First Ever Synagogue from Medieval Bulgarian Empire Discovered in Trapesitsa Fortress in Old Capital Veliko Tarnovo

First Ever Synagogue from Medieval Bulgarian Empire Discovered in Trapesitsa Fortress in Old Capital Veliko Tarnovo

The hexagonal building found in 2014, and thought to have been Church No. 21 of the Trapesitsa Hill Fortress in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo is now hypothesized to have been a medieval synagogue. Photo: Archaeologist Mirko Robov via Yantra Dnes daily

The first known synagogue from the times of the medieval Bulgarian Empire has been discovered by archaeologists excavating the Trapesitsa Fortress in the city of Veliko Tarnovo, the successor of Tarnovgrad, which was capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire in 1185 – 1393.

The first synagogue known to have ever been built and to have existed in the medieval Bulgarian Empire (spanning the periods of the First Bulgarian Empire – 632/680 – 1018 AD and of the Second Bulgarian Empire – 1185 – 1396/1422) now discovered in the Trapesitsa Fortress in medieval Tarnovgrad was built in the 1240s – 1250s.

That is the period immediately after the height of the Second Bulgarian Empire in the first half of the 13th century, up to the end of the reign of Tsar Ivan Asen II (r. 1218 – 1241), and roughly the time when Bulgaria was badly affected by the Mongol Invasion of Europe reaching it from the northeast.

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.

Since no other Jewish temples have been found from the time of medieval Bulgaria, the synagogue discovered in the Trapesitsa Fortress is probably the first of its kind, according to lead archaeologist Assoc. Prof. Mirko Robov from the Veliko Tarnovo Office of the National Institute.

The ruins of an impressive Antiquity Synagogue have been unearthed in Plovdiv in Southern Bulgaria, the successor of ancient Philipopolis, with some of its beautiful mosaics restored back in 2016.

The Antiquity Synagogue in Plovdiv, however, dates back to the Late Roman period, making the medieval synagogue in Veliko Tarnovo the first Jewish temple from the Middle Ages to have been found in Bulgaria.

“The building [of the newly discovered synagogue] dates [existed] from the 1240s or 1250s until the old capital Tarnovgrad fell to the Ottoman conquest [in 1393]," Robov has explained, cited by the Yantra Dnes daily.

“Such a discovery has been lacking in all of Bulgaria’s territory in the said historical period, which could make this find extremely valuable. At first, it had been presumed that it was a church but this year’s excavations have demonstrated that it seems to have been a Jewish temple," the archaeologist elaborates.

The medieval synagogue in the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire was 22 meters long, 14.5 meters wide, and had a total area of 267 square meters.

The ruins of the supposed medieval synagogue have been found right next to Trapesitsa’s bishopric. Photo: Archaeologist Mirko Robov via Yantra Dnes

Limestone columns were part of the medieval synagogue’s structure. Photo: Archaeologist Mirko Robov via Yantra Dnes daily

“We have long thought that Trapesitsa had a Jewish colony at the time, and this [discovery] confirms that this assumption is purely justified, but serious research is yet to be undertaken in that direction," Robov points out.

The building of the supposed medieval synagogue is attached to that of the Trapesitsa bishopric.

“I first came across the [ruins of] the building in 2014 believing that it was a newly discovered church (denoted as Church No. 21). It has an east-west orientation. However, it turned out to have been plastered with mortar but without any murals. I’ve reached the conclusion that it was not a church. Yet, the religious and public function of the building are evident. Its staircase winds down to the south, showing that it operated as an independent entity. Inside, its floor was paved with stone slabs and it had a single-wing door," Robov elaborates, as cited by the Trud daily.

Another circumstance indicating that the newly discovered religious building in the medieval Bulgarian capital Tarnovgrad, which was not a church, was probably a synagogue is its hexagonal shape. Its construction included limestone columns, which also points to its monumental character.

“The reasoning behind the synagogue hypothesis is that this place had a Jewish quarter, and Trapesitsa’s inhabitants included the Jewish colony," Robov says.

Even though it seems highly plausible that the building was a synagogue, the archaeologists haven’t also ruled out completely the possibility that it might have had another function still connected with the life of the Jewish community that inhabited the area around the Trapesitsa Hill in Tarnovgrad in the 13th – 14th century.

The most prominent mentioning of the Jewish community from the history of the medieval Bulgarian Empire is that of the marriage of Tsar Ivan Alexander (r. 1331 – 1371) to Sarah – Theodora, who was from Tarnovgrad’s Jewish quarter, in the late 1340s.

In order to marry Sarah, Ivan Alexander divorced his first wife, Theodora of Wallachia, with whom he had several children, including Tsar Ivan Sratsimir, later ruler of the Vidin Tsardom, a rump state of the Second Bulgarian Empire (r. 1371 – 1396).

The site of the newly excavated section of the western fortress wall of Trapesitsa. Photo: Archaeologist Konstantin Totev via Focus News Agency

To marry Ivan Alexander, Sarah converted to Orthodox Christianity, and took the name Theodora. Among their several children was Tsar Ivan Shishman (r. 1371 – 1395), the last Tsar of Tarnovgrad and the so called Tarnovo Tsardom, the largest rump state of the Second Bulgarian Empire disintegrating under the strikes of the invading Ottoman Turks.

The discovery of the first ever known synagogue from the time of the medieval Bulgarian Empire in the old capital Tarnovgrad has been announced at a joint press conference in Veliko Tarnovo given by Assoc. Prof. Mirko Robov together with the two other lead archaeologists of the excavations of the Trapesitsa Fortress, Prof. Konstantin Totev and Assoc. Prof. Deyan Rabovyanov, also from the Veliko Tarnovo office of the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia.

Each of them is excavating a different part of Trapesitsa. Robov is excavating several architectural complexes, Totev is working on exposing its fortifications, while Rabovyanov is has been researching its southern quarter.

The archaeologists revealed that during the 2019 digs, they have exposed an entire residential quarter of Trapesitsa, and have discovered over 500 artifacts, including some 400 coins as well as an applique with a double anchor, gold belt decoration, gold-coated frame for a small icon, iron crosses, and household artifacts.

One of the most interesting artifacts is a gold coin of Nicaean (Byzantine) Emperor John III Ducas Vatatzes.

Another very intriguing find is a fragmented Chinese celadonite porcelain vessel, which was extremely rare in medieval Europe. The Chinese celadonite would have been deemed more typical of the imperial palace buildings on the neighboring Tsarevets Fortress, where such fragments have been found in the past.

“Everything that we have discovered in Trapesitsa so far speaks of a very rich urban lifestyle which was typical of the capital’s way of life at the time," says lead archaeologist Rabovyanov.

“If we compare it with the rich cities of the time in Byzantium and Western Europe, there is no major difference from them, in fact Trapesitsa even surpassed them in some respects," he elaborates.

Artifacts discovered during the 2019 excavations of the Trapesitsa Fortress. Photos: Archaeologist Mirko Robov via Yantra Dnes daily

He points out that long-term research has led to the exposure of the entire residential quarter in the southern part of the Trapesitsa Fortress covering an area of over 2 decares (0.5 acres), including its adjacent fortress wall and street.

“We’ve also completed the research of Church No. 22 with its necropolis, which was thoroughly utilized, including with family members having been buried in the same spot. It is safe to say that was the necropolis for Trapesitsa’s southern quarters," Rabovyanov explains.

A total of 140 graves have been unearthed in the necropolis so far, 70 of which were excavated this year.

The archaeologist further notes that the 2019 digs also led to the exposing of the connections between the main east – west and north – south streets of the fortress, and of important buildings adjacent to them.

“There positioning suggests that these weren’t residential buildings but had commercial, economic, or other functions," he says.

In addition to the Bulgarian medieval coins, his team has discovered there also a Serbian and a Tatar coin, and a gold Byzantine coin which was cropped to fit the weight standard for the 14th century.

“This indicates that back then there was a monetary circulation proving the existence of a rich, densely populated part of the city, with economically active population. There are signs of developed jewelry crafts although no such workshop has been found yet," Rabovyanov reveals.

The three archaeologists from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology excavating the Trapesitsa Fortress: (L-R) Deyan Rabovyanov, Konstantin Totev, and Mirko Robov. Photo: Yantra Dnes daily

Prof. Konstantin Totev has in turn emphasized the greatest discovery from the 2019 excavations in his part of Trapesitsa, the western fortress wall, namely, a previously unknown fortress tower of a very rare type.

The tower was 5.6 meters wide on its western side, 4 meters wide on its northern side, and 3.6 meters wide on its southern side, and, according to Totev, its strategic location demonstrated the importance of guarding the nearby Dervent pass.

Over the past few years, Totev’s team has exposed a 40-meter-long section of the western wall of the Trapesitsa Fortress in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo, including five large buildings from the end of the 13th century, which were later demolished to make room for the construction of the so called Church No. 23 and its adjacent necropolis.

Church No. 23 of the Trapesitsa Fortress of the late medieval Bulgarian capital Tarnovgrad was 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.

In 2019, the team excavating the western section of Trapesitsa has found over 200 artifacts, including buttons, iron tools, children’s toys, among others.

The 2019 digs were the 12th consecutive season of the current 30-year-long excavation program for the Trapesitsa Fortress implemented by the archaeologists in coordination with Bulgaria’s Ministry of Culture.

The researchers, however, have complained of lack of funding for proper conservation and restoration of the uncovered ruins from the time of the Second Bulgarian Empire.

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

“We have unique finds but not a single stone has been conserved, with the exception of temporary field conservation," says architect Plamen Tsanev who works on the overall planning of Trapesitsa’s archaeological restorations.

“We need at least BGN 1.5 million (app. EUR 750,000) per year for such activities in order to show these finds to the tourists. The money has to be found from the Ministry of Culture or through project funding. Otherwise all of this might be lost for good," he adds.

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.

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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

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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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