Hermit's cave and shrine, near St. Athanasius monastery in Bulgaria. Image Source: novinite.
Once upon a time, the sign that the times were changing was the institutionalization of the local hermit's cave. Countryside animist shrines, already revered by people in far-flung areas, often evolved into early Christian religious centres and monasteries. Archaeology forums and religious newsgroups recently reported that archaeologists have confirmed a local folkish site, a cave and shrine near the Monastery of Saint Athanasius, is the oldest such institution in Europe, founded in 344 CE. St. Athanasius apparently resided in the cave, although other accounts maintain that he slept in the neighbourhood Roman fortress as he passed through the region:
I have not found any online academic reports on the archaeological study, so cannot confirm what was discovered at this already-known cave and local shrine. One sign of our times is the rededication of historic sites to solidify claims which are currently relevant. Perhaps this story has a bigger, Millennial picture.Bulgarian archaeologists have uncovered what they believe is the oldest Christian monastery in Europea [sic] near the village of Zlatna Livada in southern Bulgaria.
According to latest archaeological research, the St. Athanasius monastery, still functioning near the village, has been founded in 344 by St. Athanasius himself, reports the BGNES agency.
Until now, the Candida Casa monastery, founded in 371 AD in Galloway, Scotland, was believed to be the oldest Christian monastery in Europe, followed by the St. Martin monastery in the Pyrénées-Orientales, France (373 AD).
Archaeologists have examined objects in a hermit's cave and shrine located near the present St. Athanasius monastery in Bulgaria, and found evidence that the great saint might have resided there.
Additional studies in archives at the Vatican have confirmed that St. Athanasius was present at the Church Council in Serdica (modern Sofia) in 343 AD.
He then travelled on to Constantinople and is believed to have stopped in the area of present Zlatna Livada, which is located in Thrace on the ancient way between Serdica and Constantinople.
... St. Athanasius of Alexandria (296/8-373) was for a long time Bishop of Alexandria, and is revered as one of the greatest Christian saints.
He did extensive work in theology and was one of the key figures in establishing the dogmata of Christian faith that are still accepted by Eastern Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant Christians alike.
The article implicitly ties several historical elements together. By associating the folkish cave with the saint, it combines Thracian and Hellenistic background links to Bulgarian Christian culture.
Maybe there is something more: an older Bulgarian report from 2007, here (English translation here; there is another report here with English translation here), offers an identical story as the one that recently circulated in forums in early 2012. The story - which names its 2004 source as Rosen Milev of the Balkan Media Academy (Балканмедия - this institution, incidentally, had nothing to do with archaeology; it was an EU-bridging journalist networking outfit or NGO project, established in Bulgaria in 2000, during the heady heights of EU promotion, see here and here) - does not name any archaeologists. This article has photos of the monastery as well as the cave and adjacent holy springs, reputed to have curative properties. This reputation extends back to Thracian times.
The article describes a local legend that St. Athanasius was traveling from the Council of Sardica in 343 CE. He arrived in this area of modern-day Bulgaria during an epidemic, and discovered that the local spring, 300 metres from the Roman fortress where he was staying, had reputed healing properties. He told the locals that the epidemic would end if they built a monastery and church right next to the cave, which was the entrance to the Thracian sacred site. Commenters on this story remark that the monastery, built in the 9th century, is popularly considered to be the spiritual basis of the Second Bulgarian Empire in the 14th century.
Whatever its bases, this story has become a typical Millennial online urban legend, a seemingly authoritative account, with layers of time juxtaposed: a site with mystical origins in the Iron Age was appropriated by Christianity; the Christian monastery remained powerful through the Middle Ages and into the modern period, followed by a nationalist subtext ironically rebranded for Big Europe by the EU's publicity machine at the turn of the Millenium.
Regardless, this cave and spring - cast and recast across the ages in contemporary terms - constantly dominates the local mentality. The real question is, why this constant? Why is this site considered across all time periods to be so powerful? Is it because some part of our sensibility simply has not changed since pre-historic times?
You can see one room inside the monastery in the video below the jump.