Arbanassi Village – Arbanassi Monasteries

In the picturesque village of Arbanassi, which lies hidden on a plateau 4 km northeast of Veliko Turnovo – an old capital of Bulgaria, there are nowadays seven monasteries and churches from the period of the 16th to the 18th centuries, that are of special interest: the Saint Nicholas, the Dormition of the Holy Virgin, Church of the Nativity of Christ, Church of Saints Archangels Michael and Gabriel, Church of Saint Athanasius, Church of Saint George and Church of Saint Demetrius. Historians, archaeologists and ethnographers have been looking for explanations of various facts related to development of Arbanassi, to the ethnicity of some of the earliest settlers and to the impulse that worked to give rise to masterpieces of the Christian spirit and culture. There are numerous imposing well-preserved houses in Arbanassi that evoke the wealth of the settlement. Make sure to visit the Konstantsalieva House, one of the most impressive of the Arbanassi well-preserved houses, that makes a tiny museum with the amazing quality of workmanship in its construction and provides visitors to enjoy the slice of history and intro to a way of life long forgotten.

Today there are 144 houses in Arbanassi village surviving as monuments of architecture. They look like strongholds with their high stone walls, but their outer facades contrast with their inside coziness and comfort. The ceilings, doors, furniture and windows and interior design are abundant in wood-carving manufacture and the walls in plaster ornaments. Present day construction of Arbanassi houses and hotels well imitate this authentic style or architecture.

The village’s name comes from the Albanian word Arbërës or Arbanas, which means “land worker”. From this root word, the Turkish arnavut, was used to denote Albanians and other people that came from parts of Macedonia and Albania that had a large Albanian population, regardless of nationality. There are no written documents referring to the historical beginning of Arbanasi. One of the hypotheses says that it was settled by Bulgarian boyars from the western-most ends of the country after the great victory of Tsar Ivan Asen II near Klokotnitsa in 1230, against the Byzantine Greek despot Theodore Komnin of Epirus. After the Klokotnitsa battle, Bulgaria became the biggest medieval country on the Balkan peninsula, stretching between the Black Sea, the Aegean Sea and the Adriatic Sea and Bulgarian Tzar has acquired the Arbanasi (Albanian) land and surrounding villages. According to preserved documents from about 1460, on the spot of the present day Arbanasi village there was already a settlement, probably inhabited by Christened Albanians. More precise written evidence about the history of the Arbanassi village has been found in various documents, margin notes in manuscripts and chronicles kept in the five churches and two monasteries of the village. With a royal decree /Ottoman ferman/ from 1538, the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent granted Arbanassi along with the villages of Lyaskovets, Gorna and Dolna Oryahovitsa to his son-in-law, the grand vizier Rustem Pasha. The inhabitants of Arbanasi took the obligation of protecting the nearby passage and were granted major tax concessions in return. The settlement retained this status until the Liberation of Bulgaria in 1878. These favorable conditions along with the suitable natural features of the region led to the great economic prosperity of Arbanasi village during the 17th and the 18th centuries. Stock-breeding, poultry-raising, vine-growing, silkworm-breeding, as well as numerous crafts – copper-smith’s and goldsmith’s trade, homespun tailoring, etc. were well-developed. The people of Arbanasi were famous for their trade mastery and were mainly engaged in dzhelepchiystvo (trade in dairy products, wool and meat) and suvatchiystvo (trade in livestock). Other developed crafts were sericulture (silkworm rearing and silk production), gold, copper and blacksmithing. Arbanassi village quite naturally became a lively urban center of Christians, hidden from the eyes of the Turkish ruled Turnovo. It is thanks to the investments of the Arbanassi merchants that the village has so much to offer, with its large stone-built houses, notably the Konstantsaliev house, and churches, chapels and fountains with drinking water.

From the 16th century to its tragic devastation two centuries later, the Arbanassi village, one of the wealthiest in pre-liberation of Bulgaria, boasted with the work of skilled masters from different parts of the country. The St. Nicholas Monastery was part of the widespread religious construction under the Assen Dynasty, the founders of the Second Bulgarian State. Artistic and historical value of Arbanassi village lies primarily in the surviving murals in the St. Elija Chapel, dating from 1716 and comprising of a monumental figure of Christ the Great Archangel, 12 scenes from the Holy Akathistos, and 6 scenes from the life of Christ. The effective coloring and rich palette, the confidences in the portrayal of the human figures, the unusually varied architectural decoration reveal the hand of a master. The filigree wooden iconostasis in the chapel, with its delicate and exquisite decorations, is a valuable treasure. Situated in the northwestern part of the Arbanassi village, the Holy Virgin Monastery suffered a different, though no less tragic a fate. Historians cannot tell how it survived the Ottoman attacks in 1393. There are numerous valuable icons in this monastery too.