Archaeologists Discover Western Gate of Ancient Roman, Byzantine Fortress Bononia in Bulgaria’s Danube City Vidin
The massive western fortress gate and seemingly the main entrance of the Ancient Roman and Early Byzantine city of Bononia has been discovered by archaeologists in the city of Vidin in Northwest Bulgaria, on the Danube River.
With a fortified territory of some 200 decares (appr. 50 acres) the Ancient Roman city of Bononia – said to be the largest Roman fortress on the Lower Danube River.
It was part of the so called Limes Moesiae, the frontier Lower Danube region where the Roman Empire built a system of fortifications designed to stop barbarian attacks from the north and northeast.
The Danube city of Vidin is home to the Baba Vida Fortress, or castle, which is the best preserved fortress from the time of the medieval Bulgarian Empire. It is located on a section from the territory of the Roman city which preceded it.
Back in 2018, archaeologists discovered a massive decagonal fortress tower from ancient Bononia in one of Vidin’s residential quarters.
“As a result of this year’s excavations, we have now exposed in full the Western Gate of ancient Bononia, the city’s entrance during the Roman Age,” lead archaeologist Assoc. Prof. Zdravko Dimitrov has told the Bulgarian National Radio.
“It was from here, the Western Gate, that the decumanus maximus, the main street of the city started. It crosses today’s entire quarter of “Kaleto” in Vidin,” he adds.
(“Kale” is a Turkish word left over from the Ottoman period, which means “fortress”, and is used all over Bulgaria to denote spots with fortress ruins, including in many case in which the real name of the ancient or medieval fortification is actually unknown.)
“This was the entrance of the city of Bononia at the end of the Roman Era, and in the Late Antiquity, in the 4th, 5th, 6th century AD,” Dimitrov says.
He points out that the base of Bononia’s Western Gate has been reached at a depth of almost five meters.
“The preserved parts of the fortress walls are rather tall, we have the structures of two fortress towers, the outer façade of the western gate, as well as the starting point of the main street going inside,” the lead archaeologists says.
“As the main street, the decumanus maximus, goes inside, we should also uncover the planning of the [Roman military] camp somewhere around where the Vidin Synagogue stands today,” he adds.
“In the layers that we have gone through so far, nearly 5 meters deep, you can see 15 centuries of history – from the 21st century back to the 5th century. From this point onwards, some of the most interesting archaeological excavations in Vidin are going to follow. There are at least 4 more centuries of history to study when we go deeper, so we have a lot of potential in depth as well as width, and we will also go wider in order to expose more of Bononia’s fortress wall,” Dimitrov elaborates.
In his words, some of the most interesting structures exposed in the Ancient Roman and Early Byzantine city of Bononia are the decagonal fortress towers, which are unique for Bulgaria’s territory, and have a diameter of 25 meters.
These vast decagonal towers and the thickness of the fortress walls of more than 4 meters make Bononia one of the largest fortifications from among the thousands of fortresses from all historical periods found in Bulgaria.
“This whole archaeological situation here is very well preserved, which is a great chance for [the development of cultural tourism in] Northwest Bulgaria. Everything here is preserved with these giant fortress walls and the buildings that will be discovered behind them, and all that can be turned into a wonderful archaeological park,” the archaeologist.
His comment alludes to the possibility to build further upon the popularity of the Baba Vida Fortress from the time of the Second Bulgarian Empire, which overlooks the Danube River and is already one of the most popular and best known historical sites in Bulgaria.
The ruins of the Ancient Roman and Early Byzantine city of Bononia have not been well documented, and only a fraction of them has been exposed since the modern-day residential areas and the downtown of the city of Vidin are located right on top of them. That, however, has helped preserve them intact beneath the surface.
The ruins on the spot where the Western Gate of Bononia has now been discovered were first exposed by accident when the construction of an apartment building was starting.
The more from Bononia’s fortress the archaeologists are unearthing, the more obvious it becomes that the predecessor of the Danube city of Vidin was one of the best fortified Roman cities in today’s Bulgaria.
“It was a main center of defense along the Lower Danube limes (frontier) of the Roman Empire. The fortress walls are more than 4 meters thick. The passage of the Western Gate is more than 5 meters wide,” Dimitrov emphasizes.
“Bononia is only comparable with [the Roman city of] Felix Romuliana (Gamzigrad, today in Serbia – editor’s note). Both were built in the 4th century AD,” he adds.
In his words, the 2020 archaeological excavations have been the most successful in the research of the Ancient Roman city of Bononia so far.
“We have now gone through the history of the city of Vidin since the end of the 5th century when a number of barbarian invasions ended Bononia’s life [as it was]. We have also researched the period of the Middle Ages and the Ottoman period (15th – 19th century). We have found that the fortress walls of Bononia were used very seriously in the Middle Ages. We also have lots of data and finds from the early Ottoman period, the 15th – 16th century,” the lead archaeologist elaborates.
The deputy head of his archaeological team, archaeologist Vanya Stavreva from the Vidin Regional Museum of History, notes in turn that any deeper excavations will finally offer clues as to what existed on Vidin’s territory before the Roman era.
“We aren’t just researching the ancient fortress of Bononia, we are researching Vidin’s 20 centuries of history. Right now we’ve reached the 5th century, the Late Antiquity, but the layers are going deeper so there might be something even older. Unfortunately, no such research has ever been done before, and we really don’t know if there were any older settlements here before the establishment of Bononia by the Romans,” she states.
In addition to the monumental fortification, the archaeologists have found more than 300 artifacts, including pottery, coins, and appliques from different historical periods.
“Personally for me, the most interesting artifact [we’ve found] is a lead seal from the beginning of the 11th century. The inscription on it has been read, the seal belonged to strategos (strategus) (i.e. a Byzantine military governor) Basilius who was appointed as governor after Vidin was conquered by the Byzantines in 1002 AD following an 8-month siege,” Stavreva explains.
She refers to the period at the end of the 10th and the beginning of the 11th century when over the course of some 50 years, the Byzantine Empire (Eastern Roman Empire) managed to subjugate the First Bulgarian Empire and ultimately conquered all of it in 1018 AD, for a period of more than 150 years.
The medieval Bulgarian – Byzantine Wars spanned a period of seven centuries, up until the end of the 14th century when both countries were conquered by the invading Ottoman Turks.
The lead seal of the Byzantine military governor from the reign of Byzantine Emperor Basil II nicknamed the Bulgar Slayer (r. 976 – 1015) found during the excavations of Bononia serves as an important testimony to the capture of the city of Vidin (called Badin or Bdin at the time) by the Byzantine forces in 1002 AD after it withstood a Byzantine siege for 8 months.
The 2020 excavations of the Ancient Roman and Early Byzantine city of Bononia as well as the respective structures from the medieval Bulgarian and Byzantine Empires and the late medieval Ottoman Empire have been performed with only BGN 20,000 (app. EUR 10,000) in funding from Bulgaria’s Ministry of Culture (which is better than the zero funding provided in some past seasons.) Vidin Municipality has provided logistical support for the digs, with Vidin Mayor Tsvetan Tsenkov vowing funding for the next archaeological seas.
The area of the newly discovered Western Gate of the ancient Bononia will be excavated for three more years before the site can be turned into an archaeological park.
The mayor has also vowed to change the urban plan for the city of Vidin to allow for the exhibition of the newly found structures in situ.
In his words, archaeological excavations are also going to be undertaken in the area of the famous Vidin Synagogue since geophysical surveying has shown traces of ancient ruins there as well.
Lead archaeologist Zdravko Dimitrov has said that the newly found ruins of Bononia’s Western Gate and its towers and fortifications will now be conserved and partially restored for the winter.
Learn more about the Ancient Roman city of Bononia, the medieval Bulgarian fortress Baba Vida, and the history of the Danube city of Vidin in the Background Infonotes below!
Ivan Dikov, the founder of ArchaeologyinBulgaria.com, is the author of the book 6 Million Abortions: How Communism Utilized Mass-Scale Abortion Exterminating Europe’s Fastest Growing Nation, among other books.
The Ancient Roman fortress of Bononia and the fortified medieval Bulgarian city of Badin / Bdin with the surviving castle (fortress) Baba Vida are the predecessors of modern-day northwestern Bulgarian Danube city of Vidin.
The history of Vidin began in the 3rd century BC when it was founded as a Celtic settlement named Dunonia (meaning “fortified hill”) called Dunavia by the Ancient Thracians. After the region was conquered by Ancient Rome in the 1st century BC, the Romans called the settlement Bononia, and turned it into a major fortress on the Limes Moesiae (the Danube Limes), the frontier Lower Danube region of the Roman Empire that was supposed to stop barbarian attacks from the north and east.
According to Assoc. Prof. Dr. Zdravko Dimitrov from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, Bononia was the largest Roman fortress on the Lower Danube, with a fortified territory of 200 decares (app. 50 acres).
Its fortress walls were 2.7-3 meters thick, and it had several huge fortress towers; for example, fortress tower No. 8 excavated by Dimitrov in 2014 had a diameter of 30 meters (some suppose that the floors inside the fortress towers were used as a military barracks).
The coins and ceramics unearthed in 2014 indicate that the Roman fortress Boninia was built in the 320s or the 330s AD, during the reign of Roman Emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306-337 AD) even though the archaeologists who worked on the excavations in Bulgaria’s Vidin in the 1970s at first thought that it was constructed somewhat later, at the end of the 4th and the beginning of the 5th century AD.
Much of the modern-day city of Vidin appears to be lying on top of the ruins of the huge Roman fortress Bononia, which was part of the Roman province of Moesia Superior. Among the archaeological finds in the city of Vidin, Bulgarian paleo-ornithologist Prof. Zlatozar Boev from the National Museum of Natural History in Sofia has identified bird bones dating from the 8th until the 17th century AD of 7 bird species, including the western capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus), also known as the wood grouse, heather cock or capercaillie, which is now extinct in this part of Bulgaria; the common crane (Grus grus), and some of Bulgaria’s earliest remains of a domesticated turkey (Meleagris gallopavo f. domestica) in Bulgaria.
When the Slavs settled in the region of today’s Northwest Bulgaria in the Early Middle Ages, they called the city Budin or Bdin. The medieval Bulgarian fortress, or castle, to be more precise, known as Baba Vida was built in the 10th century AD, during the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD), on top of the foundations of the Roman fortress Bononia.
The Baba Vida Castle is said to be the best preserved medieval Bulgarian fortress since the numerous other Bulgarian fortresses were destroyed by the invading Ottoman Turks at the end of the 14th century AD (the Ottoman Turks called Baba Vida a “virgin” fortress because it was not taken by them by force).
The Baba Vida Castle (Fortress) surviving today was the inner and most fortified part of the medieval city of Bdin (Vidin), and was in fact used as the castle of the local feudal lord; remains of the city’s outer fortress wall have been revealed in Vidin’s quarter Kaleto (“kale” is the Turkish word meaning “fortress” used to denote many fortresses across Bulgaria).
The Baba Vida Castle has an area of 5 decares (app. 1.25 acres), and consists of two concentric rectangular walls with 4 fortress towers, which used to be surrounded by a water moat (which still fills up with water today when the level of the Danube rises), and had a drawbridge (which is today replaced with a stone bridge). It lies on top of the remains of a large fortress tower in the northeastern section of the Roman fortress Bononia.
The name of the Baba Vida (meaning “Grandmother Vida”) Fortress or Castle is believed to stem from a Bulgarian folklore legend, which says that a rich Bulgarian boyar (aristocrat) divided his feudal estate among his three daughters – Vida, Kula, and Gamza. Vida received the city of Vidin (Bdin), Kula received the area of today’s town of Kula, and Gamza received the area of the town of Gamzigrad (today in Serbia, located on the site of the Ancient Roman city of Felix Romuliana built by Roman Emperor Galerius (r. 293-311 AD)). Vida was the only one of the three daughters who managed to build a huge fortress, and she never married because she dedicated her life to the fortress’s defense against foreign invaders.
According to Byzantine chroniclers, in 1003 AD, during the reign of Bulgarian Tsar Samuil (r. 977/997-1014 AD), the fortress city of Bdin withstood successfully an eight-month siege led personally by Byzantine Emperor Basil II the Bulgar-slayer (r. 976-1025 AD) who eventually defeated the First Bulgarian Empire in 1018 AD. Before that, in 971-976 AD, Vidin is said to have been the center of the feudal region ruled by Samuil (one of the four Cometopuli (counts)) while his three other brothers ruled feudal regions to the south.
Badin / Bdin was a very important city during the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD), and especially in the second half of the 14th century AD. It was technically the last Bulgarian capital to be conquered by the Ottoman Turks. 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 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.
The modern-day look of the Baba Vida Castle was shaped during the reign of Tsar Ivan Sratsimir of the Vidin Tsardom when the fortifications of the city of Bdin (Vidin) were strengthened. Its best preserved tower is 16 meters high, has 2.8-meter thick walls, and is known as Sratsimir’s Tower. Before that, in 1365 AD, the city of Bdin (Vidin) was occupied by the Hungarians who called it Budony; however, they were driven out by the Bulgarian forces in 1369 AD.
The Ottoman Turks conquered the Tarnovo Tsardom (whose territory roughly corresponded to today’s Central Bulgaria) in 1393-5 AD (the main capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire, Tarnovgrad (today’s Veliko Tarnovo), fell after a three-month siege in 1393), and the Dobrudzha Despotate (also known as the Principality of Karvurna, in today’s Northeast Bulgaria and Southeast Romania) in 1395 AD, as well as the feudal states in the regions of Thrace and Macedonia which were part of the Second Bulgarian Empire.
By that time, Tsar Ivan Sratsimir, ruler of the Vidin (Bdin) Tsardom, had become a vassal of the Ottoman Turkish sultan. However, in 1396 AD, Hungarian King Sigismund of Luxembourg (r. 1387-1437 AD, later Holy Roman Emperor in 1433-1437 AD), organized a crusade against the Ottoman Turks leading Tsar Ivan Sratsimir to lend him full support. King Sigismund’s Crusade, however, ended in a disaster for the Christian forces in the Battle of Nicopolis (today’s Bulgarian town of Nikopol), after which Ottoman Sultan Bayezid I had Tsar Ivan Sratsimir chained and exiled in Bursa, Anatolia, where he was either killed or died in a dungeon, allegedly in 1402 AD.
Tsar Ivan Sratsimir’s heir, Konstantin (Constantine), however, was saved as the Ottoman forces entered Bdin (Vidin) in 1396 AD, and later together with his first counsin, Fruzhin, the son of Tsar Ivan Shishman, the ruler of the Tarnovo Tsardom, staged the so called Uprising of Konstantin and Fruzhin in 1408-1413 AD against the Ottoman Turks in today’s Northwest Bulgaria, which was ultimately unsuccessful. The majority of the Bulgarian historians believe that his was the end of the Vidin (Bdin) Tsardom, and of the Second Bulgarian Empire, respectively.
Some Bulgarian historians believe, however, that Tsar Ivan Sratsimir’s son became Tsar Konstantin II Asen (r. 1397-1422 AD) ruling as the Emperor of Bulgaria based in Bdin (Vidin), and controlling at least some of the northwestern territories of the Second Bulgarian Empire. A number of historical sources mention the Bulgarian Tsardom (Empire) and Tsar Konstantin II Asen from 1396 until 1422 AD, leading to the conclusion that after 1396 the Vidin Tsardom remained a vassal state of the Ottomans while also fighting against them.
According to this “alternative history” which has not made its way into Bulgarian history textbooks yet, in 1408-1413 AD, Tsar Konstantin II and his first cousin Fruzhin did not stage an uprising but the former was helping the latter try to regain his former throne in Veliko Tarnovo.
After 1413-1417, Tsar Konstantin II spent most of his time in Serbia and Hungary, and is known to have died in 1422 in the Serbian royal court in Belgrade. Even though according to the mainstream history of Bulgaria, the Vidin Tsardom, and all of the Second Bulgarian Empire, was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1396 AD, Ottoman records do not mention the existence of a Vidin Sanzhak (sancak in Turkish was an administrative unit in the Ottoman Empire) until 1430 AD.
The other “last” Bulgarian Tsar, Konstantin II’s first cousin (Tsar) Fruzhin, the heir to the throne in Tarnovgrad (Veliko Tarnovo) continued to participate in all Christian campaigns against the Ottoman Empire, which were also expected to achieve Bulgaria’s liberation, including the two unsuccessful Crusades of the Polish King Vladislav (Wladyslaw) III (r. 1424-1444 AD) in 1443 and 1444 AD (also known as Vladislav Varnenchik (Vladislav of Varna) because he was killed in the Battle of Varna in 1444 AD). Fruzhin held a feudal estate in the Kingdom of Hungary, and died in 1460 AD in the city of Brasov in Wallachia.
After they conquered the city of Bdin, the Ottoman Turks called it Vidin based on its Greek name Vidini (which is how, paradoxically, it is still called in today’s Bulgaria), and also used it as a major stronghold. In the 17th and 18th century, the city of Vidin was conquered a number of times by the forces of the Austrian Empire.
In 1689, the Austrians strengthened Vidin’s fortifications which helped preserve the Baba Vida Castle in a better condition in the following centuries. After the end of the 18th century, the Ottoman Turks no longer used the Vidin Fortress for defensive purposes but as an arms depot and a dungeon where they kept and tortured Bulgarian freedom fighters. The imprisoned Bulgarian revolutionaries drew letters and signs (which can be seen today) on the walls of the dungeon to keep track of time.
Between 1794 and 1807, Vidin was the capital of Ottoman Janissary and separatist Osman Pazvantoglu who conquered for himself a sizable domain of Ottoman lands in today’s Northwest Bulgaria while warring with the Turkish sultan.
During the period of Ottoman Yoke, the city of Vidin and the Vidin region were the center of several uprisings of the Bulgarians against the Ottoman rule, including the major uprisings in 1773 and 1850, all of which were crushed by the Ottoman forces with bloody atrocities. After Bulgaria’s National Liberation in 1878, Vidin has remained one of the country’s most important cities.
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Ivan Dikov, the founder of ArchaeologyinBulgaria.com, is the author of the book Plunder Paradise: How Brutal Treasure Hunters Are Obliterating World History and Archaeology in Post-Communist Bulgaria, among other books.
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