The Church “The Forty Holy Martyrs”

Author Bojidar Dimitrov


The history and the historical value of the Christian church “The Forty Holy Martyrs” in Veliko Turnovo could hardly be rationalised and evaluated if we do not know the past of the town and the history of the church which is an integral part of it. Veliko Turnovo is located in the northern foothills of the Central Balkan Range. It is situated over several hills winded by meanders of the Yantra River.


It is not strange that the archaeologists discover traces of human settlements both in the prehistoric times and the antiquity in these lands which are suitable for life as well as defence. Traces of a fortified settlement can be found on the hill of Tsarevets from the early Bronze Age (the end of the 5th–the beginning of the 6th century) and this is a proof of the attempts of the Byzantine Emperors Anastasius and Justinian the Great to stop the invasion of  the so called Barbarians (Goths, Avars, Slavs) and to preserve the population of the southern Danubian lands.


It is not clear if the fortified settlement had lived long enough to see the settlement of the Slavs in these lands in the middle of the 7th century. But some archaeological finds (a gold medallion and columns with inscriptions from the time of Khan Omurtag) give a hint that a large Bulgarian military unit together with its families settled here. Khan Omurtag had in mind the last war with Byzantium and the easier forcing of a crossing through the Balkan Range passes by the Emperor Nikephoros. In his experience, Khan Omurtag (813-831) defended all the Balkan Range passes by strong fortresses in 811 AD. It is obvious that the Turnovo fortress had to protect the way towards the Haiboaz  pass  which is also one of the most usable links between the northern and southern Bulgarian lands today.


The Bulgarians built the fortress on the side of the rocks of Tsarevets and they made “a tongue” leading to the Yantra River as well. This was a fortress wall with 12 towers along the frontage towards the Yantra River. Later it was used as a fence of the Great Lavra Monastery. At present a part of it has been restored. Christianity was proclaimed official religion in Bulgaria in 864 AD. Then the governor of the fortress probably built a church  which preceded the church of the Forty Holy Martyrs. This governor was next of kin with the clan of the dynasty of Khan Krum who ruled Bulgaria from 803 to 971 and the brothers Asen, Petar and Kaloyan were his descendants. Otherwise they would not have been invited to become Bulgarian tsars by the Bulgarians who rose in arms in the eastern Balkan Range and the Strandzha Mountain in 1185. It is known from the chronicles of Byzantine annalists that there was a law in medieval Bulgaria under the terms of which only a man of royal clan could become a tsar. On the strength of this law Samuil became Tsar of Bulgaria only in 997 AD although he had been ruling the country since 971 (Tsar Roman was alive). Similarly, Georgi Voiteh was from the clan of kavkhans, but he crowned the Serbian Prince Konstantine Bodni  Tsar of Bulgaria in 1071 because Konstantine Bodni had ties of blood with the Bulgarian royal clan. The church of the Forty Holy Martyrs was a family church and a mausoleum of the Asen clan in the 13th–14th century. The church of St. Demetrius  was built specially for the declaration of the Independence in 1185 by Asen and Petar and it was not a family church and a mausoleum of the Asens’. This fact was a proof that the Church of the Forty Holy Martyrs was built in the 9th century by the governor concerned.


According to the prominent research worker of the church architect T.Teofilov, the early church was bearing the name of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary. During ages, till the beginning of the 13th century it had been undergone a lot of damages caused by natural cataclysms and wars but the church was being repaired and reconstructed. The church was reconstructed and renewed  by  Tsar  Ivan Asen II in 1230 and it was inaugurated with the new name of the Forty Holy Martyrs. Today’s look and mode of the church were made in 1230 AD. The reason was the great victory of the Bulgarian army near the village of Klokotnitsa, Haskovo District on March 22, 1230 (The Day of the Martyrs) over the armies of Theodoros Komnenus who was the Despot of Epyre and the pretender to the Bizantine throne. The victory made Bulgaria predominant power in south-eastern Europe and its borders spread all over the whole Balkan Peninsula, reaching the three seas – the Black Sea, the Aegean Sea and the Adriatic Sea.


Tsar Ivan Asen II ordered an inscription which tells this events to be written on a marble column and the column was placed in the church. Tsar Ivan Asen II probably ordered columns with inscriptions from the time of Khan Krum (803–831 AD) to be placed in the church as well. A great while it has been considered that these columns have been moved from Pliska in order to emphasise the succession of state between the First Bulgarian  state and the Second Bulgarian state. But it is known that the restorers of the Bulgarian state Asen and Petar immediately set out for Preslav after the Declaration of Independence in 1185.Whatever the vicissitudes of their past lives, they captured the town. The Bulgarian Tsar Theodor (Petar) was crowned in 1185 and he settled down exactly in Preslav till 1196.   Obviously, the settlement of the Tsar in the old  Bulgarian capital was considered as the real demonstration of the relation with the first Bulgarian state. Otherwise the columns had to be placed in the Church of St. Demetrius because the church was built especially for the crowning of Theodor-Petar as Tsar of the Bulgarians. Therefore the opinion of some historians from Turnovo that the columns of Krum and Omurtag had not been carried from Pliska and that they were raised in the fortified residence of Khan Omurtag in Turnovo even in the 9th century seems to be true. Ivan Asen II placed the columns in the church not to emphasise the relation to the First Bulgarian state  (In 1230 AD Bulgaria was recognised as “a heir” to the old Bulgaria by all its neighbours as well as by the Pope)  but in order to underline his ties of kinship with the dynasty of Khan Krum. The great state men Omurtag, Malamir, Presian, Boris I, Simeon the Great, Petar I, Samuil belonged to the dynasty of Khan Krum. The appearance of columns with inscriptions of rulers who were pagans in a Christian church was not considered to be the height of good manners and decency in the Christian world. In these actions we have to look for a manifestation of the mediaeval Bulgarian patriotism. By this act Tsar Ivan Asen II told his contemporaries-Bulgarians and foreigners: Our predecessors might be pagans but they had made Bulgaria a great state. They and the Bulgarians who had been ruled by them are our grandparents and we respect and honour them for their great deeds but not for the faith they professed.


Ivan Asen II reconstructed the church in 1230 and it was a basilica with three apses, a nave and two aisles. It had a narthex and a tomb-mausoleum on the west. The basilica is 24 meters long and 7,3 meters wide. Its altar was made of marble. The murals were most likely painted immediately after the reconstruction in 1230. Only fragments of them have remained. The findings of the archaeologists show that the church had murals in an earlier period – the 11th–12th century AD.


Since the beginning of the 13th century AD the terrain of the church and the area around it had been used as a churchyard for highly placed officials from the Asen clan. It happened after 1207 AD when the Bulgarian Tsar Kaloyan (1197–1207)who had died near the walls of Thessalonica was buried here. Most of the buried officials were men and they hold high and important state posts during their lifetime as it is evident by the gold signet rings. But a piece of a sarcophagus with the image of a woman with a crown on her head suggests that Bulgarian Tsaritsi and gentlewomen who were related to the Asen clan were buried in the church as well. The excavations in the area around the church have not been finished yet. Pleasant surprises are not impossible.


St. Sava died in Turnovo in 1235 on his way back from Jerusalem. St. Sava is a Serbian national saint who takes the place in the pantheon of the Serbian Christian Saints which the Bulgarian St. John from Rila, St. Clement from Ohrid and the brothers St. St. Cyril and Methodius take in Bulgaria. Tsar Ivan Asen felt sad and ordered St. Sava to be buried in the Church of the Forty Holy Martyrs. Miracles began to happen around the Saint’s tomb – sick persons were cured. The holy relics of the Saint had been carried to a Serbian monastery later and were scattered during the Ottoman conquest of Serbia. People from Turnovo and Serbia who had visited the church assured that the miracles continued to happen even after these events. It is said that even today the believers in the Christian faith who are touching the grave receive miraculous healing.


The Asens’ built a monastery around the church probably as early as the end of the 12th century. It was called “The Great Lavra”, “Tsar’s Monastery” in the sources from the 12th–14th century. The monastery had received rich presents and donations from the Bulgarian Tsars and it headed the list of the constellation of mediaeval monasteries around Turnovo.


The Ottoman Turks conquered Turnovo and the monastery declined. The social stratum of the Bulgarian aristocracy who supported the monastery and the church disappeared. The number of the Christians dropped off. The church was serving the Christians from the district till the 16th century when it was transformed in a Muslim mosque. Curiously enough, but this event saved the church – all Christian churches both on Tsarevets and Trapezitsa were destroyed during the Ottoman period (1396-1877).


The temple became a Christian church after the Liberation in 1878 again. Its historical value had already  been appreciated at the time. Therefore the deputies of the Constituent Assembly which began to build the foundations of the Third Bulgarian state swore here in 1879. The Independence of Bulgaria was announced in the church on September 22nd, 1908 and Prince Ferdinand received tsar’s merit. Bulgaria was tributary of the Ottoman Empire until then.

  Bit by bit the church began to crumble away in the next decades. The liturgy was stopped in 1964 when the church was declared the monument of culture of national significance. The archaeological studies and debates on the look of the church and the course of restoration among the architects have delayed its rebuilding for 40 years on end. The church was renewed after the design of the Turnovo architect Teofil Teofilov by the specialised state  company “Restoration Ltd” in 2004. The restoration cost was 3.000.000 Leva (EUR 1.500.000) which had been granted by the state budget of the governments of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and Stanishev.


On September 14th, 2006 the Turnovo bishop Grigorii inaugurated the renewed venerable church  in the presence of the Bulgarian Prime-minister  Sergei Stanishev, the Minister of Culture Stefan Danailov and thousands guests. The National Museum of History was assigned a task to manage the church but divine services will be performed during the six greatest Christian feast days.



Column with an inscription of Khan Omurtag (814–831):


“Khan syubighi Omurtag, living in his old home made a glorious home on the Danube and in the middle between the two glorious homes, after measuring (the distance), he made a hill in the middle and from the middle of this hill to my old palace there are 20000 razteg (old measure of road distance /2.10 or 2.13 m/) and to the Danube there are 20000 razteg. The hill itself is glorious and after measuring the land, I made this inscription. A man even living well dies and  an other man is born. And let the one born later, looking at this inscription, to remember the one that has made it. And the name of the archon is Omurtag Khan syubighi. Let God bless him to live for a hundred years”


Column with an inscription of Tsar Ivan Asen II, 1230 AD:


“In the year 6738(=1230), indiction 3, me, Ivan Asen, in the name of Christ the God loyal tsar and autocrat of the Bulgarians, son of the old Asen, I erected from the foundation and completely decorated with paintings this honourable church in the name of the Forty Holy  Martyrs, with their help, during the twelfth year of my reign, in the year when this temple was painted, I came out for war in Romania(Byzantium) and defeated the Greek army, and the Tsar  Theodoros Komnenos I took as a prisoner with all of his boyars and I conquered his whole land from Edirne to Durres, Greek, Albanian and Serbian land; and the towns which were situated around Constantinople and the town itself were ruled by the Franks, but they also submitted under the arm (the sceptre) of my kingdom, because they did not have any other tsar apart from myself and thanks to me they lived their days, for, this was ordered by God, because without Him neither deed nor word could be done. To Him, glory for ever, Amen.”