’ (St. Demetrius) was located in the region of present day Evksinograd residence and it’s been assumed that it was built at the beginning of the 17th century. The place is very picturesque and the inhabitants of Varna used it for walks, relaxation, and as a summer resort. There were periods when the monastery was not functioning. The names of two monks are known from the 19th century – the brothers Teodosii and Agapii Kantardzhiev, who were born in Tarnovo and restored both of the monasteries with their own funds and donations from Varna’s population. Teodosii Kantardzhiev stayed in ‘Sv. Dimitar’ until his death in 1867, although he had to go through many difficulties during the whole period of his abidance in the cloister, including conflicts with the Greek community, assaults, and robberies. The monastery acquired many estates – around 500 uvrats of vineyards, a watermill, fields, gardens, and other estates in the vicinity of the village of Kestrich (today a neighborhood of Varna called Vinitsa). On March 16, 1882, the Greek community of Varna presented the estates of ‘Sv. Dimitar’ to Prince Alexander of Battenberg in order for a summer residence of the prince to be built, while the monarch granted the amount of 2 000 golden napoleons to the community’s representatives for the maintenance of its schools.
12/ According to tradition the Monastery of ‘Sv. Konstantin i Elena’ (St. Constantine and Helena) was also founded at the beginning of the 18th century. In the 19th century the other brother of the two monks – Agapii Kantardzhiev – settled in it, but prior to that, during the war of 1828-1829, the cloister was in miserable condition, half destroyed and deserted by almost all of its monks. At least this was the description given by the Russians Viktor G. Teplyakov and Yurii Venelin who visited it respectively in 1829 and on July 22, 1830. Venelin pointed out that the monastery would become a residence of Varna’s metropolitan in the summer, since it was more suitable for meetings, work, and relaxation than the conditions in the metropolitan’s home in the town.
‘Sv. Konstantin i Elena’ was richer than ‘Sv. Dimitar’, the other monastery in the vicinity of Varna. The former’s estates amounted in the second half of the 19th century to 1125 uvrats of fields, 60 uvrats of vineyards, a garden and a watermill, all of them donated or sold by the local Christians, from whom the cloister also received a considerable yearly income. Due to the unsettled ownership of some of the estates, however, the Turkish authorities collected a tithe, amounting in 1867 to the significant sum of 6 500 grosh.
After the death of Agapii in the 1860s the monastery was managed by priest Konstantin Danovski. Its region was used by wealthy inhabitants of Varna for spending holydays and arranging entertainments. The establishment of the Bulgarian Exarchate and its schism with the Patriarchate of Constantinople resulted in a series of long disputes over the ownership of the monastery’s estates. The dispute went on for a few decades after the Liberation and only ended in the 1920s with Bulgarian-Greek negotiations on a governmental level.
Some of the most famous representatives of the iconographic art of the Bulgarian Revival Period left their masterpieces in the temples of Varna. The School of Tryavna is represented by the works of Zahariya Tsanyuv (1816-1886), pop (priest) Dimitar Kanchov (1815-1885), Kancho (Krastyu) Ivanov. The icons St. Prophet Elijah with Scenes from His Life by Zahariya and The Holy Forty Martyrs by pop Dimitar are preserved in the metropolitans’ church ‘Sv. Atanasii’. Other well known works belong to the iconographers Konstantin Zograf, Dimitar Shterev and his son Shteryu from Thessalonica – Stanimaca (Asenovgrad), Vasiliu Teoharis (known as an iconographer from Varna and Bucharest); to the abovementioned artists from Shumen Vasil Hr. Bedelev and Nikola Vasilev, who painted icons for the Church of ‘Sv. Arhangel Mihail’ together with Aleksandar Popgeorgiev from Yambol.
13/ The construction of the new cathedral church of Varna called ‘Sv. Uspenie na Presveta Bogoroditsa’(Holy Assumption of the Most Holy Mary) started in 1880 and went on for six years. The project was drawn up by the architect from Odessa Maas based on the model of the Church of Peterhof in St. Petersburg. The temple was planned with dimensions 35x35 meters, in the form of a three-aisled basilica, where the central altar is dedicated to the Holy Assumption of Mary, the northern one – to the holy pious prince Alexander Nevski, and the southern one – to St. Nicholas the Wonder Worker. On March 15, 1884 the commission in charge of the construction of the church assigned the building work to the famous church builder from Tryavna master Gencho Kanev. The temple was erected in the next year, in September the roof was finished, too, and the first Holy Liturgy was celebrated on August 30, 1886. The inner furnishing of the church continued in the next years. The archpriest’s throne, made by Niko Mavrodi, was brought to its place in 1897, and the iconostasis was elaborated later by the master craftsman from Debar Ivan Filipov. With regard to the bell, the trusteeship decided that “instead of building a separate edifice and spending 3000 lev, the dome should be elevated so the bell can be heard from the town of Varna”. The bell had to weigh 100 poods and to carry an inscription “In honor of the Liberator”. In 1901 42 smaller and 3 big icons were brought by Nikolai Bogoshkii as a donation from the Russian tsar, and in 1904 eight more icons were brought for the middle and the northern gates. The church’s floor was covered with parti-coloured tiles in 1911. In four years the balcony was finished, too. The 38-metres-high belfry and the domes as they look today were completed in 1941-1943.
14/ The construction of Varna’s Church of ‘Sv. Paraskeva’ (Petka Balgarska) (St. Petka of Bulgaria) started in 1901 and the first church service was held on October 17, 1906, as the ritual became a focal event for the whole town. The church was consecrated in 1938 after the iconostasis of the temple had been finished by Metodi Balalchev from Sofia earlier in the same year.
15/ The Armenian Church of St. Sarkis in Varna dates back to the 17th century as it was originally a small building half dug into the ground. It burned down in 1840. The construction of a new church started on the same place in 1843 and was finished and consecrated on January 25 1844. It has a bell tower, which originally had a wooden construction. The founder of the church was Sarkis Hayrabedyan.
 1 uvrat = 920 m2.
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Ников, П. Българското възраждане във Варна и Варненско. Митрополит Йоаким и неговата кореспонденция. София, 1934;
Варненският храм „Успение на Пресвета Богородица Панагия” – история и изкуство. Ред. И. Русев, В. Търново, 2003;
Кацарски, Г. Молитвените храмове на Варна. – „10 книги за Варна-2005”, Варна, 2006, с. 152–198;
Русев, И. Варна през Късното Средновековие и Възраждането (края на XІV в. – 1878 г.). – В: Русев, И., В. Плетньов. История на Варна. Т. ІІ (VII в. – 1878 г.). Изд. „Славена” – Варна, 2012, с. 487–497.