Zemen Monastery

Zemen Monastery, dedicated to Saint John the Theologian is completely different from both the official Byzantine style of architecture and that of the other official Turnovo School. Zemen Monastery is located above the Strouma River, 76 km south-east of the capital city of Sofia, about 15km down off the main road from Sofia to the town of Kyustendil and the Serbian border. The area, in the skirts of the Konyavska Mountain, is a beautiful spot with the picturesque and rugged 19-km-long Zemen Gorge carved by the Struma River. This is the gorge which the Knights Templar crossed when they were on their way to the Holy Land.

A solid stone structure was the only one to survive the Zemen monastery’s ravaging and depopulation after Bulgaria’s falling under Ottoman rule. The Zemen Monastery was possibly established in the 11th century and is one of the oldest and most valuable Bulgarian cultural monuments. At first it was thought the monastery was built between the 9th and 10th centuries, but when earlier frescoes and other decorative elements were discovered during excavations, archaeologists realized it had been founded sometime during The First Bulgarian Empire (681-1018). It is rather small with a church, belfry and two other buildings. Zemen Monastery is currently uninhabited. The church of Zemen Monastery is a monument of culture, under the management of the National History Museum.

The church of Zemen Monastery dates from the foundation of the monastery in the late 11th century and has a cubic shape, 9 meters long, 8 meters wide, 11.20 meters high. The material used for construction was travertine. The facades, broken up only plastically – by means of blind arches and lacking color effects – complete the harsh original appearance. The altar is a stone monolith and the floor is made of numerous colorful tiles.

The church of Zemen Monastery is richly painted inside, with two layers of frescoes, repainted by anonymous skillful artists during the 1350s, the scarcely preserved early one dating to the 11th century. The better preserved Biblical scenes date from the mid-14th century and include several beautiful portraits of donors: the first one depicting a church donor – gray-haired local noble Konstantin Deyan, his much younger wife Doya /Theodora/ and their two children, the second featuring a young man, Vitomir, and a boy, Stoyu. Zemen Monastery houses also one of the oldest mural paintings of the famous Bulgarian saint Ivan Rilski. These portraits rank among the oldest and artistically most valuable in the Balkans after the frescoes of the Boyana Church.