Zavala Monastery

Zavala Monastery is national monument of culture of Bosnia and Herzegovina, located some 40 km southwest of Trebinje, on the south-western side of Popovo Polje /Popovo Polje Field/. The Zavala Monastery is set below the ancient Ostrog Hill from where spreads memorable panorama of the vast and fertile Popovo Polje Field, fully covered with vast vineyards, medicinal herbs, orchards and vegetables. The word ostrog means stronghold or fortified place in Russian and Old-slavonic and Serbian languages. The area of the Popovo polje – Popovo Field is located in the south of Herzegovina and bears the earliest name of Popovo. It is assumed that the Zavala Monastery takes the most beautiful part of the Popovo Polje Field. It also features the highly strategic position where the road to the Serb Primorje – Littoral used to lead, and had connected the inner part of the Serbian lands with the Serbian Littoral, as one of the earliest bishoprics of the Serbian Orthodox Church was located in the nearby Ston on the Peljesac peninsula, ruled by Prince Miroslav, brother of Stefan Nemanja.

The Popovo Polje Field is closed from the north with the high limestone massif intersected with the Trebisnjica River which flooded the field until the most recent times so trespassing was impossible for up to six months. In the south there was the historical border between the Dubrovnik Republic and the Ottoman Empire which is present Croatian-Bosnian and Herzegovina border that unnaturally divides the southern part of the Popovo Polje Field from the neighboring Dubrovnik hinterland.

The road to Zavala Monastery leads through the Popovo Polje field and further along the former narrow railway track constructed in 1901 by Austrians. This historical railway used to connect Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia and Montenegro, stretching between Sarajevo and Dubrovnik, actually Zelenika and Bileca with branches from Capljina to Konavle, connecting many places and tiny settlements of Herzegovina. This historical railway through Herzegovina included numerous stone walls, bridges, tunnels and train stations that are today turned into tourist facilities like the rail-track itself is nowadays uniquely attractive cycling route.

The earliest written document which specifies the Popovo as the significant settlement is the letter of the Popovo Municipality to the Dubrovnik Municipality, dated 1169-1170. The tradition on the antiquity of this shrine has it that the original Zavala church has been built by Emperor Constantine and his mother Helen with the significant Pre-Romanesque church. Archaeological excavations and finds in the foundations of the church testify that the Zavala Monastery dates from the 9th century. The population of the whole Primorje – Littoral in the 14th and the 15th century was Serbian and of Orthodox confession. The Serbian Prince Miroslav, brother of Stefan Nemanja had his court in Ston on Peljesac peninsula. In Zavala, on the localities around the Medieval ruined churches and monuments of the Medieval Hum Diocese there are remains of 45 Medieval churches, along with the nearby entrance to the nearby Vjetrenica Pecina Cave, making the entire spiritual complex. One of the Medieval monuments of Herzegovina was the medieval fortification of Popovski grad, in the hills above the Zavala Monastery, which is known in historical records as the seat of Herceg Stefan Vukčić Kosača – the Herzog of Sveti Sava.

The Zavala Monastery is dedicated to Entrance of the Holy Virgin to the temple. The monastic church of Zavala is semi-cave church whose northern part comes below the rock and belongs to the advanced types of churches with rolled-on arches. The later added part of the Zavala church was constructed from dressed stone and features one-have structure of 12 meters length and width of 3,50 to 6,40 meters with semi-circle apse, covered with stone slabs.

According to the national oral tradition, the Zavala Monastery is endowment of Serbian Kind Dragutin. The year of 1271, inscribed in the old seal of the Zavala monastery is often mentioned in regard with the foundation of the Zavala Monastery. In 1587 the Zavala church was reconstructed as per historical records of names of the Hrabren – Miloradovic Dynasty who donated numerous churches of Herzegovina so it could be presumed that it was them who have also helped this reconstruction. During the 16th and the 17th century Zavala Monastery maintained close relationship with the Studenica Monastery and Hilandar Monastery when here was a copying school developed. Along with Žitomislić and Tvrdoš monasteries, Zavala Monastery is one of the most important centers of cultural and spiritual life in East Herzegovina.

Stojan Jovanovic made his vow to religious life in Zavala Monastery and became the Saint Vasilije Ostroski – the Saint Basil of Ostrog. He was born on 28 December 1610 in the nearby village of Mrkonjici, by the father Petar and mother Ana Jovanovic. Although without nearly no Serb population due to lack of any-decent conditions for life at present, Zavala Monastery is often visited by numerous Serbs – Orthodox pilgrims thanks to its connection with Saint Vasilije Ostroski – Saint Basil of Ostrog. This important historical personality has today his birth house fully reconstructed with new small church and inscription in the nearby tiny Mrkonjici village.

The earliest document on Zavala Monastery date from 1514 which testified that its Abbot had bought large vineyards. Many significant church manuscripts were written here during this period. Along the course of the next century monastic library was enriched with new books from Sremski Karlovci and Belgrade, among which were numerous Russian books on lives of saints and gospels. Saint Vasilije Ostroski started his monastic life here in Zavala Monastery.

The tiny Zavala church has one-have base with semicircle apse on the eastern side from the outside. The northern side of the church and altar space are carved into the large cliff. The famous fresco painter Georgije Mitrofanović who fresco-painted Hilandar-Chilandary Monastery on Athos Mountain stayed here during the 17th century before he had arrived here. He also had decorated Monastery of Dobrićevo near Bileca in Herzegovina.

During the Second World War Zavala Monastery experienced serious damages and suffering when Ustashas destroyed and plundered its valuable collections when they committed outrageous atrocities to the Serb population. Unfortunately and sadly, in the most recent wars 1992-1995 after the break up of Yugoslavia, dormitories and structures of Zavala Monastery were burnt, when the village of Zavala was completely destroyed and Serb population expelled. Zavala Monastery was restored after the war when the reconstruction works were carried out and its monastic life was recovered. Zavala Monastery together with Tvrdos in Trebinje and Zitomislic Monasteries represent the core of the culture and the Orthodox religion of Herzegovina. The uniqueness of Zavala Monastery architecture is determined with its solitude secluded location what makes it true monastic sanctuary. Encounter and discussion with Zavala Monastery monks provides TRUE spiritual experience to visitors.