High, up on the Western slopes of the Dubrashky Part of the Western Rodopi Mountain (23 km northeast of the town of Gotze Delchev and 17 km north of the village of Gurmen) at 1020 m above the sea level, is situated one of the national architecture legends – the village of Kovachevitsa. Built in the severe conditions of high-mountain environment, yet in a mild Mediterranean climate with mountain influence, carried alongside the Kanina (Bloody) River Valley that juts into the steep slopes of the land, Kovachevitsa astounds the perception with its amazing architecture magnificence.
The scarce, rocky terrain was won over by each house with a real feat of construction of many generations. A unique type of compact residence construction, whether row-structures or ensemble-based of groups houses referred to as “fraternal” ones was established ever since the first settlers appeared. The dense space among those houses situates narrow steep alleys with peculiar planning and an original stone-made pavement. The general architecture style, which may be defined as “Renaissance”, is so unique that it does not have an analogue in Bulgarian architecture. Therefore, the public appreciation for the originality and the architecture authenticity of the village assembly and the preservation thereof as a unique and invaluable historical complex was codified into a Decision made by the Council of Ministers under Instruction No 89 in 1977 for declaring the village to be Kovachevitsa Historical and Architecture Reserve.
Kovachevitsa historical past was multi-faceted and its profundity marked by extremely precious archeological finds which origin could be sought as early as the Stone-Copper Age and as a presumably center of an ancient civilization passed onto the Antiquity, inhabited under various intensity over all historic epochs up until the National Renaissance when it reached it complete style zenith.
The finds of the tombstone in the Rudarya Place of the Late Iron Age and of the Thracian Sanctuary of the I millennium B.C. in the Kozia Kamak place provide evidence to the latter rich historical past. Some of the most valuable national finds of the end of fourth and the beginning of the third century B.C. such as the famous Bronze Helmet and Bronze Chain-Mail of Thracian Type were found North of Kovachevitsa in the St. Konstantin Place in the open ancient necropolis. The foundations of a Middle-Age church were discovered east of the village in the Starata Tzurkva (Old Church) Place. The traces of an ancient road next to the village that must have linked Nikopolis and Nestrum to Philipopolis (Plovdiv), situated it in the center of intense cultural and commercial interactions in Antiquity predetermining its rich historical past. Unfortunately, no certain sources exist on the historic chronology of the establishment and the development of the village during ancient times. The reports that are more accurate dated from Middle Ages and were associated with the tragic period of Bulgaria under the Ottoman rule.
During the period of its establishment, Kovachevitsa not only had rich historical background, but also generous nature, rich natural resources of the main construction materials of stone and wood that provided incentives to building solid, firm sites, lasting beyond time. All architecture details starting from the stone-made foundations reaching the stone-made roof, covered by the famous Kovachevitsa tiles – tikli, were created with a sense of moderation and solidity. The cordiality and coziness were achieved by using lavishly first-class materials selected of the pine-tree, beech-tree and oak-tree woods in the vicinity.
The first settlers in Kovachevitsa, according to historic local memories, were refugees of the Turnovo Kingdom defeated by the Turks (1393), who were joined by emigrants from the Kostursko regions. They settled in several hamlets scattered around on grand distance. Another significant immigrant wave was associated with the excesses of the Turkish Authorities during the period of violent conversion to Islam of the Bulgarian population. After burning down the village of Ribnovo the survivors settled in the upper part of the present village around a water spring, now being a large fountain referred to as “Tziganchitza”.
The legend that gave the name of the village – Kovachevitsa was associated with the wife of a smith immigrant called Marco – Gina Kovachevitsa (note: Smith in Bulgarian is Kovach). After his decease that probably wise and strong-willed woman was sought for advice and assistance by much of her fellow-villagers, so it became common to refer to it as “I am going to Kovachevitsa” whenever someone was leaving from the down hamlet to the upper one where the Smith’s house was located. Thus the legend linked the name of the village of Kovachevitsa to real persons that indeed existed and a marked note was kept in the local memories.
Numerous other factors contributed to the rapid expansion of the village such as the abundance of drinking water (more than 15 springs and 12 fountains), the mild climate, vast pastures, rich nature full of wide medical herbs and fruit (wild strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, briar, hazelnuts, cranberries, wild marjoram, elder sprigs, etc.) The ledged field, meadows and gardens with apple, plum, cherry, pear and walnut trees that exist also today rendered the land attractive for new settlers looking for security of the frequent robber attacks in the low lands.
A new migration wave of Bulgarians from as far as Western Macedonia found its home in Kovachevitsa in around 1791 as they settled onto the lower western part of the village. Ten to fifteen families from the regions of Debar, Kichevo and Tetovo built their houses in the so called Arnautksa Hamlet about the famous Arnautski Chuchur fountain. The new settlers of Kovachevitsa introduced new elements in popular customs. Their expertise in building undoubtedly stood out in the architecture outlook of the village. Their confidence of being experienced masons (self-made architects and builders) produced a favorable impact on the general spiritual pattern elevating the other settlers most of whom where prevalently tillers and stockbreeders. Populated with compact Christians with a marked and defended Bulgarian identify Kovachevitsa survived over the entire period of the Ottoman Rule in Bulgaria being a strong fortress of Bulgarianness in the Southeastern Rodopi Mountain.
Noted and recorded in the Ottoman Tax Registers ever since the 15th – 16th century as Kovacheviche or Kovachoviche, starting from 13 Bulgarian Christian households (haane’s), the village grew and during the Renaissance developed noteworthy economic activities, sheep-breeding reaching a level of 20 000 sheep and craftsmanship: homespun tailoring, and the famous masonry. The accounts recorded on Tetimchehaya (Stoimen Tetimov) who possessed more than 5000 sheep and an own pasture in the Vishteritza Place gave an idea of the well-being and the prosperity of the village. At the end of the 19th century, according to records of the Nevrocope Bishopric, Kovachevitsa population numbered already 1400 people. In the period following 1885 a significant change occurred in the lifestyle of the wealthier tillers and stock-breeders that started constructing cog wheels on the Kanina River and trading with timber. The owners of more than 13 cog wheels formed a social class of rich and successful people of whom an entire generation of highly educated, notable persons with a new public-oriented mentality and status descended. The ancestors of the village VMORO (Internal Macedonian Odrin Revolutionary Organization) committees established later of which the local counselors were appointed also pointed at the latter class.
The Western Macedonian settlers had the most significant impact on the Renaissance aspects of the Kovachevitsa architecture. The exquisite stylishness, proportionality and lasting beauty were underlain by their collective efforts and hereditary talent, their logic-led and rational use of the scarce construction space, and their creative and free-spirited thinking. However, the latter construction miracle was not actualized in Kovachevitsa only. Masonry turned into an ancestral occupation for many generations of workers, which was associated with the construction of magnificent houses, inns, and churches all over Bulgaria and far beyond its borders. Alongside the traces of heavy efforts, masonry as an occupation used to ensure fine confidence, experience, satisfaction and new knowledge acquired over the course of communicating with numerous and various people. The masons’ labor was seasonal: starting from St. George’s Day (beginning of May) and finishing on St. Dimitar’s Day (end of October) as it was customary, as the homesickness for relatives and home was praised in many folk songs.
It was not accidental that the building traditions, the professional secrets passed from one generation to the next one shaped several generations of talented builders descending namely from Kovachevitsa, as they later got the reputation of masters of the original Kovachevitsa masonry school. Kovachevitsa architecture and building school, like the original artistic and wood-carving schools, was a unique Renaissance phenomenon. The hereditary continuity and the permanent professional perfection laid in the fundaments of its popularity. With the masons from the villages of Leshten, Marchevo, Gurmen, Ribnovo, Ognyanovo, Dolen, etc. the number of sophisticated mason masters reached 1200. The construction school could compete with the Tryavna one in terms of mass scale as the latter was thought to be the largest. According to recorded accounts, the Kovachevitsa craftsmen built on more than 70 sites all around the country.
The architecture tale of stone and wood that we admire at present times was created by the skillful hands of great Kovachevitsa builders – self-made mason geniuses of the Pachalovi, Djigrevi, Mugevi, Djirtovi, Batyatevi, etc. families. The long-lasting traces of the construction apogee that could be observed today of those gifted men that alone, without any external help, raised a basilica church with a nave and two aisles “St. Nikola”. The church tower built in 1900 was made by Usta (Master) Angel Mitev and Toma Markov who was believed to be equal to the legendary architect Usta (Master) Kolyo Ficheto as the latter name was his nickname that was deserved by his great talent. The church bells were cast on the spot by skillful Goren Brod casting masters of materials donated by the entire community. Tens of bells (tunch’s), smaller bells, metal-made vessels, golden and silver objects and ornaments were melted. Memories are still kept that the bells were removed twice until the masters extracted the finest sound of the metal alloy. The latter wonderful sound is melodically spread even today under the Kovachevitsa sky, and in clear days – as far as the Nevrocope plain.
It was not by accident that such a community with a public-spirited mind still praises the name of the public teacher Nikola Kovachevsky – a founder of the first New Bulgarian School in the Nevrocope Region in 1854. The date of the 27th of September when the young 22-year-old Nikola opened the school in his own father’s house, adapted to become a school by himself, his father Ivan Banev and a group of patriots, is still vivid. In the newly created classrooms he presented for the first time the mutual-teaching training method and established a boarding school for the incoming kids from the villages nearby. The school became a “district” one, not only by name, but also in terms of scope of the incoming students. That apostolic and Enlightenment activities by continued by the teacher Yordje Dimitrov Djordjev who in 1982 built with his own funds a new two-floor school building that educated and provided knowledge to generations of Kovachevitsa people as it preserved the name of its patron until present. Public life and cultural demand by the Kovachevitsa inhabitants were encountered in the community center “Svetlina” (Light) established in 1865, as its name remained unchanged for almost 140 years now. A donation of 1500 books made by Stoyan Zlatarev in 1865 was recorded in its Book Stock.
The establishment of the first Professional Village Masonry Association in the Pirin region was another important fact. It took place in 1873 with the active efforts on the part of the public teacher Nikola Kovachevsky. United in a professional league, the Kovachevitsa mason craftsmen expanded the scope of their popularity and imposed further the style of the Kovachevitsa Architecture and Construction School all over Bulgaria.
The Kovachevitsa community had a public-spirited mentality right from the foundation of the village. The strong sense of family belonging (which rendered the workers come back each winter from distant lands) and of Christian faith were passed on as the most important family values from father to son. Therefore, the April uprising from 1976 against the Ottoman Empire was supported by the bright village inhabitants via setting up revolutionary committees ready to fight. Even Though Kovachevitsa did not take part in the revolt, the tradition remained alive and later in 1895 the VMORO committee was established. The residents expressed their readiness for self-sacrifice in the name of freedom by dedicated support for the bands of voivodes Slavko Voivode, Shimar Voivode, Yordje Voivode, and the well-known Todor Tetimov – Kanush Voivode.
Rebel groups originated from Kovachevitsa also in 1903 during the Ilinden-Preobrajenie Rebellion led by Dimitar Chulev, Stoyko Pashkulev, etc. After the burning down of the nearby village of Baldevo and the detentions and following violations, Kovachevitsa people escaped temporarily to the Plovdiv and Pazardjik regions in order to survive.
The liberation of the Ottoman rule in the region occurred in 1912. That was the period of the Balkan War in which village inhabitants were immediately involved as volunteers led by patriotic spirit in support of our young country. The peaceful post-war period of 1913-1931 marked the gradual degradation of the typical occupation – masonry. Tilling, stock-breeding and timber industry became the main occupation of the former mason families that already possessed large wood territories. In a record of the Land Register one could see that at the beginning of the 20th century the landsite of Kovachevitsa and the mountain localities included thereto encompassed approximately 300 km2 of the Western Rodopi territory. (Over the last decades the territory was divided up into a public landsite with an area of app. 67 km2 and a state-owned land of 230 km2). That vast territory of agricultural and wood estates absorbed the efforts of the inhabitant as a main occupation.
Numerous tilling families established in 1920 the Agricultural Economic Association “Bratstvo” (Fraternity) with their typical outlook of organized people of the quest. In 1922 the timber labor manufacturing co-operations of “Rodopi” and “Cherven Bor” (Red Pine-tree) were founded, and later, in 1932, a modern cooperative lumber mill was built in the Beslet Place set in motion using heat.
That manufacturing structure, which the Kovachevitsa residents created, provided them with work places on the entire operation line starting from the woodchoppers, timber transporters and wood-processing semi-manufacturing experts. The slow and yet irreversible migration of the population from Kovachevitsa to the urban centers started in 1946. Velingrad, Novi Krichim, Kazanluk, etc., attracted the people by providing opportunities: education and different occupations. The outflow of young people depopulated the village. From a population level of 2000 people under residential stock of 300 houses as early as the 1938-1940 period, it declined to 1229 residents. The situation became even worse over the following decades. The bazaar with the seven pubs, several butcheries, and twenty shops disappeared, and the streets became deserted. The population at present adds up to only 50-60 people most of whom are at advanced age. The vast wood mansions of the village are now nature reserves. Probably the memory of the unique architecture richness would have been erased by time if in the 1970s a re-discovery of that stone town had not occurred by our local cinema industry. A few intelligent people: writers, directors, artists, screen writers, and cameramen revealed to the public the largest movie outdoor pavilion in Bulgaria. Tens of movies shot in Kovachevitsa spread around the reputation of this unique stone setting worldwide.
The development of the Bulgarian Hollywood brought to the Bulgarian cinema an unexpected aesthetic potential. The authentic architecture environment of Kovachevitsa provoked with its natural beauty actors, screen writes, cameramen, and directors to reach high professional levels of expressions. The response in the Bulgarian society from the emotional contact via cinema expressed a spontaneous attempt of numerous intellectuals and patriots to save this beauty from being ruined. It occurred without the intervention of state institutions in a very natural way of purchasing, restoring, and populating, though on a seasonal basis, the dying houses. That hand extended to the past architecture reputation of Bulgarian by our contemporaries was the ethical level, which could be only compared to the beauty created by preceding generations – a tale of stone and wood by the name of Kovachevitsa.
Kovachevitsa Architecture Phenomenon and Reserve Natural Landmarks
The architecture of Kovatchevitsa is distinctive and original. It can't be described by words, it is a definite must-see. On the basis of the pre-revival houses, in the second half of the 18th c. started being built two, three storey houses with oriels of the second and the third floors above narrow cobblestone streets. In that same period they started to differentiate the rooms of Kovatchevitsa houses by their functions.
The ground level, together with several semi-levels kept the cattle and other agricultural functions and stores, and the residential rooms were occupying the upper one or two floors. Two different groups of rooms existed in the Kovatchevitsa houses - open parts, the so called "poton" (tcherdak), obligatory oriented to the south or to the west. That provided a visual connection with the surrounding open space and the closed rooms - rooms with hearths, closets, etc.
The establishment of that determinate type of houses with its constructional, functional and artistic particularities was a sign of the development of a highly sophisticated, original architectural school in the region of the south-western Rodopes with a center - the village of Kovatchevitsa.
The genius of the Bulgarian builders created in the village during the period of the Bulgarian Revival the stone "fairy tail" called "Kovatchevitsa". Kovachevitsa Architecture and Construction School exercised its strong beneficial impact on the nearby villages in the region where the authentic architecture background has been preserved as well. Promulgated to be culture monuments as village complexes or as individual architecture sites, the villages of Kovachevitsa and Dolen preserved as a natural reserve comprise a comprehensive cultural and historical complex.
The village of Leshten is located on the slopes of the Dubvara Section of the Western Rodopi Mountain, 15 km away of the town Gotze Delchev. Its unique old houses were located at a multi-layered perspective on the steep slopes and bore all marks of the Kovachevitsa architecture style with their rich assembly solutions. The greatest landmark was the St. Parashkeva church, built in 1833. It has a painted wood-carved iconostasis and antique authentic icons. The cell school was open in the same 1833, and it was transformed into a new Bulgarian school in 1891. Around the village of Leshten unique archeological sites were discovered: in the St. Atanas place – Thracian gravestones, and in the Zelenka place – remnants of an ancient town.
The Kozia Kamak landmark is a unique rock formation with an area of app. 300 m2 in the locality of the same name in the landsite of Kovachevitsa, 14 km North of the village. In 1976 the locality was entered in the state registers as a natural landmark and has been under the protection of the Law on preservation. During archeological expeditions made in 1983 the 120 holes dug during Antiquity with an identical diameter at an identical depth in the rock formation were examined. Located on defined geometric rows, they were similar to the ones described in the archeo-astronomic literature holes dating back from 3000 B.C. in Europe, Russia, etc. The ancient Greek philosopher and historian Herodotus pointed out exactly the Rodopi Mountain (maybe that same section of the latter) as the probable location of the famous Dionysus’s Temple. It is possible that their astronomic culture had been that elevated that it allowed for the composition of a stellar map on the rock surface, which was done by the priests of the Dionysus Sabasius God. Those scientific hypotheses attract numerous researchers and tourists to the interesting locality of the Kozia Kamak, which opens an extremely beautiful view to the famous Kalayaliiski Rocks and to the distant peaks of the Pirin Mountain to the West.
The Beslet peak is the highest point (1938 m above the sea level) of the Beslet Hill in the Dubrava Section of the Western Rodopi Mountain. That granite champion is surrounded by the peaks of Malak Beslet to the Southwest, of Trite Hvoini to the Northeast, of Cheren Kamak to the South and of Kozia Kamak to the Southeast. The peak has a relatively smooth area with a length of 300 m and a width of 80 m. A wide vista unveils of the latter to the Middle Rodopi Mountain as if the foreground the Skalni Peak – Kayaliisky peak, Pogledetz, Purdikon, Drenliy, etc. are situated. The Kanina river springs out of its Eastern slopes. Its ridge is covered by Mediterranean low-stemmed plants, and its slopes – by alpine coniferous trees of White Pinus, Spruce, Pine Spruce, and White Fir.
The St. George’s Chapel belongs to the contemporary architecture landmarks in the context of supporting the local construction traditions. It was built on a beautiful background of beech and pine trees close to the remnants of a monastery that has been ruined down under the Ottoman rule. Built with the financial and labor support of the Kovachevitsa residents in 1995, the Chapel was dedicated to St. George. The external architecture profile is characterized by simplicity and attractive unpretentiousness of the architectural forms. The church has a nave with a small altar apsis, without an iconostasis, with some altar space, elevated at the church axis level. The entire wall space was painted as a donation by the painter Nikola Karamfilov. Church events, Saint and martyr images canonized as Bulgarian such as St. Petka, St. Zlata Muglenska, St. Johg Rilsky, St. Simeon Samokovsky, St. Cyril and St. Methodius, etc. dominate in the general icon-painting of the church as well as a rarely depicted scene of the Zograph Monastery life and history in Aton - the burning of 26 martyr icon-painters by the Latins. Near the Chapel in 2004 a monumental metal-made cross was raised as a symbolic sign of Christianity in the vicinity at the highest visible point above the village.
The village of Dolen is a typical alpine village (1020 v above the sea level), located in the Southwestern part of the Dubrava section of the Western Rodopi Mountain, 26 km away from the town of Gotze Delchev. Founded by settlers saving themselves of violent conversion to Islam during the 16th century it was noted in the Turkish Registers ever since 1671. The Renaissance architecture growth was preserved to present times in 70 houses that promulgated culture monuments in “Dolen Culture and Historical Reserve”. The main landmarks were the family houses among which the most famous ones were the Angelov House, the Talpa House and the old church built in 1834. Icons by Georgi Philipov, an icon-painter of the Debar region, were painted on the iconostasis of the church. The Kavalite, Nikolovata Chalma junctures and the bazaar alley were the most interesting typical alley assemblies. The village was known in the past by its well-developed gold-smiths and at resent times by stock-breeding, tobacco manufacturing and logging.
The village of Ribnovo is located northwest of the Kanina River at the foot of the Belikovitza peak. The natural surroundings of vast alpine plateaus, meadows and tobacco and potato fields set out the exclusive scenery variety and picturesqueness.
The historical and architectural reserve of Kovachevitsa contributed to the cultural life in Bulgaria by offering its authenticity and architectual uniqueness. Its preservation in the present is a contribution also to the future national identity of Bulgaria in the European Nations family as a country with marked lines of original culture. The Bulgarian cultural territory beside the ancient and antique historical layers bears the marks of a Renaissance different from the European one with an intransient value. The architecture originality of Kovachevitsa is one of the models of Bulgarian identity and culture that deserves to be protected, cherished and demonstrated to the world with dignity.
On 17 October 2002 a Committee of permanent resident and house owners in Kovachevitsa organized an official celebration and a church service on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of the liberation of the village of the Ottoman yoke. The idea was to establish an association to mobilize the effort of everyone that loves and cherishes the village and also search for sources of collecting funding to preserve the cultural and historic heritage, to improve the image of Kovachevitsa as a historical and architectural reserve, to provide means of living to the local community by creating conditions to develop rural and cultural tourism. A month later, Kovachevitsa Historical and Architectural Reserve Association was established. The first step towards reaching its goals the Association in collaboration with the Gurmen Municipality developed a project and applied under the PHARE Program for Cultural Tourism in Bulgaria. The Project was awarded and the Association signed a grant for funding by the EU under a program of restoration activities of the cobblestone pavement in the center of the village, reparation works of the top structure of the St. Nikola Church and full restoration of the building of the elementary school “Yordje Dimitrov” that remained unused and subject to destruction over several decades. By implementing the project a building that is an architectural monument will be preserved for generations ahead – the elementary school “Yordje Dimitrov”. The Project includes also specific activities related to turning the village into a popular tourist destination, training local hotelkeepers, restaurant holders, alpine guides and tourist guides, preserving and making popular local authentic folklore. The members of the Association are confident that offering these new tourist products as well as executing their future activities on preserving and improving the image of the Kovachevitsa historical and architectural reserve will contribute to the advancement of rural and cultural tourism in Kovachevitsa and the nearby region and will transform them in a preferred place for relaxation.
Special Thanks to http://www.kovachevica.com/en/