Home / About / Alex Rodriguez Suarez

Alex Rodriguez Suarez


Alex Rodriguez Suarez is an independent researcher based in Barcelona. He received his PhD in Byzantine history from King’s College London (2014). Since then he has conducted research in Turkey (ANAMED, AKMED), Bulgaria (CAS Sofia), Italy (Centro Vittore Branca), Greece (American School of Classical Studies at Athens), Lebanon (Orient-Institut Beirut) and Israel/Palestine (W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research). Moreover, he has been a summer fellow at Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection (Washington DC). His latest projects have focused on the religious soundscape of the Christian communities of Southeastern Europe and the Middle East, mainly the use of church bells. Among his other research interests are cultural exchange and iconography.

The Bells of Melnik and Their Role in the Cultural Heritage Discourse of the National Museum of History (Sofia)

In 2002, in unclear circumstances, two bells were discovered in the ruined church of St Nicholas, in the upper city of Melnik, the smallest city in Bulgaria. They had been buried for protection; however, it is unknown when this event took place. It may have been in 1395, when the the city was taken by the Ottomans. Under Ottoman rule bell ringing was banned until 1856. The other possibility is that the bells were hidden during the Balkan Wars (1912-1913), when Melnik was incorporated into the modern Bulgarian state and the Greek population of the settlement left for Greece. Both artefacts have inscriptions in Greek. These date the two instruments to the thirteenth century, making them among the oldest such instruments to have been preserved in the Balkans. When their historical value and exceptionality were recognised, the bells were taken to Sofia to be preserved at the National Museum of History, where they became one of the highlights of the medieval collection. Their display, in the centre of a magnificent room, contrasts with the little information provided by their labels, which only show their chronology and a translation of their inscriptions. With such limited details, the visitors cannot understand the real significance of the two instruments. Both bells form part of a collection whose main goal is to tell visitants and tourists about the existence and the splendour of the medieval Bulgarian state. In other words, these remarkable instances of material culture are used to project a cultural heritage discourse that fosters national pride and identity.

In this paper I will first present the two bells from Melnik: Their production in the thirteenth century, what we know about the individuals who commissioned them and their current display and use at the National History Museum in Sofia. Then I will explain the importance of these two artefacts for the history of the Orthodox faith in the Balkan Peninsula, not only for Bulgaria, and how they help us to visualise and trace the introduction of a new sound: Bell ringing. This new sonic element changed the religious soundscape of the Orthodox communities during the Second Bulgarian Kingdom (1185-1396) and Late Byzantium (1261-1461). This was a key step in the development of the practices of the Orthodox Churches under the influence of Constantinople. One that had a profound impact and still echoes in the contemporary societies of the Balkans, as bells continue to ring in both churches and monasteries of Bulgaria, North Macedonia and Greece. Thus, the two bells from Melnik should not be reduced to instances of material culture, they also embody an intangible tradition that was initiated when they were cast.