Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo Comes Up with New Projects to Develop Medieval Tarnovgrad’s Citadels Trapesitsa, Tsarevets

This photo shows a view of both the Trapesitsa Hill Fortress (in the foreground) and the Tsarevets Hill Fortress (in the background) in Bulgaria's Veliko Tarnovo. Tsarevets has seen much greater archaeological restorations than Trapesitsa as visible from the ruins. The Yantra River runs in the gorge between the two hills which is barely visible in this photo. Photo: Veliko Tarnovo Municipality

This photo shows a view of both the Trapesitsa Hill Fortress (in the foreground) and the Tsarevets Hill Fortress (in the background) in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo. Tsarevets has seen much greater archaeological restorations than Trapesitsa as visible from the ruins. The Yantra River runs in the gorge between the two hills which is barely visible in this photo. Photo: Veliko Tarnovo Municipality

Tsarevets  and Trapesitsa, the two citadels of medieval Tarnovgrad, today’s city of Veliko Tarnovo in Central North Bulgaria, which was the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD), will be restored and promoted further by Veliko Tarnovo Municipality with new cultural heritage projects.

The Tsarevets Hill Fortress, which saw partial archaeological restorations between 1930 and 1980, is presently Bulgaria’s most popular cultural tourism site. The Trapesitsa Hill Fortress is presently undergoing a partial archaeological restoration with funding from a controversial source, a foundation of the government of Azerbaijan.

Several new infrastructure and development projects for both the Trapesitsa Fortress and the Tsarevets Fortress have been prepared by the local authorities, Veliko Tarnovo Mayor Daniel Panov has announced, as cited by the press service of the Municipality.

It says that the Mayor and his administration would like to build upon the city’s achievements in terms of tourism in order to continue to generate sustainable interest in the archaeological, historical, and cultural monuments of the late medieval Bulgarian capital.

One of the projects worth BGN 250,000 (app. EUR 125,000) provides for a new parking lot and road to the medieval Holy Forty Martyrs Church, one of the most important buildings in Bulgaria’s history.

For this and the other projects, Veliko Tarnovo Municipality will seek EU funding under Operational Program “Regions in Growth”.

The statements points out that the Trapesitsa Hill Fortress will be a priority in terms of cultural tourism development so that Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo can have “one more attractive tourist site reminding about the glorious capital period of the city”.

Since Trapesitsa is yet to be opened for visitors, the local authorities are working on a new security and fire safety system, and on electronic admission tickets.

The Municipality explains that the future visitors will be able to access the Trapesitsa Fortress via two entrances. One is a funicular, i.e. a cable railway that can fit up to 20 passengers at a time, and the other is a walking passage.

The lower station of the funicular is going to house a visitors’ center and other amenities for the tourists.

The funicular (cable railway) to the top of the Trapesitsa Hill was built with EU funding worth BGN 4.8 million (app. EUR 2.4 million) from Operational Program “Regional Development”. The same project also provided for the artistic lighting of the ruins and a supporting wall.

The reconstruction of the historic Trapesitsa Train Station, which will be a transport hub for tourists visiting the fortress, is also about to be completed.

The ongoing archaeological restoration of the Trapesitsa Fortress in the city Veliko Tarnovo, the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) in the Middle Ages, is being carried out by Veliko Tarnovo Municipality with EUR 1.2 million donated by the Heydar Aliyev Foundation of the government of Azerbaijan.

However, the partial archaeological restoration of the Trapesitsa Hill has been criticized by independent journalists because of the human rights and media freedom record of Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev.

The money from the Azerbaijan government is used to restore part of the northern fortress wall of Trapesitsa and three of the churches, to pave a central walking lane, install lighting, and set up an exhibition center.

The recent archaeological excavations on the Trapesitsa Hill started in 2006, and since then the Bulgarian archaeologists have found there a total of 21 medieval churches, a monastery, and a set of civilian and military buildings.

Mayor Daniel Panov reminds that the City Council has decided to task the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History with the management of the Trapesitsa Hill Fortress; the Museum is expected to come up with projects for exhibitions and information billboards.

The Municipality’s concept for the further development of the Tsarevets Hill Fortress provides for the restoration of the imperial palace of the Bulgarian Tsars, creating a mall of medieval crafts, and funding further excavations and restorations both inside the fortress, and at the foot of the hill.

To achieve these goals, Veliko Tarnovo Municipality is planning to apply for a share of the some BGN 200 million in funding slated for Bulgaria under EU Operational Program “Regions in Growth” for the 2014-2020 period.

The Municipality also plans to renovate the buildings of the Veliko Tarnovo Museum of Archaeology (which is part of the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History) and the Museum of Bulgaria’s National Revival and the Constituent Assembly of 1879.

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Background Infonotes:

The Trapesitsa 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 Tsarevets Hill, Trapesitsa was one of the two fortresses of the inner city acropolis of Tarnovgrad (Veliko Tarnovo). The Trapesitsa Hill is a natural fortress on the right bank of the Yantra River, and is surrounded by it on three sides. It is located northwest of the Tsarevets Hill. The Trapesitsa Fortress had four gates, the main one being its southern gate, which was also connected with the Tsarevets Fortress with a bridge across the Yantra River. There are two hypotheses about Trapesitsa’s name. The first one is that it comes from the Bulgarian word “trapeza” meaning a “table” or “repast”, possibly referring to the receptions of the medieval Bulgarian Tsars; the second hypothesis is that the word comes from “trapezium” because the hill is in fact is a trapezoidal plateau.

The first archaeological excavations on the Trapesitsa Hill Fortress in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo between 1884 and 1900 revealed the foundations of 17 medieval Bulgarian churches with fragments of rich murals, colorful mosaics, and beautiful floor tiles. The documented artifacts discovered there include crosses, necklaces, coins, rings, earrings, vessels. The churches on Trapesitsa were richly decorated with various architectural forms such as pilasters, niches, blind arches, colored slabs, among others.

The largest preserved church on the Trapesitsa Hill known as “Church No. 8” is named after the 10th century AD Bulgarian saint, St. Ivan Rilski (St. John of Rila) (876-946 AD); it was surrounded with other buildings which are believed to have been part of a monastery complex. It is known that in 1195 AD, Bulgaria’s Tsar Asen I (r. 1189-1196 AD) transported the relics of St. Ivan Rilski from the city of Sredets (today’s Sofia) to Tarnovgrad (today’s Veliko Tarnovo), and had them placed in the specially constructed church on the Trapesitsa Hill. The Bulgarian archaeologists believe that a room in the southern part of Church No. 8 was the reliquary for St. Ivan Rilski’s relics. The relics of St. Ivan Rilski (St. John of Rila), who is Bulgaria’s patron saint, were kept in Veliko Tarnovo until 1469 AD when they were transported to the Rila Monastery where they are kept to this day in what became a major event for the Bulgarians during the early period of the Ottoman Yoke (1396-1878/1912), as the Second Bulgarian Empire had been conquered by the invading Ottoman Turks in 1396 AD.

The numerous and richly decorated small churches indicate that the Trapesitsa Hill harbored the homes of the medieval Bulgarian nobility, the boyars, and the supreme clergy. More recent excavations, however, also indicate that the imperial palace of the early Bulgarian Tsars from the House of Asen (the Asen Dynasty, r. 1185-1257 AD) was in fact located on the Trapesitsa Hill, and the imperial seat was possibly moved to the nearby Tsarevets Hill only later, during the reign of Tsar Ivan Asen II (r. 1218-1241 AD). In the recent years, the Trapesitsa Hill has been excavated by Prof. Konstantin Totev from the Veliko Tarnovo Branch of the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, and by Prof. Hitko Vatchev from the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History.

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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”.

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