Ivanovo Rock Churches, UNESCO World Heritage Site, Top List of Most Popular Archaeological Landmarks in Bulgaria’s Ruse District

The Ivanovo Rock-Hewn Churches, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are the most popular cultural landmark in Bulgaria’s Ruse District. Photo: Ruse Regional Museum of History

The Ivanovo Rock–Hewn Churches were the most popular archaeological and historical landmark with tourists in Bulgaria’s northeastern Ruse District in 2017, the Ruse Regional Museum of History has announced.A total of 14,431 tourists visited the medieval Ivanovo Rock Churches which are a UNESCO World Heritage Site (“Rock-Hewn Churches of Ivanovo“) in 2017.

Last year, the visitors of Bulgaria’s Ivanovo Rock Churches included a large number of foreign tourists. The international travelers came mostly from Japan, Germany, Romania, and the UK, and visited the landmark primarily as part of organized tours.

Yet, the most popular landmark managed by the Ruse Regional Museum of History in 2017 was its Museum of Natural History, also known as the Eco Museum, which features an aquarium and a life-size statue of a woolly mammoth.

Ruse’s Eco Museum saw a total of 17,852 visitors in all of 2017, including 5,204 individual visitors, and over 7,000 elementary, middle, and high school students.

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Ruse’s Museum of Natural History (“Eco Museum”) features an aquarium and a life-size woolly mammoth statue. Photo: Ruse Regional Museum of History

The other archaeological, historical, and cultural landmarks which attracted a substantial number of tourists in 2017 include the major medieval fortress of Cherven, a very rich and important city in the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396/1422); the ruins of the Ancient Roman and later medieval Byzantine and Bulgarian fortress of Sexaginta Prista in the Danube city of Ruse; the history exhibitions of Ruse Regional Museum of History; Museum of Urban Lifestyle; the Museum House of Baba (“Grandmother") Tonka Obretenova (1812-1893), a legendary female Bulgarian freedom fighter from the 19th century; the Museum House of another great Bulgarian freedom fighter, writer, and politician, Zahari Stoyanov (1850-1889); the Pantheon of the Bulgarian Revivalists, a monument dedicated to the Bulgarian enlighteners and freedom fighters against the Ottoman Empire from the National Revival Period (18th-19th century), the last phase of the period known in Bulgarian history as the Ottoman Yoke (1396-1878/1912).

A combined total of 72,170 tourists from Bulgaria and abroad visited Ruse’s landmarks in 2017, which are managed by the Ruse Museum.

This is a decrease of a little under 8% which is said to be due to the smaller number of arrivals via tour operators, the repair works of infrastructure near some of the landmarks throughout the summer of 2017, and the fact that the 2016 visitor numbers were boosted by the opening of new exhibitions in the Eco Museum and the Museum of Baba Tonka.

An exhibition of archaeological artifacts from the Roman city of Sexaginta Prista in Bulgaria’s Ruse. Photo: Ruse Regional Museum of History

A total of 20.53% of cultural tourism visitors in Bulgaria’s Ruse District in 2017 were international travelers, including both organized group tours and individual visitors.

They came mostly from Japan, Romania, Belgium, the UK, the US, Switzerland, France, Italy, Russia, Poland, Switzerland, and Finland.

A total of 33% of all visitors to Ruse’s top landmarks were elementary and high school students, as well as university students.

Learn more about the Ancient Roman fortress and port Sexaginta Prista and the medieval Bulgarian city of Cherven in the Background Infonotes below!

Background Infonotes:

The medieval Bulgarian city of Cherven was one of the most important urban centers in the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD). It is located in today’s Ivanovo Municipality, 35 km south of the Danube city of Ruse, on a rock overlooking the picturesque canyon of the Cherni Lom River, within the Rusenski Lom Natural Park.

It experienced dynamic urban growth after Bulgaria’s liberation from the Byzantine Empire in 1185 AD, and rose to great importance during the 14th century.

A total of 80 medieval inscriptions about church donors have been there, more than in the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire, Veliko Tarnovo, where a total of 60 such inscriptions have been found, a testimony to Cherven’s importance during the Middle Ages.

It was a center of Christianity as the seat of the Cherven Metropolitan and a center of craftsmanship. Cherven was conquered and ransacked by the Ottoman Turks in 1388 AD.

After the Ottoman Turkish conquest, it briefly preserved some administrative functions but waned and essentially disappeared as an urban center. Some of its survivors settled nearby into the newly founded village of Cherven.

Cherven was first excavated in 1910 by renowned Bulgarian historian and archaeologist Vasil Zlatarski. It has been regularly excavated since 1961. In the recent decades, it has been excavated by Stoyan Yordanov from the Ruse Regional Museum of History.

Archaeologists have discovered there a large feudal palace, fortified walls reaching up to 3 m in width, two well-preserved underground water supply passages, a total of 13 churches, administrative and residential buildings, workshops and streets.

A famous 12 m-high three-storey tower, known as the Cherven Tower, from the 14th century has also been fully preserved and was even used as a model for the reconstruction of Baldwin’s Tower in the Tsarevets Hill in Veliko Tarnovo in 1930.

Cherven’s site also features remains from an Ancient Thracian settlement, a 6th century early Byzantine fortress, and several settlements from the period of the First Bulgarian Empire (680-1018 AD).

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The Ancient Thracian and Roman settlement and fortress of Sexaginta Prista (meaning “Port of the Sixty Ships") in today’s Bulgarian Danube city of Ruse was built on top of an earlier Ancient Thracian settlement.

Archaeological research has proven that the Sexanginta Prista Fortress was originally an Ancient Thracian settlement existing as early as the 3rd century BC. In fact, the hill where the settlement is located was a Thracian shrine for performing cult rituals which remain unknown to this day. There the Bulgarian archaeologists have discovered hundreds of Ancient Thracian ritual pits dating to the 1st century BC-1st century AD, of which about 50 have been studied.

The archaeological discoveries from the Thracian ritual pits include pottery vessels, bronze artifacts, coins, bones; a unique richly decorated zoomorphic vessel depicted an eagle’s head as well as several fibulas. Other archaeological findings include an Ancient Thracian jug from the 2nd-1st century AD containing organic matter from domestic animals, an ancient ceramic vessel from the Greek island of Rodos dated to the 3rd century BC, household vessels, and transportation vessels, which are taken to mean that the settlement had a well developed trade.

The first written account about the Fortress of Sexaginta Prista comes from “Geography“, the 2nd century AD work of Greco-Egyptian ancient geographer Claudius Ptolemy (ca. 90-168 AD). The city was also mentioned as Sexantapristis in the so called Antonine Itinerary (Itinerarium Antonini Augusti, “The Itinerary of Emperor Antoninus").

The name of Sexaginta Prista has been compared to the name of a Roman port on the Italian Peninsula meaning “100 chambers" because one hypothesis about its name has it that in Roman times Sexaginta Prista (today’s Ruse in Bulgaria) had 60 dock spots for Roman ships. Another hypothesis claiming to be based on all available historical sources has it that the name of the Sexaginta Prista Fortress stems from events at the end of the 1st century AD during Roman Emperor Domitian’s (r. 85-89 AD) wars with the Dacians, the powerful Thracian people living north of the Danube River.

Back then, an entire Roman legion consisting of 6,000 men was ferried across the mouth of the Rusenski Lom River where it flows into the Danube. Exactly 60 Roman ships were used for this effort. Subsequently, the fortress was called Sexaginta Prista to celebrate the ensuing victory over the Dacians.

It is possible that until then the fortress in question was known by the Thracian name of the Rusenski Lom River. Whatever the real origin of Sexaginta Prista’s name may be, the fact of the matter is that the name itself underscores the city’s importance for the Roman Navy because the “Port of the Sixty Ships" (today’s Bulgarian city of Ruse) is one of only two Roman frontier outposts on the Limes Moesiae, i.e. the Lower Danube frontier region, which have names connected with sailing. The other one is Colonia Ulpia Traiana Ratiaria whose name is derived from the Latin word “ratis" (raft) or from “ratiaria“, a type of vessel.

Archaeological excavations conducted at Sexaginta Prista in 2005-2006 have demonstrated that the location of the original Roman military camp which existed between the 1st and the 3rd century AD remains unknown. There are hypotheses that it was built near the mouth of the Rusenski Lom River.

The Roman archaeological finds on the hill of the fortress date to the 2nd-3rd century AD. The discovered structures include building remains from the canabae, a temple of god Apollo with votive tables of Apollo and the supreme Thracian deity, the so called Thracian Horseman also known as Heros, pottery, coins, and a sacrificial altar dedicated to Apollo, among others.

The orientation and planning of the Apollo Temple reminds of a Christian temple. It is similar to pagan temples in the town of Ruchey, Southern Bulgaria; Benwel, England; and Porolisum in Dacia (today’s Romania). Its planning is construed as evidence that the early Christians modeled their churches on the Roman pagan temples.

Apollo’s temple in Sexaginta Prista existed until the end of the 3rd century AD, and after that, possibly in connection with the adoption of Christianity, it was demolished, and a principium (the main building of the command staff of the Roman camp (castra)) was built in its stead, most probably during the reign of Roman Emperor Constantine I the Great (r. 306-337 AD).

This is also when the Late Antiquity fortress walls of Sexaginta Prista (unearthed in 1976-1978) were erected. The principium was in use until the early 380s when the city was damaged by the barbarian invasions of the Goths, and again until the beginning of the 5th century. Out of a total of 204 coins discovered in Sexaginta Prista during the latest archaeological excavations in 2005-2006, about 100 date to the 4th century AD.

Archaeological finds of coins and pottery indicate that the hill of Sexaginta Prista was inhabited during the Late Antiquity and Early Byzantine period (5th-6th century AD), and during the First Bulgarian Empire in the 9th-11th century. Not unlike the rest of the Roman fortresses on the Limes Moesiae, the Roman city of Sexaginta Prista was overran by barbarian invasions several times, the last one being the invasions of Avars and Slavs at the end of the 6th century and the beginning of the 7th century AD, which put an end to the life of the city in the Early Byzantine period.

In the 9th-10th century AD, during the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD), the Bulgarian settlement Ruse was built on the site of the Roman ruins of Sexaginta Prista. The discovery of a Christian grave and other human bones are taken to mean that in the 12th-14th century, i.e. during the Second Bulgarian Empire (1186-1396 AD), the hill was one of the necropolises of the medieval Bulgarian city of Ruse. The other archaeological finds on the hill of Sexaginta Prista are from the end of the Ottoman period, i.e. the 19th century.

The ruins of Sexaginta Prista are located in the northwestern part of today’s Bulgarian city of Ruse on a hill next to the Danube River. They were first designated by Austro-Hungarian geographer and archaeologist Felix Kanitz at the end of the 19th century based on the distances marked on Roman road maps.

The first major archaeological excavations of Sexaginta Prista were conducted at the end of the 19th century by the Czech-Bulgarian bothers Karel and Hermann Skorpil, who are the founders of modern-day Bulgarian archaeology. Further rescue excavations were made in the first half of the 20th century during the construction of Ruse’s Military Club. Regular archaeological excavations were conducted in 1976-1978 and again in 2005-2006. The excavations have revealed a 50-meter section of Sexaginta Prista’s northwestern wall, a fortress tower, six Roman buildings, and a temple of Apollo.

The excavations in 2006 discovered the ruins of the Roman military headquarters which was used from the first quarter of the 4th century AD until the 410s AD (it was dated based on the discovered coins and pottery). Since 2002, part of the ruins of the Ancient Roman city of Sexaginta Prista have been exhibited in situ as a cultural tourism site.

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