Bulgaria’s Razgrad Boasts Growth of Cultural Tourism with Newly Restored Ancient Roman City Abritus
The northeastern Bulgarian city of Razgrad is seeing a rising number of tourists who visit the ruins of the Ancient Roman city Abritus, originally a Ancient Thracian settlement and later a medieval Bulgarian fortress, which has been partly restored with EU funding as a cultural tourism site.
“The [archaeological restoration] project “Abritus – Mysticism and Reality” has transformed the Abritus Archaeological Preserve, and turned it into an attractive destination, and a modern tourist product,” Razgrad Deputy Mayor Lyubomir Tsonev, who is in charge of the EU funded project, has told reporters at a press conference, as cited by Top Novini Razgrad.
Tsonev points that in the first five months of 2015 Abritus, a Late Antiquity Roman city, was visited by over 5,000 tourists from Bulgaria and abroad; their number is expected to grow since the archaeological restoration project has just been completed – Bulgaria’s construction authority issued its final permits only in May 2015.
In 2011, Razgrad Municipality started a project for the partial archaeological conservation and restoration of the Ancient Roman city Abritus worth BGN 6.2 million (app. EUR 3.17 million), most of which was EU funding. The project was supposed to be completed in 2013 but newly revealed archaeological structures necessitated new excavations, leading to a delay, and the restoration was wrapped up only in the fall of 2014, Tsonev has explained.
The Deputy Mayor emphasizes the intention of Razgrad Municipality to develop further the Abritus Archaeological Preserve as a sustainable destination for cultural tourism.
He explains that the restorations have allowed the in situ exhibition of 1,500-meter section of the Roman fortress wall of Abritus (although about 10-15% of it remains under Razgrad’s pharmaceutical plant which produces antibiotics), several Roman buildings, including two Early Christian basilicas, an amphitheater, an interactive museum with 12 exhibition halls, and observation towers for viewing the entire site.
“We have given Abritus a new form of life. We are not only preserving what has been built over the centuries but we are also integrating it in the contemporary life,” says Razgrad Mayor Dencho Boyadzhiev adding that his administration will seek EU funding for additional projects for the development of the archaeological preserve of Abritus based on new archaeological excavations.
Ivan Ivanov, Director of the Razgrad Regional Museum of History, has noted that the ruins of Abritus are used not only as a cultural tourism destination but also as the setting for different types of events such as graduation ceremonies, corporate meetings, and weddings.
The ruins of the Ancient Thracian and Roman city of Abritus are located outside the northeastern Bulgarian city of Razgrad. For a long time, in the 19th and the first half of the 20th century, the Bulgarian archaeologists and historians thought the Zaldapa Fortress located further to the northeast was the city of Abritus because of the name of the small town of Abrit located near Zaldapa. However, the ruins of Abritus were discovered some 100 km to the southwest, near the city of Razgrad, in 1953. The ruins of Abritus were identified after the discovery of an inscription fragment reading “Abr…”. In 1980, on its outskirts Bulgarian archaeologists found a limestone roadside pillar from the reign of Roman Emperor Philip the Arab (r. 244-249 AD) reading in Latin that it stood 1 Roman mile (1,492 meters) from Abritus. The name Abritus was also written on a limestone sacrificial altar dedicated to Hercules (Heracles) dated between 139 and 161 AD, which was found in 1954. The name Abritus is believed to stem from the Latin words “abrumpo” (terminate, interrupt) and abruptus (steepness, slope), and is taken to mean an “interrupted slope”.
Abritus (today’s Razgrad) was first an Ancient Thracian settlement established no later than the 5th century BC, and possibly even earlier, with archaeological excavations revealing Late Bronze Age Thracian homes, and Ancient Greek coins of Macedon King Philip II (r. 359-336 BC), and Alexander the Great (r. 336-323 AD), Thracian King Seuthes III of the Odrysian Kingdom (r. ca. 330-ca. 300 AD), and from the Ancient Greek colon of Odessos (today’s Varna) in the 3rd-2nd century BC. An inscription in Ancient Greek discovered in Abritus in 1953 from the 20s AD is dedicated to god Apollo. It dates to the reign of Thracian King Rhoemetalces II, who was a “Client Ruler” in association with his mother Antonia Tryphaena of the Odrysian Kingdom of Thrace under the Romans from 18 to 38 AD. Rhoemetacles is known to have crushed Thracian rebellions against the Romans who declared him “King of the Thracians”. Bulgarian archaeologists believe that the Thracian population of Abritus before the establishment of the Roman city consisted of Odrysians (Odrysae) and Gets (Getae), as well as possibly Celts.
The Ancient Roman city of Abritus was built in the 1st century AD on top of an Ancient Thracian settlement; later Abritus became one of the most important Roman cities in the province of Moesia Inferior. It is believed that the Roman city started as a Roman military camp of Сohors II Lucensium around 78 AD, during the reign of Emperor Vespasian (r. 69-79 AD), while some historians believe that the city was founded by Emperor Trajan (r. 98-117 AD). The earliest testimony about the stationing of the Roman cohort Cohors II Lucensium on the territory of today’s Bulgaria is a Roman military diploma from January 7, 78 AD, found in the Roman city of Montanesium, today’s Montana in Northwest Bulgaria. It is also known that in 136 AD Cohors II Lucensium was stationed in Kabile, one of the Ancient Thracians capitals, located near today’s Bulgarian city of Yambol.
The civilian Roman settlement, the so called сanabae legionis, emerged at the end of the 1st and the beginning of the 2nd century AD. Towards the end of the 3rd century AD Abritus acquired many urban features, and in the 4th century AD it was mentioned as a civitas, a city. Abritus was one of the fortifications on one of the main north-south Roman roads going through Sexaginta Prista (today’s Ruse), Marcianopolis or Marcianople (today’s Devnya) – Mesembria (today’s Nessebar) – Deultum (today’s Debelt) – Adrianople (Odrin, today’s Edirne in Turkey). Two other east-west secondary Roman roads passed near it was well: Sexaginta Prista – Marcianopolis – Odessos (today’s Varna), and Nicopolis ad Istrum – Marcianopolis – Odessos. In the later Roman period, the population of Abritus consisted of Romans, Thracians, Greeks, and other settlers from the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire. It worshipped the Roman deities from the Capitoline Triad – Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, as well as Hercules (Heracles), Hermes, Venus, Hygieia, Epona Regina (a Celtic deity protecting horses, donkeys, and mules), and the Thracian Horseman (Heros), among others. Christianity spread to Abritus in the 2nd century AD; in the 4th century AD Abritus became the seat of a bishop subordinate to the archbishop of Marcianopolis.
Ancient sources mention Abritus in connection with the Battle of Abritus in 251 AD, in which the Roman forces were defeated in the barbarian invasion of the Goths, and Roman Emperor Trajan Decius (r. 249-251 AD) and his co-emperor and son Herennius Etruscus (r. 251 AD) were killed. In 250 AD, about 70,000 Goths led by Gothic chieftain Cniva invaded the Roman Empire by crossing the Danube at Novae. The Goths raided a number of Roman cities reaching as far south as Philipopolis (today’s Plovdiv). They were initially beaten by Emperor Trajan Decius at Nicopolis ad Istrum (today’s Gigen). However, in the Battle of Abritus the following year he perished with his son Herennius Etruscus in a swamp near the Beli Lom River. At the beginning of the 4th century AD, during the reign of Roman Emperor Constantine I the Great (r. 306-337 AD), the Romans built a large fortress in Abritus. The city of Abritus had a fortified area of 150 decares (app. 37 acres), four gates, and 35 fortress towers (one of the gates and six of the fortress towers together with a section of the fortress wall remain beneath Razgrad’s pharmaceutical plant producing antibiotics, and cannot be excavated). An unfortified civilian settlement was located on a territory of another 150 decares outside the fortress walls meaning that the total built-up area of Abritus was about 300 decares (app. 75 acres).
Regardless of its robust defenses, however, the Late Antiquity Roman city of Abritus was conquered and ransacked several times by barbarian tribes, including by the Goths in 251 AD, and in 376-378 AD, the Huns of Attila in 447 AD, and the Avars and Slavs in 586 AD. In the Early Christian period, Abritus was the seat of a bishop, and the middle of the 6th century AD, it was rebuilt during the reign of Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565 AD). After it was destroyed by the barbarian invasion of the Avars and Slavs in 586 AD, however, at the end of the 6th century AD, the city of Abritus waned, and was abandoned. The year 586 AD is described as the year of the destruction of a number of Roman cities and strongholds along the Limes Moesiae, the Lower Danube frontier of the Empire, in today’s Bulgaria, including Abritus (today’s Razgrad), Colonia Ulpia Traiana Ratiaria (today’s Archar), Bononia (today’s Vidin), Ulpia Oescus (today’s Gigen), Durustorum (today’s Silistra), Marcianopolis (today’s Devnya).
Abritus was resurrected during the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD) when at the end of the 9th and the beginning of the 10th century AD (in the 7th century, according to some sources) a Bulgarian fortress was built on top of the Ancient Roman and Early Byzantine fortifications. The Bulgarian fortress at Abritus was ransacked by Knyaz Svietoslav I Igorevich, ruler of Kievan Rus (r. 945-972 AD) who invaded the First Bulgarian Empire in 968-971 AD). The fortress existed until the 1030s-1040s (after the First Bulgarian Empire was defeated by Byzantium in 1018 AD) when it was destroyed by the invading Pecheneg tribes, and has never been populated again. A medieval Bulgarian settlement from the 13th-14th century AD located nearby was called Hrazgrad, today’s Razgrad. It was conquered by the invading Ottoman Turks in 1388-1389 AD.
The archaeological excavations of the ruins of the Thracian, Roman, Byzantine, and Bulgarian city later identified as Abritus began in 1887 by Prof. Anani Yavashov, a Bulgarian naturalist and archaeologist, native of Razgrad (and grandfather of world famous Bulgarian-American architect Christo Javacheff). Czech-Bulgarian archaeologist Karel Skorpil also explored the ruins at the beginning of the 20th century. The systematic archaeological excavations which identified the Roman ruins near Razgrad as the ancient city of Abritus began in 1953 by Prof. Teofil Ivanov, and continued until 1972. One of the most interesting archaeological finds from Abritus is the largest gold treasure from the Late Antiquity to have ever been found in Bulgaria – it contains 835 coins from the 5th century AD weighing a total of 4 kg, and dating to the reigns of a total of 10 Eastern Roman Emperors and 1 Western Roman Emperor.
The Abritus Archaeological Preserve was established by the Bulgarian government in 1984 on a territory of about 1,000 decares (app. 250 acres) including monuments from Ancient Thrace, Ancient Rome, and the medieval Bulgarian Empire. In 2011, Razgrad Municipality started a project for the archaeological conservation and restoration of the Ancient Roman city Abritus worth BGN 6.2 million (app. EUR 3.17 million) most of which was EU funding. The project was supposed to be completed in 2013 but newly revealed archaeological structures necessitated new excavations, and the restoration was wrapped only in the fall of 2014, with final permits issued by the Bulgarian construction authority in May 2015.
Other historical monuments in the northeastern Bulgarian city of Razgrad, in addition to the Abritus Archaeological Preserve, include structures from the period of the Ottoman Yoke (1396-1878/1912) when Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire. These are the mosque built in 1616 on top of an earlier mosque built by Ibrahim Pasha, a grand vizier of Ottoman Sultan Suleiman I the Magnificent (r. 1520-1566 AD), and monuments from Bulgaria’s National Revival Period (the 18th-19th century) such as the clock tower built in 1864 by Tryavna architect Todor Tonchev, and Bulgarian homes with Revival Period architecture in the Varosha Quarter.