Ottoman Era ‘Turban’ Gravestone Discovered during Renovation of 16th Century Arch Bridge in Bulgaria’s Svilengrad

The massive 1813 Ottoman gravestone discovered during the rehabilitation of the 16th century Old Bridge in Bulgaria’s Svilengrad was probably used to reinforce a dike. Photo: e-Svilengrad

An Ottoman Era gravestone has been stumbled upon in the southern Bulgarian town of Svilengrad during the renovation of a famous 16th century arch bridge with Norway/EEA money.

The famous arch bridge over the Maritsa River is a main historical landmark of Bulgaria’s Svilengrad. It was built in 1529 by the most famous Ottoman architect, Mimar Sinan (1490-1588), as his first major project. It was known as the Mustafa Pasha Bridge because its construction was ordered by Coban Mustafa Pasha, an Ottoman statesman and vizier.

The 300-meter-long Ottoman bridge has been under rehabilitation with a grant totaling EUR 1,036,568 provided from the Norway and European Economic Area Grants mechanism under a measure for the restoration, rehabilitation, and preservation of Bulgaria’s cultural heritage.

The period when Bulgaria was conquered and ruled over by the Ottoman Empire is known as the Ottoman Yoke (1396-1878/1912) and for the most part is viewed very negatively in Bulgarian history, having resulted in the destruction of the medieval Bulgarian Empire with its high Christian culture.

Regardless of that, Ottoman Era monuments understandably enjoy the same level of protection as cultural monuments from any other time periods, and, as is the case with Svilengrad’s arch bridge or Yambol’s bedestan (covered market), are often the top landmarks of the respective town or city.

Thus, during the renovation of the Mimar Sinan bridge in Svilengrad in the summer of 2016, an Ottoman gravestone was discovered by the construction workers at a depth of 2-3 meters, reports local news site e-Svilengrad.

The builders alerted the staff of the Svilengrad Museum of History about the discovery leading the researchers to examine the find closely.

The newly found gravestone was fashioned out of a whole marble fragment, and weighs over 100 kg. Its shape has been likened to the body of a man wearing a turban.

The gravestone has an inscription in Ottoman Turkish roughly translated as, “Good wishes to the deceased Mehmed, son of Suleiman, may he rest in peace".

The inscription adds that the man died in 1228 according the Hijri (Islamic) Calendar which corresponds to 1813 in the Gregorian Calendar.

It is noted that “turban" sculptures are typical for gravestones from Ottoman Turkey. Oftentimes, they would feature engravings revealing the profession of the deceased person, especially if he was a craftsman.

No such engravings have been found on the newly discovered gravestone, however, and the local historians have concluded that deceased was an “ordinary Muslim man" who lived in Mustafa Pasha, as Svilengrad was called in the Ottoman period, in the late 18th and early 19th century.

The researchers have noted, however, that the gravestone has been found “on the wrong side" of the 16th century arch bridge, i.e. on the Maritsa River bank inhabited by “infidels", as they were seen at the time, which is today’s Gebran Quarter.

Thus, they believe that the gravestone was probably extracted from an old Turkish cemetery located on the opposite bank of the Maritsa, and was used to reinforce a dike protecting the bridge.

The 19th century Ottoman gravestone has been added to the collection of the Svilengrad Museum of History which already contains several similar monuments.

Learn more about the Old Bridge in Bulgaria’s Svilengrad in the Background Infonotes below!

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A wide view of the 295-meter Old Bridge in Bulgaria’s Svilengrad. Photo: Todor Bozhinov, Wikipedia

Background Infonotes:

The Old Bridge in the southern Bulgarian town of Svilengrad is a 16th century arch bridge over the Maritsa River.

It is 295-meters long, 6 meters wide, and has 21 arches. It was built in 1529 AD as the first major work of the most famous Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan, and was part of a medieval Ottoman waqf complex (a property given to a religious establishment for charity purposes, which existed near the bridge). It included a caravanserai (inn), a mosque, a bazaar (market), and a hammam (Turkish bath).

The only of these structures to survive to this day is the Turkish bath which has been renovated and turned into an art gallery. It is around this complex that the town of Svilengrad developed. Some historical sources allege that the Ottoman complex near the bridge was built at the initiative of legendary Roxelana (1502-1558), the favorite wife of Ottoman Turkish Sultan Suleiman I the Magnificent (r. 1520-1566 AD), an ethnic Ukrainian.

During the period of the Ottoman Yoke, i.e. when Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire (1396-1878/1912), Svilengrad’s Old Bridge was known as Mustafa Pasha Bridge because its construction was ordered by Coban Mustafa Pasha, an Ottoman statesman and vizier. A flood destroyed some of the arches in 1766, and they were rebuilt in 1809. The Ottoman army unsuccessfully tried to destroy the Old Bridge as it was fleeing the Bulgarian advance after the Battle of Lule Burgas during the First Balkan War in November 1912.

The Old Bridge in Bulgaria’s Svilengrad is comparable to the Mehmed Pasa Sokolovic Bridge on the Drina River in Visegrad, Republika Srpska, Bosnia and Herzegovina, which, too, was built by Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan but much later in his career – in 1577 AD. However, Visegrad’s Mehmed Pasa Sokolovic Bridge is much shorter: it is 179 meters long, and has 11 arches. The other major difference between the two bridges of the legendary Ottoman architect is that the bridge in Bosnia was proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007, while the bridge in Bulgaria lacks that status.

However, in Bulgaria the Old Bridge in Svilengrad has been recognized as a “monument of culture of national significance". Its restoration will comply with the recommendations of Bulgaria’s National Institute for Cultural Heritage Monuments issued several years ago. One of the recommendations is to make the Old Bridge a pedestrian zone once its rehabilitation is completed. Bulgaria has a large number of monuments from the Ottoman period, and for the most part those have been preserved after Bulgaria’s National Liberation (1878). This was certainly not the way the invading Ottoman Turks handled the monuments of the medieval Bulgarian Empire at the end of the 14th century: most of the some 6,000 Bulgarian fortresses, cities, and monasteries were destroyed by the Ottoman invaders. This is just one of the reasons, and actually a less important one, why this period of Bulgarian history is known as the “Ottoman Yoke".

Mimar Sinan (1490-1588) is the most famous Ottoman architect. He is believed to have been of Christian origin (Byzantine, Armenian, or Bulgarian Bogomil) as he was taken at an early age into Janissary Corps under the brutal Ottoman blood tax (devsirme) – an annual practice by which the Ottoman forces abducted boys from the Christians in the empire, converted them to Islam forcefully, and trained them as fierce Islamist fighters or civil servants. Sinan built more than 300 major structures. His masterpiece is the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne, although his most famous work is the Suleiman Mosque in Istanbul.

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