The Stronghold of the Second Bulgarian Empire
[Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria]
The river Yantra begins high up on the slopes of the Balkans, and winds its way down to the Danube. On the way, Yantra carves up gorges around the hills of present-day Veliko Tarnovo where the medieval Bulgarian Khans decided to build the stronghold of the Second Bulgarian Empire. Named Tsarevets, after one of the three hills in the area, the stronghold became the most important political, economic, religious and cultural center of the empire. For 200 years, between 1186 and 1393, the Bulgarian Empire and Tsarevets, its capital, flourished. But the arrival of the Turks changed everything, and darkness fell upon our land for the next 500 years. Tsarevets, however, remains perched up on the hill in all its glory, a reminder of glorious days past. And that was our destination for Thursday.
There are three hills in this area, and two of them, Tsarevets and Trapezitsa, were fortified by the Bulgarians. The river Yantra weaves around two of the hills so that they are surrounded by water on 3 sides. Tsarevets is the bigger of the two, the area behind its walls adding up to more than 100,000 square meters (11,000 sq ft). The bigger entrance is from the West, and one must pass 3 gates, the first one with a drawbridge above the river, in order to enter.
The two biggest structures that dominate the fortress are the King’s quarters and the Cathedral of the Patriarch.
Another famous landmark is the South-Eastern tower, named Baldwin’s Tower after Latin Emperor Baldwin I of Contantinople, who died here as a prisoner of Khan Kaloyan of Bulgaria.
The tower and the cathedral are both reconstructions of the originals, and the cathedral was painted inside in 1985 with murals depicting conventional Christian subjects as well as glorious and tragic moments from the Second Bulgarian Empire.
Our next stop was Forty Martyr’s Church, just outside Tsarevets and down by the river Yantra. The church was built in 1230 after a big victory by khan Ivan Assen II. The church consists of a basilica with 6 columns inside. Three of the columns have historical significance, as some of the Bulgarian Empire’s most important events are inscribed on them. These columns were placed in the church by Ivan Asen II as a tribute to his mighty ancestors. In addition, the graves of some of the most powerful Bulgarian Khans are here, including Kaloyan, Omurtag and others.
Very close by, just 3 km (less than 2 miles) is the village of Arbanasi. Perched up even higher than Tsarevets, this little village was known for the riches of its inhabitants during the 19th century. They were given special permission by the sultan to trade and conduct business without interference from the Turks. The buildings in the village are classic examples of the period of the Bulgarian National Revival – the national integration of the Bulgarian people under Ottoman rule that eventually resulted in our liberation from the Turks in 1878. The buildings had become property of the state under communist rule, but they were returned to their rightful owners in the 1990s. Many of them had been restored to their previous glory and are now quaint little hotels and guest houses unlike any others you will find outside of Bulgaria.
We toured one of the houses, called Konstantsalyiska House, had been donated to Bulgaria as a museum, and it represented life at that time down to the 3-legged chairs, the stone fireplaces used for baking bread, the stone containers used for bringing water from the well, etc. One couldn’t help but imagine what life must have been like in that house and in the village.
Our last stop for the day was the Church of Nativity of Christ, which featured frescoes from the 15th- to 17th centuries. It is a proposed UNESCO World Heritage site and will probably become one soon. One of the walls of the church were reinforced with concrete columns from the outside, as that side had started to lean on one side.
As the sun set, we had dinner at a restaurant just past the main entry to Tsarevets. The fortress was towering by us and it was especially beautiful once the sun was down and the lights came on. The small fortress on the opposite hill, Trapezitsa, was also lit.
I couldn’t help but compare the glorious days of a 1000 years ago with the bleakness of present-day Bulgaria, which is still plagued by many problems even 25 years after the end of communist rule. What would our khans think if they saw us now? Would they feel their battles and great deeds were all for nothing? Are what we consider our negative national traits borne out of Turkish rule, or have we always been a divided, polarized nation? After all, the Turks found a deeply fragmented Bulgarian empire when they got here in the late 14th century, and the most important Bulgarian revolutionary of the Revival period, Vasil Levski, was supposedly betrayed by one of his own countrymen. All of these thoughts could not escape me while dining by the medieval fortress; it was as if our khans were overlooking the city from the stronghold, sadly shaking their heads.