Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo to Restore Medieval Tsar’s Public Bath with Norwegian Funding

The ruins of Tsar Shishman's Bath in Bulgaria's Veliko Tarnovo, late medieval Bulgarian thermae (public baths) which are to be restored with Norwegian funding. Photo: Yantra Dnes daily

The ruins of Tsar Shishman’s Bath in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo, late medieval Bulgarian thermae (public baths) which are to be restored with Norwegian funding. Photo: Yantra Dnes daily

The city of Veliko Tarnovo in Central North Bulgaria, which is the successor of the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396) Tarnovgrad, is going to restore the building of medieval public baths (thermae), which is known as Tsar Shishman’s Bath, and may have been associated with one of the last medieval Bulgarian Tsars.

Veliko Tarnovo is famous first and foremost for the fortified citadels of late medieval Tarnovgrad, the Tsarevets Hill Fortress and the Trapesitsa Hill Fortress (read more about these top archaeological landmarks in the Background Infonotes below).

However, Veliko Tarnovo Municipality has been looking to expand the number of archaeological, historical, and cultural sites that can be restored and made accessible for tourists.

It has now won funding from the EEA Grants / Norway Grants for the restoration of the only surviving thermae (public baths) from the period of the Second Bulgarian Empire named Tsar Shishman’s Bath, after the last Tsar of Tarnovgrand, Tsar Ivan Shishman (r. 1371-1395) before the capital was conquered by the invading Ottoman Turks after a three-month siege in 1393 AD.

The funding from the Norwegian government for the restoration of Tsar Shishman’s Bath in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo amounts to BGN 750,000 (app. EUR 325,000), reports local daily Yantra Dnes.

The restoration project has been developed by architects Ivan Cholakov and Rumyana Braynova.

The project is entitled “The Cultural Heritage of the City of Veliko Tarnovo in the Focus of European Cultural Diversity”, and is supposed to be completed by April 2017. In addition to completing the archaeological restoration, it is also expected to provide employment for unemployed members of the local Roma community.

The ruins of Tsar Shishman’s Bath are presently in a bad condition because they have been left unprotected in the open for decades. Part of the walls and hypocaust (underfloor heating) of the medieval thermae have survived to this day.

Tsar Shishman’s Bath has been granted the status of a “monument of culture of national importance”; it is located in Veliko Tarnovo’s Asen’s Quarter, between two churches, the Dormition of the Mother of God (Virgin Mary) Church, and the St. Apostles Peter and Paul Church, which dates back to the 13th century.

Because of its size and location, it is the only known medieval thermae building of its kind in Bulgaria; other ruins of medieval baths have been found in the Bulgarian imperial palace on the Tsarevets Hill and in the homes of the boyars (medieval Bulgarian nobles) but there are substantially smaller, explains Nelina Tsarova, head of the Culture and Tourism Directorate of Veliko Tarnovo Municipality, who is the coordinator of the restoration project.

There is no specific historical or archaeological data as to why the thermae were named after Tsar Ivan Shishman so some historians believe that the building may have been erected during his reign. Another hypothesis is that his name was adopted simple because he was the last medieval Bulgarian Tsar to reign in Tarnovgrad.

Tsar Shishman’s Bath was first explored by Czech-Bulgarian archaeologist Karel Skorpil (1859-1944), the father of modern-day Bulgarian archaeology, back in 1893, who also explored the Tsarevets Hill Fortress, the Trapesitsa Hill Fortress, and Asen’s Quarter.

The thermae ruins were later explored by architect Georgi Kozarov (1872-1953) who described the location of two bathing rooms and a warm water tank located to the east of them.

The site of the thermae was expropriated by Veliko Tarnovo Municipality in the 1980s, and the first archaeological excavations there were started in 1983 by Assoc. Prof. Dr. Yordan Alexiev.

The digs revealed coins and ceramics from the 15th and 16th century taken as evidence that the public bath was in operation during that period after Tarnovgrad was conquered by the Ottoman Turks, and Bulgaria was made part of the Ottoman Empire. However, the excavations failed to find out the exact period when the building was constructed. They did the reveal the ventilation system of the thermae, and the original flooring made of marble slabs.

The first project for the restoration of the building was developed in 1984 by architect Milka Kusheva.

Tsar Shishman’s Bath will be restored as part of the ensemble of medieval buildings in Veliko Tarnovo’s Asen’s Quarter which include the St. Apostles Peter and Paul Church, the St. Ivan Rilski Church, the St. George Church, and the St. Dimitar Solunski (St. Demetrius of Thessaloniki) Church.

The report of the Yantra daily points out that the ruins of three more medieval public baths can be found nearby even though these buildings, or whatever is left of them, have not been granted the status of culture monuments.

One of them was destroyed in an earthquake in 1913. Another one, which features Ottoman architectural decoration motifs, was in use until about 50 years ago. After 1989 (i.e. the end of the communist period), the building became municipal property, and was sold to a private firm which used is for the production of sweets and pastry.

The ruins of Tsar Shishman's Bath in Bulgaria's Veliko Tarnovo, late medieval Bulgarian thermae (public baths) which are to be restored with Norwegian funding. Photo: Yantra Dnes daily

The ruins of Tsar Shishman’s Bath in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo, late medieval Bulgarian thermae (public baths) which are to be restored with Norwegian funding. Photo: Yantra Dnes daily

Norwegian Ambassador to Bulgaria H. E. Guro Katharina H. Vikør (first on the right) visiting the site of the ruins of Tsar Shishman's Bath in Veliko Tarnovo. Photo: Yantra Dnes daily

Norwegian Ambassador to Bulgaria H. E. Guro Katharina H. Vikør (first on the right) visiting the site of the ruins of Tsar Shishman’s Bath in Veliko Tarnovo. Photo: Yantra Dnes daily

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”.

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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 Hill of Momina Krepost (“Maiden’s Fortress”), also known as Devingrad (“Virgins’ Town”), is one of the historic hills of Tarnovgrad, the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD), today’s city of Veliko Tarnovo. It is a Late Antiquity Early Byzantine and medieval Bulgarian fortress located about 600 meters to the east of the Tsarevets Hill, one of the two fortresses of the inner city acropolis of Tarnovgrad (Veliko Tarnovo), on the right bank of the Yantra River. In the Late Antiquity and Early Byzantine period, the fortress of Momina Krepost (“Maiden’s Fortress”), also known as Devingrad (“Virgins’ Town”), was established to protect the connection of the Early Byzantine town on the Tsarevets Hill to the road between Nicopolis ad Istrum (north of Veliko Tarnovo) and Kabile (near today’s southeastern Bulgarian city of Yambol). The Maiden’s Fortress is located on a triangular hill with three terraces.

The Maiden’s Fortress in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo was first explored by Czech-Bulgarian archaeologist Karel Skorpil who together with his brother Hermann Skorpil founded modern-day Bulgarian archaeology at the end of the 19th century. Later excavations and observations were carried out there in 1942-1943 by Dr. Ivan Velkov, in 1963 by Bogdan Sultov from the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History, and more recently by Assist. Prof. Evgeni Dermendzhiev from the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History. The citadel of the Maiden Fortress is about 300 meters long and 30-40 meters wide, and has a total area of 9 decares (app. 2.2 acres). The Maiden Fortress was built at the end of the 5th century AD by Byzantium, and was used the Byzantines in the 6th and the beginning of the 7th century AD. During the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) it was part of the Bulgarian capital Tarnovgrad (Veliko Tarnovo).

The medieval name of the Maiden Fortress or Virgins’ Town is known from a marble slab inscription discovered on the Tsarevets Hill during archaeological excavations which mentions Devingrad. It was published by Nikola Angelov, and was construed by Ivan Galabov who believes it refers to the Maiden’s Fortress. According to Prof. Velizar Velkov (1928-1993), the name might stem from the Thracian name of the city. The Thracians used the word “deva” to mean a city (dava in Greek, and deva in Latin) meaning a fortified place. The Slavs, however, translated the word as “deva” meaning a virgin. The Ottoman conquerors after them called it kuzhisar (kuz meaning a girl, and hisar – a fortress). After Bulgaria’s Liberation from the Ottoman Empire in 1878, the name became Momina Krepost, Maiden’s Fortress.

There are also numerous legends which claim that the fortress was named after young girls who committed suicide there out of their desperate love, or found a heroic death. One of the legends has it that Velislava, the beautiful daughter of Strashimir, a rich and powerful Bulgarian boyar (a medieval Bulgarian title for a noble second in rank only to the Tsar, i.e. Emperor) was in love with a brave and beautiful but poor young man named Borimir. Instead, Strashimir wanted to marry Velislava to the rich but cowardly Svetoslav. Borimir was summoned to the Bulgarian army during a Byzantine invasion, with the war putting off the wedding between Velislava and Svetoslav. When the Bulgarians fended off the attack and peace was restored, the wedding was supposed to take place but the night of the wedding celebrated with a feast in the imperial palace in Tarnovgrad, Velislava disappeared and was found in her wedding dress near the Yantra River, after she had jumped off the tower of the fortress across from the Tsarevets Hill. After her death, Borimir left a flower on her grave, and nobody ever saw him again, and the locals called the fortress where the young woman committed suicide the “Maiden’s Fortress”.

Another legend tells about a young woman named Malina who decided to rebel against the hated Bulgarian Tsar Boril (r. 1207-1218 AD) who was an usurper of the throne in Tarnovgrad taking it after his predecessor Tsar Kaloyan (r. 1197-1207 AD) was murdered. Malina and her beloved man Valkan gathered a band of rebels to march against the Tsar. As they raised their flag, Malina’s red scarf, as a banner on the high hill opposite the Tsarevets Fortress to summon the rebels, however, two arrows suddenly killed them. Despite that Malina held onto the banner, and the rebellion was launched. Malina’s banner is said to have been seen on the high hill at moonlight, and that’s why the locals called it the “Maiden’s Fortress”.

According to a third legend, one of the daughters of Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Asen II (r. 1218-1241 AD) refused to marry a rich boyar. As she disobeyed her father’s will, she founded a monastery on the hill across from Tsarevets where one day out of sorrow she jumped off the cliff into the Yantra River – hence the name the “Maiden’s Fortress”.