Tsarevets Hill Fortress in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo, Arbanasi Preserve Saw 500,000 Visitors in 2015

The interior of the naos of the 14th century Church of the Nativity of Christ in the Architectural Preserve town of Arbanasi near Bulgaria's Veliko Tarnovo. Photo: Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History

The interior of the naos of the 14th century Church of the Nativity of Christ in the Architectural Preserve town of Arbanasi near Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo. Photo: Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History

The Tsarevets Hill Fortress, one of the two citadels (together with the Trapesitsa Hill Fortress) of the medieval city Tarnovgrad (today’s Veliko Tarnovo) which was the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD), and the other archaeological and cultural monuments managed by the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History have attracted about 500,000 visitors in 2015.

The half a million Bulgarian and international tourists visiting the sites in question have been a constant number in the past few years, Ivan Tsarov, Director of the Regional Museum of History in Veliko Tarnovo, has told the Focus News Agency.

“In the past 5-6 years, ever since Europe and the world have been in an economic crisis, the annual visitors’ number [of about 500,000 visitors] has been constant. Of course, before that, in 2007-2008, we had even more tourists but after that it has declined,” Tsarov is quoted as saying.

“If in some year we have fewer foreign tourists, it so happens that the decline in their numbers is compensated by Bulgarian tourists, and vice versa. Of course, this is accidental, there is no causality here. But, for example, if we take the 2014 figures since those for 2015 are not final yet, in 2014, we have about 20,000 fewer Bulgarian visitors but we somehow got an increase in the number of international tourists by about 20,000,” adds the Director of the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History.

In his words, in addition to the Tsarevets Hill Fortress of medieval Tarnovgrad, which was partly restored between 1930 and 1981, the two other most popular archaeological and cultural attractions in Veliko Tarnovo are 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.

“After all, [Tarnovgrad] was the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire. It was from Tsarevets that for 208 years (1185-1393 – editor’s note) the Bulgarian Empire was ruled…The Bulgarian Empire grew so much that it was equal to empires from earlier and later times,” notes the Museum Director who is also an archaeologist.

He points out that in 2015, the city of Veliko Tarnovo and the Museum had a wealth of cultural events such as the celebrations of the 830th anniversary since the Uprising of Asen and Petar which restored the Bulgarian state in 1185 AD, after it had been conquered by the Byzantine Empire in 1018 AD.

The Bulgarian boyars (nobles) Asen and Todor (Teodor) who led the Uprising became Tsar Asen I (r. 1187-1196) and Tsar Petar IV (r. 1186-1197). The Asen Dynasty (House of Asen) that they started ruled the Second Bulgarian Empire from 1185 until 1257 AD.

Their empire ruled territories from the Carpathian Mountains in the north to the Aegean and the Adriatic in the south restoring most, if not all, of the territorial, military and economic might of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD).

While Veliko Tarnovo Municipality and the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History organized a number of events for the 830th anniversary of Asen and Petar’s Uprising, their culmination was on November 8, 2015, in the restored St. Dimitar Solunksi (St. Demetrius of Thessaloniki) Church where the rebellion first began.

Other events held by the Veliko Tarnovo Museum in 2015 include the International Night of Museums on May 18, the holiday of Veliko Tarnovo on March 22 and the celebrations of the 785th anniversary since one of the most important victories in its 1400-year history: the victory of Tsar Ivan Asen II (r. 1218-1241 AD), ruler of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD), against the powerful Theodore Komnenos Doukas (r. 1216-1230 AD), ruler of the Despotate of Epirus, in the Battle of Klokotnitsa in 1230 AD.

Tsarov points out that the Tsarevets Hill Fortress in Veliko Tarnovo can be visited 365 days a year, and the same goes for the Nativity of Christ Church in the town of Arbanasi.

The city of Veliko Tarnovo in Central Northern Bulgaria is a well established center of cultural tourism with the some 500,000 tourists visiting its cultural sites each year.

In comparison, another city in Central Northern Bulgaria, Pleven, which also has a lot to offer in terms of archaeological and cultural monuments, gets about ten times fewer visitors. In 2015, 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, saw about 54,000 visitors altogether.

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”.

The St. Dimitar Solunski (St. Demetrius of Thessaloniki) Church in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo is a restored church based on the excavations of the original medieval church with the same name which existed there during the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) with its capital in Tarnovgrad (Veliko Tarnovo).

The St. Dimitar Solunski Church is connected with the restoration of the medieval Bulgarian Empire, after in 1018 AD Byzantium had conquered most of the Bulgarian territory and destroyed the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD).

According to Byzantine chronicler Niketas (Nicetas) Choniates (ca. 1155-1215 AD), the St. Dimitar Solunski Church in Veliko Tarnovo is where in 1185 AD, local boyars (nobles), brothers Asen and Todor (Teodor), who later took the name “Petar” after Tsar Petar I (r. 927-969 AD), becoming Petar IV, proclaimed the restoration of the Bulgarian state.

This is where they started their rebellion, known as the Uprising of Asen and Petar, against the Byzantine Empire creating the Second Bulgarian Empire.

Later the brothers became Tsar Asen I (r. 1187-1196) and Tsar Petar IV (r. 1186-1197).

They ruled as co-emperors; both of them were murdered, and were succeeded by their young brother Tsar Kaloyan (r. 1197-1207).

You can read the historical accounts of these events left by Byzantine chroniclers Niketas (Nicetas) Choniates (ca. 1155-1215 AD) and George Akropolites (1217-1282 AD) in English HERE and HERE.*

(Note: Special thanks to Borislav Mitev for providing the texts!)

The restored St. Dimitar Solunski Church is located on the right bank of the Yantra River, at the foot of the northeastern slope of the Trapesitsa Hill, one of the two citadels of the medieval Bulgarian capital Tarnovgrad.

It was rebuilt near the ruins of the original church between 1977 and 1985 by Bulgarian architect Teofil Teofil based on the excavations of archaeologist Assoc. Prof. Yanka Nikolova and on other surviving historical monuments from the same period.

The temple is 16 meters long, and 8.5 meters wide. The restored church was opened as a museum in 1985 on the 800th anniversary since the Uprising of Asen and Petar and the liberation of the Bulgarian state from Byzantium.

The original medieval church St. Dimitar Solunski near the Trapesitsa Fortress was where the rulers from the the Asen Dynasty (House of Asen) ruling Bulgaria in 1185-1257 AD were crowned. It was the core of a monastery whose four large buildings were unearthed in the archaeological excavations starting in 1971.

Both the original church and the monastery were destroyed in the third quarter of the 13th century AD, possibly by an earthquake. In the 14th century, the site of the collapsed church was turned into a Christian cemetery that was in use until the 20th century. In the Christian necropolis there, the archaeologists have found more than 500 funerals.

In the late 14th century, materials from the destroyed church were used to erect a new one nearby, on top of the ruins of the former southern monastery building. The new church was badly damaged in the 19th century, and was ultimately destroyed by an earthquake in 1913.

Only its apse with some original murals was preserved. There are two layers of preserved murals – the first from the time of the church’s construction, and the second – from the end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th century.

The original medieval church, the second church built in the 15th century, and the church restored in the 1970s-80s are named after St. Dimitar Solunski (St. Demetrius of Thessaloniki), a Christian martyr-saint who lived in Thessaloniki in the 3rd century AD. St. Dimitar Solunski was the patron saint of the Asen Dynasty that founded the Second Bulgarian Empire.

At the time of their Uprising, the boyar brothers Asen and Petar declared that the warrior St. Dimitar Solunski had deserted Thessaloniki, and had come to Tarnovgrad (Veliko Tarnovo) to aid their rebels.

The site of the St. Dimitar Solunski Church at the Trapesitsa Hill in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo was first excavated in 1906-1921 by the local archaeological society. The comprehensive excavations started in 1971 by Yanka Nikolova and Mirko Robov.

The archaeologists found that the original temple was a one-apse crossed-dome church with rich outside and inside decoration. The outside decoration was achieved by alternating layers of stone, mortar, and bricks in the church’s walls.