Monday, August 23, 2010

2010 Travel Notes #13: Boyana and Eleanora's Grave

I spent two nights and a full day in Sofia. For much of this time, I lay collapsed on my bed in the hotel, trying to feel better. In good conscience, I could not stay in the room past 10 in the morning, so I did venture out. More than anything else, the strategic location of park benches dictated the path I chose. That said, I enjoyed being back. I stayed on the same block where I always have, close to the center of things. Sofia is a vibrant city. And while it will never be the next Prague, the city is pleasant to the eye, with enough neo-classical architecture remaining--some crumbling, some being gentrified--to make things interesting. While one can still see depressing Communist-era apartment blocks, many parts of Sofia compare favorably with any modern European city of its size.

Once I left my hotel, I instinctively headed for the vicinity of the Aleksandar Nevsky Cathedral. I stopped a while at the flea market, but saw nothing of interest this time. I did visit the Church of St. Sophia, which I had missed on previous visits. The church dates back to the year 361, being rebuilt in the 6th-century and remodeled to its current form in the 8th-century. By the early 20th-century, the church was a crumbling ruin. Major restoration began in 1937 and was renewed in 1998. While it seems that Orthodox services may still be conducted in the church, the building seems primarily a museum and/or archaeological exhibit today.

I cut across the plaza to the cathedral, Sofia's most recognizable monument. Technically, this was the first Orthodox church I ever entered, on 5 June 2003. And in retrospect, an observation from that day loomed large in my subsequent course of life. But what really signified came on the following day (of which more in the following post.) I stayed some time in the cool and quiet sanctity of Aleksandar Nesky. Throughout the day, a constant flow of people came in off the street to pray, light candles and then resume their routine. With many, I suspect this pattern is as much routine as anything else they do. The sanctuary is immense, so the worshippers that come during the day never feel crowded or rushed. I left after a while and wandered about the city, but could not muster much enthusiasm for sight-seeing, either in the park or at the old royal palace, with its fresh coat of yellow paint. After a late lunch, I found myself back at the hotel, where I was actually able to sleep a little. That afternoon, I just walked down the block to the Cafe Athene, where I enjoyed some coffee and dessert, and engaged in a little people-watching, one of my favorite activities. But I soon grew weary again, and returned to my bed. So, all in all, I did very little in Sofia beyond trying to recoup my strength, without much success.

I left out early the next morning. My original plan had been to take the Dragalevski lift up Mount Vitosha. But after breakfast, I knew that was not happening. What I did do, and what made my entire sojourn in Sofia worthwile, was to visit the Church of St. Nicholas, or Boyana Church, a UNESCO monument. I had failed to do so in my previous visits, and this is unfortunate, for Boyana Church is a real treasure. The suburb of the same name is located on the slopes of Mount Vitosha, overlooking Sofia. In modern times, it has been a desirable enclave for those who could afford it. It remains so today, as many neighborhood streets show evidence of condo creep. But up one cobble stoned lane, towards the end of the housing, is a small park with towering fir trees. And therein lies Boyana Church.

The original church dates back to the 11th-century. One is immediately struck by how tiny it all is. Boyana was never anything but a small village church--which it remained until 1954. But even in medieval times, wealthy Sofians enjoyed living close at hand, but also slightly away and above it all. Usually a close relative of the Tsar was left in charge of Sofia. In the middle 13th-century, the Sebastokrator Kaloyan, grandson of Tsar Ivan Asen I (as well as of the Nemanjec ruler of Serbia,) established himself at Boyana--and became the church's benefactor. Research has uncovered three different layers of iconography within the church, and some of each are revealed. Most of the frescoes date from the year 1259, the work of iconographers Vasiley and Dmitar. Since the church is small, one is able to get an unusually close inspection of the icons.

The small church is considered to be one of Bulgaria's greatest cultural treasures. Once inside, it is not hard to understand why. The iconography is incredibly beautiful. Some art scholars credit Boyana's realism with presaging, to some degree, the Italian Renaissance. Of course there are the expected frescoes one finds in most any Orthodox church, but many of the scenes and saints depicted are not those usually seen. One wall contained scenes from the life of St. Nicholas. The church contains two icons of St. John of Damascus--one from the 12th-century and one from the 13th. And beyond that, there is an icon I have never seen painted on a church wall before--one of St. Ephrem the Syrian. In the narthex is a portrait of the Sebastokrator Kaloyan and his wife Desislava, as well as one of the Tsar Constantine I and Tsaritsa Irina. I tagged-on to a tour guide who was explaining everything to a small group of visitors--in Italian. This was not at all bothersome to me. I was able to tune it all out and savor the great beauty before me. In my three visits to Bulgaria, Boyana was one of the most meaningful sites I experienced.

Next to the church, on the south side, is a small plot of ground marking the grave of Bulgaria's Tsaritsa Eleanora. Her story will take a little telling. In the mid 1880s, the Great Powers chose Ferdinand of Coburg to rule over Bulgaria, to replace their earlier choice of Alexander of Battenburg. Of all these newly-minted 19th-century Balkan dynasts, none took to the job with more enthusiasm than Ferdinand, or with more panache. As a Coburg, he was closely related to half the royal heads of Europe. And from his Bourbon mother, he was related to the other half. Interestingly, a Hungarian grandmother provided untold wealth, and descent--if remotely--from actual Bulgarians.

Ferdinand relished his role, and had expansive plans for an emerging Bulgaria. In the era of the crumbling Ottoman Empire, he desired expansion in those areas where he thought his nation had legitimate claims--Macedonia, Thessaloniki, Thrace, and like the Bulgarians tsars of old--Constantinople itself. Bulgaria made great gains in this direction in the First Balkan War, but lost them all when their Balkan neighbors banned against them in the second.

Princess Clementine, Ferdinand's mother, chose his first wife--Maria Louisa, daughter of the Duke of Parma. The duke had been deposed as a child in the unification of Italy. But he retained his wealth and traveled with his enormous family, from one estate to the other, in a string of private railroad cars. Duke Robert had perhaps gone to the Bourbon well once too often for his first wife. Of their twelve children, only three were not mentally handicapped, of which Maria Louisa was the eldest. By his second wife, he fathered twelve more, including Zita, the last empress of Austria.

Ferdinand and Maria Louisa's marriage was brief, and not particularly happy. First, he was reputed to be bisexual, and spent regular holidays on Capri, a noted destination for wealthy European homosexuals of that era. Secondly, their marriage arrangement included the provision that their children be baptized and raised Catholic. When Ferdinand, the ruler of an Orthodox nation, reneged on this proviso and baptized his heir as Orthodox, Maria Louisa and her Austrian connections were incensed. She left the country for a while, and her cousin the Emperor arranged to have Ferdinand excommunicated. But the controversy subsided. The couple had children in very quick succession, with Maria Louisa dying soon after the birth of the fourth.

Ferdinand was in no particular hurry to remarry, but after several years he took the middle-aged Eleanore of Reuss as his second wife. Some have speculated, given his proclivities, that the marriage was one of convenience only, and was never consummated. Whether true or not, Eleanore was no mere ornamental queen. She became a loving stepmother to Ferdinand's young children. The two boys and two girls were close to Eleanora, and grew up to be stable and conscientious, not at all given to royal scandals. This is due, one would imagine, much more to Eleanora's influence than Ferdinand's. She worked tirelessly for the welfare of the Bulgarian people. During the Balkan wars and the First World War, Eleanora volunteered as a nurse. By her dedication and compassion, she won the love of her adopted nation. Eleanora's health began to fade, and she died in 1917. Her wish was to be buried beside this rural church, which itself was at the heart of the Bulgarian people she had come to love.

During the Soviet takeover following the Second World War, thugs came to the churchyard, dug up the grave and stripped it of whatever jewels they could find. They then pushed the marker in and covered the site so that it would no longer be known. But the Communists tenure was not long enough to erase historical memory. Sometime after their fall, Eleanora's simple monument was excavated and replaced as before. The plot is now well-tended, and a small brass plaque states: "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy." In my opinion, this grave--more than material prosperity, or new roads or the condominiums being constructed down the hill--signifies Bulgaria's return.


Bill M said...

The account of Eleanora - which I have not heard before - prompts in me both hope and discouragement. That a person can rise to such goodness in the face of family/political wrangling, non-stop wars, and cultural upheaval shows a glimmer of that Light that is possible to reflect in our troubled world. The discouragement comes when I think about how it is only in glimmers and hints, like seeing a flicker out of the corner of my eye, but finding only shadows when I turn to look closely for the Source.

Why is goodness such a fragile flower, while thuggishness (is that a word?) can grow and thrive anywhere?

On a less gloomy note: I was curious about the church with three layers of iconography. Do you know how that was done? Were the earlier icons "decommissioned" in some way? De-sanctified, in order to be covered over? If researchers are able to uncover the layers, the earlier ones are intact (more-or-less), so are they still "icons" in the liturgical sense? (Sorry if I'm not using the right terms.)

Milton T. Burton said...

This one was beautifully written. I love the ending. As a strange aside, the lady looks very much like photos of Lenin, sans beard.

Ian Climacus said...

Thank you, as always, for not only and interesting account but an informative one.

I am also rather in awe of your perseverance through ill health; I pray all is well now.

John said...

Bill M., yes, her story is a compelling one. Ferdinand needed a nanny for his children and someone to stand at his side at official functions. The fact that she made so much more of this set of circumstances speaks well of her. Also, her request that she be buried in this rural churchyard--rather than at the cathedral or one of the other impressive churches in Sofia--says a lot.

As to the layers of iconography, all I know is that there are places where you can see the underlying layer of plaster partially exposed. What that implies, liturgically, I don't know.

Milton, thanks. Yes, she can look a little severe. My favorite picture of her (and probably the one I should have used) is one in her Red Cross uniform.

Ian, thanks. I am doing fine now. Treatment since has solved the main problem--one I was having even before the trip. I have never been one to whine about my health--and yet, that is what I have done throughout this series! I think I have done so in partial explanation for why I did not do more than I did.

Cody said...

This is all very well and nice, but where are the posts from the family reunion? Now there are some stories and quotes that need to be published :P

John said...

Sorry, Cody. I'm not going to post on the reunion here. If you want to hear the stories and jokes gathered there, you'll have to actually attend one of them. So there.

John said...
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