Open-Air Audio-Visual Show of Tsarevets Hill Fortress in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo Turns 30, Boasts over 5 Million Spectators

A view of the Tsarevets Hill Fortress in Bulgaria's Veliko Tarnovo during the performance of the Light and Sound Show telling the story of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396). Photo: Veliko Tarnovo Municipality

A view of the Tsarevets Hill Fortress in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo during the performance of the Light and Sound Show telling the story of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396). Photo: Veliko Tarnovo Municipality

The open-air audio-visial show of the Tsarevets Hill Fortress, one of the two citadels (the other being the Trapesitsa Hill Fortress) of the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396) Tarnovgrad, today’s city of Veliko Tarnovo, has celebrated its 30th birthday.

The show is known as “Sound and Light” (“Zvuk I Svetlina” – „Звук и светлина” in Bulgarian; check out its official website HERE), and is performed only on certain dates such as national or local holidays (check out the the upcoming performances).

It presents the history of the Second Bulgarian Empire from the Uprising of Asen and Petar (later Tsar Asen IV, r. 1187-1196, and Tsar Petar IV, r. 1186-1197) in 1185 which liberated Bulgaria from Byzantium, until its conquest by the Ottoman Turks in the 1380s and 1390s. (Tarnovgrad itself fell to the Ottoman invaders in 1393 after a three-month siege.)

The open-air Sound and Light Show is performed using lasers and lights projected on the partly restored ruins of the Tsarevets Hill Fortress in Veliko Tarnovo; it also uses narration, dramatic music, and the toll of church bells.

It was designed by a team of audio-visual art experts from Bulgaria and the former Czechoslovakia in the mid 1980s led by Valo Radev and Jaromir Hnik.

In a special statement, Veliko Tarnovo Municipality has noted the 30th anniversary since the first performance of the Light and Sound Show which took place on November 16, 1985, on the occasion of the 800th anniversary since the Uprising of Asen and Petar.

In November 2015, Bulgaria celebrated the 830th anniversary since the Uprising which gave the start of the Second Bulgarian Empire.

The audio-visual historical show on the Tsarevets Hill Fortress has been performed over 5,400 times in the past 30 years; an exact count has been kept since 1988, with exactly 5,165 performances between then and November 2015.

Veliko Tarnovo Municipality points out that over the past 30 years, the Sound and Light Show has been seen by over 5 million spectators.

The jubilee edition of the show has been attended by members of the former Czechoslovak team that participated in its design and establishment 30 years ago: Jiří Cerny, Olga Podzemska, Karel Cvrk, and Peter Manousek.

The Municipality explains that the idea for the audio-visual show came up in the 1960s as part of the efforts for the archaeological exploration and restoration of the late medieval Bulgarian capital Tarnovgrad (Veliko Tarnovo), and for the development of cultural tourism.

The design and execution of the Sound and Light Show was decided upon after a competition among the projects of Bulgarian writers Serafim Severnyak and Anton Donchev, and film director Valo Radev, with Radev’s concept prevailing.

The technical part of the show was set up by the Czechoslovak firm Art Centrum using a computer managed light and sound system projecting over an area of 100 decares (app. 25 acres) on the Tsarevets Hill and the ruins of its fortress.

The lighting system features 2,400 red, green, blue, and yellow projectors of between 1,000 and 2,000 WT each; 140 lighting projectors; and two lasers. The sound of six real church bells weighing between 600 kg and 6 metric tons each is also incorporated into the show.

The combined total power of the light and sound systems is 3.5 MW, and the combined length of all cables is about 6,300 km.

The design and execution of the Light and Sound Show on the Tsarevets Hill Fortress in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo cost about BGN 10.4 million (app. EUR 5.2 million).

A view of the Tsarevets Hill Fortress in Bulgaria's Veliko Tarnovo during the performance of the Light and Sound Show telling the story of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396). Photo: Sound and Light Show Website. More photos of the show view HERE

A view of the Tsarevets Hill Fortress in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo during the performance of the Light and Sound Show telling the story of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396). Photo: Sound and Light Show Website. More photos of the show view HERE

Background Infonotes:

The Tsarevets Hill is one of two main fortified historic hills in the medieval city of Tarnovgrad, today’s Veliko Tarnovo, in Central Northern Bulgaria, the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire between 1185 and 1396 AD. Together with the Trapesitsa Hill, Tsarevets was one of the two fortresses of the inner city acropolis of Tarnovgrad (Veliko Tarnovo). The Tsarevets Hill is a natural fortress on the left bank of the Yantra River, and is surrounded by it on all four sides with the exception of a small section to the southwest. It is located southeast of the Trapesitsa Hill. The Tsarevets Fortress had three gates, the main one being its southwestern gate. The name of Tsarevets stems from the word “tsar”, i.e. emperor.

The first settlement on the Tsarevets Hill in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo dates to the Late Chalcolithic (Aeneolithic, Copper Age), around 4,200 BC. The hill was also inhabited during the Bronze Age and Iron Age by the Ancient Thracians, and there have been hypothesis that it was the site of the legendary Ancient Thracian city Zikideva – even though a recent hypothesis claims that Zikideva was in fact located in the nearby fortress Rahovets. An Ancient Bulgar settlement was built on the Tsarevets Hill in the 9th century AD, during the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD) which later grew into a city. The Tsarevets Hill rose to prominence as the center of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) in 1187, after the successful Uprising of Asen and Petar, later Tsar Asen I (r. 1190-1195 AD) and Tsar Petar IV (r. 1185-1197), who ruled as co-emperors, against the Byzantine Empire in 1185-1186 AD.

Thus, the construction of the Tsarevets Hill Fortress began in the 12th century AD. The total length of the Tsarevets Hill fortress wall is 1,1 km, and it reaches a height of 10 meters (on top of the natural defenses of the hill’s slopes) and a width of 2.4-3.6 meters. The most vulnerable point of the Tsarevets fortification was the southeast section with its gate; however, it was protected by the so called Baldwin’s Tower because it is known that after defeating the Crusader knights from the 3rd Crusade in the Battle of Adrianople in 1205 AD, the Bulgarian Tsar Kaloyan captured the Latin Emperor of Constantinople Baldwin of Flanders, and kept him captive in the tower for several months, until Baldwin’s death. The Baldwin’s Tower was restored in 1933 by Bulgarian archaeologist and architect Alexander Rashenov; the restored Baldwin’s Tower was modeled after the surviving fortress tower in another medieval Bulgarian city, the Cherven Fortress.

The medieval church of the Bulgarian Patriarchate is located in the center of the Tsarevets Hill. It is called the Church of the Ascension of God, and was restored in 1981. The church was known as the “mother of all Bulgarian churches”, and was part of a complex with a territory of 2,400 square meters. Right next to it are the ruins of the imperial palace of the monarchs from the Second Bulgarian Empire which had a territory of almost 3,000 square meters. Both the imperial palace and the Patriarchate’s complex were surrounded by fortress walls and protected by towers. The archaeological excavations on the Tsarevets Hill have revealed the foundations of a total of 470 residences which housed the high-ranking Bulgarian aristocracy, 23 churches and 4 urban monasteries as well as a medieval inn. In the northern-most point of the Tsarevets Hill there is a high cliff cape known as the Cliff of Executions which in the 12th-14th century AD was used for executing traitors by throwing them into the canyon of the Yantra River.

For some 200 years the medieval Tarnovgrad, also known as Tsarevgrad Tarnov (i.e. the Tsar’s City), together with its fortresses Tsarevets, Trapesitsa, and Momina Krepost (“Maiden’s Fortress”), also known as Devingrad (“Virgins’ Town”), rivaled Constantinople as the most important city in this part of Europe, with some of the most glorious and famous Bulgarian Tsars – Tsar Asen (r. 1190-1195), Tsar Petar (r. 1185-1197), Tsar Kaloyan (r. 1197-1207), Tsar Ivan Asen II (r. 1218-1241), Tsar Konstantin Asen Tih (r. 1257-1277), Tsar Ivaylo (r. 1277-1280), Tsar Todor (Theodore) Svetoslav (r. 1300-1322), Tsar Ivan Alexander (r. 1331-1371), and Tsar Ivan Shishman (r. 1371-1395) – ruling their empire from Tsarevets.

Tsarevets and the rest of Tarnovgrad had a tragic fate, however, after in 1393 AD, after a three-month siege, it became the first European capital to fall prey to the invading Ottoman Turks. This was somewhat of a logical outcome after the de facto feudal disintegration of the Second Bulgarian Empire in the second half of the 14th century. After Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Alexander (r. 1331-1371 AD) lost his two eldest sons – Ivan in 1349 AD and Mihail in 1355 ADin battles with the Ottoman Turks, he failed to prevent a number of Bulgarian feudal lords from seceding, and on top of that divided the remainder of the Bulgarian Tsardom between his two surviving sons. His third son Ivan Sratsimir (r. 1371-1396) received the smaller so called Vidin Tsardom, with the Danube city of Bdin (Vidin) as its capital, and his fourth son Ivan Shishman (r. 1371-1395) received the rest, the so called Tarnovo Tsardom, with the capital proper of Tarnovgrad (today’s Veliko Tarnovo). Just two decades later all Bulgarian lands, disunited and even warring among themselves, fell prey to the invading Ottoman Turks, ushering Bulgaria into five centuries of Ottoman Yoke (1396-1878/1912), and signifying a practically irreversible loss of its former great power status.

As the last ruler of Tarnovgrad, Tsar Ivan Shishman was not in the capital at the time it was besieged by the forces of Ottoman Sultan Bayezid I (r. 1389-1402 AD), its defense was led by the legendary Bulgarian Patriarch St. Euthymius (Evtimiy) of Tarnovo (ca. 1325-ca. 1402-1404 AD), the founder of the Tarnovo Literary School. After they conquered the Bulgarian capital on July 17, 1393, the Ottoman Turks slaughtered its population – an especially dramatic scene was the beheading of 110 captured Bulgarian aristocrats, and razed to the ground the Bulgarian imperial palace and the churches and monasteries of the Bulgarian Patriarchate. Tsarevets and Veliko Tarnovo were liberated from the Turks in the summer of 1877 in the Russian-Turkish War of 1877-1878 that restored the Bulgarian state.

The archaeological restoration of the Tsarevets Hill Fortress began in 1930 and was completed in 1981, the year that was celebrated, now somewhat questionably, as the 1300th anniversary since the founding of the Bulgarian state. Tourists visiting Tsarevets can view the so called “Sound and Light” audiovisual show, an attraction using lasers and music to tell the story of the medieval Bulgarian Empire as well as Bulgaria’s fight for freedom against the Ottoman Empire, and the story of Bulgaria’s National Liberation. It was first launched in 1985 for the 800th anniversary since the Uprising of Asen and Petar. The Tsarevets Fortress was granted a protected status by the Bulgarian government for the first time in 1927, and in 1964 it was declared a “monument of culture of national importance”.