Zavala Monastery, a fascinating Orthodox gem

Ljiljana Krejic | Live the World

November 23, 2022

Somewhere on the southwestern edge of the stunning Popovo Polje, known as Provence of Bosnia & Herzegovina, hidden in the picturesque setting of a steep cliff, stands still an architectural wonder – Zavala Monastery. Its secluded location and far-fetched appearance are perfectly matched with its ascetic monastic mission. Along with Žitomislić and Tvrdoš Monastery, Zavala is one of three most important religious centres that form an ultimate trio of Orthodox monasteries in Herzegovina. Established in the Late Antiquity by the first Christian Roman emperor, this sanctuary was mentioned for the first time in the 13th century. Particularly renowned for its medieval frescoes, Zavala Monastery has a power to enchant you during your visit to this fascinating Orthodox gem. So, whether you happen to be in the city of Trebinje or road-tripping the hinterlands of Bosnian Adriatic coast, try to visit this remote shrine.

One of the oldest monasteries in Bosnia & Herzegovina

Around 50 km in the northwest direction from Trebinje and 12 km from the Adriatic coast, you can find Zavala, one of the oldest monasteries in Bosnia & Herzegovina. Dedicated to the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the original sanctuary was founded by the Roman Emperor St. Constantin and his mother St. Helen. After the construction of a church in Slano (today’s Croatia), they were impressed by the religious inhabitants of Zavala, so they decided to build a temple here as well. However, the oldest remnant of Zavala Monastery is an ancient seal, on which the year 1271 is indicated. At the beginning of the 16th century, this monastery was home to a scriptorium, hence the first written documents mentioned Zavala Monastery only in 1514.

A supreme example of architectural symbiosis

A fascinating position is what makes this monastery looking impressive. Nested below the Ostrog Hill, its northern wall and altar are almost carved into a rock. If you observe carefully, you might notice how the constructors respected the natural shape of a cliff and how perfectly the church is attached to it. One would say that it is a supreme example of architectural symbiosis between a rock and a sanctuary. No wonder that St. Basil of Ostrog (born on 1610 in the nearby village Mrkonjići) has chosen this shrine to enter the monastic life.

After being fascinated by its exterior look, I invite you to explore the interior of the church that dates back to 1619. As you will notice yourselves, all the walls of the temple are covered with frescoes done by the greatest Serbian painter from the 16th century - Gregorije Mitrofanović. Before this monastery, he painted the walls of Hilandar Monastery on Mt. Athos (Greece), but also Dobrićevo Monastery near Bileća Lake. His work in Zavala Monastery is considered the finest example of medieval frescoes in Bosnia & Herzegovina.

Bonus: Vjetrenica Cave

Besides this monastery, in the region of Zavala, there are remains of multiple different medieval churches and fortifications, which makes us understand that this place had a significant role to play during the time of Middle Age. On the top of this comes the world’s richest grotto in terms of subterranean biodiversity Vjetrenica Cave. Located only 650 meters from the monastery, this cave is home to more than 200 different animal species wholly adapted to life in the eternal darkness, including the Human Fish, an extremely endemic and the only European underwater vertebrate.

Along with surrounding old village and nearby Vjetrenica Cave, a fascinating Orthodox gem – Zavala Monastery is protected as a national treasure of Bosnia & Herzegovina and also placed on the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. Far enough to invite you for a visit, right?

Photo credits: Tourism organization of Trebinje

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