The Cultural Phenomenon of Arbanassi

By Galina Nikolova-Ivancheva, PhD on Science of Art and Fine Arts


The Village of Arbanassi, famous for its history and culture, is situated on the beautiful highlands near the old capital city of Bulgaria Veliko Tarnovo.  Nowadays the village still keeps its ancient spirit with its narrow streets of cobbled stone and the wonderful architecture of its big old houses, surrounded by high stone walls, the churches, decorated with rich frescoes, icons and fretworks.

The old settlement has its own interesting story. Some legends send its creation back to the time of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom. According them after the victory of Bulgarian King Ioan-Assen II over the Epirus ruler Theodor Comnin in 1230, in the village of Arbanassi were settled some noble Greek families, most of them of Albanian origin.

The first records of Arbanassi date back to the beginning of the XVI century. At that time all Bulgarian lands had been conquered by the Ottoman Turks and the Patriarchy of Turnovo had been  integrated to the Greek Patriarchy of Constantinople.

According these records, the village was built on a meadow, a pasturage, and first was called Yaylak (in Turkish a meadow, a pasturage), and later renamed into Arnautkioy (in Turkish Albanian village). It was famous also with its Greek name Arvanitohori (Albanian village). The existing document presents that in the beginning the village was owned and governed by some noble Ottoman officers and since 1541 the village had been owned by Rustem, the Grand vizier of the empire. Due to this fact, Arbanassi became a place with lots of privileges and its residents were released of paying many taxes and were bound to defend the neighboring roads and passages in return. These legal privileges made of Arbanassi a very attractive place to live and its population increased rapidly. The village reached its economical and cultural zenith at the second half of the XVII century when there could be found over a thousand houses. The inhabitants of Arbanassi were of Albanian, Bulgarian, Greek and Wallach origin, all of them incorporated of their East Orthodox religion. There lived noble families originating in the old Byzantine and Wallach aristocracy like Cantakusin, Bratianu, Philipescu, Brancovany, etc.

The special statute of the village led to its fast economic development, the priorities of the Arbannassi merchants were meat trade, soap and candle trade, trade with cloth and leather all produced by the village inhabitants. People of Arbanassi became very famous all over the empire and beyond it and in the early XVII century joined many international commercial activities. They had special relations with Transylvania because of the privileges that had been granted them by George I Rakotzy, the King of Transylvania. For decades the residents of Arbanassi governed or participated in many commercial companies situated in Sibiu and Brashov. The tax registers of that time show us what professions were practiced in the village, there lived copper makers, tailors,  painters, shoemakers, goldsmiths etc.

The merchants of Arbanassi achieved wealth very quickly, they had relations with all Principalities along the Danube, they bought large homesteads in Wallachia and Bucharest became their favorite place. A well known trade way connecting Tarnovo and Russe with Wallachia and Moldova was formed.  The Arbanassi merchants traded with Transylvania and Poland and also with Russia, Hungary and Italy, their fame reached Baghdad, India and Persia.

The church had its very distinct function, many of the Tarnovo bishops of that era were of Greek origin and that’s why Greek language was used not only in the church services but was widely accepted among the Arbanassi residents as well. It is well known that not only Tarnovo bishops but also those of Sinaya, Jerusalem and Aton monks preferred to spend the summers in Arbanassi in their  houses built there.

The good wealth of Arbanassi and its close relations it the Constantinople Patriarchy made possible the building of six parish churches for relatively short period – about 150 years – ′The Nativity Church′, ′St. Dimitrius′, ′St. George′, ′St Atanasius′, ′St. Archangels′, and the two monasteries – ′St. Nicolas′ and  ′The Dormition of The Virgin Mary′. They were all built of stone. The churches have an identical architectural plan which can`t be found elsewhere in Bulgaria – with one apse naoses, narthexes and lateral galleries ending with temples to the East. The enterprising noblemen of Arbanassi that created that wealthy village needed churches as impressive as their houses were. In addition to the initial one nave churches were built up narthexes, temples and galleries which can be proven by many donor inscriptions inside the churches.

The monumental frescoes of the Arbanassi churches were painted in harmony with the Christian art of that time. The painted area of the churches is not large but the bible scenes and proverbs were very detailed and painted in their own cells and fields. The frescoes were executed in contrast color harmonies and still have their unique impressive impact. The rich Arbanassi residents not only sponsored the building and the painting of the churches, but also took great care about their quality and professional execution. The men who worked in the churches of Arbanassi were very skilled painters and well educated in theology and philosophy.

The special style features of the Arbanassi frescoes appeared as a result of many interacting influences of the official Christian Orthodox art and show close relationship with Aton, the Italo-Cretan school and also with schools of Epirus, Wallachia and Moldova. The existence of Epirus workshop in Arbanassi is proven by some inscriptions in the churches ′St. Athanasius′ (1667) and ′St. George′ (1661) where it was mentioned that the masters of these frescoes had come from Epirus. The frescoes at the narthex of the church ′St. Archangels′ (1760) were executed by Dimitruis of Thessaloniki and George of Bucharest, a lot of specific features show the relationship of the Arbanassi painters with the frescoes schools of Romania. In the late XVII century in Arbanassi was created its native workshop that established the base of the Tryavna School which became famous in the following Bulgarian Renaissance.

Gradually Arbanassi became a center of the Christian Orthodox culture of the Balkans. The first church schools were created in the end of the XVII century. At that time great care of the schools of Arbanassi took the voivodes of Wallachia and Moldova which was proven by a certificate issued in 1779 by Alexander Ipsilanty Brancuveanu from which became clear that the creation and the maintenance of the Greek school in Arbanassi was at the expenses of the Wallach voivode. There had been such school since the time of the governor Nicolae in 1732.

In Arbanassi there are not only interesting churches, the houses of the rich Arbanassian residents are also very attractive with theirunique architecture. The houses look like small fortresses and were all surrounded by very high stone walls. They looked very severe and humble outside with their heavy doors and gratings, they had neither balconies nor porches, but they amazed with their rich interior. The first floor was built of stone with vaulted entrances leading to large wine-cellars and hiding rooms. These rooms were intended for the servants as well. Two stairways usually led to the second floor where the drawing-room, the bedrooms, the kitchen and the rooms of the mothers were situated. On this floor there was also a room for the home oven, a bathroom and a larder. Inside the Arbanassi houses were heavily decorated with exquisite fretworks on the ceiling, the doors and the windows. In the houses that survived until the present days there are no differences between the floor-plans, but only in the way the rooms were decorated depending how much the owners could afford for decoration and of course their aesthetic views. The appearance of the Arbanassi houses can be thought as a complicated mixture of Balkan traditions and many different outside impacts. The most impressive houses in Arbanassi were The House of Constancalia, The House of Hadji Ilia, The Kandilar House, The House of Brancovany, The House of Nicu Cultucly, The Lambrine House, The House of Grandma Culy all of them built between ХVІІ – ХVІІІ century.

In Arbanassi there were also very interesting old fountains – The Cocon Fountain and the fountain at the market. The Cocon as built by Mehmed Said in 1786 and on it with old Arabian embossed letters was written: “The one who saw and drank that water will be illuminated in his eyes and soul”

In the present days the village of Arbanassi still attracts the interest of many scientists, explorers and artists for its unique atmosphere created of its remarkable sights. He village remains as an important cultural and historical phenomenon that can`t be found nowhere else in Europe.


2 Responses to “The Cultural Phenomenon of Arbanassi”

  1. май 16, 2010 в 7:57 pm

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  2. юни 30, 2010 в 4:01 pm

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