Americans Largest Group of Foreign Tourists in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo, Trapesitsa Fortress Restoration Yet to Bear Fruit
US tourists are once again the largest group of foreign visitors to view the numerous archaeological, historical, and cultural monuments in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo, the successor of medieval Tarnovgrad which was the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396/1422).
The cultural tourism sites in question are managed by the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History which has released its latest visitor data.
They include the Tsarevets Hill Fortress, one of the two citadels of medieval Tarnovgrad, which was partly restored between 1930 and 1981; the Tsarevgrad Tarnov Multimedia Center of the Museum; the medieval churches in the Asenov Quarter in Veliko Tarnovo such as the restored St. Dimitar Solunksi (St. Demetrius of Thessaloniki) Church and the Holy Forty Martyrs’ Church; the Church of the Nativity of Christ and other churches and monuments in the Architectural Preserve in the nearby town of Arbanasi; the Museum of Bulgaria’s National Revival and the Constituent Assembly of 1879; and the Ancient Roman city of Nicopolis ad Istrum located near the town of Nikyup, about 18 km north of Veliko Tarnovo.
In the fall of 2016, the partial restoration of the Trapesitsa Fortress, the other major citadel of medieval Tarnovgrad alongside the Tsarevets Hill Fortress, added a new venue for cultural tourism in Veliko Tarnovo.
(Learn more about these archaeological, historical, and cultural monuments in the Background Infonotes below!)
The cultural tourism sites in Veliko Tarnovo attracted a total of 415,565 tourists in 2016, including 273,520 Bulgarians and 142,047 international travelers, according to a statement of the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History.
This amounts to about 30,000 fewer tourists (a 6.4% decrease) compared with 2015 when the sites in question were seen by 444,087 people (a 4% compared with 2014). Regardless of the decline, however, Veliko Tarnovo Municipality generated over BGN 1.5 million (app. EUR 750,000) in revenue from admission tickets, which is a better result than in 2015.
The decrease in tourist numbers is mostly due to the smaller number of Bulgarian visitors (more than 20,000 fewer, or 6.8%), with the Veliko Tarnovo Museum noting that it was mostly observed in the summer months, and is due to the big international sports events during this period, namely, the 2016 European Football (Soccer) Championship, and the 2016 Rio Olympics.
The number of foreign tourists who visited the cultural tourism sites in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo in 2016 saw a small decline of about 8,000 visitors (5.7%).
Out of the total of number of visitors in 2016, about 119,000 were elementary, high school, or college students, compared with about 112,000 students who visited in 2015.
The largest group of foreign tourists who came to Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo in 2016 were the 25,968 Americans. The city’s archaeological and historical monuments were also seen by 18,415 Romanians, 12,370 Russians, 12,083 French, 9,701 Brits, 6,635 Germans, and 3,564 Australians. The tourists from Asian countries were counted as a single group totaling 14,795.
In 2016, the Tsarevets Hill Fortress, which is the most popular cultural tourism attraction in Bulgaria, and the only one open 365 days a year, was viewed by 229,436 tourists, including 69,412 foreign visitors.
The Tsarevgrad Tranov Multimedia Visitor Center was seen in 2016 by a total of 36,439 visitors, while the medieval museum churches in Veliko Tarnovo’s Asenov Quarter – the Holy Forty Martyrs’ Church, the St. Dimitar Solunski (St. Demetrius of Thessaloniki) Church, the St. George Church, and St. Petar and St. Paul Church attracted a combined total of 30,982 tourists.
Of the cultural tourism sites in the nearby town of Arbanasi, the Church of Nativity of Christ saw 32,188 tourists, the Kostantsalieva House saw 32,049 visitors, and the St. Archangels Gabriel and Michael Church saw 9,265 visitors.
The Museum of Bulgaria’s National Revival and the Constituent Assembly of 1879 in Veliko Tarnovo welcomed 11,543 visitors in 2016, about 1,500 more than in 2015, while the Museum of the 19th century prison had 5,301 visitors, about 200 more than in 2015.
The ruins of the major Ancient Roman city of Nicopolis ad Istrum which are located 18 km away from Veliko Tarnovo saw the number of its visitors almost triple in 2016 – 8,824 compared with 3,376 in 2015.
This may have resulted from its increasing promotion, and continuing archaeological research, including with the participation of international volunteers.
The newest cultural tourism venue in Bulgaria‘s Veliko Tarnovo, the Trapesitsa Fortress, whose partial restoration was completed in late September 2016 with funding from the government of Azerbaijan, is yet to boost the tourist numbers in the city.
In the brief period from its opening until the end of 2016, it saw a total of 6,459 visitors.
On January 1, 2017, the Veliko Tarnovo Museum announced that the first visitor of the Tsarevets Fortress, and, respectively, the first visitor of any cultural tourism venues in Bulgaria for the new year, has been a software engineer from Japan.
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 AD – in 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”.
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.
The St. Dimitar Solunski (St. Demetrius of Thessaloniki) Church in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo is a restored church based on the excavations of the original medieval church with the same name which existed there during the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) with its capital in Tarnovgrad (Veliko Tarnovo).
The St. Dimitar Solunski Church is connected with the restoration of the medieval Bulgarian Empire, after in 1018 AD Byzantium had conquered most of the Bulgarian territory and destroyed the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD).
According to Byzantine chronicler Niketas (Nicetas) Choniates (ca. 1155-1215 AD), the St. Dimitar Solunski Church in Veliko Tarnovo is where in 1185 AD, local boyars (nobles), brothers Asen and Todor (Teodor), who later took the name “Petar” after Tsar Petar I (r. 927-969 AD), becoming Petar IV, proclaimed the restoration of the Bulgarian state.
This is where they started their rebellion, known as the Uprising of Asen and Petar, against the Byzantine Empire creating the Second Bulgarian Empire.
Later the brothers became Tsar Asen I (r. 1187-1196) and Tsar Petar IV (r. 1186-1197).
They ruled as co-emperors; both of them were murdered, and were succeeded by their young brother Tsar Kaloyan (r. 1197-1207).
(Note: Special thanks to Borislav Mitev for providing the texts!)
The restored St. Dimitar Solunski Church is located on the right bank of the Yantra River, at the foot of the northeastern slope of the Trapesitsa Hill, one of the two citadels of the medieval Bulgarian capital Tarnovgrad.
It was rebuilt near the ruins of the original church between 1977 and 1985 by Bulgarian architect Teofil Teofil based on the excavations of archaeologist Assoc. Prof. Yanka Nikolova and on other surviving historical monuments from the same period.
The temple is 16 meters long, and 8.5 meters wide. The restored church was opened as a museum in 1985 on the 800th anniversary since the Uprising of Asen and Petar and the liberation of the Bulgarian state from Byzantium.
The original medieval church St. Dimitar Solunski near the Trapesitsa Fortress was where the rulers from the the Asen Dynasty (House of Asen) ruling Bulgaria in 1185-1257 AD were crowned. It was the core of a monastery whose four large buildings were unearthed in the archaeological excavations starting in 1971.
Both the original church and the monastery were destroyed in the third quarter of the 13th century AD, possibly by an earthquake. In the 14th century, the site of the collapsed church was turned into a Christian cemetery that was in use until the 20th century. In the Christian necropolis there, the archaeologists have found more than 500 funerals.
In the late 14th century, materials from the destroyed church were used to erect a new one nearby, on top of the ruins of the former southern monastery building. The new church was badly damaged in the 19th century, and was ultimately destroyed by an earthquake in 1913.
Only its apse with some original murals was preserved. There are two layers of preserved murals – the first from the time of the church’s construction, and the second – from the end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th century.
The original medieval church, the second church built in the 15th century, and the church restored in the 1970s-80s are named after St. Dimitar Solunski (St. Demetrius of Thessaloniki), a Christian martyr-saint who lived in Thessaloniki in the 3rd century AD. St. Dimitar Solunski was the patron saint of the Asen Dynasty that founded the Second Bulgarian Empire.
At the time of their Uprising, the boyar brothers Asen and Petar declared that the warrior St. Dimitar Solunski had deserted Thessaloniki, and had come to Tarnovgrad (Veliko Tarnovo) to aid their rebels.
The site of the St. Dimitar Solunski Church at the Trapesitsa Hill in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo was first excavated in 1906-1921 by the local archaeological society. The comprehensive excavations started in 1971 by Yanka Nikolova and Mirko Robov.
The archaeologists found that the original temple was a one-apse crossed-dome church with rich outside and inside decoration. The outside decoration was achieved by alternating layers of stone, mortar, and bricks in the church’s walls.
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.