Bulgaria’s Black Sea Resort Balchik Restores Early Byzantine Fortress Dionysopolis in Cultural Tourism Project
Part of the Late Antiquity Early Byzantine fortress Dionysopolis has been restored in the Bulgarian Black Sea resort town of Balchik together with a Christian – Muslim shrine, and an old industrial mill as part of аn EU funded project for promoting cultural tourism.
Bulgaria’s Balchik has not one but a total of three ancient and medieval settlements on its territory – the originally Ancient Thracian settlement later colonized by Ancient Greeks which was founded in the 6th-5th century BC, first named Krounoi and later renamed to Dionysopolis in favor of god Dionysus; the Late Antiquity and Early Byzantine fortress of Dionysopolis built in the 5th-6th century AD, which was conquered by the Ancient Bulgars in the 7th century AD, and was called Karvuna; and a 14th century fortress built by local feudal lord Balik.
Balchik Municipality has now restored partly the Late Antiquity and Early Byzantine fortress of Dionysopolis whose construction is believed to have started during the reign of Emperor Anasthasius I Dicorus (r. 491-518 AD), and to have been completed during the reign of Emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565 AD). The ruins are located in today’s Horizont Quarter in the town of Balchik.
The restoration covers a 130-meter section of the Early Byzantine fortress wall, and two fortress towers; a total of 18 decares (app. 4.5 acres) of the ruins have been rehabilitated (the Late Antiquity fortress of Dionysopolis had an area of 150 decares (app. 37 acres).
The western, northern, and part of the southern fortress walls of Dionysopolis have been fully excavated by archaeologists. One of the fortress towers had been rather well preserved but it was destroyed during Bulgaria’s Communist period (1944-1989) during the construction of the nearby airfield of the Bulgarian Air Force, according to a local tour guide, Krasimir Radanov, quoted by Radio Focus Varna.
Radanov reminds that the original Ancient Thracian settlement and Ancient Greek colony was located closer to the Black Sea beaches but a natural disaster (an earthquake and/or a flooding/tsunami) led its inhabitants to abandon it, and to move to the Late Antiquity fortress.
In addition to the partial restoration of the Early Byzantine fortress Dionysopolis, the municipal authorities in Bulgaria’s Balchik have also restored two other historical sites as part of their project for cultural tourism.
One is the Old Mill located near the Port of Balchik, which was built in 1909, and was one of the most modern industrial buildings in the Balkans at the time. The six-floor mill had the capacity to produce 75 metric tons of flour per day, and launched Bulgaria’s first production line for pasta products. It was designed by German firms, and was the first building in Bulgaria where a steel and concrete construction was used. It was also the first plant in the country to run a diesel-fueled power generator.
The restoration and reconstruction of the Balchik’s Old Mill provides for building a concert hall on its last floor, a tourist information center, and a watch tower providing tourists with a beautiful sea view of the Bay of Balchik.
The other site is the joint Christian and Muslim shrine Ak Yazala Baba – St. Athanasius near the town of Obrochishte where the Christians worship St. Athanasius, and the Muslims – the healer Ak Yazala Baba. It is a 16th-century monument from the period of the Ottoman Yoke (1396-1878/1912) when Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire.
The restoration of the Late Antiquity fortress Dionysopolis, the Old Mill, and the Christian – Muslim shrine in Bulgaria’s Balchik has been funded with a total of BGN 5.3 million (app. EUR 2.7 million) under EU programs for regional development and the promotion of cultural tourism.
Bulgaria’s Black Sea resort of Balchik is also known for the well preserved Temple of ancient goddess Cybele discovered there by accident in 2007, and for the Balchik Palace (“Dvoretsa”) and the Balchik Botanical Garden.
Bulgaria’s Black Sea town of Balchik is the successor of a total of three ancient and medieval settlements. It first originated as an Ancient Thracian settlement which was later colonized by the Ancient Greeks, and was first named Krounoi and then Dionysopolis. Subsequently, it became an Ancient Roman, Early Byzantine, and Ancient Bulgar / medieval Bulgarian city Karvuna.
The Greek colonization of the Thracian settlement on the Western Black Sea coast most likely began in the 6th-5th century BC by Ionian Greeks, possibly from the city of Miletus on the Anatolian coast, or from Miletus’s colonies Apollonia Pontica (today’s Bulgarian resort of Sozopol), or Histria (today on Romania’s Black Sea coast).
According to Herodotus, Dionysopolis was founded at the time of the reign of Astyages, King of the Median Empire (r. 585-550 BC). At first named Krounoi (meaning “springs”) and inhabited by Thracians, Scytians, and Greeks, in the 3rd century BC the colony was renamed Dionysopolis after the sea washed ashore a wooden statue of god Dionysus. The Ancient Greek colony was located where today’s Balchik has its fishing port.
There are hypotheses that in the Antiquity period Dionysopolis was badly damaged by an earthquake, and that much of the ancient city might have sunk in the Black Sea. Dionysopolis was conquered by the Ancient Thracian Odrysian Kingdom during the reign of King Sitalces (r. 431-424 BC), and began part of the Roman Empire after in 46 AD Rome conquered the Odrysian Kingdom and all of Ancient Thrace south of the Danube. Thus, in the 1st century AD, it was made part of the Roman province of Moesia Inferior. At the end of the 3rd century, it became one of the main cities of the province of Scythia Minor. During the Antiquity period, Dionysopolis had a Temple of ancient goddess Cybele, which was found by accident during construction works in Bulgaria’s Balchik in 2007.
After the division of the Roman Empire in 396 AD, Dionysopolis remained in the Eastern Roman Empire known today as Byzantium. The construction of the Early Byzantine fortress of Dionysopolis is believed to have started during the reign of Emperor Anasthasius I Dicorus (r. 491-518 AD), and to have been completed during the reign of Emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565 AD).
According to Byzantine historian Theophanes the Confessor (ca. 760-817/818), in 544-545 AD, the Black Sea rose and invaded the land up to a distance of 3-4 km at Odessos (Varna), Dionysopolis (Balchik), and Aphrodision, another ancient city on the Black Sea coast located 4 km north of today’s Balchik. It was this tsunami/flood that caused a landslide that sealed off the Cybele Temple discovered in 2007, and that also destroyed for good the neighboring city of Aphrodision.
After the devastating flood of 544-545 AD (possibly caused by a tsunami in the Black Sea), the population of the Antiquity city of Dionysopolis is believed to have moved to the fortress which was located about 1 km away from the Black Sea coast, on a plateau with an altitude of up to 220 meters, in today’s Horizont Quarter of Balchik. It has an area of about 150 decares (app. 37 acres), and the archaeologists have excavated fully the western, northern, and part of the southern fortress wall, with numerous fortress towers. The foundations of the Early Byzantine wall are 3.2 meters wide.
In the 7th century AD, the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD) conquered the area of Dionysopolis from the Byzantine Empire during the reign of Khan (Kanas) Asparuh (r. 680-700/701 AD). The area was settled by Ancient Bulgars who called the city Karvuna – the name Balchik was known with until the 14th century (the medieval city of Karvuna must not be confused with today’s town of Karvuna, which is also located in Balchik Municipality). In the first 300 years of the First Bulgarian Empire, the area around Karvuna was a densely settled and heavily fortified to protect the Bulgarian capitals Pliska and Veliki Preslav located some 100 km to the east from Black Sea invasions.
In 2007, during excavations of the early medieval Bulgar city of Karvuna, archaeologists found six Ancient Bulgar graves from the end of the 7th century AD, which is believed to be the earliest known Ancient Bulgar necropolis on the territory of today’s Bulgaria. Karvuna was a major city during the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) as well.
The city was mentioned in a certificate issued in 1230 AD by Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Asen II (r. 1218-1241 AD) granting trading rights to merchants from the Adriatic city of Dubrovnik, after the Battle of Klokotnitsa. An Italian naval map of the Black Sea from 1296 AD mentioned Karvuna as “Carbona”. In the middle of the 14th century, Karvuna, today’s Balchik, became the capital of Bulgarian boyar Balik (r. ca. 1337-1366 AD), a powerful feudal lord who acquired independence from the Bulgarian Tsar setting up the so called Dobrudzha Despotate, also known as the Principality of Karvuna, in the region of Dobrudzha, today’s Northeast Bulgaria and Southeast Romania.
During his reign, Balik built another fortress which also falls within today’s town of Balchik. Its ruins are located in the Gemidzhiya Quarter. Thus, Balchik has a total of three predecessors – the Ancient Thracian, Greek, and Roman city of Dionysopolis, the early medieval Byzantine fortress later turned a medieval Bulgarian city, and Balik’s 14th century fortress. After Balik’s death, his son Despot Dobrotitsa moved his capital from Karvuna to the fortress of Kaliakra, on the Cape of Kaliakra, near today’s town of Kavarna (also not to be confused with Karvuna).
As one of several Bulgarian states in the Balkans mired in dynastic and feudal conflict at the end of the 14th century together with the Tarnovo Tsardom, the Vidin Tsardom, and the feudal states in the geographic regions of Thrace and Macedonia, the Dobrudzha Despotate was conquered by the invading Ottoman Turks by the turn of the century putting an end of the Second Bulgarian Empire. It is widely believed that the name of today’s town of Balchik is derived from the name of its feudal ruler Balik, while the name of Despot Dobrotitsa gave the name of the region of Dobrudzha.