From the past we take flames not ashes” – Jean Jaures

The history of Razlog Municipality starts from ancient days and passes through the ages telling about various cultures and civilizations who inhabited the hollow between the mountains of Rila, Pirin and Rhodoppes. This history has inspired legends, preserved the wisdom of tales and stories and kept important cultural values. The heritage and legacy of the past can maintain the faith of Razlog citizens today and intrigue the guests of the municipality.

Prehistory and Antiquity – from the dawn of human civilization, through the heritage of Thracians, to the glory of the Roman Empire

The lands of Razlog Municipality have been inhabited for millennia. Prehistoric times have left a settlement near present-day Eleshnitsa Village and more traces near the village of Bachevo.

At the edge between Prehistory and Antiquity, the culture of Thracians reached the valley of Mesta River. Many traces of that epoch have been preserved in the neighbouring mountains. An ancient Thracian sanctuary has been discovered in the Stolovatets locality. In the locality of Katarino, there is a still unexplored fortified Thracian town that might turn to be a significant find for Thracian history. A megalithic Thracian sanctuary may be seen near the village of Bachevo at the Gergova (Dzherdzheva) Rock which is also related to the legend of Saint George telling how he and his horse reached the rock when chased by enemies and instead of getting killed, the horse got wings and flew away. Nowadays, the rock sanctuary can impress the visitor with the magical view of Pirin Mountains alone. Other local legends tell about an ancient Thracian settlement existing near the village of Eleshnitsa where Orpheus was born.

The next ages of Antiquity belong to Rome and its building, administration and safety – a time of architecture, arts and economic boom. Fortresses were built along the Mesta River Valley together with road stations and settlements. At that time, the territories of present-day Razlog Municipality were located at the border between the provinces of Macedonia and Thrace. The banks of Mesta River served as a borderline; Rila and Pirin Mountains were part of Macedonia Province while the Rhodoppes were part of Thrace. The remains of a ceramic bricks oven were found near the village of Dobarsko – evidence of the active construction activities around these lands in the 3rd and 4th c. AD. Most probably, the ‘Dobarsko’ bricks were used for the building of two late-Antiquity fortresses near the village of Bachevo where other traces of the last ages of Antiquity were also discovered. This village is the heir of successive ancient settlements that served as a focus of life in the Razlog Valley during Antiquity. The Pirin Mountains also keep signs from the same period in the fortress of Kalyata whose hardly accessible location is unique. Another important settlement existed in the Krushe locality where one can also find the Painted Church, one of the first churches in the area.

Early Christianity in Bulgarian lands – legends of miracles and evidence of the Christian Path

It is certain that the lands of Razlog Municipality were an early Christian center, and the preserved archaeology and architecture of the churches shows the history of Christianity here. The Krushe locality hosts the Painted and White Churches. The first one is an early-Christian basilica from the end of the Antiquity period (5th c. AD) and according to some sources, it has been a part of an early monastery complex. In the Middle Ages, a newer building was erected on the same spot. The archaeological complex has been partially conserved which allows the visitor to see clearly the remains of the two churches. The White Church was built centuries later – in the late Middle Ages – and there is yet another small medieval church very close to it, named Sveti Nikola. The journey along the steps of Early Christianity includes also the church of Sveta Troitsa built probably in the 13th c. over a burial mound from previous epochs. It is an early example of a cross-domed church.

In the times of the Eastern Roman Empire and the Middle Ages, the town of Iliopol (Sun City) existed near present-day village of Eleshnitsa. According to some historic sources, it succeeded an older Thracian settlement which then turned into the Slav fortress of Nebush. A medieval inscription that was found here tells about the healing powers of the mineral springs of Eleshnitsa. In the ruins of a medieval church, archaeologists have discovered a burial plate, commemorating the story of a lady from the court of Constantinople who lived during the reign of Emperor Jusinian I. She restored a former church while receiving treatment with the mineral waters of today’s Eleshnitsa. The church in question continued to exist up till the 19th c. under the name of Sveta Nedelya.

The town of Iliopol was certainly well known for the wealth of its mineral waters ever since the early Middle Ages, despite the mystery surrounding its existence. According to an Athos legend from the 19th c., the Christian saint Varvara lived exactly in Iliopol. The young woman devoted herself to her Christian faith, for which her father gave her up. The dramatic life of the saint ended soon after that, taken away by the very same father. Today local people honour the memory of the martyr at the Sveti Ilia sanctuary near Eleshnitsa, close to the Sveta Nedelya Church and the Sveta Varvara mineral spring. A new Orthodox church was also built close to the spring in recent years.

The first centuries of the Ottoman era – the tests of faith

At the end of the 14th c., the territory of today’s Razlog Municipality was occupied by the Ottoman Empire. Dramatic and tragic centuries followed for local people. The Bulgarian and Christian identity got slowly altered by the Ottoman models. The architectural exterior and demography of the villages also changed.

The church of Sveta Ekaterina dates to the end of the 14th and the beginning of the 15th c. It is dug into the ground, without internal decoration, and as such is an example of church construction in the first years of the Ottoman Rule. At the same time it symbolizes the strong faith of local people who opposed hard times by building a temple, to demonstrate and preserve their identity. The church of Sveta Bogoroditsa in the village of Dolno Draglishte was built a century later.

At the time, the village of Dobarsko occupied an important position on the pilgrim road via Rila Mountains, connecting the Rila Monastery with Athos Peninsula. Legend has it that medieval Dobarsko was related to the ideas and life of Bogomils. Seen as a threat to the state, these ideas gave the whole village the image of a dangerous place called Gnidobradsko (meaning bad brotherhood). In the 19th and 20th c., it still carried a negative name – Nedobarsko (s.th. not good) while in 1913 the Tsar gave it the name Dobarsko (s.th. good). The remains of the medieval churches of Sveti Atanasi and Sveti Georgi are related to that important role of Dobarsko as a stop on the pilgrim road Athos – Rila Monastery. In 1614, they built the church of Sveti Sveti Theodor Tiron and Theodor Stratilat which is now one of the symbols of Razlog Municipality and a cultural monument of national importance. The church is dedicated to the Roman soldiers Theodor Tiron and Theodor Stratilat who died as martyrs and is the most significant sample of church art in our lands after the end of the Middle Ages. Painted two centuries after the conquering of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom by the Ottoman Empire, the priceless murals and iconostasis keep the traditions of Medieval Bulgarian masters. The interior of the church is fully painted, with more than 500 scenes showing the life of Jesus Christ. In the scene named “Descending to Hell”, Christ is depicted in what looks like a jet rocket – an image that astonishes all the church visitors.  The stone altar partition wall serving as a basis for the iconostasis is also very specific. The accent of the latter are five large icons showing Christ, the Holy Mother, John the Baptist, Archangel Michael and the symbols of the church – Theodor Tiron and Theodor Stratilat. These five icons combine skillfully the old traditions and new techniques and motives in icon-painting. The lively images of paintings and the fine details of wood-carvings are samples of the mastership of Bulgarian artists long before the epoch of the Bulgarian Renaissance. Seen from the outside, the semi-dug church is not much different from the Sveta Ekaterina Church. The unpresentable exterior gives no clue of the bravery of the Christian master from 1614 – to eternalize his faith and art through his remarkable creation.

In the 17th and 18th c., the village of Dobarsko turned into an important trade center and many other churches were built. This was again due to the location of the village on the road from Athos to the Rila Monastery. The remains of the medieval and later churches around Dobarsko today are used as sanctuaries.

The enlightening 19th c. – revival of identity

Gradually the Bulgarians started to re-discover their spirit and identity and to re-gain the strength of their faith. During the enlightening 19th c., the Razlog settlements were given their spiritual centers – a church and a school. In 1860, the second church of Sretenie Gospodne was built in the village of Dobarsko (still called Nedobarsko at that time). The Christians in Dolno Draglishte also got their new spiritual center, the church of Sveti Dimitar. The basilica built in 1835 is a sample of church architecture from the first half of this century but it is even more precious because of the artistic value of its murals and iconostasis. The wood-carvings and icons show the style of the painter Dosyu Koev. He was one of the biggest Tryavna masters and the only one whose art reached the valley of Mesta River. The church is also interesting with its wooden ceiling with inlaid stars. In Gorno Draglishte Village, one can visit the church of Vavedenie Bogorodichno. Going westwards at the foothills of Rila, the visitor reaches the village of Godlevo with the old church of Uspenie Bogorodichno, with a simple exterior, small bell-tower and precious internal decorations. In the village of Bachevo, the church of Sveti Dimitar is known for its massive construction and high bell-tower. The high white bell-tower with a copper dome of the Sveti Atanas Church is among the most memorable views of the Rhodoppean village of Eleshnitsa. The church of Banya Village is dedicated to St. George and is also impressive with its size being expanded after the original construction was finished.

It was in the past centuries of the Ottoman Rule when Razlog established itself as the main center of the Razlog Valley. Written sources show the name of Mehomia for the existing settlement. In the 19th c., the lives of local people were related mainly to agriculture, animal-breeding and the crafts of pottery and gold-smithing. The church of Sveti Georgi was erected in 1834 and only a year later, the first secular school was opened in its yard. The first teacher was Mihail Manzurski. After about two decades, the school was turned into a modern, the so-called New-Bulgarian one. At the end of the 19th c., the Mehomia school of Sveti Sveti Kiril and Metodi was a solid two-floor building.

At the same time, the settlements of today’s Razlog Municipality (excluding the village of Eleshnitsa) were part of the large Razlog Kaaza (District) uniting present day Razlog, Bansko, Belitsa, Yakoruda and Dobrinishte. Mehomia did not have any significant buildings in that period; most houses were made of wood and had two floors. The town was known not for agricultural production but for the various crafts and trade. The large Sunday market in Mehomia was the most significant event in the economic life of the Razlog Kaaza. According to Georgi Strezov, Banya was the biggest and best-developing settlement in the area until the Kresna-Razlog Revolt when big parts of it were destroyed. Banya attracted visitors with its mineral springs even back in the 19th c. The two Turkish Baths built in the previous centuries were extensively used at the time; and the most amazing thing is they can still be used for the same purposes today. Both baths have been restored and are accessible as a tourist attraction. Both have mostly rectangular shapes, one with a dome and the other – with a four-sided roof. Among the Razlog villages, two were better known: Bachevo with its agriculture and stock-breeding, tar production and beautiful surrounding forests, and Gorno Draglishte which was the one with biggest population. Livelihood in the remaining Rila villages was connected to small agriculture and seasonal work in other regions.

The typical Mehomia architecture in the so-called Razlog-Chepino style appeared in the 19th c. The general atmosphere created by it can still be sensed at the square around the Historical Museum. The museum itself is located in the Parapunovs’ House, the birthplace of Nikola Parapunov (the founder and leader of the first partisan / anti-fascist detachment in Bulgaria). It neigbours other buildings from the same period including the Astinovs’ House which form a common ensemble with the Parapunovs’ one and serve as a symbol of that epoch. The two-floor houses face the street and have modest architecture where wood and the white colour prevail. A vast passage cuts through the face of each house, leading into an inner yard with various support buildings. Though modest in size now, this architectural ensemble shows the atmosphere of the famous Krapata Quarter from 100 year ago. Among the preserved buildings are also the Patokovs’ House and the Kiprevs’ House. The latter differs from the rest of the houses being situated in a spacious yard surrounded by a thick stone wall. The old architecture preserved in the villages of Razlog also shows the typical features of the Razlog-Chepino style. Several old houses may be seen near one of the old baths in the village of Banya.

Along with spiritual revival, local people took part in the struggles for national liberation. In 1869, Vasil Levski and his ideals reached the town of Mehomia. After the short liberation of the Razlog area in the spring of 1878, the Berlin Congress restored Ottoman Rule in these lands. The Kresna-Razlog Revolt in October was the most vivid symbol of local resistance. The citizens of Mehomia and the villages took active part in it, and the Razlog Valley was again temporarily freed. Despite the failure of the revolt, local people continued the struggle. In 1896, Gotse Delchev established a revolutionary committee of the Great Macedonia & Odrin Revolutionary Organization.

The beginning of the 20th c. – struggles for liberation, tragedies and enthusiasm

The next dramatic moment of Bulgarian history was the summer of 1903 and the revolts of the Bulgarians living in Macedonia and Odrin Thrace. During the Ilinden, Preobrazhenie and Krastovden Revolts died thousands of people and many settlements were burnt to the ground but the Bulgarians still could not win their freedom. The line of revolts ended on Krastovden when the citizens of the Serres Revolutionary District part of which were Mehomia and the neighbouring villages chose their ideal for freedom against all other values. On 14.09.1903 (Krastovden), one of the first battles in the Mesta River Valley was fought in Andaka locality west of Razlog. The next day, 15.09.1903, gave the name of today’s Historical Museum square in Razlog Town. This was the scene of the biggest battle of this revolt. A monument was built later on the square to remind of the long and difficult path of local people to freedom. The monument is now the focus of annual celebrations held on September 14 in the memory of the forefathers of Razlog.

The freedom of Razlog area came in October 1912 when the Bulgarian army supported actively by local people liberated the Mesta River Valley all the way down to the Aegean. The Second Thracian Infantry Squad and the Rhodoppean Detachment led by Stiliyan Kovachev fought battles at the village of Eleshnitsa, the town of Mehomia itself and the Sarovitsa Hill. The great Bulgarian poet Peyo Yavorov took part in the battles for Razlog.

Freedom and inspiration

After its liberation, the old Ottoman town was renamed to Razlog and started living with the enthusiasm of the new Bulgarian reality. A large part of the Turkish population left the town. The tragic fate of Bulgaria in WWI and the failed ideal of unification did not hinder the development of the free parts of Macedonia. These were the most prolific decades in the history of Razlog, dedicated to cultural and economic burst. The town was urbanized and expanded; beautiful buildings were erected; banks and commercial bodies were opened; new cultural institutions were established; organized tourist activity was started. Razlog quickly gained the atmosphere and looks of a typical small European city.

Within two decades, the town gained its new urban architecture. Fragments of it can be seen today reminding of the enthusiasm of Bulgarians from that epoch – to build for themselves and for their city. Five buildings were harmonically connected into a unified ensemble which provides now a beautiful framework for the city square. The accent of the architectural composition is a corner building topped by a massive dome. The street of Stefan Stambolov starts from the square and heads southwards, offering a precious architectural ambiance. One should note the two elegant buildings located at the crossroad of Stefan Stambolov and Sheinovo Streets. Heading towards the Bus Station of Razlog, the visitor can see the unusual architecture of a house from 1930 located at the corner of Stefan Stambolov and Bratya Kulini Streets. Both street facades of the house are decorated with clocks. The charm of the early 20th c. architecture can also be seen at the streets of Sveti Sveti Kiril and Metodi, and Byala Reka. One of the symbols of Razlog from that period is the church of Sveto Blagoveshtenie (built in 1939), one of the biggest in Razlog Valley, which is impressive with its size, internal space and artistic murals. The high bell-tower and the white colour make it easily visible from afar. If one could stand on top of Golak Hill in the late 30s of the 20th c. and look down at Razlog, he or she would notice the unified town exterior. The houses were harmonically spread along the town streets and the even height of the urban silhouette was only broken by the big church and the representative buildings around the city square. Above the church bell-tower, there was only Pirin.

Heroes of history

There are many known and unknown heroes of the Razlog Region who dedicated their time and lives to the building of a modern Bulgaria. Many fighters for national liberation were born in the town and the neighbouring villages. We should mention Konstantin Popatanasov from Eleshnitsa who was first a member of the students’ organization for the liberation of Macedonia and Odrin Region, and later – of the detachment of Hristo Chernopeev which liberated Bansko. Later he was enrolled in the Military School in Sofia; he was an officer of Aleksandar Protogerov during WWI and a combat pilot by the end of the war. After that he continued to work for the interests of Bulgaria and against its enemies, including as a member of the Bulgarian Legacy in Washington along with the renowned builder of modern Bulgaria Simeon Radev. In all his life, Konstantin Popatanasov followed the moto of his father: “A man is born not only for himself but for his homeland as well”. It was a moto that many of the citizens of Razlog area followed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.