Medieval Rahovets Fortress in Central Bulgaria Was Also Thracian Rock Shrine, Archaeological Excavations Reveal

Medieval Rahovets Fortress in Central Bulgaria Was Also Thracian Rock Shrine, Archaeological Excavations Reveal

Archaeologists from the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History and the Gorna Oryahovitsa Museum of History are conducting the first archaeological excavations of the ancient and medieval fortress Rahovets near Bulgaria’s Gorna Oryahovitsa since 1991. Photo: Gorna Oryahovitsa Municipality

Archaeologists from the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History and the Gorna Oryahovitsa Museum of History are conducting the first archaeological excavations of the ancient and medieval fortress Rahovets near Bulgaria’s Gorna Oryahovitsa since 1991. Photo: Gorna Oryahovitsa Municipality

The ancient and medieval settlement and fortress Rahovets located near the northern Bulgarian town of Gorna Oryahovitsa, and the city of Veliko Tarnovo was also used as a rock shrine by the Ancient Thracians, according to archaeologist Iliyan Petrakiev from the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History.

Petrakiev, together with Maya Ivanova from the Gorna Oryahovitsa Museum of History, is the lead archaeologist in the first archaeological excavations of the Rahovets Fortress since 1991.

He says the structure and planning of Rahovets, which is to be granted a “monument of culture” status as a settlement and fortress is similar to those of the ancient and medieval rock city of Perperikon (Perperik) in the Eastern Rhodope Mountains in Southern Bulgaria.

In his words, the rocky hill of Rahovets was inhabited in the Iron Age as well as during the Middle Ages, and since the settlement and fortification actually enclose a rock, in the period of Ancient Thrace the place was probably used for both defensive and religious purposes, i.e. as a shrine.

“These types of settlements are almost always built at inaccessible locations, up on high rocks with clear visibility of the surrounding area. The place is also suitable for religious rites. We know that the sun was a powerful force in the Ancient Thracians’ religion," Petrakiev says, as quited by Radio Focus Veliko Tarnovo.

He adds that together with his colleagues and a total of 10 workers they have been working on the main fortress gate in the southeast part of the Rahovets hill. The discovery of a large quantity of ancient ceramics is evidence that the site was inhabited by the Ancient Thracians during the Iron Age.

“We have discovered abundant Thracian pottery around the southeast gate. We have found a structure from the Thracian period, which was most probably a fortification that remains beneath the medieval fortress walls. In fact, the builders in the Middle Ages probably built upon the existing Thracian fortress wall. We should be able to prove by the end of the archaeological season whether this was a Thracian settlement with fortifications," Petrakiev points out, adding that there are relatively few Thracian cities with fortress walls that have been explored in Bulgaria.

The archaeologist also says that the excavations of the Rahovets Fortress may indicate that it was one of the first fortifications ever built in the history of the region of today’s Central North Bulgaria, and that it was probably erected by the Thracian tribe Krobyzoi.

“For the time being, our data is sparse since we set out to study the Rahovets Fortress from the Middle Ages but so far our findings have to do mostly with Ancient Thrace," Petrakiev elaborates.

The archaeologist hopes that there will be funding for turning the Rahovets Fortress into a destination for cultural, historical, and archaeological tourism; this entails building proper tourist infrastructure to make the site accessible for visitors. That way it could become a cultural attraction similar to Perperikon in Southern Bulgaria.

Perperikon has been excavated for more than 10 years, and with lots of funding but if it can emerge as a serious tourist destination, why can’t the Rahovets Fortress become the same? Here we have rather preserved solid walls. The inside of the fortress has never been excavated which means we have a deep archaeological layer whose proper exploration will take years," Petrakiev explains.

He concludes by revealing that the excavations of the Rahovets Fortress will be completed on July 20, 2015. He hopes that in 2016 the exploration of the site will be awarded funding from the Bulgarian government since the present excavations are carried out only with funding from the Gorna Oryahovitsa Municipality; no funding from the central government has been sought out in 2015 because of the requirement that the respective archaeological site was excavated the previous year as well.

Rahovets existed as a settlement and later as a fortress from the 6th century BC until the 15th century AD, and was used consecutively by the Ancient Thracians, the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Bulgarian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire.

It has been excavated only once – between 1985 and 1991; last week Gorna Oryahovitsa Municipality announced that archaeologists from the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History were restarting the archaeological exploration the Rahovets Fortress after a pause of almost 25 years.

The municipal administration of Gorna Oryahovitsa, which is located near the city of Veliko Tarnovo (the descendant of Tarnovgrad, capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire in 1185-1396 AD), has provided from its budget the entire funding for the renewed excavations amounting to BGN 20,000 (app. EUR 10,200).

The excavations of Rahovets are consulted by Prof. Dr. Hitko Vatchev who participated in the only archaeological digs at Rahovets so far back in the late 1980s.

The Veliko Tarnovo archaeologists originally planned to focus on establishing the stratification of the archaeological layers in the Rahovets Fortress, whose lifespan was some 2,000 years, with its height in the High and Late Middle Ages when it was one of the fortifications defending the Bulgarian capital Tarnovgrad from the north.

There are claims that Rahovets was the city where the Tsars of the Second Bulgarian Empire minted their coins; which this has not been established for certain, Bulgarian archaeologists have found there traces of metal smelting from the Middle Ages.

The fortress was destroyed only in 1444 AD by the forces of Polish King Vladislav (Wladyslaw) III ((r. 1424-1444 AD) who launched two unsuccessful Crusades against the Ottoman Empire in 1443 AD and 1444 AD (he is also known as Vladislav Varnenchik (Vladislav of Varna) because he was killed in the Battle of Varna in 1444 AD). After 1444, the Ottoman Turks abandoned the Rahovets Fortress completely.

Background Infonotes:

The ancient and medieval settlement and fortress of Rahovets is located near the town of Gorna Oryahovitsa and the city of Veliko Tarnovo, in Veliko Tarnovo District, Northern Bulgaria. It existed as a settlement and later as a fortress from the 6th century BC until the 15th century AD, and was used consecutively by the Ancient Thracians, the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Bulgarian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire. The Rahovets Fortress is located at a curve of the Yantra River, on a hill towering about 100 meters over the surrounding area.

The site of the Rahovets Fortress was inhabited by the Ancient Thracians, during the Iron Age, as early as the 6th century BC. Some Bulgarian scholars have hypothesized that the settlement that later became known as the Rahovets Fortress was part of a huge regional fortification system in Thracian times, and/or that Rahovets was in fact the ancient city Beripara, the alleged capital of the Thracian tribe Krobyzoi (which might have belonged to the Thracian tribes of the Gets (Getae) or the Dacians). However, these hypotheses have not been proven. The Roman Fortress of Rahova, later called Rahovets, was built in the 3rd-4th century AD as part of the fortification system guarding the roads in the Roman province of Moesia Inferior (later divided into Moesia Secunda and Scythia Minor).

Rahovets remained an important fortress during the period of the Early Byzantine Empire (Late Antiquity and Early Middle Ages), during the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD), then again during the period of Byzantine domination over Bulgaria (1018-1185 AD). It became especially important during the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396), which was created after the Uprising of Asen and Petar (later Tsar Asen I and Tsar Petar IV) against the Byzantine Empire in 1185-1186 AD when Tarnovgrad (today’s Veliko Tarnovo) was declared capital of Bulgaria. It became part of a set of fortifications which protected Tarnovgrad from the north. There are hypotheses that Rahovets used to be the locations of the coin mint of the Tsars from the Second Bulgarian Empire, and while these hypotheses have not been confirmed, Bulgarian archaeologists have indeed discovered there evidence of metal smelting during the Middle Ages. They have also found a residential area outside of the fortress, between the fortress wall and the Yantra River, known as the Dark City, meaning that it might have been the site of a large medieval city, where the Rahovets Fortress had the role of a citadel.

After the invading Ottoman Turks conquered the Second Bulgarian Empire at the end of the 14th century, they continued to use the Rahovets Fortress. The fortress was destroyed only in 1444 AD by the forces of Polish King Vladislav (Wladyslaw) III ((r. 1424-1444 AD) who launched two unsuccessful Crusades against the Ottoman Empire in 1443 AD and 1444 AD (he is also known as Vladislav Varnenchik (Vladislav of Varna) because he was killed in the Battle of Varna in 1444 AD). After that, the Turks abandoned the Rahovets Fortress completely. While much of the archaeological structures at the Rahovets Fortress had survived until the beginning of the 20th century (including fortress walls, towers, and gates described by Czech-Bulgarian archaeologist Karel Skorpil), those were destroyed in 1913 by a strong earthquake with an epicenter in the nearby town of Gorna Oryahovitsa.

The Rahovets Fortress was first mentioned in historical sources by Byzantine chronicler George Pachymeres (1242-1310) in 1304 AD, and again in 1460 AD by German wandering singer Michael Beheim (1416-ca. 1472) in a poem based on the story of a crusader knight from the second Crusade of Polish King Vladislav (Wladyslaw) III against the Ottoman Empire aiming the liberation of Bulgaria and the other Balkan Christian nations in 1444 AD. In the early 20th century, Czech-Bulgarian archaeologist Karel Skorpil drafted a blueprint of the preserved ruins of the Rahovets Fortress, which, however, were destroyed further by an earthquake in 1913. The Rahovets Fortress was excavated only between 1985 and 1991 by Veliko Tarnovo archaeologists Yordan Aleksiev, Ivan Bachvarov, and Hitko Vatchev. They excavated partly the western, northern, and eastern fortress wall, which were about 3 meters thick. The archaeological digs at the fortress confirmed not only its significance during the Second Bulgarian Empire but also the fact that as a settlement it is really ancient: the Bulgarian archaeologists found a large amount of Ancient Thracian ceramics, and amphora seals testifying about the connections with the Hellenic world. They also discovered the nearby remains of a rural Ancient Roman villa (known as villa rustica) from the 3rd-4th century AD, ancient coins, decorations, and tools as well as artifacts and arms from the Second Bulgarian Empire.