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Arbanassi

 

The village of Arbanassi was founded in the late 15th century by Christian settlers from the South-Western parts of the Balkan Peninsula. In the early 15th century it was still a settlement of little importance belonging to several Ottoman officials. In 1555 it became property of the Grand Vizier Roustem pasha. Afterwards, the village got some tax concessions and was exempt from state duties in return for safeguarding the pass nearby. By 1582 Arbanassi had been registered as a vakaf (private property) of the Grand Vizier and got even greater fiscal relief. The revenues from the village were meant to support the Moslem establishment. What was of prime importance for this particular village is the fact that there lived Christians only, though of different nationalities, hence its homogeneity and its internal stability. The most significant integrating factor, however, came to be the language they shared - Greek.

All those favourable conditions brought about to the unusual prosperity of the village in 17th-18th Arbanassi became an important trading center. Its people embarked on busy international trading activities and consequently the population grew in number. At that time of prosperity the village had about 1000 houses. Quite a few of its inhabitants traded regularly with Italy, Austro-Hungary, Russia, Wallahia and India. The exchange with the Austro-Hungarian Empire was mainly carried on by people from Arbanassi. The Wallahian towns of Brashov, Sibiu and Clug, which were the seats of the Greek trading companies, were the centers of attraction for the people of Arbanassi. For example in 1639 Evstati Plachko from Arbanassi was elected head of the trading company in Sibiy; in 1644 Zotos Mikokiridis, also from Arbanassi, became head of the company. In 1696 the village was represented in the trading company in Brashov by Georgi Buzutsi. Tradesmen from Arbanassi participated in financial dealings between European towns and Tzarigrad. The village could boast considerable development of some crafts - coppersmiths, goldsmiths, silversmiths, blacksmiths, etc. The people bred cattle and silkworms as well. Arbanassi was the main supplier of suet, tallow and butter to Tzarigrad, now known as Istanbul. The people of Arbanassi were distinguished not only by their material achievements but by their cultural achievements as well. As early as the 17th century monastery schools were set up in the village. In 1779 the first Greek school in Bulgaria was opened in Arbanassi - its means and charter coming from Alexander Hipsilanti.

The people of Arbanassi and their way of life are best described by their contemporaries in the notes they left:
"At that time the population of the settlement was numerous; They were boyars /noblemen/ having large luxurious houses in Wallahia. They brought golden coins by the thousand and adorned their wives and daughters with them... There were two or three casks of salad oil in each cellar and as many casks of olives. For Long Lent each household had five or six hampers of snails, three or four octopus rolls, casks of caviar processed fish and all kinds of fruit...
The then Arbanassi boyars wore fine fur-coats, long silk clothes underneath, red shalwars (loose Turkish trousers) of broad cloth, silk socks, expensive waist-bands.tan shoes and slippers. They had sable fur caps lined with green Venetian velvet. The men were cleanly shaven and wore their hair long but well trimmed...
The women wore small crimson Tzarigrad fezzes having light blue silk tassels on top and there shone new Turkish gold coins. They wore their hair in nine to twelve plaits falling gently on their shoulders. Their dresses were long and loose, no frills at all, each of them worth a hundred ordinary dresses. Most of them were made of silk with small golden flowers interwoven in the material. They were sewn in the harems of Bagdad by the finest fingers possible. They had sleeveless jackets lined with golden thread over the dresses. The women wore white socks and yellow slippers and in rainy days they put on red studded shoes. Whenever there was a call or need for a warmer clothing they put on their sable fur coats. When they went out or to church they put on fine silk kerchiefs from Bagdad."

The Arbanassi house, in general, is right in the middle of a large garden surrounded with high walls. There is a large gate that leads to the yard which gives the impressions of entering a fortress. This was the foremost post defending the house in those troublesome times for the Christian people. The garden is grassed, with flower beds in front of the house. At the back there is a stable for the horses of the caravan that drove the tradesmen far and wide. Right next to the stable is the barn and the servants’ premises. The basement of the house is made entirely of stone with very narrow window-recesses or no windows at all; the doors were massive constructed from wood. The basement is where the tradesmen kept their merchandise. At the time of the construction of the house provisions were made for hiding-places for the family in times of trouble and for cashes for valuables and jewelry.

The first floor is the living quarters. It is very spacious, but it is meant for only one family. Two staircases lead upstairs; one at the front and one at the back. The one at the front leads to a large drawing-room where the owner received his visitors. This is the place where usually men gather while there is a special drawing-room for women. The bedrooms are laid on both sides of a long hallway. The kitchen and the other cooking facilities are centered near the back staircase. In some houses there are bathrooms too. The drawing-rooms and the bedrooms are richly decorated with wood carvings and stucco where the basic motives are the ones typical of the Italian Renaissance.

The church has had a tremendous role in the development of the village. Its influence was unprecedented for the time. While the Turkish administration had passed a number of restricting decrees on the building of Christian churches, Arbanassi had seven churches with regular services. They were built towards the end of 16th and the beginning of 17th century.

The special status of the village and the wealth and prosperity of its people did not escape the eye of the Patriarchate in Tzarigrad. Consequently Patriarch Partenius, in Tzarigrad, in 1642 issued a special charter declaring the village under the direct control of the Patriarchate. The people were exempt from paying any church taxes and contributed only symbolic sums of money. This resulted in a specific boom in the building of churches in the village. The church did not change its policies to Arbanassi in the years to come. These particular church policies were carried on by the bishops in Turnovo - one of them being Patriarch Gerassim II Kakavelas. He took up the initiative to iconpaint one of the churches in 1667. Arbanassi was often visited by prominent representatives of the Orthodox Church - Neophit of Edirne, Nectarius of Jerusalem, Dossiteus of Jerusalem. There were constantly representatives of the big Christian monasteries in Sinai, Jerusalem and Mount Athos living in the village. All of the above mentioned did actually stimulate the development of the arts and the artistic skills connected with the Church.