22 May 2021

Holy and Righteous Jovan Vladimir, Prince-Martyr of Duklja

Saint Jovan Vladimir of Duklja

Today in the Holy Orthodox Church we commemorate a young man of blameless life, the Serbian prince Jovan Vladimir, who ruled the principality of Duklja – what is now Montenegro – around the turn of the eleventh century. A young ruler who was killed unjustly for political reasons, his life mirrors those of the Russian princely martyrs Boris and Gleb, the Bohemian ducal martyr Václav and the Old English atheling Éadweard.

Jovan Vladimir [Srb. Јован Владимир] was born in the year 990. Having been raised according to Christian principles by his father Peter [or Petrislav] of Duklja, he ruled the principality from his childhood, and upon his majority he was already considered to be a thoughtful, peaceful and just ruler – and was described as such by the Byzantine historian John Skylitzēs. He ruled from a hill named Kraljič, which is currently the village of Koštanjica in southeastern Montenegro. It was his misfortune that he was born during a period of protracted warfare between the Bulgarian Empire and the Byzantine Empire. His father had been approached by Emperor Basil II ‘the Bulgar-Slayer’ for support against the Bulgarians; although Peter did not send any soldiers, the diplomatic relations between Duklja and Byzantium remained cordial under Jovan Vladimir. The Bulgarian Tsar Samuil attacked Duklja in the year 1009, in order to head off a possible alliance that could undermine him. Jovan Vladimir retreated with his armies to Oblik, which was infested with venomous snakes. Offering a prayer to the Lord, he asked for Christ’s aid. As a result, the snakes became tame and did not attack his soldiers.

Samuil lay siege to Oblik, and Jovan Vladimir, not wishing to cause his people any further suffering from violence and starvation, surrendered himself into the hands of the Bulgarian Tsar. He was taken in chains to the Tsar’s capital at Prespa (today Little Prespa Lake in Greece), and thrown into the dungeons. What happened afterwards became the basis for one of the truly great High Medieval romances.

Samuil had a daughter whose name was Teodora Kosara. This young woman was deeply pious and minded to follow Christ; upon hearing that her father had taken many captives in Duklja, she asked his permission to go with her maids and wash the feet of the captives in imitation of Our Lord. Seeing no harm in granting this wish, her father allowed it. Kosara descended into the dungeons and began to carry out her good work. She began to wash the feet of a young man of her own years. Looking up at him, she found him handsome. Engaging him in conversation, she found him to be sweet and gentle and modest in character, and full of wisdom and knowledge of holy things: ‘to her his speech seemed sweeter than honey and the honeycomb’.

Having fallen for her father’s hostage, Kosara went straight back to Tsar Samuil and asked to be given to Jovan Vladimir in marriage. Samuil found this proposition expedient, as it would allow him to retain control over Duklja without having to resort to force of arms. (Samuil seems to have been led by the nose by his daughters in this respect. His elder daughter Miroslava had similarly pled for the hand of the Armenian prince Ashot of Taron and was granted it.) He freed Jovan Vladimir from prison, married his daughter to him, and placed him as his vassal over the lands of Duklja.

Jovan Vladimir and Teodora Kosara had one daughter together, who ended up marrying the Serbian prince Stefan Vojislav. When Samuil died of a heart attack in 1014 following a military defeat at the hands of the Greeks, his son and Kosara’s brother, the chivalrous Gavril Radomir, ascended to the throne of the Bulgarian Empire. However, he did not reign long. The following year, however, his cousin Ivan Vladislav assassinated Gavril, and then usurped power for himself. Seeking to stamp out any further threats to his consolidation of power, Ivan Vladislav then made a plot to cut off Kosara from political consideration by murdering her husband. He issued an ‘invitation’ to the Serbian prince to join him in Prespa.

According to Skylitzēs, Jovan Vladimir would have gone himself, but his wife insisted on going in his place and making a demand for his safe passage. Vladislav welcomed Kosara and offered her a golden cross to take back to Vladimir as a token, but Vladimir refused it, saying that he would accept instead a wooden cross similar to the one that Christ was crucified on, from the hands of a priest. Vladislav sent two bishops and a hermit with the wooden cross which he had taken an oath on, and Jovan Vladimir kissed it and took it with him to Prespa. He went into a church to pray, and as he was leaving the church, he was taken by Vladislav’s soldiers and beheaded on the very church steps. In this way he met his death in a Christlike way at the hands of a political rival.

His wife, Teodora Kosara, never remarried. She transported the remains of her beloved husband from Prespa back to Duklja and had them buried at the Prečista Krajinska Church close to Jovan Vladimir’s main court. She herself became a nun and entered a community of monastics nearby. When she herself reposed, she requested that she be buried at her husband’s feet. The relics were translated from thence by the Despots of Epirus, from which they fell into the hands of the Arberian warlord Karl Topia in the late 1300s; he had a church erected in Saint Jovan’s honour in Elbasan in central Albania.

Saint Jovan Vladimir was the first of many Serbian princes to be recognised as a saint, as many of the descendants of Saint Stefan Nemanja, including most notably the glorious Saint Sava, were cut from a similar God-fearing cloth. Holy martyr Jovan Vladimir, blameless sufferer and believer in the saving Cross, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
Apolytikion for Saint Jovan Vladimir, Tone 3:

Your holy martyr John, O Lord,
Through his sufferings has received an incorruptible crown from You, our God.
For having Your strength, he laid low his adversaries,
And shattered the powerless boldness of demons.
Through his intercessions, save our souls!

Church of St Jovan Vladimir, Bar, Montenegro

17 May 2021

Holy New Martyrs of Batak

Icon of the Martyrs of Batak

The Orthodox Church commemorates today the New Martyrs of Batak – the people who died in that village during the April Uprising, as a result of the Ottoman atrocities. The Batak martyrs are important not only to Orthodox history, but to the history of radicalism in the UK and the West more broadly. The Eastern Question Association was formed largely in response to the reports of the slaughter at Batak. Indeed, William Morris’s own pro-Russian and anti-imperialist sentiments were galvanised by his sympathy for the suffering Bulgarian peasantry.

The Bulgarian cause, which was highlighted and commemorated in literature by Ivan Vazov, in fact grew out of the Ottoman Empire’s attempts to modernise and to establish a bureaucratic uniformity over all of its territories. In order to meet a budget deficit in the mid-1870s, the Ottoman Empire began to cut services and raise taxes on its Christian population, particularly in the Balkans. This led to tensions and uprisings, particularly in Herzegovina by the Bosnian Serbs. The Bulgarian people as well rose in revolt in 1876 after several stages of careful planning. They stockpiled ammunition and had even begun making makeshift cannon out of cherry wood. Four revolutionary districts were established, at Vratsa, Veliko Tărnovo, Sliven and Plovdiv. Planning for a fifth revolutionary district in Sofia had to be discontinued on account of the poor local conditions, and the Plovdiv revolutionary district was moved to Panagyurishte.

The Panagyurishte district leaders met to discuss strategy, but one of the delegates of the district betrayed them to the Ottoman authorities. After the revolt started and the Bulgarian revolutionaries had attacked the local police, expecting other groups around the country to do the same, the Ottoman army, which had advanced warning of the uprising, moved in to crush the rebellion. They relied heavily on Slavic Muslim irregulars – başı-bozuks – commanded by Ahmet Aga, to subdue the populace. After an initial skirmish, the rebel leaders in Batak, one of the main villages in the Panagyurishte district, surrendered to the Turks on a promise that the village would be spared. That promise was not honoured.

What happened after that was one of the single most gruesome mass killings committed on European soil in the nineteenth century. As many as five thousand civilians in Batak were rounded up and systematically shot, tortured, mutilated, raped, beheaded, impaled and burnt alive. The last torturous death was the one Ahmet Aga commanded for the leader of the rebellion, Trendafil Kerelov. Some of the villagers fled for safety into the Holy Sunday Church (Света Неделя) in Batak and barricaded themselves inside. They held off the başı-bozuks for three days, during which time the Turks repeatedly fired on the church and tried to scale the roof and bash in the doors. It was thirst which drove the survivors out, and when they surrendered they too were put to the sword and beheaded.

The massacre was reported in the Western press by Ohio war correspondent Januarius MacGahan and New York diplomat Eugene Schuyler, who managed to visit Batak, albeit with significant hindrance from the Ottoman bureaucracy, several days after the massacre. MacGahan wrote:
We looked into the church which had been blackened by the burning of the woodwork, but not destroyed, nor even much injured. It was a low building with a low roof, supported by heavy irregular arches, that as we looked in seemed scarcely high enough for a tall man to stand under. What we saw there was too frightful for more than a hasty glance. An immense number of bodies had been partly burnt there and the charred and blackened remains, that seemed to fill it half way up to the low dark arches and make them lower and darker still, were lying in a state of putrefaction too frightful to look upon. I had never imagined anything so horrible. We all turned away sick and faint, and staggered out of the fearful pest house glad to get into the street again. We walked about the place and saw the same things repeated over and over a hundred times. Skeletons of men with the clothing and flesh still hanging to and rotting together; skulls of women, with the hair dragging in the dust, bones of children and of infants everywhere. Here they show us a house where twenty people were burned alive; there another where a dozen girls had taken refuge, and been slaughtered to the last one, as their bones amply testified. Everywhere horrors upon horrors.
As a result of this investigative reporting by MacGahan and Schuyler, the reaction to the Bulgarian atrocities was widespread and profound. The Disraeli government’s policy of support for the Ottoman Empire was roundly discredited in the eyes of the British public, and not least among the radicals, whose activity also began to take on an anti-war and anti-imperialist perspective on account of the ‘Eastern Question’. As a result, the British government declined to aid their traditional Ottoman friends during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877 – which resulted in the liberation of Bulgaria from Ottoman tyranny.

The cost borne by the Bulgarian people, however, was altogether too high. Even today, the Holy Sunday Church in Batak has been rededicated as a shrine to those killed in the massacre, and the bones of the victims have been preserved. The memory of these martyrs is still of great importance to the Bulgarian people and to the Orthodox Church. Holy new martyrs of Batak, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!

Holy Sunday Church, Batak, Bulgaria

15 May 2021

Remembering the Nakba and Gaza today

In the past six days, Israeli armed forces have killed 126 people, including 31 children, and wounded 920 more after shelling Gaza and bombarding from the air. Nearly ten thousand Palestinians have been forced to flee their homes from the assault. This coordinated and deliberate display of military brutality against a civilian population comes as a result of protests against Israeli police, who have been aiding illegal Israeli settlers to forcibly evict Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem over the past several weeks.

According to any civilised measure of what constitutes just warfare, Israel’s retaliation to these protests is anything but just. The principles of necessity and proportionality are not only routinely ignored, but flouted, by Netanyahu’s misgovernment of miscreants. It is not, as the American press misreports it, a ‘clash’. It is not, as said misgovernment risibly calls it, a ‘civil war’. It is an act of ethnic cleansing, one which also targets and impacts the indigenous Christians of the Middle East.

It is necessary to remember that this is not a sectarian struggle. It is not about Muslims versus Jews. Christians have been integral to the Palestinian struggle since the beginning. The newspapers that were chiefly responsible for building the movement opposing Zionist settler-colonialism, al-Karmal and Falasṭîn, were run by Orthodox Christian editors: to wit, Najîb Naṣṣâr and ‘Îssa al-‘Îssa. The Palestinian Arab Congress arose out of the Muslim-Christian associations that arose as organic Arab nationalist societies in every major city in Palestine. The cause of Palestine is not a Muslim one only, it is a human one.

Of the Palestinian people who live in aš-Šayḵ Jarrâḥ, a significant proportion of them are in fact refugees from aṭ-Ṭalbiyyah in the western part of the city, which during the 1920s and 1930s was a predominantly Arab Christian neighbourhood. Between 1948 and 1967, the Israelis cheated or outright stole the land from the Arabic residents and kicked them into East Jerusalem. The current takeover by Israeli settlers, the evictions and the confiscation of property, are in fact a continuation of the initial Nakba which took place in 1948 and which is remembered each year today.

The Nakba is continuing in aš-Šayḵ Jarrâḥ and in Gaza, through the familiar pattern of people with guns terrorising people without guns. However, the people of Palestine are rising up against the unlawful evictions, and they deserve support. So far, that support has not been forthcoming from the United States or from the Biden Administration, which has been blocking UN Security Council action to stop the escalating violence against Palestinians. Moreover, they refuse to condemn the killing of children by the Israeli military. This is part of a definite pattern on the part of this administration, and one may be sure that the hypocrisy is being noticed abroad.

For that matter, it’s also necessary to remember that the Nakba is not just a Middle Eastern problem. It is a European problem. George Antonius’s book The Arab Awakening should be required reading on this topic. The British and French governments rankly betrayed their Arab allies during WWI, first with the Sykes-Picot Agreement and then with the Balfour Declaration. It was easier for them to foist off the ‘Jewish problem’ onto a subjugated and colonised population far away in the Middle East, than for them to deal with their own deep-seated anti-Semitism. The same principle held when it came to European support for Zionism after World War II. The same people who perpetrated the horrors of Shoah on European Jewry were content to send the rest of them packing to the Middle East: a way to assuage their guilty consciences without bearing any real cost.

(Even today, the openly anti-Semitic governments of Poland, Hungary and the Ukraine enjoy an alliance of convenience with the far-right ethnonationalist Likud misgovernment in Israel. And in the United States, men who can’t stand the idea of their children going to school with Jewish children openly tout their alliance with Israel. This ‘double game’ allows anti-Semitism in the West to continue to disguise itself as ‘friendship’, and also allows Israel to benefit from a continuing climate of hostility to Jews in Western nations.)

In the meantime, however, the Palestinian people cannot wait for justice. This Nakba Day, let us first begin by praying for an end to the violence. And then, in the spirit of that prayer, at the very least let us be courageous enough to acknowledge the truths of what is happening in Palestine. What is going on is not a ‘clash’ or a ‘civil war’ between two sides of equal strength which bear equal blame: one side has tanks and planes and nuclear weapons and the other side does not, and the more powerful side has no regard for restraint. What is going on is not a conflict over religion: it is a conflict over land. What is going on is also not a far-away iteration of irrational regional hatreds: it is the culmination of a long and deep-seated spiritual illness in the West, and it is one for which our governments and peoples bear responsibility. Once we have been courageous enough to acknowledge these truths, let us then translate that awareness into action. Israel’s ongoing crimes against Palestine must end, and international pressure must be brought to bear for that to happen. And the costs of Europe’s centuries-long mistreatment of the Jews must no longer fall upon an Arabic populace that bears no responsibility for that mistreatment.

14 May 2021

Holy New Martyr Raiko of Shumen

Saint Raiko of Shumen

The fourteenth of May in the Orthodox Church is the feast-day of Saint Raiko of Shumen, who is also called Ioan or John. This young Bulgarian martyr was another of the many innocent victims of Ottoman Turkish oppression in the Balkans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Saint Raiko [Bg. Райко] or Ioan [Bg. Йоан] was born in 1784 in the northeastern Bulgarian town of Shumen. He was quite good-looking for his age, but he worked as a goldsmith, which at that time was a fairly disreputable trade. He was suspected of working for the Ottoman lords who ruled Bulgaria at the time. However, his faith was quite firmly in Christ.

In 1802, when Raiko was eighteen, he was contracted for an order by a rich Muslim who lived across the street from his shop. One of the women in the house noticed Raiko, and she tried to take him into her room. Raiko refused her advances. Humiliated and enraged, the young woman then accused Raiko of trying to sexually assault her. The Muslim master of the house brought her accusation before the local qâḍî, or judge. The judge told Raiko that he had two choices: he could either convert to Islâm and marry his accuser, or he could suffer punishment. Raiko refused to convert, saying that he had done nothing to the woman, and that he had only fulfilled the order as a workman that he had been given.

The qâḍî then ordered that Raiko be tortured. The executioners beat him, flayed the skin from his flesh and poured salt in the wounds, drove wooden spikes under his nails. They even hanged him from the ceiling of his prison cell several times and cut him down before his neck broke, the result of which nearly killed him. Then he was brought back before the judge. This time he was promised gifts and various honours if he converted, but still Raiko refused to forsake Christ. Again he was tortured – he was broken on a wheel and his flesh was burnt with lit torches. At the end he was beheaded, and in this way he achieved the laurels of the martyrs and the kingdom of heaven. This occurred on the fourteenth of May, 1802.

The martyrdom of Saint Raiko was recorded by the great hagiographer Saint Nikēphoros of Chios, and an icon was painted of the saint and placed in the Church of the Ascension in Shumen. Local commemorations were held for Saint Raiko – for example, in 2001 – however, he was not formally glorified by the Bulgarian Orthodox Church until June of 2017. Holy new martyr Raiko, innocent confessor of Christ who bore false accusation and torture, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!

09 May 2021

Holy New Martyrs of Novo Selo

Holy New Martyrs of Novo Selo

The ninth of May is justly commemorated in the countries of the former Soviet Union as Victory Day, the day when the united forces of Eurasia were able to force Germany to surrender and stopped a genocide against Europe’s Jews, Romani and others who were targeted for extermination by the Nazis. However flawed the Soviet Union may have been, and however messy the historical truth of that victory, speaking as a descendant of European Jews, I am thankful to the Soviet citizens who gave their lives in defence of their homelands and in defence of humanity.

In Bulgaria, however, the Orthodox Church commemorates – more sombrely – the victims of another campaign of systematic mass murder, one carried out seventy years prior by the Ottoman Empire. After the failed uprising of 1876, remembered in Ivan Vazov’s seminal novel Under the Yoke, the Ottoman Turks took out reprisals on the civilian populations of a number of villages in central Bulgaria, and burned them to the ground. Among these were the four villages in the vicinity of what is now the town of Apriltsi in Lovech Province: Novo Selo, Zla Reka, Vidima and Ostrets. About seven hundred Bulgarian innocents died in this suppression. In the aftermath of the uprising, Turkish troops and bashi-bazouk irregulars killed a total of somewhere between 15,000 and 30,000 Bulgarian civilians.

In particular, the Holy Trinity Monastery in Novo Selo was plundered and burnt by the Turkish troops, and its defenders – the nuns of Holy Trinity, and the priest Fr Georgi Hristov – were slaughtered. After the liberation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman yoke, the surrounding villages pooled together their resources and volunteers set out to reconstruct the monastery. The chapel behind the monastery was turned into a museum, which still shows the bones of the people who died at Novo Selo. Together with the five thousand who died at Batak, the seven hundred who died in Novo Selo were glorified by the Bulgarian Orthodox Church on the eleventh of March, 2011. Holy martyrs of Novo Selo, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!

Holy Trinity Monastery, Novo Selo, Bulgaria

07 May 2021

Old Britain and the Balkans: similitudes of sanctity

I’ve observed several strong commonalities as I’ve explored the hagiographies of the old Celtic saints and the saints of Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia. The style of monasticism which prevailed in each place is remarkably similar, with the Celtic style of monasticism privileging the lonely hermitage over the organised abbey. This style of monasticism is also prevalent in Romania and in Bulgaria even in modern times. This similitude presents itself in several ways in the hagiographies of these saints.

It is easy enough to see the commonalities, for example, between the hagiographies of Saint Melangell of Pennant and Saint Teodora of the Carpathians. Both women were engaged to men by their parents against their wishes, and sought out lonely hermitages in the wilderness when the time allowed; both were also quite close to nature and befriended wild animals. Equally so between Saint Illtud the Knight and Saint Prohor of Pčinja: both hermits protected deer from kingly hunters in their cells, and in turn served as mentors to the same kingly hunters, giving them spiritual guidance. And even the princes can sometimes appear similar! The abdication of the throne and resulting monastic obedience willingly undertaken by Saint Boris Mihail of Bulgaria mirrors the earlier monastic abdications of Celtic princes like Saint Elaeth, Saint Pabo and both Saints Custennin.

Bulgaria always has been remarkably westward-facing even among the Orthodox countries, going as far back as Boris Mihail. The position that Bulgaria occupied in the mediæval world as a buffer state between Byzantium and Francia ensured that certain forms of cultural exchange would be welcomed there. But this does not quite explain the similitudes between the animal-loving, near-to-nature, eremitical asceticism of the Celtic countries in the far chilly northwest of Europe, and the same phenomenon on the milder, more temperate southeast end of Europe.

What may explain it more thoroughly are the shared roots that each monastic tradition, the upper Balkan one and the Celtic one, have in the hermitages of the Ægyptian desert. William Dalrymple in his excellent book From the Holy Mountain explores the linkages between the early Ægyptian monastics and the saints of early Scotland and Ireland; Fr Gregory Telepneff also discusses this linkage in The Egyptian Desert in the Irish Bogs. Bulgaria, Serbia and Romania also received tutelage directly from the Ægyptian deserts in the Middle Ages, in the form of the leader of the hesychast movement Saint Gregory of Sinai, who spent the bulk of his life and took the Great Schema on that mountain, and only later in his life made the journey to Athos and then to Strandzha in Bulgaria. Hesychasm had a profound influence on the spirituality of the upper Balkans, and certainly influenced the character of the ascetics of the region.

The similarities of the Old British saints and the Balkan saints, however, should prompt reflection. More important than their shared roots are the lessons that we need to take from their lives. The kenotic, forgiving, nature-loving and wealth-renouncing nature of the Old British and Old Irish ascetics in particular ought rightly to be considered a part of the spiritual heritage of the English-speaking world, including North America. The saints whose example we venerate publicly, such as Saint Patrick, convey to us a distinctive spirituality. The Christianity which comes down to us from the Celts is distinguished by its love of nature, by its insistence of the immanence of God in all created things, by radical hospitality to the poor, by simplicity of spirit, by everyday prayer, by a particular care for children (especially orphans) and widows, and by a love for both Scripture and scholarship.

It strikes me that to honour this spiritual heritage correctly, we must defend the natural created order from destruction and sacrilege – and in particular defend our precious sources of clean fresh water. We must insist on the presence of God in that order. We must not only personally show hospitality and care for the poor, but also advocate for public policies that humanise the poor and working classes and treat them as worthy of life. We must aim for a greater simplicity of spirit – even, I will dare say, chastity – in our public and private lives. We must make space for prayer. We must make policies that encourage the healthy growth and flourishing of children, and which protect the most vulnerable – including the unborn. We should witness to such policies with the help of the Old Testament prophets and the founders of the Church. And we should exert ourselves to defeat the spirit of anti-intellectualism and anti-professionalism that continues to manifest itself in our culture.

Now, I understand that I tend to romanticise certain places, times and trends. And I understand quite well that Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, Serbia and so forth are far from perfect. But a country that can publicly honour someone like Dobri Dobrev, who would likely be simply ignored here, clearly has something going for it. I would like to see a society that can begin to honour its Dobri Dobrevs again. That would be a good first step towards honouring the Christian heritage shared by Celtic, Balkan and Middle Eastern Christians.

02 May 2021

Righteous Tsar Boris Mihail, Equal-to-the-Apostles, Enlightener of the Bulgarians

Tsar Saint Boris Mihail of Bulgaria

Christ is Risen!

Today is Holy Pascha, the Feast of Feasts, the Resurrection of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Today we celebrate the holy eucatastrophe, the inversion of the logic of the fallen created order – in short, we celebrate the defeat of death. Rejoicing is a difficult thing for me right now, but still I rejoice in this: that human beings and systems will not have the last word, and that human faltering and failure are not the sum total of our existence, and that even death, which seems to be all-powerful and all-consuming in this world, is broken.

It also happens to be – and he would be a shame to ignore now, given just the fact of how fascinating the guy is – the feast day of Tsar Saint Boris Mihail, one of the pivotal figures in mediæval European history. To understand why he was so important to the shape of Europe of the 800s, it’s necessary to understand his historical and political surroundings.

First of all, there was the political crisis of the east-west division of Christendom, which had been a long time in the brewing. Although Empress Eirēnē of the Eastern Roman Empire had upheld the faith that was proclaimed in both West and East and officially ended iconoclasm by convoking the Second Council of Nicæa, in 800 Pope Leo III nevertheless anointed the Frankish king Karl the Big as ‘Roman’ ‘Emperor’ on the rather misogynistic legal pretext that the Roman Empire could not be ruled by a woman. (Ulpia Severina, Augusta of Rome after the death of her husband Aurelian in 274, may well have had a few things to say about that.) This political manœuvre, as well as justly infuriating Empress Eirēnē, further alienated the Church in the West from the Church in the East, and created a long power struggle between the Frankish kingdom and Eastern Rome that would shape many of the subsequent political conflicts in Central Europe.

Second, there was the unification of the Western Slavic tribes to Bulgaria’s northwest under Mojmír, which took place amidst the power vacuum left by the defeat of the Pannonian Avars by the Franks. This confederation was Great Moravia. And although the Moravians were technically a vassal state of the Carolingian kingdom, in practice they turned out to be far more independent than the Franks liked.

And third, there was Bulgaria itself. Upon his accession to the khaganate, Boris had inherited from his prædecessors Krum the Fearsome, Omurtag the Builder and his father Presiyan a sprawling, massive territory that stretched from Ohrid to the Dneister, and from the modern-day site of Budapest to the Black Sea. This territory, as any student of Balkan history can tell you, is difficult at the best of times to keep united and well-defended, and Boris was always going to have an uphill row to hoe when it came to protecting it all from incursions by Eastern Rome, by the Serbs, by the Croats, by the Pannonian Slavs, by the Magyars and by the newly-arrived Moravians. What’s more, under Presiyan – as prophesied by Saint Boyan-Enravota – the various tribes of Slavic peasants ruled by the Turkic Bulghar lordly class had already begun converting to Christianity. The new khaghan needed, as much for political and diplomatic reasons as for spiritual ones, to unite his people around one faith.

So. Enter Boris [Bg. Борис].

Boris, the son of the aforementioned Presiyan, had no sooner come to power in 852 than his rule was tested by numerous border wars with Greeks, Serbs, Croats and Franks… wars in which he tended to come off a bit the worse for wear each time. These wars lasted almost until the end of the 860s. He was first an ally and then a rival of the saintly King Rastislav of Great Moravia. He turned his attention between the Frankish Empire and the Eastern Roman Empire as both of them kept pressuring him along his borders.

Boris, thankfully for the Bulgarians, was no fool. He understood well enough that in order to keep the Slavs he commanded from rebelling against him or being subsumed into the kingdoms around him, he would need to convert to Christianity eventually. He understood quite astutely the nature of the rivalry between the ‘Roman Emperor’ in the West and the Roman Emperor in the East, and managed with remarkable political adroitness to ‘play both sides’… even when he was on the losing end militarily. At first, the khaghan leaned pretty heavily toward Rome rather than Constantinople. Needing to counterbalance against Rastislav’s Moravians combined with Karloman in revolt, Boris asked for an alliance with Louis the German – a provision of which would have brought Frankish missionaries into Bulgaria, and Bulgaria effectively into the Western Roman political-ecclesiastical ambit. However, in 863, the Eastern Roman Emperor Michael III launched a surprise attack into Bulgarian-controlled Thrace, and forced Boris to come to a peace agreement.

Fatefully, Boris decided to adopt the Eastern Liturgical rites of Emperor Michael III as part of this peace agreement. However, there are indications that he was already preparing to set his face eastward. For one thing, Boris’s half-sister Anna had already converted to Christianity in the Constantinopolitan style, having been held hostage in the Eastern Roman court for several years. For another thing, the Christianity of the Slavic peoples he ruled – coming as it did from the mission of Saints Cyril and Methodius – already followed the Constantinopolitan rubrics and used a language, Slavonic, whose status in the West was notably in dispute. Whatever his ultimate motive (or mixture of motives!), the khaghan Boris agreed to be baptised in secret along with his family at his capital at Pliska. The Byzantine Emperor himself was his sponsor, and he took the Emperor’s name in baptism as his own: Mihail.

Boris Mihail’s baptism provoked an immediate and violent response from the Turkic Bulgarian aristocracy. They saw the Christian faith as an affront to their nomadic traditions as well as their legitimacy. In 865 the pagan boyars staged an open revolt against the newly-christened khaghan. Boris managed to crush the revolt. But despite having been recently baptised, he wasn’t all in on the whole peace, love and forgiveness aspect of Christianity yet. Nope: he went full Shang Yang on the behinds of the defeated rebels. Boris ordered the executions of fifty-two boyars, their wives and their children, exterminating their entire families. To complete the turn away from paganism, Boris Mihail abdicated the Turkic title of khaghan and adopted the Slavic title of knyaz ‘prince’, and the Greek-derived title of tsar ‘emperor’.

There was also the much more delicate matter of ecclesiology, which Boris handled with a much defter and lighter hand. The missionaries which arrived from Constantinople in Bulgaria all served the Liturgy in Greek and commemorated the Patriarch of Constantinople as the head of the Church. But Boris’s ultimate aim was to establish a Slavonic-speaking church that was beholden neither to Constantinople and the Eastern Roman Empire, nor to Rome and the Western ‘Roman’ ‘Empire’. In this aim, he was perfectly happy to keep playing both sides against each other. Despite having had a Constantinopolitan baptism, he sent a very polite envoy to Rome with a list of 115 ecclesiological and legal questions addressed to Pope Nicholas I; he received back a famous reply of 106 answers. The Pope also sent Latin and Frankish missionaries into Bulgaria, headed by Formosus, the ambitious bishop of Porto.

This action produced no small amount of consternation in New Rome, where it was regarded as an encroachment on Constantinopolitan jurisdiction. Archbishop Photios of Constantinople took several steps in answer to the Latin missions in Bulgaria. He produced his own letter to Boris in 866, ‘On the duties of princes’. At the request of Boris’s Moravian neighbours to the northwest, he also sent among them Saints Cyril and Methodius and encouraged the adoption of a Liturgical rite in the Slavonic language. And he began attacking Latin missionaries in general – but Formosus in particular – for adding the filioque clause to the Nicene Creed. Photios’s combative approach to Rome was one decisive factor leading to the ‘Photian schism’ of 867. Boris was able to take deft political strides in the middle of this schism, and by turning his face again to Constantinople in 870 he was able to secure a promise of autocephaly for the Bulgarian Church, with its primate holding the rank of Archbishop.

In Great Moravia, the mission of Saints Cyril and Methodius was meeting both with success and with jealousy. The mission was baptising critical numbers of Slavs, who could now hear the Gospel of Christ spoken in their own tongue. However, this aroused the wrath of the Frankish bishops who sought Moravia as their own jurisdiction. When Rastislav was betrayed to his blinding, confinement and death at the Franks’ hands by his traitorous nephew Svätopluk, the resulting Frankish-controlled Moravian government, at the instigation of the Frankish bishop Wiching, began ruthlessly persecuting the disciples of Methodius, subjecting them to exile, torture, slavery and likely death.

Boris Mihail, never blind to a good opportunity, welcomed the survivors of the mission of Saints Cyril and Methodius into Bulgaria in 886 – in particular Saints Kliment and Naum. He instructed them to build schools and encouraged them to teach native clergy as well as teach any student who wanted the Slavonic letters. They also built up the first major corpus of Liturgical works, hagiographies and other documents in the Slavonic language.

The first Tsar of Bulgaria followed the example in old age of many mediæval princes and kings who had first embraced Christianity in their prime… and here again we see these incidental linkages (as with the eremitical saints in each) between the Church in Britain and the Bulgarian Church. Like Saints Elaeth ‘Frenin’ and Custennin of Strathclyde, Judicaël of Brittany, Ceolwulf of Northumbria, Æþelræd of Mercia and Sigeberht of East Anglia, Tsar Boris Mihail abdicated his throne in favour of his son Vladimir, and entered the monastic life.

Sadly, Vladimir’s faith was not as firm as his father’s. He began destroying the Christian churches, driving out the Christian priests, and proclaiming a revival of paganism. This met with a lukewarm reaction among the boyars (most of whom by now had already converted), and with a much colder reaction from the populace which were already strongly Christian. And it also enraged Boris, who came out of his monastic seclusion in order to raise an army with which to defeat his own son. Boris had Vladimir blinded and thrown into a dungeon, and set up his second son Simeon as Tsar before retiring again to his monastery. Two years later Boris emerged again from his monastery. This time, he helped his son raise an immense army to fend off an invasion of Bulgaria by the pagan Magyars. They defeated them decisively at the Battle of Southern Bug. He then returned to his monastery again, this time permanently, and he reposed in the Lord on the second of May, 907.

As with many of the kingly saints I treat here, Tsar Boris Mihail may not, on first glance, appear very saintly. In particular, his treatment of the pagan boyars after their rebellion and defeat seems unduly harsh. However, the importance of his conversion to the Christian faith of his subjects cannot possibly be overstated. Neither can his insistence on an independent Slavonic-speaking Church, an insistence which the ecclesiology of Constantinople found it could more readily accommodate than that of Rome. And although his conversion to Christianity may have had one or more motives which reek of political advantage, the fact that he forswore all political power after 896 and spent the last decade of his life in solitary contemplative prayer speaks to the influence that the Christian doctrine eventually had upon him. Holy Tsar Boris Mihail, apostolic guide of the Bulgarian people, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!

Apolytikion for Saint Boris Mihail of Bulgaria, Tone 6:

Full of the fear of God, and enlightened by holy baptism,
Thou becamest a habitation of the Holy Spirit, O right-believing King Boris;
And having established the Orthodox Faith in the land of Bulgaria,
And set aside the scepter of kingship,
Thou madest thine abode in the wilderness,
Didst flourish in ascetic struggles,
And found grace before the Lord.
And now, standing before the throne of the Most High,
Pray thou, that He grant unto us who entreat thee salvation for our souls.


Christ is risen from the dead,
trampling down death by death,
and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

01 May 2021

Holy New Martyr Ignatii of Stara Zagora and Athos

Saint Ignatii of Mount Athos

This Great and Holy Saturday, the day of Christ’s repose in the tomb, is also the first of May – International Labour Day. In addition to this, in the Orthodox Church commemorates on this day the Prophet Jeremiah who preached repentance to the Hebrews that included just wages for the workman, as well as Saint Tamara of Georgia, Saint Berhte of Kent, the seventy-nine monastic martyrs of Sînâ’ and aṭ-Ṭûr in Ægypt, Saint Pafnutii of Borovsk, and another holy monastic martyr: Saint Ignatii, the new martyr of Stara Zagora and Mount Athos. He is remembered alongside his fellow Athonites and fellow sufferers for Christ, Saints Euthymios and Akakios of Mount Athos.

Saint Ignatii [Bg. Игнатий] was born Ivan, in the city of Stara Zagora in Bulgaria. His parents were named Georgii and Mariya. His parents moved from Stara Zagora to Plovdiv when he was still only a small child, and enrolled him at school there. Despite performing well in school, young Ivan was an unusually pious child, and he soon evinced a strong desire for the monastic life. Upon graduating from school and becoming an adult, Ivan entered the novitiate at the Rila Monastery (the mediæval abode of Saint Ivan of Rila). He spent six years living under the rule of a wayward, irascible and tyrannical elder before returning to Plovdiv. The Bulgarian hagiography suggests that Ivan’s uncle Saint Ignatii (Kalpakchiev) – a bandit who repented, turned to God and became a monk – may have been the head of the monastery.

Ivan’s return to Plovdiv was eventful. The Turks were conscripting fighters to put down the Serbian Revolution under Karađorđe Petrović at the time. Georgii was summoned to command an Ottoman brigade in battle against Petrović, but he refused to fight and harm his Serbian brothers in the Orthodox faith. For this, the Turks executed him in a cruel manner, stabbing him multiple times and then beheading him. His wife Mariya and his two daughters – Ivan’s mother and sisters – were forcibly converted to Islâm, and Ivan himself was forced into hiding. He hid with a pious Orthodox woman nearby, but when his sisters learned of it, they betrayed him to the Ottoman authorities. However, the woman he took shelter with bravely defied the Ottoman gendarmes in order to help Ivan escape to the free part of Romania.

Ivan spent some time in Bucharest, where he made the acquaintance of a priest named Elefterie – the future martyr Euthymios – with whom he became friends. However, he soon was gripped by a desire to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain. He left Bucharest some time later, and on his way to Athos he stopped in the town of Shumen, where he learned that Elefterie had renounced Christ and converted to Islâm, taking on the name of Rashîd. Saddened and dismayed by this news, Ivan resumed his journey to Athos. It was not long before he was stopped on the road by Turkish soldiers, who plundered him of all his possessions and at gunpoint demanded his own conversion to Islâm. In fear Ivan gave them a promise that he would, and they rode off, seemingly satisfied with his answer. This promise, however, weighed heavily on Ivan’s conscience.

He made it to Athos and spent some time in the company of a certain Fr Vasilii at the Skete of Saint Anna. After some time he moved to the Iviron Monastery of Saint John the Forerunner, where he was placed under the guidance of Elder Akakios. While at the Iviron Monastery Ivan learned that two men, David and his old friend Fr Elefterie – who had renounced his conversion to Islâm and become a monk by the name of Euthymios – had suffered martyrdom for Christ at the hands of the Turks. Ivan was filled with a flame of zeal, and seeking permission from his spiritual elder Akakios, he was blessed for martyrdom and tonsured a monk by the name of Ignatii. (The Bulgarian Life says that this was in honour of his uncle, the abbot at Rila.)

On the twenty-ninth of September of 1814, Saint Ignatii travelled from Mount Athos in the company of another monk, Grigorii. That Tuesday, he received the Holy Eucharist and thus prepared himself for his ordeal. He changed into Turkish garb and entered the Turkish court where the qâḍî was holding session. He tore the turban off his head and threw it to the ground in front of the judge. There he told his story about how in his travels he had had to lie and promise to convert to Islâm to save his own life, and he thereupon renounced his promise and professed Christ as God. The qâḍî, thinking that this man before him might be insane, tried at first to calm and assuage him, promising him gifts and honours if he would convert to Islâm. Saint Ignatii replied that he knew already about such ‘gifts’, and had come here specifically to refuse them. He further denounced Muḥammad as a false prophet, and invited the Muslims there present to put their faith in Christ.

Speechless with rage, the qâḍî had Saint Ignatii removed from his sight with a wave of his hand, and ordered him to be tortured. Saint Ignatii withstood two days of horrific tortures before the qâḍî summoned him again. Asking who had sent him, Ignatii replied that the Lord Jesus Christ had done so. And then the qâḍî remarked that he should put any hope out of his mind to be beheaded – that he would be sentenced to the more drawn-out death by hanging, so that his blood could not be collected by the Christians for a relic. Saint Ignatii replied that it was all one how he was killed, for he accepted all sufferings for the love of Christ.

Seeing that he could make no headway with him, the qâḍî sentenced Saint Ignatii to be hanged on the eighth of October, 1814. His body was publicly exposed for three days, before the monk Grigorii ransomed the body from the authorities, had it prepared and coffined, and shipped it to Athos. He had Saint Ignatii’s relics placed together with those of Saint Euthymios in the Iviron Monastery. The head of Saint Ignatii currently lies in a place of honour in the Russian Athonite Monastery of Saint Panteleimon.

It is worth remembering Saint Ignatii, Saint Akakios, Saint Euthymios and all those who suffered under the Turkish yoke today. They are holy martyrs for Christ indeed… for the same Christ who sides with all those who are suffering, those who are poor, those who are under exploitation and oppression. It is not an accident that Saint Ignatii’s father chose not to fight in the Ottoman Sultân’s war against Karađorđe and his peasant army, and suffered the ultimate penalty for his conscientious objection. It is also not an accident that God chose for holy martyrdom these two people – Saints Ignatii and Euthymios – who were not at first perfect in their courage, and who did falter and fear and make moral compromises in order to survive. Their experience reflects the struggles and plight of the great many Bulgarian people at the time who suffered under Turkish tyranny. Holy martyrs Euthymios, Ignatii and Akakios, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
Apolytikion for Saint Ignatii of Athos, Tone 8:

The image of God was truly preserved in you, O Father,
For you took up the Cross and followed Christ.
By so doing you taught us to disregard the flesh for it passes away
But to care instead for the soul, since it is immortal.
Therefore your spirit, O venerable Ignatii, rejoices with the angels.

Iviron Monastery of St John the Forerunner, Athos