The municipality of ELENA is situated in the North Central Region of the Republic of Bulgaria and occupies the southernmost parts of the region of Veliko Tarnovo, the high parts of the Fore Balkan and the Balkan Mountains, with borders reaching the Balkan ridge along the northern slopes of the Main Balkan Chain (Elena-Tvarditsa Share) and the fore mountain to the north of it.
The municipality has an area of 671.39 square kilometres and altitudes from 100 to 1,536 meters. The relief is also varied: from hilly-plain in the northern parts to pronounced mountainous in the southern parts, characterized by steep slopes and deep-cut river valleys. The prevailing terrain has altitudes from 300 to 600 meters above sea level and tilts of 20-30 degrees, which aggravates the use. The Chumerna Peak (1,536 meters) is the highest peak of the Elena-Tvarditsa Mountain.
The municipality of Elena borders six municipalities from five regions: the municipalities of Zlataritsa and Veliko Tarnovo to the north and northwest; the municipality of Antonovo, region of Targovishte, to the northeast; the eastern border is with the municipality of Sliven; to the south, along the ridge of the Balkan Mountains, it borders with the municipality of Tvarditsa, region of Sliven, and the municipality of Gurkovo, region of Stara Zagora.
Since 1430, the town has been known with the names Stramena and Elyana. In the 18th and 19th centuries, it was a craft, trade, and cultural center. The town and the inhabitants of Elena played an important role during the Bulgarian Revival. Almost every important event from that time happened with the participation of people from Elena: the Velchova Zavera (Velcho’s Conspiracy) in 1835 and the Tarnovo Rebellion in 1862.
The town of Elena is called the Bulgarian Bethlehem, as there were three churches during the Revival period. This was not seen in any other Bulgarian town then.
The first relic place of Elena is the St. Nicholas old church. It existed even before the 16th century. The old Psalter, “printed in Venice by Vicenza, son of Bozidar Vukovic, the leader of Podgorica,” wrote: “The book is given to the church of Saint Nicholas in 1518 by a Pera.” As early as that time, the temple was a literary repository and a bridge between the Tarnovo Literary School and Elena. By tradition, the church had many old manuscripts written on parchment. There was even a special priest who kept the books and gave them out for use. The Saint Nicholas Temple was the only one to serve the neighbourhoods of Elena. Their cottagers performed the religious rites in their churches. Under a-century-old oaks, they prayed for rain and rich harvest. Public worship took place on the days of their saints Saint Archangel, Saint Nicholas, and St. Elijah. The Old Man used to incense the common table with incense put on a broken tile instead of a censer. The cottagers came to the Elena Church on Sunday to attend divine service. The day of going to church became the market day, too. Thus, later on, they started organising fairs that lasted three days and took place three times a year.
On 23 April 1800, on St. George’s Day, Elena was attacked by the kardzhalii, the St. Nicholas Church was burned together with a large part of its books. Without permission, the people of Elena began recovering it. They built the temple secretly for 40 days and dug it into the ground not to annoy the enslaver. It was renewed in its present form in 1804 with the means of wealthy citizens and the labor of local people.
The rebuilding was managed by Hadji Ivan Kisyov, grandson of Pop Petko Sheytana, who attended the Sultan’s mother in Tzarigrad in a hat made of wheat-ears and persuaded her that the people of Elena should be relieved of their obligation to pay tax on growing wheat. Having heard that the Tarnovo governor would order an examination whether the people of Elena were building a church illegally, one night, Hadji Ivan Kisyov had the outer walls of the church grouted with lime and charcoal solution. Thus, the walls looked old and smoke-black. Hadji Ivan kindly welcomed the examiners, gave them 30 golden coins, showed them the building and told them: “Greet the governor for me and tell him that the people of Elena are not building a church but reconstructing an old threshing-floor.”
The church looked like a stronghold from the outside. Its walls were made of stone and were 1-meter thick; the little windows had iron gratings and that of the altar resembled an embrasure. The door was made of thick oak boards studded with iron, with a unique heavy lock mechanism. It was roofed with heavy stone slates. The church was sanctified on the Annunciation, 25 March 1805. A stone plate built in on the left of the altar says that the church was rebuilt from its foundations after being burned down by agarian bandits. The biggest loss was that of the burned historic parchment manuscripts from the literary treasury.
The St. Nicholas church was completely decorated by the famous Elena icon-painters of those ages – David and Yakov, born in the neighborhood of Bolertsi, who finished their work in 1817–1818. The murals are of exceptional value and were declared cultural monuments of national importance. Here are the images of St. Methodius of Moravia, Georgi Sofiyski Novi, Sava Serbian, and the image of St. Kliment Ohridski, one of the rare in Bulgaria and Macedonia, of a high artistic value. Of great artistic value are also the wooden iconostasis and the bishop’s stall.
With the permission of the Governor of Ruse and Tarnovo, Smalil Aga, a new Assumption of the Holy Mother of God Chapel was erected in 1800, transformed in 1813 into a more solid building. As the time passed, the wooden building ceased satisfying the needs of the settlement. The people of Elena decided to build a bigger church. They thought they could demolish the Kaleto fortified wall and use its stone materials. They decided to do so in order to prevent the fortress from being settled by Turkish garrisons. The church was built by Master Miho from the Boletsi neighborhood near Elena. With its solid construction and material processing, the artistic execution of the details, and especially the interior space solution, the whole building mirrors not only the increased self-esteem of the citizens but also the constructive mastery and courage of Master Miho. He was a contemporary of Kolyu Ficheto and Master Gencho Kanev and did not step back to their creativity, design, and realisation. The construction started in 1836 and was completed in 1837 when the temple was sanctified on 28 August.
In 1861, the temple was repaired and a notice stating this was left on the western wall high above the cornice. The bell tower is a separate building, built in 1912. In 1925, the Assumption of the Most Holy Mother Church lost a very valuable artistic creation: the iconostasis was burned down in a fire. The new iconostasis was carved by Georgi Kirov and the icons were painted by the artist Hristo Berberov of Elena.
The third relic – the Nativity of the Holy Mother of God Temple had a fate similar to the one of the St. Nicholas old church and was bounded with the historical development of the town. In 1812, a chapel was built under the direction of Hadji Yordan Bradata on a place given as a present by Hadji Panayot and Hadji Dimitar Razsukanov. Again, it was reported in Tarnovo that the church was being built in secret and without the sultan’s decision. Similar to Hadji Ivan Kisyov, Hadji Yordan Bradata disguised the building before the examination; he ordered cribs to be put and horses to be tied up in the temple in order to make it look like stables. The chapel and the cells built near it were primary used as a convent for young girls. A legend says that Hadji Yordan Bradata’s wife, after his hanging, entered this same convent as a nun. The conspirators from the Velcho’s Conspiracy swore at the icon of Hadji Yordan Bradata (brought from the Holy Sepulchre) in the temple of the St. Elijah Monastery in Plakovo. On 20 July 1859, the knit walls of the Nativity of the Holy Mother of God Chapel did not survive the fire. The people started the building of a new church and finished it in 1865. It was built by the young master Kolyo Petkov from Tryavna, a student of Kolyu Ficheto. The next year, a school for young girls was opened in the two rooms built to the temple. The school functioned until 1894.