The Aladzha rock monastery, located near the Bulgarian sea resort Golden Sands, is renowned as one of the most famous monasteries of its kind in Bulgaria. Its fame is rooted in its own past – a past shrouded in mystery, enigmatic myths, and legends. Many of the stories tell of unknown riches and treasures buried beneath and around the monastery, its secrets awaiting patiently to be discovered.
One of the legends has to do with the marriage of King Philip of Macedonia. In the 4th century BC, King Philip was besieging the ancient city of Odessos, nowadays called Varna. The conflict stretched, but the king’s efforts seemed doomed. The walls of Odessos would not be breached through force. So, King Philip suggested a peace treaty to the local Dacian king Kotela. Philip was to marry the daughter of Kotela. As a sign of good intentions, Philip presented gifts of gold and jewelry and art to a local sanctuary near the city. Scholars, archeologists, and historians have yet to find evidence supporting the legends, but many believe were it true, the gifts would have been intended for Aladzha monastery.
The so Called Mystical “Rome Pope” Keeps a Hidden Treasure
The most popular legend about Aladzha Monastery is about the story of a lone guardian, who to this day still protects hidden riches. A mysterious monk, only known as “Rome Pope”, slumbers somewhere deep in the monastery in a vault next to a lost treasure. It is said his dreamlike state will only end when the monastery becomes the stage for a world changing event of epic proportions. However, the legend fails to identify what needs to happen so that Rome Pope wakes again.
In a similar vein, another legend suggests many years ago, when the monastery was abandoned, several of the monks stayed behind to bury church books and other valuables. Many believe these items are to be retrieved when the monks return to Aladzha. The fact some visitors claim they have seen the ghosts of monks, who seem to have stayed behind to protect their treasure, supports that idea. Perhaps like the “Rome Pope”, the monks will return to Aladzha, when the rock monastery becomes the stage of a world-changing event.
The Aladzha Rock Monastery was founded between the 13th and14th century. By the 16th century, the last recorded Christian monks who lived here abandoned their home. It is unclear what pushed the devoted away. Dating back to the Middle Ages, is a surviving graffiti image of a commercial coastal sailing vessel “carrack”. The image, added on top of a ceiling fresco, appears to be either a Venetian or Genoese commercial ship from the 15th and 16th century. Its connection to the Aladzha Monastery remains a mystery. Historians believe the image was carved into the fresco after the monastery was abandoned. In the past wall paintings covered all the rooms at Aladzha, but time has erased a large part of them. The ones preserved to this day hence become more valuable and interesting for tourists.
The name of the monastery, like its history, is shrouded in mystery. Translated from Turkish, “alaja” means “variegated, colorful”. It is believed that its name spread through the Gagauz. They were Turkic-speaking settlers coming from old Bulgarian territories in Asia. The Gagauz accepted Christianity during the Byzantine reign in the South Balkans during the 11th and12th century. Oral history from the period suggests that after the abandonment of the rock monastery at the cusp of the 16th century, the local Orthodox population continued to visit Aladzha to worship and pray.. The real Christian name of Aladzha Monastery is unfortunately still lost to history, albeit numerous speculations.
A second interpretation of the monastery’s name is through Sanskrit. “Aja” directly translates to “lamb”. In Christian terms, the lamb is a sacred symbol of the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ. Local legends, explored by brother researchers Shkorpil, contain bits of evidence that the original name of the monastery was “St. Spas”. Coincidentally, “St. Spas” is most commonly used to show dedication and reverence to Christ the Savior. Most modern research however, since the 19th century, hypothesizes the Christian name of Aladzha was “St. Trinity”.
The alluring mysteries of the monastery have positioned Aladzha as an exciting place to visit. To reach the rock-hewn cells and dining room of monastery, visitors have to climb winding external stairs. At several rock levels, tourists and families can explore what remains of the monastery temple, chapel, kitchen, dining room, and can enjoy the preserved frescoes, which date back to the Second Bulgarian Kingdom of the 13th and 14th century. Or one can sit in the narrow cells and try to imagine the difficult life inhabitants of Aladzha monastery led centuries ago. Just beneath the spaces for the living are the catacombs, where more questions remain unanswered.
In the summer, the museum of Aladzha Monastery is open to tourists every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The entrance ticket for adults costs BGN 5, and for students the price is BGN 3.