Rahovets Fortress Was Ancient Thracian City Zikideva, Bulgarian Archaeologist Hypothesizes

Some of the artifacts discovered in the recent archaeological excavations of the ancient and medieval Rahovets Fortress near Bulgaria's Gorna Oryahovitsa. Photo: Gorna Oryahovitsa Municipality

Some of the artifacts discovered in the recent archaeological excavations of the ancient and medieval Rahovets Fortress near Bulgaria’s Gorna Oryahovitsa. Photo: Gorna Oryahovitsa Municipality

The ancient and medieval fortress Rahovets, which is being excavated near the town of Gorna Oryahovitsa in Central Northern Bulgaria, was probably the the place of the legendary Ancient Thracian city Zikideva, Bulgarian archaeologist Prof. Hitko Vachev has hypothesized.

Vachev is the consultant of the team led by archaeologist Iliyan Petrakiev from the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History and Maya Ivanova from the Gorna Oryahovitsa Museum of History that is excavating the fortress of Rahovets for the first time since 1991.

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; 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 now provided from its budget the entire funding for the renewed excavations amounting to BGN 20,000 (app. EUR 10,200).

Speaking a news conference, Prof. Hitko Vachev has presented his hypothesis that Rahovets was in fact the Ancient Thracian city Zekideva, which is otherwise believed to have been located on the territory of the city of Veliko Tarnovo.

“The previous archaeological excavations (in the 1980s) discovered 12 amphora seals (placed on the handles of amphorae with wine and olive oil) which demonstrate intensive trade relations of this settlement from the Thracian period with the Ancient Greek colonies. What is more, no fortress wall from this period has been found in Veliko Tarnovo,” Vachev says, as quoted by the press service of Gorna Oryahovitsa Municipality.

(L-R): Gorna Oryahovitsa Mayor Dobromir Dobrev with archaeologists Prof. Hitko Vachev, Maya Ivanova, and Iliyan Petrakiev speaking about the recent discoveries at the Rahovets Fortress near Bulgaria's Gorna Oryahovitsa. Photo: Gorna Oryahovitsa Municipality

(L-R): Gorna Oryahovitsa Mayor Dobromir Dobrev with archaeologists Prof. Hitko Vachev, Maya Ivanova, and Iliyan Petrakiev speaking about the recent discoveries at the Rahovets Fortress near Bulgaria’s Gorna Oryahovitsa. Photo: Gorna Oryahovitsa Municipality

Last week lead archaeologist Iliyan Petrakiev revealed that his team had come across an unexpectedly high number of finds from Ancient Thrace while they had originally expected to discover more about the role of Rahovets in the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD), and have found evidence that the fortress used to be an Ancient Thracian rock shrine. Petrakiev has now provided further details about his team’s discoveries in the archaeological excavations, which are due to be wrapped up on July 20, 2015.

“The aim of the present excavations has been to establish the archaeological layers of the site at the main southeastern gate, and at the northern gate of the fortress. So far the traces from the medieval period reveal 3 construction phases, which is new information. Another new discovery is the cultural layer from the Iron Age – both Early and Late,” says the lead archaeologist.

He adds that the main conclusion is that the Rahovets Fortress existed for at least 2,000 years – from the 1st millennium BC until 1444 AD (when it was destroyed 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 for the liberation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman Turks).

Some of the artifacts discovered in the recent archaeological excavations of the ancient and medieval Rahovets Fortress near Bulgaria's Gorna Oryahovitsa. Photo: Gorna Oryahovitsa Municipality

Some of the artifacts discovered in the recent archaeological excavations of the ancient and medieval Rahovets Fortress near Bulgaria's Gorna Oryahovitsa. Photo: Gorna Oryahovitsa Municipality

Some of the artifacts discovered in the recent archaeological excavations of the ancient and medieval Rahovets Fortress near Bulgaria’s Gorna Oryahovitsa. Photo: Gorna Oryahovitsa Municipality

“Another interesting fact is that under the Thracian fortress wall we have discovered a kiln with a stone arch, which is a rarity. We are currently working at the northern gate where we are trying to unearth a medieval street. It is supposed to show us the way into the residential quarters inside the fortress but this is probably going to happen next year. I hope that Gorna Oryahovitsa Municipality will put in consistent efforts into the research of the Rahovets Fortress,” Petrakiev has stated further.

With respect to the role of the Rahovets Fortress in the 12th-14th, during the Second Bulgarian Empire, Prof. Hitko Vachev has explained that it was crucial for the defense of the then Bulgarian capital Tarnovgrad (today’s Veliko Tarnovo).

“The Rahovets Fortress is the most precisely constructed facility in medieval Bulgaria in the 12th-14th century. No other fortress has so perfectly erected gates, fortress walls, and towers. The perfection of this fortification means that Bulgaria’s medieval army was garrisoned in Rahovets, and not in the capital Tarnovgrad,” Vachev says.

Rahovets was the key to the capital. This is because since the time of the Roman Empire the army was not stationed in the capital but near it. The capital itself had a smaller garrison. The largest fortress standing at a key location on the route towards the capital is Rahovets, he adds.

The archaeologist notes, however, that Rahovets was not just a major garrison but also had residential quarters and developed crafts to serve the medieval Bulgarian military.

Gorna Oryahovitsa Mayor Dobromir Dobrev has made it clear that his administration will continue to invest in the archaeological excavation and conservation of the Rahovets Fortress in order to develop it as a destination for cultural tourism.

“My intention is to continue in the same direction. I am convinced that step by step we are going to make greater discoveries. The Rahovets Fortress is a very significant find not only for Gorna Oryahovitsa, but also for Bulgaria,” the Mayor says.

He vows that the municipal authorities will provide funding for the security of the Rahovets Fortress after the completion of the archaeological excavations in order to protect the archaeological site from treasure hunters.

The Rahovets Fortress near Bulgaria's Gorna Oryahovitsa existed for more than 2,000 years. Photos: Gorna Oryahovitsa Municipality

Artifacts Rahovets 6

Artifacts Rahovets 5

The Rahovets Fortress near Bulgaria’s Gorna Oryahovitsa existed for more than 2,000 years. Photos: Gorna Oryahovitsa Municipality

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 turn 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.