‘Extremely Rare’ Wall Tower Discovered in Medieval Trapesitsa Fortress in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo

‘Extremely Rare’ Wall Tower Discovered in Medieval Trapesitsa Fortress in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo

The ruins of the previously known large fortress tower in the Trapesitsa Fortress in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo have been unearthed with the help of climbers given the steep terrain, with the fortress wall on the edge of the Trapesitsa Hill, tower dozens of meters above the gorge of the Yantra River. Photo: Yantra Dnes daily

A previously unknown fortress tower described as an “extremely rare facility” has been discovered by archaeologists excavating the Trapesitsa Fortress in the city of Veliko Tarnovo in Central North Bulgaria.

The Trapesitsa Fortress was one of the citadels of medieval Tarnovgrad (today’s Veliko Tarnovo), capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396/1422) for 208 years (1185 – 1393), together with the Tsarevets Fortress, Bulgaria’s most visited cultural landmark and open-air museum.

The newly found fortress tower is attached to the western fortress wall of the Trapesitsa Fortress, and is said to be different from any of the other fortress towers from the fortifications of that particular citadel of Tarnovgrad.

The fortress tower in question stands out, first of all, with the greater size, thus changing the perceptions about the fortification landscape of the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire.

The particularly untypical feature of the newly discovered tower is that its western side is curved in order to fit with the fortress wall.

“We came across this rare facility as soon as we started clearing the ground. It is 5.6 meters wide on its western side, 4 meters wide on its northern side, and 3.6 meters wide on its southern side,” reveals lead archaeologists Prof. Konstantin Totev, as cited by the Yantra Dnes daily.

“The tower is connected with the fortress wall through a special curve where there probably was a staircase and a passage to the tower itself,” explains Totev, who is the Director of the Veliko Tarnovo Office of the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia.

A view of the newly excavated section of the Trapesitsa Fortress, with part of the modern-day city of Veliko Tarnovo visible in the background. Photo: Yantra Dnes daily

The fortress tower has been discovered beyond the area of the Trapesitsa Fortress that is accessible to tourists.

What has been dubbed Tower No. 4 has been discovered close to so called Church No. 23 of the Trapesitsa Fortress found by Totev last year.

It was in it that Totev then discovered the world’s first cross reliquary (engolpion) made entirely of gold, and, before that, well-preserved possibly pre-Renaissance frescoes.

Both the church and tower in question are located in the northern part of the Trapesitsa Fortress, where part of the western fortress wall was restored in recent years with funding from the government of Azerbaijan.

Lead archaeologist Konstantin Totev is seen here with the ruins of the new discovered Church 23 in the Trapesitsa Fortress where last fall he found a reliquary cross made entirely of gold. Photo: Yantra Dnes daily

The archaeological excavations have been funded with BGN 19,000 (app. EUR 10,000) by Bulgaria’s Ministry of Culture, with the digs involving climbers given that the Trapesitsa Fortress is located on a tall plateau with impregnable natural defenses, overlooking the Yantra River.

Lead archaeologist Totev expects to fully excavate the entire fortress tower by the end of the digs in September 2019.

During the 2019 archaeological season, he has also continued the further research of Church 23 where the gold reliquary cross was found last year.

In addition to the gold cross, which dates to the second half of the 12th century and weighs 75 grams, also in the apse of the church, the archaeologists have found two more crosses – one bronze cross worn on the chest, and an iron cross used for processions.

The golden reliquary cross was built into the foundation of the altar table when the temple was constructed in the 13th century.

The frescoes found in Church 23 filled a total of 250 crates, and differ from the other 22 churches already found in the Trapesitsa Fortress in that they are the first ones to feature human images.

“So far, we have looked at four or five scenes [from the frescoes]. They will be exhibited after their restoration. They are valuable because the information about the artistic culture of this period is not sufficiently rich,” the lead archaeologist says.

A view of the two main citadels of medieval Tarnovgrad, the Trapesitsa Fortress on the left, and the Tsarevets Fortress on the right, with the gorge of the Yantra River in the middle. Photo: Martyr, Wikipedia

An aerial shot of the Trapesitsa Fortress. Photo: Georgi Hristov, Yordan Raychev / National Institute and Museum of Archaeology exhibition

A map of medieval Tarnovgrad, capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire, showing the locations of the two main citadels, the Trapesitsa Fortress and the Tsarevets Fortress, with Devingrad (Maiden’s Town) also deemed to have been another citadel. Map: Martyr, Wikipedia

Right off the northern fortress wall of Church No. 23 there is a 13th century necropolis. Some 30 graves from it have been excavated so far, including 7 child graves. The inventories found in them is said to be typical for the time of the Second Bulgarian Empire.

“All buried persons were laid in wooden caskets studded with nails. Inside the child graves there are toys such as ceramic balls. Other interesting finds are buttons, coins, and a clip which was used for putting out candles,” Totev reveals.

“We are hoping to complete the excavations of the necropolis around Church No. 23 by the end of October so that it can be conserved and restored,” he adds.

Totev’s archaeological team also includes Plamen Karailiev, Director of the Radnevo Museum of History; Nadezhda Boteva, head of the excavations of the large medieval fortress Hotalich near Sevlievo; Reni Petrova, Director of the Botevgrad Museum of History; Galya Todorova and Veneta Slavova.

As has been the case in the past few archaeological seasons, the Trapesitsa Fortress of medieval Tarnovgrad in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo is being excavated by a total of three teams – in addition to Totev’s team, the other two teams are led by Assoc. Prof. Mirko Robov and Assoc. Prof. Deyan Rabovyanov, respectively.

In 2015, Rabovyanov initiated the making of a 3D model of a late medieval residential quarter from the Trapesitsa Fortress based on his research.

A 3D model showing what the neighboring other citadel of Tarnovgrad, the Tsarevets Fortress, looked like, was produced in 2016.

In another recent discovery in the Trapesitsa Fortress, the archaeologists found a medieval baby burial in a clay pot.


Relevant Books:

Biblical Archaeology Review 

DK Eyewitness Travel Guide Bulgaria

Lonely Planet Romania & Bulgaria (Travel Guide)

Bulgaria History, Early Settlement and Empire: Pre-Bulgarian Civilizations, Communism, Society and Environment, Economy, Government and Politics

The Middle Ages

Ancient Worlds: A Global History of Antiquity

The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age


Background Infonotes:

The Trapesitsa Hill Fortress 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 Fortress, Trapesitsa was one of the two citadel 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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