St Nativity of Mother of God
The Rozhen monastery is situated about 5km away from the small town of Melnik up in the lower part of the Pirin mountain. It offers an amazing view to the peaks of the Pirin and Belasitsa mountains, and the famous ‘mels’ of Melnik – the latter being pyramid-like hills around the town, formed by the erosion of clay loam.
The Rozhen monastery is the biggest sanctuary in the Pirin region and one of the few Bulgarian monasteries of the Middle Ages, which has survived relatively intact up to present days. According to annals kept in Atone, Greece, the monastery dates back at least to 890 AC – for comparison, the biggest monastery in Bulgaria, the Rila monastery, is believed to have started functioning in 917 AC. The church of the monastery, named St Birth of Virgin Mary, later gave its name to the nearby village of Rozhen (Rozhen coming from the root of the Bulgarian word for birth, ‘Rozhdenie’). During the rule of Despot Aleksii Slav, governor of the region at the time of Tzar Kaloyan (1197-1207) and Kaloyan’s nephew, the monastery’s complex was enriched with a number of buildings. The monastery was destroyed by fire in the early 17th century, but was rebuilt in the beginning of the 18th century with the financial support of wealthy Bulgarians from all over the country. The reconstruction started in 1715, with the church having been entirely renovated in 1732. The monastery saw its apogee in the 19th century when it served as a regional spiritual centre and had numerous real estate holdings in the surrounding area. The end of the monastery’s heyday was put by a famous local revolutionary, Yane Sandanski, who together with his relatives seized real estate properties of the monastery. Nowadays, the monastery is well maintained and open to visitors all around the year. The monastery’s holiday is on September 8, when people from all over the area gather to take part in the celebrations. The monastery has an irregular 6-angle form, with residential buildings surrounding a beautiful yard with the church lying in the centre of it. All the monastery’s buildings were constructed in different periods, with the monks’ dining room, the bone-vault and several farm buildings being the oldest ones, dating back to the period before the fire in the 17th century. Besides well preserved wall paintings, the monastery is famous for its stained glass (the oldest of its type preserved till present days) and unique woodcarvings. As other monasteries, the Rozhen one also has its miraculous icon-protector, of Virgin Mary, which is kept in an ark in one of the chapels of the complex. According to the legend, the icon is one of the few copies of a sacred iron, owned by a widow of Nikea (Greece). During the times of the Byzantine’s emperor Theophilus, famous for his persecution of icon worship, the widow threw the icon in the waters in order to avoid its being destroyed by the emperor. The icon did not sink but sailed for years, until in 999 it reached the gates of the Iviron monastery in Greece.
The monastery offers neither food not accommodation. Nevertheless, just 500 meters down the road to the monastery there is a guesthouse with a restaurant while Melnik, which is about 5km away, is a popular tourist destination with a rich choice of accommodation and catering.
The road from Melnik is a good asphalt one and leads directly to the monastery’s gate. There are no regular buses from the town to the monastery, hence one needs to rely on individual transport arrangements.