On December 1 this year we celebrate 125 years since the death of exarch Antim I (1816-1888). He used to be the head of the Constituent National Assembly and of the first Grand National Assembly. Antim I was also the bishop of Vidin and was buried in the mausoleum ossuary in the city.
The anniversary will be celebrated in Sofia and Vidin, and shall culminate in the celebration in 2014 to the 135th anniversary of the formation of the Constituent National Assembly and the adoption of the Tarnovo Constitution. On this occasion a series of initiatives associated with the rise of the Bulgarian parliamentarism will be held in Vidin and Sofia at the end of the month and will end in Veliko Tarnovo in April next year.
On November 28, an exhibition with pictures and belongings of the exarch shall be organized in the Parliament. It shall introduce the life and work of the first head of the National Assembly. On 1 December, the head of the parliament Mihail Mikov, politicians and public figures from the region will pay their respect and bestow the wreaths in front of the mausoleum tomb of exarch Antim I.
I shall be blessed if my sacrifice helps Bulgaria rise to a new free life! These are the words of the first Bulgarian exarch Antim I. Recalled today within the context of what is currently happening in our country and in the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, these sound particularly intense. The life and the work of this genuine martyr and defender of faith and family are some of the evidence for the power of the Bulgarian spirit during the Bulgarian National Revival, as well as after the liberation. The father of the church has been described by his contemporaries as a great patriot and a martyr for free country, a fighter for the independence of the Bulgarian Church and for the strengthening of its role as people’s unifying factor.
The secular name of the first Bulgarian exarch was Atanas Mihaylov Chalakov. He was born in 1816 in Lozengrad, Eastern Thrace (nowadays) to a family of illiterate, but pious parents. He obtained his initial education in the local Greek school, and then he went to learn a trade in Constantinople. As a young man he moved to Sveta Gora – Mount Athos, where he became a monk in 1837. He got the name of Antim in Karakal monastery and subsequently joined the brotherhood of the HIlendary monastery. It was in this monastery where he learnt to read and write Bulgarian and read “Slavianobulgarska istoriq” by Pasiy Hilendarski. After being ordained for diocesan deacon, monk Antim went as taxidiot to the Hilandar monastery in Lozengrad. In 1839, he continued his education at the most renowned school in the Ottoman Empire, the Greek high school in Istanbul’s Kuručešme district. In 1844 he entered the Theological Seminary on the island of Halki, graduating with honors.
In 1849 he headed for Russia and joined the theological seminary of Odessa and after his graduation he joined the theological academy of Moscow. He graduated in 1856. During his studies in Moscow, he got to know the famous bishop Filaret of Moscow who personally ordained him for senior monk. In Russia, the senior monk Antim not only learnt the essence of the strict theological teachings but also joined the circle of the Slavophiles and had close conceptual and friendly relationship with Ivan Aksakov. The future exach Antim managed to unite the leading theological schools in the orthodox world, the Greek and the Russian. He became “Slavophile” and “Russophile” mostly for his ideological, theological and religious inclinations.
After his training in Russia in 1857, the senior monk Antim became a teacher in the seminary on the island of Halki where he was honored with the title archimandrite. On May 25, 1861, he was ordained a bishop and appointed the Archbishop of Preslav. However, he refused to take the post unti the problem with the Bulgarian church was resolved. Since 1865 bishop Antim has become a rector of the seminary on the island of Halki, and in 1868 he was appointed a bishop of Vidin. With a letter from 16 December 1868 the bishop of Vidin Antim refused along with his congregation the post offered to him by the Patriarchate of Tsarigrad and joined Ilarion Makariopolski and Paisii Plovdivski together with whom he signed a letter to the Patriarch of Tsarigrad.
After the foundation of the Bulgarian Exarchate in 1870 Antim Vidinski participated together with the four bishops(Ilarion Lovchanski, Panaret Plovdivski, Paisii Plovdivski and Ilarion Makariopolski) in the provisional Holy Synod, organizing the First Church gathering during which the Exarch Statutes were be accepted and a Bulgarian exarch was elected.
The first church meeting (1871) in Istanbul
The meeting has been offiicially opened on 23 February 1871 in the Exarchate home in Ortaköy. The chairman of the event was the oldest prelate Ilarion Lovchanski, and the young laawyer Marko E. Balabanov was the secretary clerk. After two months waiting in vain for permission to elect an exarch, the assembly dissolved itself. The election of an exarch happened on 12 February 1872, when Ilarion Lovčanski – the oldest of the Bulgarian bishops – was appointed. However, forced by the hints of the Sublime Porte (the Turkish government) and by the pressure of some political circles, he submitted his resignation and four days later – on 16 February, a second election was held during which the bishop of Vidin Antim has been elected for exarch. Of course, this election has been greatly supported by the Russian ambassador Count Ignatiev, Gavril Krastevich and other prominent people.
Exarch Antim was deeply religious and a devout bishop confident in the universal truths of the Orthodox teachings and the ecumenical importance of the Orthodox Church. That is why, he was a fervent fighter for the freedom and the independence of the Bulgarian Church, struggling against the injustice and hardships imposed by the politicians and the clerics of the Tsarigrad Patriarchy. After the proclamation of the Schism (excommunication), he still continued to raise the Exarchate in the strict Orthodox spirit and to fight for its release and recognition of autocephaly (independence) by the Bulgarian Church and its complete unity with the Orthodox churches.
His Beatitude the Bulgarian Exarch Antim I
Exarch Antim I assisted morally and materially the movement for liberation from the Turkish yoke. In the exarchate building in Istanbul in the autumn of 1875, he met Hristo Botev and other revolutionaries, gave them money for the organization of the April Uprising and blessed them with the words: “Be blessed, you, Bulgarian heroes. When you return to your commrades in Wallachia, tell them that as an exarch, which you all elected me, I shall not keep my spirit high for my country and shall be persistent as ever to complete the greatest tasks of all – the liberation of our country”.
The unprecedented cruelty in the suppression of the April Uprising of 1876 was the true moral test for the Bulgarian Exarch. After the massacres in Batak, Antim I initiated collection of evidence for the Turkish atrocities happening there. The spiritual leader summarized this evidence in a report sent to the ambassadors of the great powers in Istanbul. He informed their governments and on his expense, he sent Marco Balabanov and Dragan Tsankov in Western Europe. With his broad political insight, Exarch Antim played a significant role in the attraction of the European public on the side of the Bulgarian national interests. Moreover, lamenting the thousands of innocent victims, he found a way to disclose this bloody tragedy where the Bulgarian people expected help and sympathy – through the bishop of Petersburg Isidore, who was a chairman of the Russian Holy Synod, the Emperor Alexander II was informed. Reading this famous letter still touches the souls even today: “If Russia – the exarch mentioned inter alia – does not advocate for the cruel fate of the Bulgarian people, let the Bulgarians be deleted from the Slavs and Orthodox Christians.”
Having read this letter, Alexander II was reduced to tears and answered to Exarch Antim, “Bulgaria to be freed!”. The actions of Exarch Antim I lead to the summoning of the Conference of the Ambassadors in Tsarigrad in December 1876. Despite the pressure of the Turkish foreign minister, he refused to send a letter of thanks from the Bulgarian people to the sultan and the conference, with the words: “We thank this government that kills and opresses the Bulgarian people! The next month the exarch sabotaged the “Grand National Assembly” by purposely “slipping” on the bath floor in Tsarigrad. Because this, with an order issued by thе vizir in June 1877, the exarch was dethroned and after a short court procedure, Midhat Pasha sentenced him to death for treason. However, the Ottoman Empire has suffered by a recent coup and the sentence was replaced by exile in Asia Minor.
The Parliamentarian priest
After the signing of the Peace Treaty of San Stefano , the former Bulgarian Exarch Antim was released from exile and in May 1878 he returned to Vidin, where he took control of his eparchy. The liberated people greeted him with enthusiasm. In 1879 he was elected head of the Constituent National Assembly in the old capital of Tarnovo. There was nothing to compare to the enthusiasm and excitement of the MPs, when Prince Dondukov approached Antim I, reverently kissed his hand and asked for his blessing to proceed to the great cause and the opening of the Constituent Assembly in Tarnovo.
After the enforcement of the Constitution under the presidency of the highly-esteemed prince, the Grand National Assembly elected Prince Alexander Batenberg as the first Bulgarian knyaz. Accompanied by the two bishops, Antim I held a thanksgiving service at the legendary peak of Shipka and laid the foundation stone for a monument to be erected in honor of the heroes fallen dead for the freedom of Bulgaria. Again with the unanimous decision of the National Assembly, Antim headed the delegation to Russia to express eternal gratitude to the King Liberator Alexander II on behalf of all Bulgarian people. Moved to tears, the Emperor warmly thanked and awarded the Bulgarian Exarch with a diamond cross and the Empress gave him a precious icon.
Unlike most Russophile politicians and senior clerics, Antim I invariably defended the Bulgarian national interests. When he realized that the Russian imperialist interests were threatening Bulgaria, he supported the liberals in the face of Stefan Stambolov and Petko Karavelov with whom he used to be a longtime friend. “You freed us from the Turks, I wonder who will free us from you?” Antim I asked Prince Dondoukov in 1879 during a public dinner. So, elected as an exarch with the permission of the Sublime Porte and with the suggestion of the Russian diplomacy, he proved his opponents that they had mistakenly considered him “spineless”, a “Russian stooge” and utterly unskilled to navigate in the Oriental political maze
Bishop Antim of Vidin had an active spiritual role in the defense of Vidin during the Serbo-Bulgarian war. On November 14, 1885, when the city was besieged, he refused to leave it with the words: “The shepherd’s body should lie where the bodies of his people and army are”. The spiritual leader was against the coup during which on 9 July 1886, Prince Alexander of Battenberg was dethroned, and started supporting Stambolov and the Regency. In 1887 he was an MP in the third Grand National Assembly which elected the Bulgarian prince Ferdinand and publicly urged him to strictly observe the Tarnovo Constitution.
His grave was located beneath the floorboards of a church
After the death of Exarch Antim I on 1 December 1888, he was buried with full honors for his rank and merits to the Bulgarian State, its people and the Orthodox Church at a ceremony in the old church “St. Nikolai” in Vidin. In 1923 the bishop of Vidin Neophit established a special fund to collect funds for the construction of a Memorial Mausoleum on the grave of Antim I in Vidin.
At that time, his grave was located beneath the floorboards of the church canopy, annexed to the temple “St. martyr Panteleimon” and there have been no any indications that “here lied a great priest loved and respected as the first head of the national church”
On 16 September 1934, the mausoleum was finished and decorated. A great public religious celebration dedicated to Exarch Antim I was held in Vidin in the presence of the entire Synod, Tsar Boris III, his brother Prince Kyril of Preslav and also by representatives of the government, generals, military officials and many citizens.
After serving mass in the bishop church of “St. Nicolay Mirlikiiski”, the mausoleum errected on the new grave of the exarch has been solemnly inaugurated. The mausoleum was a one-dome chapel with the statue of Antim I placed inside, sitting on a chair, with a veil and an icon of the chest, made by the sculptor Atanas Dudulov. The dome has been made from white rock from Vratsa. Over the entrance there is a mosaic portrait of the exarch. In the chapel basement there is a built-in cement sarcophagus in which the prelate’s remains were laid to rest.
The two unique crosses used by the exarch are of exceptionally value. One of them has been gifted to Antim I by the Bulgarians living in Tsarigrad in 1872, when he was elected a Bulgarian Exarch. This cross is silver, etched and incrusted with 14 emeralds and 7 rubins. The other cross to be worn on the chest was also made of silver and incrusted with 8 ametysts and a couple of zirconiums. Three breastplates used by Antim I have also been preserved – one for everyday usage and two to be worn at Easter. They were a part of the bishop clothing and have been made by the the embroiders from Constantinople.
Source: “Presa” newspaper
Author: Mariela Baleva