A Medieval Gem

Side Facade
Church façade

On Saturday my family and I went to visit the tiny but gorgeous Boyana church, located in the residential area of the same name, some 8 km away from downtown Sofia.

St. Nicholas and St. Pantaleimon are the patron saints of the church which has been on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list since 1979. The oldest part of the Church dates back to the 11th century.

The church interior is completely covered with frescoes which have recently been restored. Most of the frescoes date back to the mid 13th-century, when the church was expanded. Only one face has survived from the temple’s earliest period.

The church boasts the oldest surviving image of Bulgaria’s most famous saint – St Ivan of Rila (Ivan Rilski or Иван Рилски), who lived in the 10th century. Other remarkable portraits include those of Bulgarian King Kaloyan and his wife Desislava (12th century) and of Constantine Tikh Asen and wife Irina (13th century). Another famous Boyana church icon is that of St Ephrem the Syrian, whose supposedly all-seeing eyes follow you everywhere inside the church. St Ephrem is the author of a powerful prayer used in the Holy Liturgy during Lent.

The frescoes are remarkable, detailed, colourful and breathtakingly beautiful. Type Boyana Church or Боянска църква in Google images and you’ll see.

An inscription on a drinking-water fountain in the church yard

Visitors to the church are allowed to enter in groups of eight and remain inside for only about 10 minutes. A complex air-conditioning system works to maintain constant temperature and humidity for the frescoes.

The temple was closed for service in the early 1950s.

A giant redwood planted by Tsar Ferdinand in 1908. It was really huge and very inspiring.

As a residential area, Boyana has been part of the greater Sofia municipality since the late 1930s but remained a village, as opposed to a neighbourhood, until 1961. Boyana was home to aristocrats of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom, which ended with the advent of the Ottomans. Today the official presidential residence is located in Boyana.

The neighbourhood is among the most expensive residential districts in Sofia, but, strangely enough, boasts a sewage system and paved streets only in its central and oldest parts. Septic tanks and mud/dust depending on the weather are the reality in the newer parts of the neighbourhood. In addition, Boyana is located on the northern slope of the Vitosha Mountain, so it is essentially a mountain area, meaning that it is very hilly. The mud issue and the sloping streets is why most people who live in Boyana, drive 4×4 SUVs.

Boyana is also a popular female name in Bulgaria, possibly the female version of Boyan, which is supposed to be a transcription of Voin, воин, meaning a warrior. Other hypotheses exist too. Boyan, as in Boyan Enravota, Bulgarian knyaz, is the name of my country’s first martyr for the Christian faith, of the early 9th century. (So the Church says, but there are historians claiming Boyan Enravota was killed for political reasons which had nothing to do with his faith as khans who had ruled in earlier centuries had already been Christian without having converted the entire country, which tsar Boris I did in 864.)

Today, Kaloyan (meaning handsome Ivan in Greek) and Desislava are popular names in Bulgaria. Kaloyan is more so, while Desislava was highly popular in the 1970 and not so much today.

The face of Desislava; Source: Wikipedia

The face of Desislava and the Boyana Church also appeared on the front and back of a BGN 20 banknote which was in circulation between 1992 and 1998.

Queen Eleonora Grave
Tsaritsa Eleonora’s grave

The courtyard surrounding the church houses the grave of Bulgarian Tsaritsa (Queen) Eleonora, second wife of Tsar Ferdinand, in line with her last will. In 1912 she saved the church from demolition by arranging for state land to be transferred to Boyana residents to build a larger church on. Tsaritsa Eleonora is remembered for her many acts of charity which included the establishment, together with Ferdinand’s mother knyaginya Klementina, of the Bulgarian Red Cross.

Tsaritsa Eleonora’s grave was desecrated under Communism and was returned to its original look after the regime collapsed in 1989. Tsaritsa Eleonora is the only woman who has been awarded the Bulgarian Order of Military Valour, established in 1880 and awarded to date, with interruption between 1946 and 2003.

Church Facade
Church front and entry

Entry to the courtyard of the church is free and it is a great place to read or just sit and think. It is shadowy, has many century-old trees and also several unnamed graves with ancient stone crosses. Makes you somehow touch time…Romantic and powerful!