VAKSEVO ONCE HAD IT ALL
The village of Vaksevo is located in a mountainous region southeast of the town of Kyustendil, on both sides of the river Eleshnitsa, on the road Kyustendil - village of Nevestino - village of Tsarvaritsa. It is quite close to both Serbia and North Macedonia. It has a distinct atmosphere and architecture. What immediately caught my attention was that the village truly has, or better said used to have, everything. It has several types of architecture within it. Wooden houses of hundreds of years old, the very pretty Bulgarian architecture of the beginning ot the Twentieth Century, and obviously some public buildings from the communist era, such as the post office.
A large part of the village seems abandoned, although it is not devoid of life. In fact, there's a little center around the main square, with a working cafe and store. Now what makes it all so special? To me, that it's relatively well-kept, like an open-air museum. The different styles, the relatively large size of this village as a regional center, the location near the river and the hills around, make this a pretty place. A place to experience a different time. It feels quite remote and as if time stood still. More so than in other parts of Bulgaria, in my view.
Remains of a prehistoric and ancient settlement have been found 2 km north of the village, on the left bank of the Eleshnitsa River. Also, fragments of tools of labour made of stone, bricks, tiles, pieces of vessels characteristic of the Eneolithic Age (5th - 3rd millennium BC) were found. The first known inhabitants of these lands were the Peonians, who are said to have Thraco-Illyrian origins. It is no coincidence that they gave their name to the area to which Vaksevo belongs (Piyanets, which at its turn derives from of Peonia). It is not known exactly how far the range of the Peonians extended, but they were conquered by Persians, Macedonians, Thracians, and the Romans. By the 4th Century BC, Peonia was already dominated by the Thracian tribe of Denteleti and merged into the Thracian cultural milieu. The few remnants of the Paeonians that managed to survive after the Thracianization were later finally absorbed by Hellenism.
In 168 BC, Rome conquered most of the Balkan Peninsula and around 148 BC suppressed the revolt of Macedonians, Peonians and Illyrians and Peonia became part of the Roman province of Macedonia. Around the 1st Century BC, the Peonians were assimilated and this area became a geographical name only. In the First Century, Peonia with the whole present-day Kyustendil area fell into the Danteletike region of Thrace (Trakija), named after the neighbouring large Thracian tribe Danteleti. In the 2nd Century these lands were united into the vast urban territory of Pautalia, which the Romans turned into an important trading centre and a famous spa resort.
Probably as early as the Peonic period, an important road passed through the valley of Eleshnitsa and that of Rechitsa, and to the south through the Black Rock Pass, which in the Roman era became one of the main thoroughfares of the Balkan Peninsula, connecting Constantinople (Istanbul) with Philippopolis (Plovdiv), Pautalia (Kyustendil), Stobi (an ancient town that now only has remaining excavations, in modern-day North Macedonia), and the Adriatic Sea. This road, which became known in more recent times as the "Drumo" ("Drachka Road" or Arnautian Road).
The activity of transport links and intensive economic life are attested by numerous coin finds found in the area. A hoard of about 200 silver staters from the island of Thassos, dating to the 5th Century BC and depicting an erotic scene with a bearded satyr catching a naked maenad (female followers of Dionysus) in his arms, has been discovered.
During the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I the Great (526-565), the western and south-western part of the peninsula (including Kyustendil region) were included in the archbishopric of First Justinian, which he founded and which lasted until the beginning of the 7th Century. The proven presence of a Late Antique settlement in Vaksevo and the remains of ancient buildings known to the locals as "churches" and "venerations", although not examined by specialists, are all clues that give reason to assume the existence of churches as early as the Early Christian era (4th-6th Centuries). This assumption is further confirmed by a nearby Christian necropolis and the remains of two walls built with stones, bricks and mortar, which is typical of late antique (Byzantine) construction.
In the V-VI Centuries, Byzantium was subjected to massive invasions by barbarian tribes who ravaged the lands south of the Danube. Slavs then settled along the Struma valley, and probably in the Piyanets region as well.
The area of the Upper Struma was included in the boundaries of the First Bulgarian State under Khan Krum (803-814). After the conversion to Christianity, nearby Velbazhd (then the name of Kyustendil) became an important cultural and spiritual centre. At the beginning of the 10th Century, near the village of Skrino, near Vaksevo, the Ruen Monastery was founded, where St. John of Rila was monasticised.
Hundreds of years later, during the Middle Ages, the place was also bustling with life. The significance of the local medieval settlement and its economic development are attested especially by numerous coin finds, in which the prevailing number of coins are Bulgarian and Byzantine coins made of copper and dated to the time of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom (XII - XIV centuries).
Towards the middle of the 14th Century, the area became part of a new state entity with the centre of Velbazhd, known as the Velbazhd principality (despotdom, meaning the exercise of absolute power, especially in a cruel and oppressive way), ruled by the family of Deyanovtsi (Dragashi).
In 1373, the despotate became vassal to the Ottoman Empire, its last Christian ruler being Constantine Dragash (1378-1395), son of Despot Deyan and son-in-law of the Bulgarian king Ivan Alexander. The principality finally ceased to exist probably in 1427-1428, when its territory was inherited by the Ottoman administrative unit of the Kyustendil Sanjak (administrative divisions of the Ottoman Empire).
The last ruler of the despotism was Yusuf (probably a stepson of Constantine, or his native son with the Christian name Stefan, also a despot, converted to Islam). It can be assumed that the final fall of Piyanets to Ottoman rule occurred roughly during the period mentioned. The later conquest of the area (by approximately 50 years) compared to other Bulgarian settlements spared it the first devastating blows of the Ottoman conquerors, such as those suffered by Thrace. This was somewhat beneficial for the preservation of Bulgarian identity. It is no coincidence that many medieval Bulgarian churches have been preserved in Western Bulgaria.
Nevertheless, the destruction does not pass this region by. When the Turks conquered the village, they burned the monastery together with the other four churches and the inhabitants scattered. There were many churches and chapels in this area. Importantly, the birthplace of Saint Ivan Rilski, the village of Skrino, is quite close. The locals named the area 'вакъв село', meaning monastery village. This was later adapted to 'Вакъво', Vakavo, and then Vaksevo.
Rise of the village
The location of Vaksevo on the main road from Kyustendil and Sofia to Tsarevo village and Macedonia led to the emergence of inns near it, and by the middle of the 19th century to the formation of a separate mahala Khanate (a political entity ruled by a khan, this political entity was typically found on the Eurasian Steppe). In addition to inns, craft workshops opened. The village took shape as the market centre of Piyanets. People from the surrounding neighborhoods began to settle in and the village took on a collected appearance. In 1866, the village of Khanes was established. Vaksevo had 88 households and 581 inhabitants.
The first village school in Vaksevo was opened in 1848 by the two brothers Kostadin and Georgi Pop Stoyanov in their own house. They educated village children until 1863. From 1869 until the Liberation, the Vaksevo school was taught by Tsone Vezenkov and Nikola Pop Mikhailov from Tsarevo village (now Delchevo, North Macedonia) and Petar Suichmezov from the village of Nedelkova Grashtitsa and Mihail Georgiev from a Macedonian village. From 1864 to 1869 Pope Nikola Stoyanov from the then neighbouring village of Koino (later annexed to Vaksevo) taught. In 1866 on his initiative a special school building was built near the village church of St. Michael the Archangel erected in 1863. This school building lasted until 1924, when it was demolished due to danger of collapse. That school, the "Father Paisii" primary school, now lies abandoned and is facing collapse.
Making a living
Most people lived from cultivating their vineyards but also traded in tobacco and grain. For food, they also held animals. The village appears in the lists of the Dzhelepkeshan (sheep breeders) from 1576, from which it is understood that the local shepherds supplied sheep to the Ottoman army. The tax records also inform about the cultivation of: cereals, grapes, hemp, vegetables - 'zelki and kromid' (cabbage and onion), bees - 'ulista' (leaves) and fruit trees. The pear orchards were owned by Kyustendil Turks, but most of the arable land is "Raetska" - of the villagers. Until the Liberation, the local people bought almost all the Turkish land taken from them centuries ago and given into the possession of the Spahis and then to the Turkish landlords. The people took an active part in the struggles for national liberation and unification. The village continued to thrive. In 1910 there were 2201 sheep, 374 goats and 384 horses.
Fighting for a better life
Vaksevo gave more than a few honorable sacrifices in the wars of the early 20th century. (Balkan and World War I). In their memory a monument was erected in the centre of the village. With the coming of the socialist power after the coup of 9.09.1944, a turning point in the development of the village took place. With the formation of the local collective farm "Eleshnitsa" (1956), which from 1962 was part of the state farm "Nevestino". The arable land and livestock was taken away from the private owners, leaving a large number of people without a livelihood and forced to seek better lives elsewhere.
A number of measures were taken to improve the lives of those who remained. The village was electrified (1951) and supplied with water - 2 pumping stations were built (Vaxevo I (1962) and Vaxevo II (1969); most of the streets and the square were asphalted (1970). The following were opened: a workshop at the shoe factory "Ilyo Voivoda" - Kyustendil for sewing sarees, a hotel-restaurant, a confectionery, a kindergarten and a nursery, among other initiatives. After 1989, the population decline became even more dramatic. The school, kindergarten and nursery were closed. The shoe workshop was closed, but a new factory was opened - for the production of medicines for veterinary medicine.
Many of the remaining structures of the state farms and buildings are still used by villagers as either sheds or keep animals in. In my view, cultural and rural tourism could revive the area, as well as families settling to work remotely in this digital era. Because after all, if during thousands of years, this was an ideal place to live in, even during poverty and volatile times, why wouldn't we live there nowadays?
Saint George monastery
There's supposed to be a monastery nearby, although I haven't been able to locate it. Check for 'Ваксевският манастир', Vaksevskiyat manastir, meaning the monastery of Vaksevo. It goes by the name 'Манастир Свети Георги', Saint George monastery. The exact time when the monastery was founded is unknown. Most likely, it was during the Second Bulgarian Kingdom (XII - XIV Centuries). Two copper coins dated by the Archaeological Museum to the time of Tsar Ivan Asen (1218 - 1241) were found in the area of the monastery. During digging, clay pipes were uncovered which brought water to the monastery from the nearby karst spring at the Mikhtarska settlement. This prompted the owner of the field through which the pipes ran to dig deeper and uncover a large stone trough.
As there was always a main road through this place, it was relatively important. The monastery could have been one in a metoch (metochion or metochi is an ecclesiastical embassy church within Eastern Orthodox tradition), either led by Rila Monastery or Ruen Monastery quite nearby. The ancient monastery was destroyed by the Pomaks of the neighboring village of Pelatikovo, who thus proved their great attachment to their new religion - Islam. The place was then used as a burial site and another church was built. The frescoes are dated to the time after the original destruction of the monastery, when it was rebuilt; this was most likely in the 16th-17th Centuries. In 2009, the church underwent a partial renovation, including replacing the old tiles and plastering the facade, but this did not solve the main architectural and construction problems. The building has serious structural damage. Moisture penetration and atmospheric humidity over the years threaten the few valuable frescoes that survive. In 2016, the restoration of the ancient monastery was initiated by the Holy Bulgaria Foundation, with the assistance of the local church board and town hall.