Poganovo Monastery – Saint John Theologian Monastery

Poganovo Monastery – St John Theologian Monastery

The Monastery of Poganovo with its beautiful Church dedicated to Saint John the Theologian is one of the most precious and most significant among the Serbian medieval monasteries and Medieval monuments of culture of Serbia. The Poganovo Monastery is located in remote and nearly inapproachable area /literary inaccessible until the 19th century/ between the Vlasko and Odorovacko zdrelo area /Wallachian and Odorovac craters/ of the majestic Jerma River Canyon, in East Serbia. Poganovo village today has something less than 50 inhabitants. The Poganovo village is located 27 km east of Dimitrovgrad /Caribrod/ and 27,5 km south of Pirot, some 80 km away from Sofia, and 350 km south of Belgrade.

The Poganovo Monastery, dedicated to Saint John the Theologian is located within the intact area which is natural habitat of griffin vultures. The territory of the Jerma River Special Nature Reserve includes municipalities of Babusnica and Pirot, but mostly the Dimitrovgrad Municipality. Before you reach the Poganovo Monastery of Saint John the Theologian, you pass by the picturesque village of Vlasi /Wallachians/, which is nicely set at the foot of the high rocky sides of the Stara Planina Mountain,  and provides a memorable panorama “as in Heaven”.

The Poganovo Monastery was erected in the last decade of the 14th century, most possibly in 1390 by the powerful and reputed Serbian nobleman, landlord Konstantin Dejanović Dragaš – the nephew of King Dusan and one of the last Serbian rulers after fall of the Serbian Medieval State to the Ottoman Empire. Konstantin Dejanović, known in history as Konstantin Dragaš, was the ruler of the whole South-East Serbia, territories of the present Macedonia, the part of Kosovo and south-west Bulgaria. That is how the Dragas area in Kosovo got its name, as well as the north of Macedonia, where Dragash ruled together with the noble Mrnjavchevic Family. After the Ottoman sultan Bayazed conquered this part of Serbia in his conquest campaign of Thessaly, Morea, the Trnovo Bulgaria and Tzarigrad /Constantinople/, Serbian ruler Konstantin Dragaš as well as other Balkan rulers, became Turkish vassals, but got killed in the Battle of Rovine against Hungarian army, in 1395.

The Dejanović Family or the Dragaš Family was the Serbian medieval royal dynasty who in the second half of the 14th century ruled the area around the three countries of present Serbia, Bulgaria and North Macedonia. The founder of the Dejanovic-Dragash Family was sebastokrator Dejan, one of the most prominent Serbian lords during the reign of Tsar Dusan, who /lord Dejan/ ruled in the zhupas of Žegligovo and Preševo and who was married with Teodora – the sister of tsar Dushan /king 1331-1345, tsar 1346-1355/ who /Teodora/ was daughter of king Stefan Decanski /1322—1331/ from his second marriage with Maria Palaeologus from the side Byzantine line of the Palaeologus Dynasty, in monastic life nun Evdokia. During the reign of tsar Uros /1355-1371/ from whom he received the title of despot and after death of Jovan Oliver, Dejan Dragas extended his administration to the areas around Velbuzd and Radomir. After his death, he was inherited by sons despot Jovan Dragas and lord Konstantin Dragaš, who together ruled the area they have extended so to include the wide area from Vranja and Preshevo to Radomir and Stip and Radoviste and Strumica in the south. After the Marica Battle in 1371 “Martitsa” they became vassals of the Ottoman Empire, while after death of Jovan Dragan in 1377 or 1378, lord Konstantin continued to rule his administration area within the Ottoman Empire. He married his daughter Jelena /from the first marriage/ with the Byzantine tsar Manuel II Palaeologus 1391-1425 and from this marriage origin the last Byzantine tsars Jovan VIII /1425-1448/ and Konstantin XI, /1449-1453/ and the Morean despots. The last Byzantine tsar Konstantin XI, who was heroically killed in attempt to defend Tsarigrad from the Ottomans in 1453 was known under the family name of his mother Dragash which he carried. When in the Battle of Rovine in 1395 Konstantin got killed, as well as his neighbor Marko Mrnjavcevic /1371-1395/, Jakub – son of Konstantin who converted to Islam continued to rule the area his father ruled previously. Konstantin Dejanović Dragaš is mentioned as bey Kostadin in the Serbian epic poetry and as friend of Marko Kraljevic /the Prince Marko or King Marko/. Beside this, the name of Konstantin is preserved in the present name of historical Velbuzd which he ruled, today Kyustendil, which comes from the Turkish name of  Kjustendil, meaning the Constantine Spa.

The state of the Dejanović Dynasty was the Serbian medieval state which lasted from 1371 till 1395 in the south-eastern parts of the Serb areas east of the Vardar River and around the upper and middle course of the Struma River. The Dejanovic state was established right after the Maritsa Battle /1371/ and death of the Serbian tsar  Stefan Uroš V /1355-1371/, when the tsar’s closest relatives of the royal Dejanovic realm took over the full rule in the southeastern areas of the then Serbian Tsardom, when they have created a separate statehood-like area which lasted until the Turkish conquest in 1395. The Dejanović brothers – despot Jovan Dragaš and lord Konstantin were sons of the then late Serbian sebastocrator and later despot Dejan and his wife Teodora Nemanjic who was the sister of the Serbian tsar Stefan Dušan and aunt of tsar Stefan Uroš. Being the closest relatives of the Serbian ruling dynasty of Nemanics, after the end of the Serbian tsardom, the Dejanovic brothers gained estates in the wide area between the Vardar and Struma rivers which enabled them to establish a separate administrative area which included towns of Velbužd, Veles, Melnik, Pernik, Petrič, Strumicu and Štip. Due to the Turkish conquest the Dejanovic brothers had to accept the vassal duties to the sultan Murad I /1359-1389/. After several years, despot Jovan Dejanović Dragaš turned to the monastic life when he left the complete rule to his brother Konstantin. In time the position of the Dejanović-Dragaš state became harder as the Turks extended their rule by campaigns along the Vardar river valley and they took Skopje at the beginning of 1392 which fully encircled the ruling area of Konstantin Dejanovic by invading Turks also from the west. Although Konstantin tried his best to fulfill the vassal obligations to the sultan, his status and position turned in time into a very unfavorable one. The Dejanović state lasted till the death of Lord Konstantin in the Rovine Battle in spring of 1395 after the whole his ruling territory was conquered by the Turks.” Srbi i srpstvo u Makedoniji

However, although until now there was no written data on the founder of the Poganovo Monastery, we find some fact that the construction of the Monastery, after the death of Konstantin Dragas, continued his daughter Jelena – “Helen”, wife of the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus and mother of the last Byzantine emperors – John the 8th and Constantine the 12th. The relatively small, but well-preserved and wonderful Poganovo Monastery Church features the one-nave basis with two side apses which is similar to three-leaf clove and follows some of the patterns of the Morava school of architecture. The Poganovo Monastery Church was built of layers of stone and bricks. The seven-sided dome of the Poganovo Monastery sits above the central part of the church while the belfry is located on the western side. The fresco paintings of Poganovo Monastery were completed in 1499 by masters from North Greece and rank among the real artistic masterpieces of the Balkans of that time. Frescoes of the Poganovo Monastery of Saint John the Theologian depict scenes and compositions of Great feasts, and Holy Fathers preaching, scenes of the life of the Holy Virgin, Christ Passions, Serbian saints, Balkan anchorites and apostles ascertaining the identity of the saint’s cults.

The so-called “twin icon” – double-sided icon, depicting the Holy Virgin and Saint John the Theologian is one of the most beautiful 15th century work of art. This icon was the gift from the Empress Jelena Dragas, the wife of the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos (1391–1425) to commemorate the death of her father, Constantine Dejanovic in 1395, has been hidden in the monastery until the First World War. Nowadays this unique icon is exhibited in the Icon Museum in Sofia, Bulgaria, as well as the excellent example of iconostasis from the 17th century, which is wonderful work of Debar master woodcarvers, taken from the Poganovo Monastery during the First World War.

Monks of the Poganovo Monastery call their monastery the Jovanovo Monastery /of Saint John/ in order to avoid abusive name of the Poganovo village where the monastery is set. Previous name of the village was Dobrashevo. Probably the name of Poganovo Monastery and the village itself comes from the hypothesis that in the pre-Christian time here was a pagan temple where pagan rituals were performed. However, there are several economic structures built in original Balkan and Shopi architectural style, around the wonderful church of the Poganovo Monastery that perfectly and harmoniously fit to the entire spiritual, graceful and secluded monastic complex.

Poganovo Monastery is located 25 km southeast of Pirot, at the very entrance to the wild, picturesque and tranquil Jerma River Canyon, between the Odorovac and Vlach streams, one of the most impressive scenery in Serbia. Visitors of the Poganovo Monastery enjoy in outstanding environment of the Jerma River Canyon, wonderful surrounding, unique hospitality and well preserved customs of local population while hiking or-and picking up medicinal herbs and forest fruits…. For comfortable stay of visitors to the Poganovo Monastery there are traditionally appointed rural tourist households in the area of the Jerma River Canyon that provide tourist services and serve tasty organic food, or nicely appointed rooms of the Poganovo Motel, just next to the Monastery. The Poganovo Monastery largely owes its tranquility and outstanding spiritual atmosphere to the breathtaking surrounding landscape which makes anyone who visit it – to come back and enlighten and spiritually invigorates…..