The Belogradchik Fortress in Northwest Bulgaria, with part of the Belogradchik Rocks in the background. The original Ancient Roman fortress, known today as the Citadel, can be seen amid the rocks in the background. Photo: Belogradchik Museum of History
About 90,000 Bulgarian and international tourists visited the archaeological, historical, and natural sites in the northwestern town of Belogradchik in 2015, including the Belogradchik Fortress and the Belogradchik Rocks, and the Magura Cave with its prehistoric drawings.
Out of the 90,000, 63,000 were Bulgariantourists, and 27,000 were international travelers, reveals Mihail Mihaylov, Director of the Belogradchik Museum of History, which manages all of the said sites, as cited by the Standart daily.
The most popular of these sites is the Belogradchik Fortress, which was first built by the Roman Empire in the 3rd century AD, was used extensively by the Bulgarian Empire, especially in the 14th century, and was then utilized by the Ottoman Empire until the second half of the 19th century.
The Fortress, which is built right into the world famous Belogradchik Rocks, a marvelous natural landmark of various shapes and sizes, was visited by 58,044 tourists in 2015.
The Belogradchik Museum of History itself was visited by 1,774 people, and the Belogradchik Museum of Natural History, which is the only one in Northwest Bulgaria, had 625 visitors.
The Magura Cave, located near the town of Rabisha and known for its prehistoric rock paintings which are presently being explored, had a total of 29,000 visitors in 2015.
While the number of visitors traveling to the small mountain town of Belogradchik may not be huge, there has been a substantial increase in recent years, Mihaylov says.
For example, the total number has almost doubled in fewer than 10 years since in 2007, there were a total of only 53,000 visitors.
The Belogradchik Fortress is located near the northwestern Bulgarian town of Belogradchik within the Belogradchik Rocks, a group of beautiful rock formations in various shapes and sizes. One of Bulgaria’s most famous natural landmarks spanning, they span over an area that is 30 km long and 15 km wide.
The Belogradchik Fortress is also known as the Belogradchik Kale. (“Kale" is a Turkish word meaning “fortress" left over from the Ottoman period commonly used for the numerous ruins of ancient and medieval fortresses all over Bulgaria whose proper names are sometimes unknown.) Before the 19th century, it was also called “Belgrade", a common name for cities and strongholds in the medieval Bulgarian Empire which is mostly known today as the name of the Serbiancapital.
The Belogradchik Fortress is one of the best preserved ancient and medieval fortresses in Bulgaria even when keeping in mind that it was substantially modified by the Ottoman Turkish authorities in the 19th century.
While the bulk of the some 6,000 fortresses, cities, and monasteriesthat existed in medieval Bulgaria were destroyed by the Ottoman invaders, the Belogradchik Fortress was actually rebuilt by them and utilized as a military outpost in the often unruly frontier province of the Vidin region in today’s Northwest Bulgaria.
The fortress was first built by the Ancient Romans in the 3rd century AD as an outpost that was part of a communicationnetwork controlling the road from the Roman colony of Ratiaria (Colonia Ulpia Traiana Ratiaria), whose ruins are located near today’s Bulgarian town of Archar on the Danube River, to the interior of the Balkan provinces.
The area around the Belogradchik Fortress contains ruins from a total of 17 such fortified Roman outposts that could communicate by passing messages using fire at night, smoke during the day, or the sound of huge drums in foggy weather. The closest of these small outposts, the Latin Kale, is situated just several hundred meters away from the fortress.
The Ancient Romans built the Belogradchik Fortress amid the Belogradchik Rocks utilizing their natural defenses. The initial outpost needed fortress walls only to the northwest and the southeast; its other sides were defended by the rocks towering at over 70 meters. The original Roman fortress among the rocks is known today as “The Citadel".
The Roman fortress had two caverns hewn into the rocks for collecting snow and rain water. Remains from a Roman aqueduct have also been found nearby. The fortress has a preserved underground structure most likely built by the Bulgarians in the Middle Ages.
After the division of the Roman Empire in 395 AD, the Belogradchik Fortress became a Byzantine (Eastern Roman) outpost. It was rebuilt in the 6th century AD under Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (r. 527-565 AD) as part of a major effort for strengthening Byzantium’s defenses in today’s Northern Bulgaria against the invading barbarian peoples such as the Slavs and the Avars.
After the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680 – 1018 AD) conquered the region, the Belogradchik Fortress remained a Bulgarian stronghold throughout the Middle Ages (with the exception of the period of the 11th-12th century when Byzantium managed to gain control over Bulgaria).
The Belogradchik Fortress saw major development at the end of the 14th century AD, under Tsar Ivan Sratsimir (r. 1371-1396), the ruler of the so called Vidin Tsardom, a remnant of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396) in 1371-1396 AD. What was left of the Empire was divided by its last full-fledged ruler, Tsar Ivan Alexander (1331-1371) between his last surviving sons, Tsar Ivan Sratsimir and Tsar Ivan Shishman (r. 1371-1395) who received the so called Tarnovo Tsardom.
Tsar Ivan Sratsimir expanded the Belogradchik Fortress by encompassing an additional area behind a new fortress wall. Thus, it became the second most important fortress in the Vidin Tsardom, only to the capital, the Bdin (Vidin) Fortress, with theBaba Vida Castle.
After the expansion, the fortress covered a total area of 10 decares (2.5 acres). Its walls are over 2 meters wide, and up to 12 meters tall, and it consists of three sections connected with gates.
The Belogradchik Fortress was nonetheless captured by the invading Ottoman Turks in 1396, but still became one of the last Bulgarian strongholds to be conquered.
Instead of destroying it as they did with lots of Bulgarian fortresses and cities, the Ottomans used the stronghold as an outpost against the numerous haiduti (haiduks), i.e. guerrilla fighters in Northwest Bulgaria. At the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th century, the Belogradchik Fortress was also utilized in fending off the campaigns of Austrian Empire, especially in the Austro-Turkish Wars of 1689, 1714-1718, and 1735-1739.
In the 19th century, the Ottoman authorities rebuilt the Belogradchik Fortress. The reconstruction was started in 1805 by French engineers, and was completed in 1837 by Italian engineers. Thus, it was modified with both Ottoman and European features, with the medieval Bulgariantowers being refashioned with firearm and cannon embrasures. The fortress could fit 3,000 troops.
The BelogradchikFortress was used by the Ottomans in the suppression of the Bulgarians’ Belogradchik Uprising in 1850. At the end of the Uprising, this is where the Ottomans beheaded its leaders.
The last time the Belogradchik Fortress saw military action was during the Serbian-Bulgarian War of 1885 when the local Bulgarian guard managed to fend off superior Serbian forces. At the end of the 19th century, the fortress was used by local shepherds.
It was recognized as a monument of culture of national importance by the Bulgarian government in 1965, and was cleaned up and partly restored. It is managed by the Belogradchik Museum of History.
The Magura Cave featuring prehistoric paintings from the Paleolithic, Neolithic, Chalcolithic (Aeneolithic, Copper Age) and Early Bronze Age is located near the town of Rabisha, Belogradchik Municipality, Vidin District, in Northwest Bulgaria.
The combined length of its corridors is 2.5 km; the cave has a permanent year-round temperature of 12 degrees Celsius (except for one warmer chamber where the temperature is 15 degrees).
The 15-million-year-old Magura Cave is a famous archaeological and paleontological site. Inside it, researchers have found bones from cave bears, cave hyenas, foxes, wolves, wild cats, otters, and other prehistoricanimals.
The MaguraCave is home to 8 species of bats, all of whom are under protection. It was granted the status of a natural park in 1960. It is located close to the largest non-draining lake in Bulgaria, the Rabisha Lake.
In 1984, the Magura Lake was put on UNESCO’s Tentative List for consideration as a World Heritage Site.
The largest chamber in the cave is the Arc Hall, which is 128 meters long, 58 meters wide and 21 meters tall.
The oldest prehistoric paintings in the cave date to the Late Paleolithic period (Epipaleolithic) – about 8,000 – 6,000 BC; the latest are from the Bronze Age, and date to the period between 3,000 BC and 1,200 BC.
The more than 750 paintings depict primarily hunting scenes, religious ceremonies such as fertility dances, and deities. These include anthropomorphic, zoomorphic, geometric, and symbolic images. The drawings were painted with bat guano.
The most popular image from the Magura Cave is from the Cult Hall and depicts a large dance and hunting scene in two rows.
Because of a drawing showing the local mushroom Boletus, which has hallucinogenic effects, there have been interpretations that the paintings depict aliens.
Another group of the Magura Cave drawings from the Late Neolithic is seen as a highly accurate solar calendar calculating 366 days and a year of 12 months.
Before 1993, the Magura Cave had open access, and some of the drawings were vandalized by treasure hunters.
Together with the nearby Rabisha Lake, the Belogradchik Rocks, and the Belogradchik Fortress, the Magura Cave has emerged as one of the most popular destinations for cultural tourism in modern-day Bulgaria.