Bulgaria’s Nikyup to Organize Ancient Roman Festival at Nicopolis ad Istrum

The ruins of the Ancient Roman city of Nicopolis ad Istrum near Bulgaria's Nikyup and Veliko Tarnovo. Photo: Ministry of Culture

The ruins of the Ancient Roman city of Nicopolis ad Istrum near Bulgaria’s Nikyup and Veliko Tarnovo. Photo: Ministry of Culture

The once glorious Ancient Roman city of Nicopolis ad Istrum situated near the city of Veliko Tarnovo in Central North Bulgaria is going to have its own festival with historical reenactments.

The first edition of the Roman festival of Nicopolis ad Istrum is going to take place in August 2016, Yordanka Atanasova, Mayor of the small town of Nikyup which is the modern-day successor of the ancient city, reports local newspaper Yantra Dnes.

The event is being organized by the town hall of Nikyup and the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History, and will feature gladiator fights, fights between Romans and Dacians, a slave market, coin minting, presentation of Roman clothes and ancient cuisine.

Probably the largest and most successful Ancient Roman festival in today’s Bulgaria has been the “Eagle on the Danube” Festival based in another major Roman city in Northern BulgariaNovae, which is located near the Danube town of Svishtov.

Other ancient cities where historical reenactments and festivals have been organized recently include Sexaginta Prista in today’s Danube city of Ruse, and the Ancient Thracian and later Roman city of Kabile near the city of Yambol in Southern Bulgaria.

The ruins of Nicopolis ad Istrum, whose name means “Victory City on the Danube River”, are located near today’s town of Nikyup, Veliko Tarnovo Municipality, 18 km northwest of the city of Veliko Tarnovo. It was founded by Roman Emperor Trajan (Marcus Ulpius Traianus) (r. 98-117 AD) to honor his victories over the Dacian tribes between 101 and 106 AD (most probably in 102 AD) at the intersection of the two main roads of the DanubianRoman provinces – the road from Odessus (Odessos) on the Black Sea (today’s Varna) to the western parts of the Balkan Peninsula, and the road from the Roman military camp Novae (today’s Svishtov) on the Danube to the southern parts of the Balkan Peninsula.

Nicopolis ad Istrum is sometimes described as the birthplace of Germanic literary tradition because in the 4th century AD Gothic bishop Ulfilas (Wulfila) (ca. 311-383 AD) received permission from Roman Emperor Constantius II (r. 324-361 AD) to settle with his flock of Christian converts near Nicopolis ad Istrum in the province of Moesia, in 347-8 AD. There Ulfilas invented the Gothic alphabet and translated the Bible from Greek into Gothic.

The Ancient Roman city was destroyed in 447 AD by the barbarian forces of Attila the Hun, even though it might have been abandoned by its residents even before that. It was partly rebuilt as a fortified post of the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) in the 6th century AD which in turn was destroyed at the end of the 6th century AD by an Avar invasion. Later, it was settled as a medieval city in the Bulgarian Empire between the 10th and the 14th century.

The Nikyup Mayor says the organization of the Ancient Roman festival of Nicopolis ad Istrum will cost about BGN 10,000 (app. EUR 5,000), and that 60% of the funding is expected to be contributed by the Municipality of Veliko Tarnovo.

The town of Nikyup and lead archaeologist Pavlina Vladkova recently issued a call for volunteers to aid with the 2016 summer digs of one of the most glorious Ancient Roman cities in Southeast Europe.

About 50 volunteers from Bulgaria, Serbia, the UK, and the Netherlands, have already signed up to donate their labor during the 2016 summer archaeological excavations but more are invited to join in.

Anyone seeking to join the 2016 summer excavations of Nicopolis ad Istrum in Central North Bulgaria as a volunteer should email lead archaeologist Assoc. Prof. Pavlina Vladkova, who is in charge of the applicants’ selection, at pavlina_v[@]hotmail.com by the end of May 2016!

In the summer of 2015, the archaeologists unearthed the ruins of a huge Antiquity building which was probably the residence of the agoranomus / curule aedile, a public officer in charge of trade and market operations in Ancient Greek and Roman cities.

The new Ancient Roman festival is supposed to take place after the start of the 2016 regular archaeological excavations of the Roman city.

“We decided to organize this one-day Roman festival in order to diversify the archaeological work, and to provide entertainment for the volunteers,” Atanasova says.

A day before the actual festival, the reenactors and the other participants are going to parade in the city of Veliko Tarnovo, a major hub for cultural tourism, which is expected to attract more visitors for the event at Nicopolis ad Istrum.

The Mayor adds that the town of Nikyup is already famous for its water melon festival, and may now also become famous for new its Ancient Roman reenactment event.

Meanwhile, the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History has organized a new exhibit on Nicopolis ad Istrum showcasing also a famous bronze head sculpture of Roman Emperor Gordian III (r. 238-244 AD) which has been subjected to the ancient custom of damnatio memoriae (“condemnation of memory”).

Unfortunately, the Roman city of Nicopolis ad Istrum remains a largely unknown destination for cultural tourism. Recent data has shown that in 2015, it was visited by fewer than 4,000 tourists, a number which is nonetheless an increase compared with previous years.

The archaeological exploration of Nicopolis ad Istrum first started in 1900, while the presently ongoing excavation efforts were restarted in 2007.

Learn more about the Ancient Roman city of Nicpolis ad Istrum in the Background Infonotes below!

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Background Infonotes:

Nicopolis ad Istrum (also known as Ulpia Nicopolis ad Istrum) was an Ancient Roman and Early Byzantine city (not to be confused with Nicopolis ad Nestum in today’s Southwest Bulgaria).

Its ruins are located near today’s town of Nikyup, Veliko Tarnovo Municipality, 18 km northwest of the city of Veliko Tarnovo in Central Northern Bulgaria. Its name means “Victory City on the Danube River”. It was founded by Roman Emperor Marcus Ulpius Traianus (r. 98-117 AD) to honor his victories over the Daciantribes between 101 and 106 AD (most probably in 102 AD) on a plateau on the left bank of the Rositsa River. This is where the two main roads of the DanubianRoman provinces intersected – the road from Odessus (Odessos) on the Black Sea (today’s Varna) to the western parts of the Balkan Peninsula, and the road from the Roman military camp Novae (today’s Svishtov) on the Danube to the southern parts of the Balkan Peninsula.

(Ulpia) Nicopolis ad Istrum was first part of the Roman province of Thrace but after 193 AD it was made part of the province of Moesia Inferior. Nicopolis ad Istrum flourished in the 2nd-3rd century, during the Nerva-Antonine Dynasty (96-192 AD) and the Severan Dynasty (193-235 AD). It further developed as major urban center after the reforms of Emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305). Its organization was similar to that of Roman cities in Thrace and Asia Minor such as Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamon. It was ruled by a council of archons, a city council and an assembly, with local priests worshipping Ancient Roman and Greek deities such as Zeus, Hera, Athena, Asclepius, Dionysus, Mithras. At the time, Nicopolis ad Istrum was inhabited by Thracians, Roman military veterans, and settlers from Asia Minor. Nicopolis ad Istrum is known to have minted 900 different emissions of bronze coins. The city had orthogonal planning, with an agora (city square), a cardo maximus and a decumanus maximus (main streets), a market place, other public buildings and residential areas, limestone-paved streets and underground sewerage, as well as three aqueducts and several water wells, many of which has been unearthed in archaeological excavations.

The fortress walls of Nicopolis ad Istrum were erected only after the city was ransacked by a barbarian attack of the Costoboci, an ancient people possibly linked to the Getae (Gets) inhabiting an area in today’s Western Ukraine. The city square (agora) featured a statue of Roman Emperor Trajan mounted on a horse, a number of other marble statues, a Ionic colonnade, a three-nave basilica, a bouleuterion (a public building housing the boule – council of citizens), a building to the cult of goddess Cybele, a small odeon (theater), thermae (public baths) as well as a building which according to an inscription was a “termoperiatos” which can be likened to a modern-day shopping mall – a heated building with shops and closed space for walks and business meetings. A total of 121 stone and brick tombs and sarcophagi have been found by the Bulgarian archaeologists excavating the city’s necropolis. Some villas and other buildings in the residential parts of Nicopolis ad Istrum have also been excavated.

Nicopolis ad Istrum is sometimes described as the birthplace of Germanic literary tradition because in the 4th century AD Gothic bishop Ulfilas (Wulfila) (ca. 311-383 AD) received permission from Roman Emperor Constantius II (r. 324-361 AD) to settle with his flock of Christian converts near Nicopolis ad Istrum in the province of Moesia, in 347-8 AD. There Ulfilas invented the Gothic alphabet and translated the Bible from Greek into Gothic.

The Ancient Roman city Nicopolis ad Istrum was destroyed in 447 AD by the barbarian forces of Attila the Hun, even though it might have been abandoned by its residents even before that. It was rebuilt as a fortified post of the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) in the 6th century AD. The Early Byzantine fort covered about one forth of the Ancient Roman city – 57.5 decares (app. 14.2 acres) out of a total of 215.5 decares (app. 53.2 decares), and was also the center of a bishopric. The Early Byzantine fort was destroyed at the end of the 6th century AD by an Avar invasion. Later, it was settled as a medieval cityin the Bulgarian Empire between the 10th and the 14th century.

Nicopolis ad Istrum was visited in 1871 by Austro-Hungarian geographer and archaeologist Felix Kanitz who found there a statue of the wife of Roman Emperor Septimius Severus (r. 193-211 AD). The city was first excavated in 1900 by French archaeologist J. Seur whose work, however, was not documented, and in 1906-1909 by Czech archaeologist B. Dobruski. In 1945 and 1966-1968, there were partial excavations led by T. Ivanov from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. Systematic excavations were started in 1970 and were led again by T. Ivanov. Between 1985 and 1992, Nicopolis ad Istrum was excavated by a joint Bulgarian-British expedition from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia and a team of the University of Nottingham. The joint Bulgarian-British excavations were resumed in 1996. The Nicopolis ad Istrum archaeological preserve is managed by the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History. In 1984, the Ancient Roman city Nicopolis ad Istrum was put on the Tentative List for consideration as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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