Medieval Asen’s Fortress in Bulgaria’s Asenovgrad Saw Fewer Tourists in 2015 Because of Collapsed Mountain Road

The well-preserved 12th-13th century Church of the Holy Mother of God in Asen’s Fortress near Bulgaria’s Asenovgrad. Photo: ArchaeologyinBulgaria.com

The well-preserved 12th-13th century Church of the Holy Mother of God in Asen’s Fortress near Bulgaria’s Asenovgrad. Photo: ArchaeologyinBulgaria.com

One of Bulgaria’s famous medieval landmarks, Asen’s Fortress (Asenova Krepost) in the southern town of Asenovgrad, saw a decline in the number of visitors it had in 2015, apparently because it has become less accessible after the road leading up to it collapsed in the spring of 2015.

A total of 90,000 tourists visited Asen’s Fortress, which is still accessible but vehicles have had to stop at a safe location from where tourists have had to walk.

The road leading up to the archaeological, historical, and cultural monument has been under repair but has not been completed yet.

Asen’s Fortress is located on a 300-meter-tall isolated rock, on the northern slope of the Rhodope Mountains. Its site has traces of Neolithic, Ancient Thracian, and Byzantine settlements but the fortress dates back to the height of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) and the Asen Dynasty (1185-1256 AD).

During the reign of Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Asen II (r. 1218-1241), it served as a stronghold against the Crusaders’ Latin Empire (1204-1261). It is best known for the well preserved 12th-13th century Church of the Holy Mother of God, with its 14th century murals.

“We have seen a 10% decline in the number of visitors of this tourist site. The major factor for that appear to be the already secured landslides which got activated in the spring of last year, and hindered the tourists’ mobility," says Ivaylo Mirchev, an official from Asenovgrad’s municipally owned Tourism Authority, as cited by news website Actualno.

He adds that the road leading up to Asen’s Fortress is about to be completed, and the first tourists arriving in the spring of 2016 should be able to have direct access to the cultural landmark.

While Asen’s Fortress is rather famous, especially among Bulgarian tourists, it is not the most popular cultural site in Asenovgrad’s Municipality.

That is because it is also the home of one of Bulgaria’s largest and most well known monasteriesBachkovo Monastery which was founded in 1083 AD by Gregory Pakourianos (Gregorius Pacurianus), an 11th-century Byzantine dignitary of Georgian origin).

Mirchev has announced that in 2015, a total of 130,000 Bulgarian and international tourists visited Bachkovo Monastery on organized tourist tours. However, the total number of visitors is believed to have been at least twice as high since a lot of travelers visit the monastery independently.

Just on its official holiday, the Day of Dormition of the Mother of God, the Bachkovo Monastery welcomed 15,000 visitors. Another popular date to visit is the second day of Easter when the monastery holds Bulgaria’s oldest candle-lit vigil with a holy icon of the Mother of God (Virgin Mary). Last year’s vigil attracted 5,000 people.

Even though it is an Eastern Orthodox establishment, Bulgaria’s Bachkovo Monastery is also popular among Muslims. In 2015, it was visited by a total of almost 15,000 Muslim travelers.

Another popular pilgrimage and cultural tourism site in Bulgaria’s Asenovgrad Municipality is the site known as Krastova Gora (“Cross Mountain") and its Holy Trinity Monastery. Legends have it that the site harbors a hidden piece of the True Cross, i.e. the cross upon which Jesus Christ was crucified.

The annual holiday of the Holy Trinity Monastery in Bulgaria’s Cross Mountain Krastovden (“Cross Day") is celebrated on September 14, and usually brings together between 12,000 and 15,000 pilgrims and tourists.

All in all, the archaeological, historical, and cultural sites in Bulgaria’s Asenovgrad attract nearly half a million visitors per year.

Its other landmarks include the Asenovgrad Museum of History, the Asenovgrad Museum of Paleontology, which has Bulgaria’s largest paleontology connection outside of Sofia, the Upper Voden Fortress, the Ancient Thracian rock shrines Belintash and Karadzov Kamak, and over 250 caves near the town of Dobrostan.

Three of the landmarks – the Asenovgrad Museum of History, Asen’s Fortress, and Bachkovo Monastery – are on the list of Bulgaria’s 100 Top Tourist Sites.

The town of Kosovo, also located in Asenovgrad Municipality, has recently been included in a promotional campaign of Bulgaria’s Tourism Ministry as one of “50 Lesser Known Tourists Sites in Bulgaria" because of its traditional architecture from the Bulgarian Revival Period (18th-19th century). A total of 96 of its old houses have been recognized as cultural monuments.

Mirchev says Asenovgrad Municipality plans to publish its own list of top cultural tourism sites which will include a total of 15 well-known and lesser-known landmarks.

Surviving 14th century frescoes inside the inside the Church of the Holy Mother of God in Asen’s Fortress near Bulgaria’s Asenovgrad. Photo: ArchaeologyinBulgaria.com

Surviving 14th century frescoes inside the inside the Church of the Holy Mother of God in Asen’s Fortress near Bulgaria’s Asenovgrad. Photo: ArchaeologyinBulgaria.com

Background Infonotes:

Asen’s Fortress (Asenova Krepost) is a medieval Bulgarian fortress near the southern Bulgarian town of Asenovgrad (which takes its name from the fortress). It dates back to the height of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) and the Asen Dynasty (1185-1256 AD).

Asen’s Fortress is located on a 300-meter-high isolated rock, on the northern slope of the Rhodope Mountains. Its location features traces of Neolithic, Ancient Thracian, and Byzantine settlements. It was mentioned as Petrich (not to be confused with today’s town in Southwestern Bulgaria) in an 11th century statute of the nearby Bachkovo Monastery. Asen’s Fortress was conquered by crusaders from the Third Crusade.

It was renovated in 1231 AD during the reign of Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Asen II (r. 1218-1241) as a stronghold against the Crusaders’ Latin Empire (1204-1261). It is best known for the well preserved 12th-13th century Church of the Holy Mother of God, a two-storey cross-domed single-naved church with a wide narthex and a large rectangular tower, with 14th century murals.

Asen’s Fortress was captured by Byzantium after Tsar Ivan Asen II‘s death, and regained by Bulgaria in 1344 under Tsar Ivan Alexander (1331-1371). It was conquered by the Ottomans Turks during their invasion of Bulgaria at the end of the 14th century even though the church remained in use during the following centuries. According to some sources, the fortress was destroyed in the Ottoman Interregnum when Ottoman princes fought for the succession of the Ottoman throne (1402-1413 AD).

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The Upper Voden Fortress, also known as Voden or Votina, located near today’s southern Bulgarian town of Asenovgrad is connected mostly with the role of Byzantine politician of Georgian origin Gregory Pakourianos (Gregorius Pacurianus), the founder of the nearby Monastery of the Mother of God Petritzonitissa in Bachkovo, which he established in 1083 AD. The Upper Voden Fortress was first excavated in the 1960s by Dimitar Tsonchev, and since 1976 – by renowned Bulgarian archaeologist Rositsa Moreva, who is also in charge of the current excavations. Evidence indicates that the Upper Voden Fortress (located on a strategically important mount with an altitude of 516 meters, overlooking the Thracian plain) was first built in the 9th-10th century but on the foundations of a previously existing Early Byzantine fortress. In modern-day Bulgaria, not unlike all other archaeological sites, it has been damaged by treasure hunters but also by locals wishing to mine stones from it for house construction.

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Gregory Pakourianos (Gregorius Pacurianus) was an 11th-century Byzantine politician of Georgian origin who is said to have been the second most powerful man in the Byzantine Empire after the Emperor himself. Gregory Pakourianos is known as the founder of the Monastery of the Mother of God Petritzonitissa in Bachkovo, one of the most revered monasteries in today’s Bulgaria also located near the town of Asenovgrad. It was established by him in 1083 AD. Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos appointed him “megas domestikos of All the West" meaning he was the supreme commander of Byzantine forces in Europe. He died in 1086 AD fighting the Pechenegs at the Battle of Beliatoba (today’s Bulgarian town of Belyatovo).