The oldest monastery awaits you in Varna
You are at the sea shore. You are lying under the shadow of the beach umbrella and you are wondering how to make more exciting the long summer days. One unusual name will take you to an even more unusual place, located only 14 kilometers away from Varna. Aladja monastery is the most mysterious monastic cloister at the Northern Bulgarian shore of the Black Sea. It was built in the 13th century, on the premises of an even older Christian religious building. Its unique natural shape has formed from limestone sediments, found once at the bottom of the Sarmatian Sea some 12 million years ago.
Almost unintentionally, but with the art of an architect, Nature has formed those rock bases where monks used to live and worship. Even today, all of the facilities of the monastery have been preserved: the temple, the chapel, the church, the tomb, the kitchen, the dining room, and the cells. There were once about 500 more similar complexes in Northeast Bulgaria. They were mostly created during the 13th and 14th centuries, along with the spread of the Hesychast schooling in Byzantium and Bulgaria.
The Christian name for the “Aladja”, as Varna natives would call it, is unknown. The name “Aladja” has Turkish origins and it means “colorful, vivid”. It represents the richness in ornaments of the walls with the icons.
The monastery lays 40 meters above the ground and it has two levels. The church is situated at the Western part of the first level. The small niche in the middle of its East wall once served as an altar. The entire church was decorated with mural paintings. Unfortunately however, today we can only see a small part of that since time has dusted away the limestone on which the Godly drawings were done. The separate, almost unnoticeable fragments on the walls, remind us of the beauty that once existed in the rock drawings. Different written materials tell us about the icon of the Mother of God which used to be situated centrally over the altar. The Mother of God was sitting on a high throne and in her lap she had baby Jesus. Under the mural, which is now almost invisible, there used to be an even more ancient icon of Jesus Pantocrator that dates back to 11th-12 century. In the church’s floor there is a stone ladder that leads to the rest of the rooms. A narrow corridor takes us to six cells of monks. The rooms were separated by wooden barriers. One can see cracks in the walls where monks used to put their items and icons. The corridor ends in a wide room. The opening on the ceiling show that this area was once divided into two parts. The Western part used to be a kitchen, called the “cook-house”, and the Eastern part was the dining room. The atmosphere is filled with symbolism and it reminds of “The Last Supper” from the common dining of the early Christian communities.
If you take a short ramp from here, you can get to a room from which very little has been preserved.
A small semicircle on the East wall shows that this most probably was a church. The open tomb under it hints that this was a temple for prayer. Remnants from three graves have been found and these are a witness to the medieval funeral ritual. According to this ritual, the bones of the monks used to be taken out seven years later and then placed into a common tomb. Today the location of this tomb remains unknown because in the old times the inhabitants of the monastery had very skillfully hidden it from the condemnation of those believing in other faiths – the people who have many times robbed and set on fire this sacred place.
A wooden stairway curves around through a chimney and takes us to the second level. The second level of the monastery is just a bigger plane, at the end of which we find the chapel. This is the only preserved brick room in the monastery. Here the monks performed their daily masses. The original medieval mural paintings are very well conserved. They date back to the bloom of the cloister during the 13th and 14t centuries.
Near by are the “Catacombs” as well – another interesting complex of limestone caves. Here one can witness several grave cameras and two incised crosses from the early Christian era. Scientists surmise that the “Catacombs” complex is one of the earliest Christian centers at the Black Sea which existed from the fourth through the sixth centuries.
The degradation of “Aladja” monastery came with the fall of Bulgaria under the Ottoman rule at the end of the 14th century. After a series of barbarous ravages the place was abandoned, but the local population continued to regard it as a sanctuary of the Christian faith even during the years of Ottoman suppression and in the following ages.