A huge treasury of the Bulgarian genius of architecture and construction and of the National Revival culture is found in a small stretch of land – Arbanassi. Scenically rising above the city of Veliko Tarnovo, this village keeps memories of landmark events in history, and of brisk public activity in various periods of time. Historians, archeologists and ethnographers have been looking for explanations of various facts related to its development, to the ethnicity of some of the earliest settlers and to the impulse that worked to give rise to masterpieces of the Christian spirit and culture. Arbanassi has been listed on UNESCO’s world heritage list.
The natural scenery of Arbanassi coupled with the clean air and healthy climate influenced by the transfer of Aegean currents, has made the place a preferred choice for recreation of both local and foreign guests and tourists.
In travel notes dated to 1859, explorer А. P. Granitski wrote: “Eastwards, half an hour from Tarnovo, lies the village of Arbanassi (Zagorie)… where the Bulgarian boyars lived in olden times…”
Earliest evidence about the village was found in a royal decree of Sultan Suleiman from 1538. Arbanassi as well as Lyaskovets, Gorna Oriahovitsa and Dolna Oriahovitsa, was conferred as a gift to Rustem Pasha, the sultan’s son-in-law. Historical sources like for example a manuscript history written in 1759 by Osman Zade Yugaib Ahmed Efendi, suggest that the sultan’s son-in-law Rustem Pasha was of Slavic descent.
There are plenty of options to approach the history of Arbanassi. Many hypotheses about the name and origin of this spiritual and cultural center are still being explored. Some historians contend that Arbanassi got its name from the settlers who came by in the aftermath of the cornerstone victory of Tsar Ivan Assen II near Klokotnitsa on 9 March 1230. The stone column erected in the Sts. Forty Martyrs Church to commemorate the great victory, has an inscription reading that the Bulgarian tsar “seized the Arbanassi land”. It is only logical to assume that the Bulgarian boyars (aristocrats) with their peasants moved out to the western parts of the country, closer to the capital. And because they came over from the Arbanassi Mountains, they gave the village the name Arbanassi.
More precise written evidence about the history of the village has been found in various documents, margin notes in manuscripts and chronicles kept in the five churches and two monasteries of the village. Arbanassi reached its heyday in 17-18 c., when it emerged as a busy center of trade and crafts. The enterprising Arbanassi merchants specialized in cattle-droving and pasture stock breeding. Thousands heads of cattle were raised in the succulent Arbanassi pastures. Their skins, wool, meat and tallow were the raw materials for homespun tailoring, candle-making, shoe-making and soap-making. The meat was processed to make the famed Arbanassi cured meat, dried tongues and flat-sausages.
Early in spring merchants would hit the roads of the Ottoman Empire with their convoys with 40-50 horses loaded with goods. They also did business in Italy, Hungary, Wallachia, Moldova, Poland, Russia and in all Balkan lands that were part of the Empire. Some reached as far as Baghdad, Persia and India bringing back silk, velvet, spices – goods that would later sell as hot cakes from their stores.
At the end of 18 c. the village slid into decline troubled by Karcali raids, by bubonic plague and cholera epidemics, especially after the Crimean War of 1853-1856. Most of the merchants emigrated to Wallachia and Russia. Others dispersed in the empire’s towns and villages. The great Bulgarian benefactors of 19 c. Evlogi and Hristo Georgiev were descendants of a noble Arbanassi family that had migrated to the town of Karlovo. The famous Panitsa family was also originally residing in Arbanassi.
Another affluent class was the group of craftsmen. The coppersmith’s, goldsmith’s and blacksmith’s trades all prospered in Arbanassi as well as silkworm-breeding. Many villagers reared silkworms and grew grapes like amber. For breeding silkworms a whole area, Chernichaka, was covered with mulberry trees. Four silk fiber facilities produced a huge amount of silk exported to Italy, Constantinople and other places.
Almost all families had vineyards. The grapes ripened on the limestone hills from the Balakov Fountain and the Small Eagle all the way to the Stone and the Rock localities. From them the Arbanassi people made elixir-like wine. During the autumn grape picking would be a veritable festival for the whole community.
Today we can imagine what the residents of the wealthy village looked like. On the shopping bazaar called “Pazarakito” to the Pazarskata Fountain under the large elms drank coffee on talkfest rural landlords and rich merchants. In winter dressed in coats long cloth, trimmed with fox fur decorated with silk braids they went to prayer in the churches. After they walked their wives, famous Arbanassi dames, dressed in silk and velvet, with strings of gold coins, expensive jewelry – decorated with diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, rubies … Latest walked servants who wore mirrors and boxes for jewels of his mistress.
For several centuries the glory of Arbanassi as a wealthy and prosperous village dwindled. It had a period of history when it emerged as a stronghold of the mania for all Greek, but, still, it never lost its Bulgarian national spirit. Its descendants were zealous workers for the cause of the Bulgarian National Revival, supporters of and participants in the national-liberation struggles against the Ottoman Yoke.
In 1794 priest Stoyko Vladislavov, later Sophronius of Vratsa and author of The Life and Sufferings of Sinful Sophronius came to Arbanassi to visit his sons. He stayed in the village for only few months, because he was ordained Bishop of the Vratsa Eparchy.
Arbanassi man Jorgo Vitanov took part in the famous anti-Ottoman Velcho’s Conspiracy in 1835. Atanas Papazov and Panayot Nikolov joined the Hadjistavri Riot in 1862 and were exiled after it. Spiro Konstantinov from Arbanassi financed the revolutionary detachments of Philip Totyu, Stefan Karadja and Hadji Dimitar. He also joined the Bulgarian Revolutionary Central Committee (BRCC) and was imprisoned for that activity. Toma Kardjiev organized the Cherna Voda Detachment in 1875. Ilarion Draghostinov, a prominent revolutionary, one of the leaders of the 1876 April Uprising, who died in an unequal battle with the Turkish troops in the Sliven section of the Balkan Range, was born in Arbanassi.
It is not accidental that the researcher of the 1876 April Uprising D. Strashimirov wrote the following: “Arbanassi gave… one of the eagerest souls in that epoch…”
Shortly before Bulgaria’s Liberation from the Turkish yoke a portentous event took place in Arbanassi. The great champion of autonomous Bulgarian church Ilarion Makariopolski held in the village the first service in the Slav-Bulgarian language.
During the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War of Liberation eleven Arbanassi residents joined the war as volunteers.
It is not accidental that explorers, travelers and writers have termed Arbanassi “monument of the Bulgarian Revival culture”. The architectural profile of the Arbanassi house is fairly autonomous with no parallels in any other of Bulgaria’s regions. It has been acknowledged as a direct successor of the boyar houses. Georgi Kozhuharov, historian of Bulgarian architecture, argues that “… in its origin and concept the large, affluent and well-planned Arbanassi house is a Bulgarian house.”
Unfortunately, a large part of this treasure of architectural and construction tradition was destroyed in Karcali raids and during the wars. In the winter of 1877-1878 dozens of houses were abandoned. Some of them were burnt down; others were sold at knock out prices for their timber. Many houses were irretrievably damaged during the powerful quake in 1913. Today there are 144 houses surviving as monuments of architecture. The Hadjihristov House (Arbanashki Han) is one of them. There are other noteworthy houses: the Konstantsaliev, Hadjiiliev, Kandilarov houses etc. The typical Arbanassi house stands out for its rich decoration including wood-carved ceilings, doors and shutters and decorative grating. Courtyards hidden behind high stonewalls, are buried in greenery, cut through by paved pathways.
Back in time the Veliko Tarnovo region was known as the Bulgarian Mount Athos for its large number of churches and monasteries near Bulgaria’s medieval capital. With its five churches and two monasteries Arbanassi has taken its due place in this spiritual center of Orthodox Christianity. The churches are The Nativity, Sts. Archangels Michael and Gabriel, St. Atanassius, St. George and St. Demetrius. The monasteries are The Assumption and St. Nicholas. The churches are impressive cult constructions unusually large for the time. Similar to local houses they were built behind high and robust stonewalls, some of them reinforced; with semi-cylindrical vaults and with small windows. The courtyards of all churches are spacious, buried in greenery.
The oldest church in the architectural reserve of Arbanassi is The Nativity. It was built in the late 16 and early 17 c. and stands in the western section of the village, close to St. Nicholas Monastery. Near the courtyard of the church stood a house that used to be a convent of Mount Athos. Revival Neophyte of Rila spent some time there. The Nativity is the most luxuriantly painted church in Arbanassi. The breathtaking frescoes in the naos (the men’s section) date back to 1597. The superb compositions Doomsday and The Nativity of Christ are also dated to that period. The magnificent murals in the narthex (the women’s section) offer rich plots and lovely figural images. The decoration of the narthex was completed in 1638. The iconostasis at the St. John the Baptist chapel at the church is one of the earliest works of wood-carving in the Bulgarian lands.
The biggest church in Arbanassi is Sts. Archangels Michael and Gabriel. It was built in 17 c. and its frescoes were painted in 1761 by two artists – Mikhail from Thessaloniki and Georgi from Bucharest.
The rest of Arbanassi’s churches – St. Demetrius, St. Atanassius and St. George – are among the most remarkable monuments of Bulgarian art and culture from 16-18 c.
Originally The Assumption and St. Nicholas monasteries were parish churches, but after the village became almost deserted, they ended up on its outskirts and transformed into monasteries. The Assumption Monastery keeps an old valuable icon of Virgin Mary plated with silver. Legend has it that it works miracles.
A fair-spoken excerpt about the beauty, attraction and natural wealth of Arbanassi comes in the book of Dr. Dimitar I. Papazov published in 1935. It is the result of his personal memories and collected facts: “Dimitraki’s library kept three sheets of paper written by a priest from St. Nicholas Church in Arbanassi dating back to 1798, before the village was looted by the Kircali, the Turkish brigands. His account goes as follows: ‘I cannot keep silent. I have to speak; I have to hymn the marvelous Arbanassi, a large village at the heart of Bulgaria. It gleams like a mirror across the eparchy – the home of veritable merchants. The road indeed, is a bit remote, and fairly difficult, a path, more or less. The village outskirts reveal incredible vistas of breathtaking scenery. Flowers, blossoms and orchard trees are generous. The captivating flower scents are strong everywhere. Flowers with myriad blossoms, wild and forest ones, have been cultivated to attain much higher value. The heart is blissful here. Believe me, this place is wonderful, a miracle. Whoever set their eyes on it, never had enough, and those who have not seen it, can hardly understand. Eyes tire of seeing so many things intriguing the mind and waiting to be uttered. The air is clean and there are good gardens with well-planned houses where everybody minds their business. The houses are made of stone, encircled with high outer walls. Any of them you take looks like a monastery.’”
By virtue of a royal decree issued in 1921 Arbanassi was declared a resort. In 2000 it was given the status of a historical settlement of national importance.