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The “happy stones” that went into the building of a church high up in the mountain

Photo: Petko Iliev

Many a soul has flown off from this place, the Heavenly Rocks, where the sky seems close enough to touch.

“Winter takes away, it gives nothing. In the winter of 2003, on 2 February, my son died close to the Ray (Heaven) mountain lodge. Here the avalanche struck and hurtled down the slope. My child’s soul flew offt, and we, the living, have had to live with our sorrow…”

With these words Petko Iliev from Sopot begins his story of how the highest-altitude church in Bulgaria was built, in whose stones the sorrow, but also the faith of the people who have lost dear ones in the mountain live on.

When 24-year old Ilia was buried under an avalanche in the Balkan range his father Petko decided to build a church. High up in the mountain, under the patronage of two saints - Nicholas the wonderworker and Saint Pantaleon - in honour of all climbers and tourists who have lost their lives at the Heavenly Rocks.

“I said to myself – why not two different saints? It is not a good thing to be alone in the mountain, so why not two saints – one is young, a healer and the other – protector of children, of sailors and bankers.”

Petko broke ground several months after the tragedy struck but because of the harsh climate and because the location was difficult of access it took him 15 whole years to complete his work. But he never gave up because people from all over the country lent him a helping hand – most of them strangers. Architect Teofil Teofilov designed the church, Teodora Bakalova, Maria Mineva and her husband painted the icons, Ivo Tanev carried a stone cross weighing 40 kilograms up the mountain on his back, Peyo steered the loaded horses up the steep pathways, many others helped with the construction work. 

“I don’t know what kind of magic the mountain holds,” Petko Iliev says. “Maybe it is because of the higher oxygen content, but you become a better person, a comrade, ready to help. Up in the mountain miracles can happen and only people who have been there can feel it – and see people shed the “masks” they wear down in the valley. In the mountain people are just normal – the kind of person we all dream of being. That is why when people found out what we were building all they needed was a gentle reminder.”

When Milena Stoykova learnt of Petko’s story it stirred the deepest fibers of her being and she decided to make a film about it.

“The church brings comfort, it is a way to remember our dear ones, a way to make sense of the pain and the suffering,” she says. “Many people involved in the construction of the church have lost dear ones. The son of the architect who designed the church – himself a mountain climber – died of leukemia. The man who donated the woodwork – he too lost his son.”

The film director chose to call her film “The happy stones” – words which she has heard Petko use.

“Masons say that a stone has a hundred faces,” Petko Iliev says. “That is so true – wherever you may look, each stone has a face of its own. But when you start cutting it, you can feel that it has a soul as well.”

The church was completed and consecrated on 27 October, 2019. In its stone walls Petko embedded a small horseshoe, arms facing downwards – a symbol of the tragedy and of the horses who have died on the slopes of the mountain.

Photos: Petko Iliev

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