Elena (Bulgarian Cyrillic: Елена) is a Bulgarian town in the central Stara Planina mountains, 42 km southeast of Veliko Tarnovo in Veliko Tarnovo Province. The area is a popular mountain resort also known for the typical local cuisine. The population of the town alone is 7,200. It forms a terminal for the Gorna Oryahovitsa-Elena railway line.
Elena is an old settlement founded before the 15th century. During the 18th and 19th century it established itself as a centre of crafts, trade and education. There are several architectural ensembles preserved dating back to the Bulgarian National Revival and comprising about 130 old houses. Wall-to-wall construction forms interesting street silhouettes. The houses have stone basements with white-washed or wooden walls of the upper floor with protruding bays above.
The town's sights include an old first class school, founded in 1848 and named Daskalolivnitsa, where future teachers were educated (and where nowadays a museum exhibition is arranged), the St Nicholas Church of the 16th century, with valuable mural paintings and icons, and the three-naved Church of the Assumption, built entirely of stone (1837). The clock tower that features an antique clock mechanism (1812) rises at the town's highest point.
There are a lot of legends about the establishment of the town of Elena, but one of them, the most interesting one, is about two lovers. The legend says that in the virgin forests of the Balkan Mountains was a pathway. The happy newly-married couple was passing through this way. The bride was called Elena – from the village of Kapinovo, and the groom was Samuil from Tvarditsa. Bandits attacked the wedding ceremony at the place where the town of Elena is situated nowadays. The abductors could not gain the girl’s participation, and thus she was killed by the Bridge of the Turkish Police office. She was laid in a grave in the area called “The Cross” that was later changed into a churchyard later on. Samuil was beheaded at the end of the present town now known as “Samuilets”. Because of the sorrow towards their son, Samuil’s parents settled down in this region and established the village that was named after Elena.
The beautiful town of Elena is situated in the skirts of the woody Elena Balkan range, in the nice valley of Elena river. On the north are situated Elena’s Hills, and on the south is the Balkan range. On the north of the town is Chukani Hill, where – amongst the pine trees, is situated the building of the former Climate Health School. Beyond the Hill there are few eminences composed of limestone, malm, and sandstone. The town is situated 38 km on the south of Veliko Tarnovo, 230 km away from Varna, and 280 km away from Sofia.
Since 1430, the town has been known as Stramena and Eliana. It used to be a craft, trade and culture centre in 18th and 19th century. The town itself and its citizens both had important roles in the Bulgarian Revival. The people of Elena had taken part in almost every important event from that moment on – for example, Velcho’s conspiracy (in 1835) and Tarnovo rebellion in 1862.
The town of Elena is known as the “Bulgarian Bethlehem” because there were three churches in the town during the Revival. At that time this was something unseen in any other town.
The most sacred place in Elena is the old church “Saint Nikola”. There is data about its existence even before the 16th century. In the old psalter – saved by Doino Gramatik, is mentioned that “This book is being given to the church “St. Nikola” in 1518 by a Pera”. The church already was a book store-house as well in those ages – a bridge between Elena and the Tarnovo Literary School. It is said that this church had lots of ancient parchment hand-written books. There was even a special priest who had kept the books and had lent them out to others. The temple “St. Nikola” was the only one for all the villages around Elena. The villagers used to conduct their religious rituals in the local little village churchyards. They prayed for rain and rich harvests under century-old oak-trees. They organised liturgies in the days of their saints – St. Archangel, St. Nikola, and St. Ilia. The oldest man burned incense over the common table with incense on a broken roof-tile instead of an incense-burner. The villagers came to Elena to the church “St. Nikola” on Sundays. The church days became market days as well. Thus, later on, they started organising fairs that lasted three days and took place three times a year.
On April, 23, 1800 – the day of St. Georgi, when Elena was attacked by Muslim tribes (kardzhalii), the church “St. Nikola” was burned down together with the most of the books. Without the permission of the Turkish authorities, the people of Elena started restoring the church. They rebuilt the church in secret for 40 days and nights. They had to dig the church into the ground in order not to tease the enslavers. It was restored back to the way it looked, in 1804, with the funds donated by the rich people and the labour of the poor.
The rebuilding was managed by Hadji Ivan Kisiov – grandson of Pope Petko Sheytana, who attended the Sultan’s mother in Tzarigrad in a hat with a wheat-ear and persuaded her that the people of Elena should be relieved of their obligation to pay tax on growing of their wheat. Having heard that the trade governor of the region would order an examination whether the people of Elena were building a church illegally, Hadji Ivan Kisiov had the outer walls of the church grouted with lime and charcoal solution one night. Thus the walls looked old and smoke-black. Hadji Ivan kindly welcomed the examiners, gave them 30 golden coins, showed them the building and told them: “Greet the governor for me and tell him that the people of Elena don’t build a church but reconstruct an old threshing-floor”.
The church looks like a stronghold from outside. Its walls are made of stone and are 1-meter thick; the little windows have iron gratings, and the altar is like embrasure. The door was made of thick oak boards studded with iron and heavy unique lock mechanism. It is roofed in with heavy stone slates. The church was consecrated on the Annunciation – March, 25, 1805. A stone plate built in on the left of the altar says that the church was rebuilt from its foundations after it was burned down by agarian bandits. The biggest loose is the one of the burned parchment historic manuscripts from the literary treasury.
Pope Doino Gramatik had mentioned the names of 12 church-donors, one of whom was Stoyan Mihaylovski – the father of Ilarion Makareopolski. Today there is a collection of 340 old books in the book store-house.
The church “St. Nikola” was decorated completely by the famous Elena icon-painters of those ages – David and Yyakov who were born in Bolertsi. They finished their work in 1817–1818. The wall-paintings are incredibly precious and were announced to be cultural monuments of national importance. Here are the icon of the saints Metodiy of Morav, Georgi Novi of Sofia, Sava of Serbia, and the icon of Kliment of Ohrid – whose icon is a very rare one both in Bulgaria and Macedonia, and that is why it is one of high artistic value. Highly valued are also the wooden iconostasis and the bishop’s stall.
A new chapel “The Assu of Holy Virgin” was built in 1800 with the permission of Rousse- Tarnovo governor Smail Aga. This chapel was remade into a steadier building in 1813. As the time passed, the wooden building ceased satisfying the needs of the town. The people of Elena decided to build a bigger church. They thought of demolishing the fortified wall “Kaleto” and using its stone materials. They decided to do so in order to prevent the fortress of being settled by Turkish garrisons. The building of this church was work of master Miho from Bolertsi – a hamlet near Elena. The whole building with its solid construction and the materials, the artistic execution of the details and especially the interior showed the increased self-confidence of the citizens, and the constructive mastery and courage of master Miho. He was a contemporary of Kolio Fitcheto, master Gencho Kanev, and he did not step back to their creativity, design and realisation. The construction was started in 1836, and finished in 1837, and the church was consecrated on August, 28.
In 1861 when the church was repaired, a notice stating this was left on the western wall above the cornice. The bell tower is a separated building and it was built in 1912. In 1925 the church “The Assu of Holy Virgin” lost an incredibly precious artistic creation – in a fire the iconostasis was burned down. The new iconostasis was carved by Gorgi Kirov, and the icons were created by the artist Hristo Berberov from Elena.
The third relic – the temple “The Birth of Holy Virgin” has had fortune similar to the one of the old church “St. Nikola” and has been bounded with the historical development of the town. In 1812 a chapel was built under the direction of Hadji Yordan Bradata on a site given as a present by Hadji Panayot and Hadji Dimitar Razsukanov. It was reported in Tarnovo tahat a church was built again in secret and without sultan’s decree. Hadji Yordan Bradata disguised the building before the examination (as Hadji Ivan Kisiov did few years ago); he ordered cribs to be put and horses to be tied up in the temple in order to make it look like stables. The temple together with the near-built cells was primary used as a convent for young girls. A legend says that Hadji Yordan Bradata’s wife, after his hanging, entered this same convent as a nun. Conspirators from the Velcho’s Conspiracy sweared at the icon of Hadji Yordan Bradata (that was brought from the Holy Sepulchre) in the temple of Plakovci monastery “St. Ilia”. On July, 20, 1859 the wooden walls of the chapel “The Birth of Holy Virgin” could not survive the fair that flamed out. They started the building of a new church and finished it in 1865. It was built by the young master Kolio Petkov from Tyavna – a student of Kolio Fitcheto. During the next year in the two newly-built rooms next to the chapel, a school for young girls was established. The school functioned till 1894.
On November, 22, 1877 in one of the bloody battles from the Russian-Turkish war, when the town was set on fire, the enslavers destroyed iconostasis and made a corn-store out of the church.
The icon called “The Bulgarian Teachers” portraying the saints equal to Apostles and Slavic-Bulgarian Teachers Cyril and Methodius was a precious relic from the church. It was painted by Stanislav Dospevski at the people of Elena’s request in 1866. The icon stayed in the church for 15 years and afterwards was given as a present to the public school and now it is being preserved in the cultural-historic complex “Daskalolivnitsata” (meaning “the place that “produces” teachers”). The icon has deep symbolic content. The saint brothers are having the Sacrament cup in their hands and with gospel call they say: “The power is in the speech”. This is the Sacrament for the Bulgarian people. Above the saint brothers’ heads is shining the sun shining with ten rays – symbolising science.
In 1966 the temple was constructively strengthened. During the restoration of the wall-paintings of the church above the north door was found an in-built stone slide with a beautiful embossed icon of the church’s patron saint – Saint Nikola. In the autumn of 1987 the church was completely restored and exposed to visits.
147 cultural monuments were preserved, 7 out of them are of national importance:
The town of Elena possesses more than 6 000 ethnographic objects of material cultural heritage, 780 works of Revival and Modern art, lots of ancient books.
You can find more information about this on the web site of The Museum of the Revival in Elena (www.museum.elena.bg).
It is situated on a hill above Elena. In the ages of kardzhalii there was a huge stone stronghold. In its highest part there was a guard who kept a sharp eye on potential approaching of kardjalii. If he had noticed them coming, he would had given an alarm, and all the churches had started ringing their church-bells. This served as a signal for the people of Elena to head for Kaleto as fast as possible in order to find protection against the bandits. After the kardzhalii’s crime activities were over, the fortress Kaleto was used as Turkish Army barracks, but it started demolishing. In 1836 when the church “The Assu of Holy Virgin” was built, there were used materials from the demolished stronghold Kaleto to build the church.
There are a few natural sights near Elena: