Rila Monastery - Photo: Wikipedia

Travel after the pandemic #24: World Heritage in Bulgaria

Safeguarding nations’ cultural and natural treasures

The idea of a UNESCO World Heritage List was born in 1972 to protect sites of outstanding universal value from the likes of armed conflict, destruction, economic pressures and climate change. Hungary has eight such listings and is slightly outnumbered by Bulgaria, which signed the convention in 1974 and has 10 that will enhance any visit to the Balkan nation.
13. February 2022 14:31

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation listings are divided into two categories, the cultural and the natural, with Hungary having seven of the former and one of the latter, while Bulgaria’s also feature seven cultural but three natural.

The UNESCO cultural sites in Bulgaria are –

Boyana Church

On the outskirts of the capital, Sofia, in the posh suburb of Boyana at the foot of Vitosha Mountain, this tiny unpresuming church houses some of the most exquisite medieval frescoes dating back to 1259. It consists of three buildings. The eastern church was built in the 10th century, then enlarged at the beginning of the 13th century by Sebastocrator Kaloyan, who ordered a second two-storey building to be erected next to it. The frescoes in this second church, painted in 1259, make it one of the most important collections of medieval paintings. The ensemble is completed by a third church, built at the beginning of the 19th century. This site is one of the most complete and perfectly preserved monuments of Eastern European medieval art.

Madara Horseman, or Madara Rider

Dating back to the early years of the Bulgarian state in the 8th century, this unusual large relief depicts a knight triumphant over a lion, hewn into a 100-metre-high cliff near the village of Madara in north-eastern Bulgaria not far from Shumen. Madara was the principal sacred place of the First Bulgarian Empire before Bulgaria’s conversion to Christianity in the 9th century. The inscriptions beside the sculpture tell of events that occurred between AD 705 and 801.

Rock-Hewn Churches of Ivanovo

Caves cut into the rocks along the valley of the Rusenski Lom river, in the vicinity of the village of Ivanovo in north-east Bulgaria, served as churches, chapels, monasteries and cells during the 13th /14th century. The frescoes reveal an exceptional artistry and a remarkable artistic sensitivity for 14th-century painting and Bulgarian medieval art. This is where the first hermits had dug out their cells and churches during the 12th century. The 14th-century murals testify to the exceptional skill of the artists belonging to the Tarnovo School of painting. The Art School of Tarnovo existed in the old Bulgarian capital, Tarnovo (now Veliko Tarnovo), during the Second Bulgarian Empire and Bulgarian National Revival from the 15th to 19th centuries. Many directions in Bulgarian art, music and architecture from the Second Bulgarian Empire were developed by graduates of this school, as the Architecture of the Tarnovo Artistic School.

Thracian Tomb of Kazanlak

Dating back to the 4th century BC, this tomb was discovered in 1944 and depicts through its murals Thracian burial rites and rituals. Visitors are not allowed into the original tomb but can visit the replica that is part of the museum in Kazanlak.. (Meanwhile several other tombs have been unearthed in the nearby Valley of the Kings). The tomb dates from the Hellenistic period, around the end of the 4th century BC. It is found near Seutopolis, the capital city of the Thracian king Seutes III, and is part of a large Thracian necropolis. The tholos (a circular dome-shaped tomb of ancient Greek origin with a conical or vaulted roof) has a narrow corridor and a round burial chamber, both decorated with murals representing Thracian burial rituals and culture. These paintings are Bulgaria’s best-preserved artistic masterpieces from the Hellenistic period.

These previous four listings were all added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1979. The following two listings were added in 1983 and the final listing, the Thracian Tomb, in 1985.

Ancient City of Nessebar

Situated on a rocky peninsula on the Black Sea, the more than 3000-year-old site of Nessebar was originally a Thracian settlement (Menebria). At the beginning of the 6th century BC the city became a Greek colony. Its remains, which date mostly from the Hellenistic period, include the acropolis, a temple of Apollo, an agora (a central public space) and a wall from the Thracian fortifications. Among other monuments, the Stara Mitropolia Basilica and the fortress date from the Middle Ages, when this was one of the most important Byzantine towns on the west coast of the Black Sea. Wooden houses built in the 19th century are typical of the Black Sea architecture of the period.

Rila Monastery

A perfect day trip from Sofia, high up in the Rila Mountains, originally founded by St. John of Rila (Ivan Rilski), a hermit canonised by the Orthodox Church, in the 10th century, the monastery was the hub of spiritual and artistic influence across the Eastern Orthodox world. His ascetic dwelling and tomb became a holy site and were transformed into a monastic complex that played an important role in the spiritual and social life of medieval Bulgaria. The remarkable architecture and frescoes are a credit to the Bulgarian creative spirit in difficult times. Destroyed by fire at the beginning of the 19th century, the complex was rebuilt between 1834 and 1862. A characteristic example of the Bulgarian Renaissance (18th-19th centuries), the monument symbolises the awareness of a Slavic cultural identity following centuries of occupation.

Thracian Tomb of Sveshtari

Discovered in 1982 near the village of Sveshtari, this 3rd-century BC Thracian tomb reflects the fundamental structural principles of Thracian cult buildings. The tomb has a unique architectural decor, with polychrome half-human, half-plant caryatids and painted murals. The 10 female figures carved in high relief on the walls of the central chamber and the decoration of the lunette (crescent-shaped opening) in its vault are the only examples of this type found so far in the Thracian lands. It is a remarkable reminder of the culture of the Getes, a Thracian people who were in contact with the Hellenistic and Hyperborean worlds, according to ancient geographers.

Bulgaria’s three natural listings are –

Ancient and Primeval Beech Forests of the Carpathians and Other Regions of Europe

A transnational serial property comprising 94 component parts across 18 countries, that represents an outstanding example of relatively undisturbed, complex temperate forests.

Pirin National Park

At an altitude between 1008 and 2914 metres, the site comprises diverse limestone mountain landscapes with glacial lakes, waterfalls, caves and predominantly coniferous forests. It was originally added to the World Heritage List in 1983 and a more recent extension now covers an area approximately 40,000 hectares in the Pirin Mountains, except for two areas developed for tourism (skiing).

Srebarna Nature Reserve

The freshwater lake and surrounding wetlands, near the Danube delta, is the breeding ground for more than 100 species of bird, many rare and endangered, and is an important stopping point on the Western Palaearctic flyway. The Srebarna Nature Reserve protects an important example of wetland that was once widespread in Bulgaria.

How does a site get on the UNESCO list? Nominations are submitted by the country, these are then examined and evaluated by an international team of experts, and voted on by 21 Committee Members.

The mission of UNESCO’s World Heritage List is to encourage countries to sign the World Heritage Convention ensuring the protection of their natural and cultural heritage and encouraging participation of the local population in their preservation.

World Heritage sites are said to belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located.

Hungary’s listings are Budapest, including the Banks of the Danube, the Buda Castle Quarter and Andrássy Avenue; the Old Village of Hollókő and its Surroundings; the Caves of Aggtelek Karst and Slovak Karst; the Millenary Benedictine Abbey of Pannonhalma and its Natural Environment; Hortobágy National Park – the Puszta; the Early Christian Necropolis of Pécs (Sopianae); Fertö/Neusiedlersee Cultural Landscape; and Tokaj Wine Region Historic Cultural Landscape.

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