Archaeologists Find Coins of Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt in Kastritsi Fortress near Bulgaria’s Varna

Archaeologists Find Coins of Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt in Kastritsi Fortress near Bulgaria’s Varna

Archaeological structures in the Late Antiquity and medieval city and fortress of Kastritsi near Bulgaria's Varna on the Black Sea coast. Photo: TV grab from Nikolay Uvaliev’s YouTube Channel

Archaeological structures in the Late Antiquity and medieval city and fortress of Kastritsi near Bulgaria’s Varna on the Black Sea coast. Photo: TV grab from Nikolay Uvaliev’s YouTube Channel

Coins from the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt (Cairo) (1250-1517 AD) have been discovered, among a wide range of other finds, by the Bulgarian archaeologists excavating the Late Antiquity and medieval Byzantine and Bulgarian fortress Kastritsi, which is located in the Euxinograd Residence of the Bulgarian government near the Black Sea city of Varna.

Two weeks ago, Prof. Valentin Pletnyov, Director of the Varna Museum of Archaeology, who is the lead archaeologist of the excavations of the Kastritsi Fortress in Euxinograd, announced the discovery of medieval Christian artifacts and Bulgarian and Ottoman coins. The week before that the archaeologists unearthed there an entire residential quarter from the Middle Ages.

Now that the 2015 summer excavations of Kastritsi have been wrapped up, Pletnyov has revealed more about the findings in an interview for the Bulgarian state news agency BTA.

The new finds include coins of the Mamluk Sultanate of Cairo – a dynasty of Cumans, a medieval people who inhabited the steppes north of the Black Sea in the Middle Ages, which ruled Egypt and the Levant for more than two centuries in the Late Middle Ages, until its Sultanate was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1517 AD.

The Mamluk coins discovered in the fortress of Kastritsi near Bulgaria’s Varna were most probably brought by merchants trading in the Black Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean. While interesting, the coins from the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt are not particularly unique because they have been found in Kastritsi during the previous years of archaeological excavations as well.

Other numismatic material found during the 2015 summer excavations of Kastritsi includes coins of several Bulgarian Tsars from the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) – Tsar Konstantin Asen Tih (r. 1257-1277 AD), Tsar Todor (Theodore) Svetoslav (r. 1300-1323), Tsar Mihail III Shishman (r. 1323-1330 AD, Tsar Ivan Alexander (r. 1331-1371 AD), and Tsar Ivan Shishman (r. 1371-1396 AD) as well as coins of Wallacian ruler Mircea the Elder (Mircea I of Wallachia (r. 1386-1418 AD) who held the region of Dobrudzha (today’s Northeast Bulgaria and Southeast Romania) in the early 15th century, and Ottoman, Tartar, and Venetian coins.

These finds show the intensive trade that the Kastritsi Fortress participated in, with numerous merchants and travelers who even carried with them pocket change from the cities they came from, points out Valentin Pletnyov.

He adds that in the recent years the archaeologists have also found different types of gold coins built into the walls of the buildings of Kastritsi but these year’s discoveries include no gold finds.

The archaeologist reminds that the history of the Late Antiquity and medieval city started in the 5th-6th century AD, and that Kastritsi reached its height in the 12th-13th century, and especially during the reign of the Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Alexander in the middle of the 14th century when it was a major commercial center. Kastritsi’s last mention in historical sources was in documents of Ottoman Sultan Suleiman I the Magnificent (r. 1521-1565 AD) in the 16th century.

The Late Antiquity and medieval fortress of Kastritsi is said to be especially “lucky" among Bulgaria’s thousands of archaeological sites because its ruins have been located inside the enclosed and secure area of the Euxinograd Residence of the Bulgarian government since the last quarter of the 19th century, and have thus been inaccessible for the numerous treasure hunters and looters who have managed to destroy scores of other sites that may have been equally well preserved just a few decades ago.

“Because of that, in Kastritsi we find whatever collapsed and remained on the spot. We are studying a medieval city which is very well preserved," Pletnyov notes, adding that he hopes that part of the archaeological structures there will be restored with funding from the Bulgarian government, and will be made accessible for tourists.

Over the last 10 years, the archaeologists have explored more than half of the total area of the Kastritsi Fortress, which is about 15 decares (almost 4 acres), revealing homes, fortress walls, streets, squares, and two churches, with a typical medieval urban setup.

“This year we were with a small team and small funding from the Ministry of Culture but I am still thankful. With a total of BGN 15,000 (app. EUR 7,500) we explored a small medieval quarter between the fortress wall, the main gate of the fortress, and the northern fortress street. The archaeological excavations encompassed an area of 600 square meters," says the Director of the Varna Museum of Archaeology, adding that his team has studied a total of 8 buildings uncovering walls of up to 2 meters in height.

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Background Infonotes:

The Late Antiquity Byzantine and medieval Bulgarian fortress and city of Kastritsi is located to the northeast of the Bulgarian Black Sea city of Varna, in the Euxinograd Residence of the Bulgarian government on the northern coast of the Bay of Varna. It occupies the St. George (St. Yani) Cape. The fortress of Kastritsi was built by the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire in the 5th century AD, and was expanded in the 6th century AD. It was destroyed in the barbarian invasions of the Slavs and Avars in the early 7th century AD, and was abandoned. The Kastritsi Fortress was restored in the middle of the 13th century AD by the Second Bulgarian Empire (1186-1396 AD), and emerged as a medieval Black Sea city. The preserved medieval fortress walls rises to up to 3 meters. The outer fortress wall has a total of 5 rectangular fortress towers with a diameter of 5.5 meters, and a three-meter wide gate. The fortress’s keep is a rectangular multi-story tower located in its western corner. The inside of the fortress features the ruins of a city from the High and Late Middle Ages, including an entire densely populated residential quarter of stone-masonry homes, and a one-nave, one-apse church.

It is believed that Kastritsi is one of the Late Antiquity Byzantine fortresses on the Black Sea coast described by the 6th century AD Byzantine chronicler Procopius of Caesarea (ca. 500-ca. 560 AD) though its name was not mentioned. The Kastritsi Fortress was described in the early 14th century by cartographers from Genoa as in the High and Late Middle Ages it had thriving commercial relations with the Italian city-states Genoa and Venice. Kastritsi’s fortifications protected an area of 20 decares (app. 5 acres). The discovered skeletons of men, women, and children indicated that the city’s population was slaughtered by the invading Ottoman Turks who conquered the Second Bulgarian Empire at the end of the 14th century AD. The Turks settled Kastritsi briefly but abandoned the city in the 15th century (the most recent coins discovered there are from 1404 AD). Some Bulgarian archaeologists have hypothesized that the Ottoman Turks might have vacated the fortress of Kastritsi because of the raids of the Vlachs (Wallachians) from the north.

In the Late Middle Ages, Kastritsi was a typical medieval city with narrow streets and large homes. The archaeological remains of the medieval homes, streets, churches, and fortifications of Kastritsi are very well preserved allowing the Bulgarian archaeologists to discover lots of pottery vessels, metal tools, decorations, and over 2,500 coins. If it is researched more thoroughly, conserved, and exhibited, Kastritsi has the potential to show a fully preserved medieval Bulgarian city with a major potential for historical and cultural tourism, according to archaeologists.

The Kastritsi City and Fortress north of Bulgaria’s Varna is especially well preserved because it is inside the enclosed territory of the Euxinograd Residence of the Bulgarian government, which has been with limited public access since the end of the 19th century, meaning that treasure hunters and looters could not do damage to it, unlike what they have done to thousands of other archaeological and historical sites all over Bulgaria. The Euxinograd Residence was built on lands that the first ruler of Liberated Bulgaria, i.e. the Third Bulgarian Tsardom, Knyaz Alexander I Batenberg, received as a gift from the Greek Bishopric in Varna after Bulgaria’s Liberation from the Ottoman Empire in 1878. Thus, access to the site has been limited since 1890, and Kastritsi is said to be the only Bulgarian medieval city with a preserved port which has not seen any construction after the Late Middle Ages.

The Kastritsi Fortress and City was first excavated in 1899 by Czech-Bulgarian archaeologist Karel Skorpil, who, together with his brother Hermann Skorpil, is the founder of modern-day Bulgarian archaeology. Its most recent archaeological excavations have been conducted every summer since 2004 by archaeologists from the Varna Museum of Archaeology led by its Director, Prof. Valentin Pletnyov. The recent archaeological discoveries there include a treasure of 166 silver coins of Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Alexander (r. 1331-1371 AD) and his son Mihail Asen, who was declared a “Co-Tsar" by Ivan Alexander in 1331 upon the latter’s assumption of the Bulgarian throne. Mihail Asen died in a battle against the Ottoman Turks near Sredets (today’s Sofia) in 1355 AD. The treasure in question is one of the largest medieval Bulgarian treasures discovered in recent years. In addition to these and many other Bulgarian coins, other0 treasure finds from Kastritsi include Byzantine, Tartar, Vlachian, Moldavian, Venetian, and Ottoman Turkish coins. These include a treasure of silver coins of Ottoman Sultan Bayezid I “The Lighting"(r. 1389-1402 AD) and of Wallacian ruler Mircea the Elder (Mircea I of Wallachia (r. 1386-1418 AD) who held the region of Dobrudzha (today’s Northeast Bulgaria and Southeast Romania) in the early 15th century. The finds also include a rare gold coin from the Antiquity minted in the Ancient Greek colony of Callatis (today’s Mangalia in Romania) during the reign of Lysimachus (r. 306-281 BC), one of Alexander I the Great’s generals, and one of his diadochi (successors) who became King of Macedon, Thrace, and Asia Minor.

The Bulgarian archaeologists have excavated more than one-fifth of the territory of the Kastritsi Fortress, have started some conservation efforts, and have opened part of the site for tourists.

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