History Museum in Bulgaria’s Pleven, Ancient Fortress Storgosia, Roman Colony Ulpia Oescus See Major Growth in Visitor Numbers
The Regional Museum of History in the northern Bulgarian city of Pleven, and the two archaeological sites that it manages – the Late Antiquity and medieval fortress of Storgosia (Dianensium), known as Pleun in the Middle Ages, and the huge Ancient Roman colony of Ulpia Oescus near the town of Gigen – have seen a major growth in the number of visitors in 2015.
A total of 54,300 tourists visited the Pleven Regional Museum of History, the Storgosia Fortress, and the Roman colony of Ulpia Oescus in 2015, Vladimir Naydenov, Director of the Museum, has announced an in interview for the Focus News Agency.
The increase is notable since in 2014 the three sites saw only 34,500 visitors, he points out.
While the Late Roman and Early Byzantine fortress of Storgosia (Dianesium), later the medieval Bulgarian city of Pleun, is located in the Kaylaka Park right outside the city of Pleven, the ancient city of Ulpia Oescus (today the Ulpia Oescus Archaeological Preserve), which was one of only three Roman cities in today’s Bulgaria to enjoy the status of a colony of Rome, and had around 100,000 inhabitants at its height, is located in a distant and less populated region, and has thus been largely neglected by Bulgarian and international tourists.
(Learn more about Storgosia and Ulpia Oescus in the Background Infonotes below.)
In Naydenov’s words, the two important archaeological sites have not seen marked growth in tourist numbers; instead, the 20,000 additional visitors are mostly due to the increased interest in the topical events organized by the Museum in the city of Pleven.
Thus, about 19,000 visited the various exhibitions in the Pleven Regional Museum of History throughout 2015, while another 16,000 came for different types of events.
These include various craft workshops, the European Night of Museums (whose 2015 edition in the Museum was entitled “Women and Fashion in the 20th Century”), the World Water Day, the International Night of Bats, the European Week of Light, the 2015 Festival of Roman Culture and Culinary Arts in the Storgosia Fortress, and a reenactment of the 4th Pleven Infantry Regiment, a key unit in the Bulgarian armed forces in the first half of the 20th century.
Over 2015, the Pleven Museum presented a number of exhibitions including the archaeological exhibit “Rescued Relics” showing items saved from treasure hunters, and an exhibition of the artifacts from the 2014 аrchaeological еxcavations of the Roman Road Station Ad Putea, among others.
However, its largest 2015 exhibition had to do with the 100th Year since Bulgaria’s participation in World War I; it is entitled “The 9th Pleven Infantry Division in World War I”.
Naydenov points out that in 2015, the Pleven Regional Museum of History also showed artifacts from its archaeological collection at the Iskra Museum of History in the town of Kazanlak in an exhibit entitled “Pleven’s Treasures in Kazanlak”.
Presently, the Pleven Museum is showing an exhibition of the Ancient Thracian gold treasure from the town of Ivanski, which is part of the collection of the Shumen Regional Museum of History; in exchange, the Museum in the city of Shumen is showing a replica of another Thracian treasure, the Valchitran Treasure from the Pleven Museum.
Naydenov has reminded that during the 2015 archaeological season, the archaeologists from the Pleven Museum participated in the excavations of a prehistoric site near the town of Krushovitsa, the Ancient Roman fortress Dimum near the town of Belene on the Danube, and the Roman fortress and road station Ad Putea near the town of Riben.
“During the past season, our research focused on clarification of the findings from previous years. This is regular archaeological work that leads to the accumulation of information, which in turns helps for a clearer and more exact interpretation of the archaeological data from the sites. We hope that next year there will be funding for all three sites because this generates public interest for the preservation of the cultural heritage of the Pleven region,” says the Museum Director.
One important national event that the History Museum in Bulgaria’s Pleven will be taking part in over 2016 will be the remembrance of the 140th year since the April Uprising of 1876, the largest rebellion of the Bulgarians in their fight for freedom against the Ottoman Turkish Empire.
The tourist numbers for the archaeological and cultural sites in the city of Pleven could be compared with the number of tourists for another city in Central North Bulgaria, Veliko Tarnovo.
While Veliko Tarnovo was indeed the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD), both cities and their respective museums have a lot to offer – the Roman colony of Ulpia Oescus near Gigen, which is one of the sites managed by the Pleven Museum, is especially impressive.
Veliko Tarnovo, however, has a much better developed infrastructure for cultural tourism, and its top archaeological sites – the Tsarevets Hill Fortress of medieval Tarnovgrad, the Church of the Nativity of Christ in the Architectural Preserve in the nearby town of Arbanasi, and the Tsarevgrad Tarnov Multimedia Center of the Museum – get about 500,000 Bulgarian and international tourists per year.
The ruins of the Late Antiquity / Late Roman and Early Byzantine fortress and settlement Storgosia, also known as Dianensium in the Antiquity, and as Pleun in the Middle Ages, are located in the Kaylaka Park in the northern Bulgarian city of Pleven.
The Kaylaka Park itself (the name stems from Ottoman Turkish, and means “a rocky place”), a beautiful gorge of the Tuchenitsa River, features archaeological remains indicating civilized life as early as the 5th millennium BC, as well as traces of Ancient Thrace.
The Antiquity settlement Storgosia (Dianensium) was first started as a Roman road station on the road connecting the major Roman city of Ulpia Oescus (located near today’s town of Gigen) on the Danube, and Philipopolis (today’s city of Plovdiv in Southern Bulgaria). The Roman road station was first located in what is today’s downtown of Pleven on the spot of Ancient Thracian settlements from the Bronze Age and the Iron Age.
Detachments from the Italian First Legion (Legio I Italica) based in the large Ancient Roman city of Novae on the Danube River, today’s town of Svishtov, were stationed at Storgosia (Dianesium), with the road station gradually attracting settlers from around the region.
The Gothic invasions into the Balkan territories of the Roman Empire, which began in 238 AD, ushering into several centuries of barbarian invasions, forced the Roman authorities to adopt measures to protect the local population.
This led the population of the road station to move to the site of today’s Kaylaka Park, about 2.5 km to the south, because of its natural defenses. The new settlement was built on a high plateau on the left bank of the Tuchenitsa River.
The fortress wall of Storgosia was built at the beginning of the 4th century AD. The wall was 2.2 meters wide, and encompassed a settlement with an area of 31 decares (app. 7.5 acres); it was made of stones and white mortar.
The archaeological excavations have revealed that Storgosia had two gates, three fortress towers, homes, a public horreum (i.e. a granary), administrative and military buildings, and a large Early Christian basilica, which was 45.2 meters long and 22.2 meters wide.
According to some experts, this may have been the second largest (Early) Christian temple in the medieval Bulgarian Empire (in particular in the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD), after the 9th century Great Basilica in the early capital Pliska (680-893 AD) which was 102.5 meters long and 30 meters wide. (The Round Church, also known as the Golden Church, in the other early capital Veliki Preslav (Great Preslav) (893-970 AD) was a bit smaller – 40 meters long and 21 meters wide.)
The archaeological excavations of Storgosia and its necropolis have discovered artifacts such as ceramic items, weapons, and coins, leading the archaeologists to conclude that the Late Roman and Early Byzantine fortress existed until the end of the 6th century AD. It is believed that the ancient city of Storgosia was destroyed in the barbarian invasions of the Slavs and Avars which started in the 6th century and ended in the middle of the 7th century.
At the time of the medieval Bulgarian Empire, the site of the Storgosia Fortress was turned into the medieval city of Pleun (today’s Pleven), which existed throughout the entire Middle Ages as a strong fortress with developed crafts and trade.
Folk legends say it was connected with the last days of the last holder of the Tarnovgrad (Veliko Tarnovo) throne of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD), Tsar Ivan Shishman (r. 1371-1395 AD).
In 2013, Pleven Municipality completed a project financed with about BGN 5 million (app. EUR 2.5 million) in EU funding for the restoration of the Storgosia Fortress, the Pleven Panorama, and the Victory Monument and Bridge on the Vit River (the latter two monuments are connected with the Russian-Turkish War of 1877-1878 which brought about Bulgaria’s National Liberation from the Ottoman Empire).
The restoration project has been criticized for violations in its public tender and it has been claimed that it has caused damage to the original ancient and medieval ruins causing concern that it might end up as one of Bulgaria’s notorious botched archaeological restorations.
The Ancient Thracian, Roman, and Byzantine city and fortress Ulpia Oescus (also known as Palatiolon or Palatiolum) is located near the town of Gigen, Gulyantsi Municipality, Pleven District, in Northern Bulgaria, about 5 km south of the point where the Iskar River (whose Roman name was Oescus) flows into the Danube. It was originally an Ancient Thracian settlement from the Late Bronze Age and the Early Iron Age. In his work “Geography” in the 2nd century AD, Greco-Egyptian ancient geographer Claudius Ptolemy (ca. 90-168 AD) described Ulpia Oescus as a city of the Triballi, the independent Ancient Thracian tribe which inhabited today’s Northwest Bulgaria. In the 1st century AD, Oescus grew out of the military camp of Roman legions Legio IV Scythica (“Scythian Fourth Legion”) and Legio V Macedonica (“Macedonian Fifth Legion”) set up next to the Thracian settlement. It was founded as a Roman city in 106 AD by Emperor Trajan (98-117 AD) in favor of his victory over the Dacians north of the Danube. What is more, it was founded with the status of a colony of Rome, the highest status for a city in the Roman Empire. In today’s Bulgaria, there are only three Roman cities which enjoyed this status – Colonia Ulpia Traiana Ratiaria, Colonia Ulpia Oescus near Gigen, and Deultum (Colonia Flavia Pacis Deultensium) near Burgas.
Ulpia Oescus thrived economically and culturally in the 2nd-3rd century AD as major city in the Roman province of Moesia Inferior during the Nerva-Antonine Dynasty (r. 96-192 AD) and the Severan Dynasty (r. 193-235 AD). However, in the 3rd century AD, this happy state of affairs was put an end to by the barbarian invasions from the north of many barbarian tribes including the Goths. The city recovered during the reign of Emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306-337 AD) when the first permanent bridge on the Lower Danube was constructed near Ulpia Oescus. The so called Constantine’s Bridge on the Danube was 2.5 km long (1.3 km over the river), 5.7 meters wide, and was the largest river bridge in ancient times. It was opened on July 5, 328 AD, in the presence of the Emperor himself. According to historical sources, it existed from 328 AD till ca. 355 AD when it was destroyed by a barbarian invasion. It connected Ulpia Oescus with Sicudava (today’s Corabia, Romania) on the northern bank of the Danube. In the first half of the 5th century AD, Ulpia Oescus suffered from the invasions of the Huns. In 444 AD, it was conquered by the Huns under Attila who tried to turn the city into a Hun settlement, the only Hun settlement on the territory of today’s Bulgaria, under the name Hunion (which turned out to be short-lived). Its fortress wall was rebuilt during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I the Great (527-565 AD) but the entire city was destroyed in 585 AD by the barbarian invasion of the Avars, not unlike many Late Antiquity cities all over today’s Northern Bulgaria. At the end of the 6th century AD, it was settled by the Slavs. In the 10th AD, a settlement from the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD) was founded on top of the ruins of the Ancient Thracian and Roman city of Oescus. It existed until the 14th century, the end of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) but its name remains unknown. After the cities destruction by the invading Ottoman Turks, its surviving residents were moved to today’s town of Gigen.
The archaeological excavations of Ulpia Oescus have revealed that in the 1st-2nd century AD the city was populated by Thracians and settlers from the Italian Peninsula, the Western Roman provinces, and Asia Minor (judging by the discovered Latin inscriptions, among other things). The initial territory of the city called by the archaeologists “Oescus I” includes the urban center, city square, and public buildings; it covers of an area of 180 decares (app. 44.5 decares), while the eastward expansion of the city called Oescus II has an area of about 100 decares (app. 24.7 acres). Thus, in the Late Roman Oescus had a total territory of 280 decares (app. 69 decares), which roughly equals the area of other major Roman cities in Central Northern Bulgaria – Novae near the Danube town of Svishtov, and Nicopolis ad Istrum near the town of Nikyup, Veliko Tarnovo District. Ulpia Oescus had typical Roman urban planning – with a rectangular shape and streets oriented east-west and north-south. About one third of the city was occupied by public buildings, and remainder – by workshops and homes, with its population estimated at about 100,000 inhabitants at its height.
During their excavations in the late 1940s, Bulgarian archaeologists discovered a large public building containing one of the most impressive colorful Roman floor mosaics in Bulgaria, dated to the time of Emperor Septimus Severus (r. 193-211 AD) which features a scene from “The Achaeans”, a lost play by Ancient Greek playwright from Athens Menander (342-291 AD). The play was identified by an inscription reading “Achaeans by Menander”. It was unknown until this discovery at Ulpia Oescus in 1948, which was confirmed in 1961 by a papyrus from Oxyrhynchus in Egypt containing an alphabetical list of Menander’s works. The scene shows three masked man and one without a mask. According to Bulgarian archaeologist Teofil Ivanov, Menander based this play on Book I of Homer’s Iliad, on the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles over the damsel Briseis. The other two men are Nestor, King of the island of Pylos, who tries to reconcile the men, and Patroclus (unmasked), Achilles‘ friend who accompanied him to the ships of the Myrmidons after the quarrel. The Achaeans mosaic is kept today at the Pleven Regional Museum of History.
The archaeological excavations have also revealed the city’s forum, the temples of the Roman deities from the Capitoline Triad – Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, a large basilica, thermae, and other public buildings. The Ulpia Oescus Fortress had thick and tall stone walls with fortress towers. It was partly destroyed in the 5th century AD by the Huns, and rebuilt under Byzantine Emperor Justinian the Great. Probably the most interesting ancient building is the Temple of Fortuna, the Roman goddess of fortune and luck built in 190-192 AD with funding provided by Roman Emperor Commodus (r. 161-192 AD); it was painted in red, and had white columns, and was 22 meters tall. The statue of Fortuna discovered in its middle is kept today at the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia. The temple of Fortuna was not destroyed after the adoption of Christianity but was walled up; however, it was shattered by an earthquake at the end of the 6th century AD. At least five Roman Emperors are known to have visited Ulpia Oescus, including Emperor Hadrian (r. 117-138 AD), who even served there as a legatus, a senior officer. Another interesting building found in Ulpia Oescus is the so called civic basilica, a public building with judicial and business functions. It was 105 meters long, and was surrounded with caryatids, sculpted female figures serving as architectural supporting pillars.
The ancient ruins near Bulgaria’s Gigen were first connected with the city of Ulpia Oescus at the end of the 17th century by Italian military engineer Count Luigi Ferdinando Marsili (Marsigli) who was seeking for the location of Constantine’s Bridge. The first archaeological excavations of the Roman city of Oescus were carried out in 1904-1905 by Czech-Bulgarian archaeologist Vroclav Dobruski, Director of the then National Museum of Archaeology in Sofia. The next excavations were conducted in 1941-1943 by Italian archaeologist Antonio Frova. In 1947, the archaeological exploration of Ulpia Oescus was continued in 1947 by Bulgarian archaeologist Teofil Ivanov with a team from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, and the Regional Museum of History in the northern city of Pleven. Since the 1980s, Ulpia Oescus has been excavated by Assoc. Prof. Gergana Kabakchieva from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology. In 1965, Bulgaria’s government declared Ulpia Oescus a monument of culture of national significance, and in 2011, the Ministry of Culture granted it the status of an archaeological preserve.