Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo Unveils Newly Restored Trapesitsa Fortress in Controversial Project with Azerbaijan Funding

The southern fortress tower of the Trapesitsa Hill Fortress in Bulgaria's Veliko Tarnovo was rebuilt during a past restoration but has been included in the Azerbaijan-funded restoration project as the upper station of the new funicular (cable railway). Photo: Bulgarian Prime Minister's Facebook Page

The southern fortress tower of the Trapesitsa Hill Fortress in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo was rebuilt during a past restoration but has been included in the Azerbaijan-funded restoration project as the upper station of the new funicular (cable railway). Photo: Bulgarian Prime Minister’s Facebook Page

The city of Veliko Tarnovo in Central North Bulgaria, the successor of medieval Tarnovgrad, the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396/1422), has formally opened for visitors the Trapesitsa Hill Fortress, which has been partly restored in a controversial project with funding from the government of Azerbaijan.

Together with the neighboring Tsarevets Hill Fortress, the Trapesitsa Fortress was one of the two citadels of medieval Tarnovgrad (today’s Veliko Tarnovo) which was the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396) for 208 years – between 1185 and 1393.

The newly restored Trapesitsa Fortress has been opened as part of the celebrations for Bulgaria’s Independence Day (September 22), and has started to welcome its first tourists on Friday, September 23, 2016.

The restoration has been unveiled by Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, Azerbaijan’s First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva, and Veliko Tarnovo Mayor Daniel Panov.

The archaeological restoration of the Trapesitsa Fortress in the city of Veliko Tarnovo is being carried out by Veliko Tarnovo Municipality with EUR 1.2 million donated by the Heydar Aliyev Foundation of the government of Azerbaijan.

While many of Bulgaria’s archaeological restorations in recent years have been criticized over their quality and execution (the so called “botched restorations"), so far this has not been the case with the restoration of the Trapesitsa Fortress. However, its partial restoration of the Trapesitsa Hill has been criticized by independent journalists for another reason: because of the human rights and media freedom record of Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev.

Nonetheless, the Trapesitsa restoration project has been welcomed by the Bulgarian authorities.

What is more, Veliko Tarnovo Municipality has awarded Azerbaijan’s First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva the title of “Honorary Citizen" of the city for her contribution to the archaeological restoration project, and Veliko Tarnovo University “St. Cyril and St. Methodius" has awarded her an honorary degree (a degree honoris causa).

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One of the total of three newly restored medieval churches on the Trapesitsa Hill in Veliko Tarnovo features authentic medieval murals. Photos: Bulgarian Prime Minister's Facebook Page

One of the total of three newly restored medieval churches on the Trapesitsa Hill in Veliko Tarnovo features authentic medieval murals. Photos: Bulgarian Prime Minister’s Facebook Page

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The museum staff in charge of the Trapesitsa Fortress dressed up in medieval clothing for the opening. Photo: Bulgarian Prime Minister's Facebook Page

The museum staff in charge of the Trapesitsa Fortress dressed up in medieval clothing for the opening. Photo: Bulgarian Prime Minister’s Facebook Page

“I am glad that a Muslim country such as Azerbaijan, through its large foundations, is funding sites including the restoration of Orthodox [Christian] churches. We in Bulgaria have also restored mosques in order to contribute to values such as peace and understanding. I am content that the residents and guests of the old capital city will now be able to see the place. The [financial] support for Trapesitsa has been the first of its kind in Eastern Europe," Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boyko Borisov has stated at the opening of the restored Trapesitsa Fortress, as quoted by his Facebook page.

(Borisov’s Facebook page has released two photo albums, of the opening and of the audio-visual showSound and Light” of the Tsarevets Hill Fortress, which he and Aliyeva attended together.)

In her speech, Aliyeva has praised the “strong strategic partnership" between Bulgaria and Azerbaijan.

“I am certain that the present project is going to contribute to the development of the relations between the two countries. I thank specifically the Prime Minister who has been in control of everything, and has been helping us in every regard," the President of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation has declared, as cited by the press service of Veliko Tarnovo Municipality.

Veliko Tarnovo Mayor Daniel Panov has described the partial restoration of the Trapesitsa Fortress as a “132-year-old dream come true" adding that the initiative supported by Borisov was connected with last year’s celebration of the 830th anniversary since the birth of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396/1422) through 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.

“I would like to thank Mehriban Aliyeva for securing the funding for the realization of this exceptional project for Bulgaria and Veliko Tarnovo. With Trapesitsa’s opening for visitors, the old capital city now has the largest open-air museum complex in Bulgaria and in the Balkans," Panov has said.

“In the past, Tsarevets and Trapesitsa were invariably connected and formed the heart of the capital Tarnovgrad. Today this bond has been restored," he has concluded, presenting Borisov and Aliyeva with authentic medieval medallions discovered during the archaeological excavations of the Trapesitsa Fortress more than a century ago.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and Mehriban Aliyeva, First Lady of Azerbaijan and head of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, during the opening of the partly restored Trapesitsa Fortress in a project criticized by journalists over Azerbaijan's human rights and media freedom record. Photos: Bulgarian Prime Minister's Facebook Page

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and Mehriban Aliyeva, First Lady of Azerbaijan and head of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, during the opening of the partly restored Trapesitsa Fortress in a project criticized by journalists over Azerbaijan’s human rights and media freedom record. Photos: Bulgarian Prime Minister’s Facebook Page

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Borisov and Aliyeva during the ceremony in which Veliko Tarnovo Municipality awarded the latter an "Honorary Citizen" title. Photo: Bulgarian Prime Minister's Facebook Page

Borisov and Aliyeva during the ceremony in which Veliko Tarnovo Municipality awarded the latter an “Honorary Citizen” title. Photo: Bulgarian Prime Minister’s Facebook Page

Veliko Tarnovo Municipality has announced that a total of BGN 6.7 million (app. EUR 3.35 million) have been invested in the restoration of Trapesitsa since 2012, including BGN 4.5 million (app. EUR 2.25 million) in funding from Bulgarian government and EU sources, and BGN 2.5 (app. EUR 1.25 million) from the Heydar Aliyev Foundation of the government of Azerbaijan.

The Azerbaijan-funded project has provided for the restoration of a section of 200 meters of the fortress wall of Trapesitsa and three medieval churches; the refashioning of a former archaeological station into an interactive exhibition center (called “Center for Cultural Heritage Interpretation"), and the construction of nearly 1 km of walking alleys between the southern tower of Trapesitsa, the churches, and the upper station of a funicular (cable railway). The cable railway itself connects the fortress with the recently renovated historic Trapesitsa Train Station situated at the foot of the hill.

Veliko Tarnovo Municipality informs that tourists visiting Trapesitsa will be able to do so via two routes – by taking the funicular, or by walking up a 200-meter-long eco-trail.

The Trapesitsa Fortress will be open for visitors Monday through Sunday, from 9 am until 6 pm, whereas the cable railway will be in operation Tuesday through Sunday, from 9 am until 6 pm. However, the funicular will be closed in the event of strong wind or rain, as well as whenever the air temperature drops below 5 degrees Celsius or rises above 35 degrees Celsius.

Visitors who walked up to the top of the Trapesitsa Hill are not entitled to use the funicular on their way back.

The price of the regular ticket for visiting the newly restored Trapesitsa Fortress has been set at BGN 6 (app. EUR 3), whereas taking the cable railway is to cost another BGN 10 (app. EUR 5).

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.

As the Trapesitsa Fortress is presently being partly restored, the archaeologists continue to excavate and research various sections of one of the two major strongholds inside the late medieval Bulgarian capital.

For example, archaeologist Deyan Rabovyanov and his colleague Plamen Doychev created a 3D model of the southernmost residential quarter of Trapesitsa from the end of the 14th century.

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Shots from the audio-visual show on the Tsarevets Hill Fortress attended as part of the opening of the newly restored Trapesitsa Hill Fortress. Photos: Bulgarian Prime Minister's Facebook Page

Shots from the audio-visual show on the Tsarevets Hill Fortress attended as part of the opening of the newly restored Trapesitsa Hill Fortress. Photos: Bulgarian Prime Minister’s Facebook Page

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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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