Crusaders from Third Crusade Destroyed 11th-Century Byzantine Empire's Fortress in Southeast Bulgaria Destroyed, Archaeologists Find

Crusaders from Third Crusade Destroyed 11th-Century Byzantine Empire’s Fortress in Southeast Bulgaria Destroyed, Archaeologists Find

The ruins of the small Byzantine fortress near Voden in Southeast Bulgaria, which was destroyed by the Third Crusade led by King Richard I the Lionheart of England, King Philip II of France, and Holy Roman (German) Emperor Friedrich I Barbarossa at the end of the 12th century. Photo: Yambol Regional Museum of History

A small but remarkable Byzantine fortress, which existed in the 11th – 12th century in today’s Southeast Bulgaria, was seemingly destroyed by the Western European knights from the Third Crusade in 1189 – 1192 AD, the archaeological research team has concluded.

The fortress in question is located 2.5 kilometers away from today’s town of Voden in Bolyarovo Municipality, Yambol District, in Southeast Bulgaria, near Bulgaria’s border with Turkey.

The name of the Byzantine fortress from the time of the High Middle Ages is unknown but today it is referred to as “the Small Fortress" (“malkoto kale" in Bulgarian, “kale" being a Turkish word left over from the Ottoman period used to denote the ruins of fortresses whose names are unknown).

“Stratigraphic observations and the discovered coins demonstrate that the fortress emerged no earlier than the middle of the 11th century AD, and was destroyed during the Third Crusade at the end of the 12th century," the Regional Museum of History in the city of Yambol says in a release.

The Third Crusade in 1189 – 1192 AD was a campaign of the leaders of the three most powerful Western European Christian states at the time, England, France, and the Holy Roman Empire (later known as the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation) to free the Holy Land from Ayyubid Sultan Saladin, who had captured Jerusalem in 1187.

The Third Crusade led by King Richard I The Lionheart of England (r. 1189 – 1199), King Philip II of France (r. 1180 – 1223), and Holy Roman (German) Emperor Friedrich I Barbarossa (r. 1155 – 1190) failed to achieve tremendous military successes in Palestine.

It did inspire, however, the Fourth Crusade in 1204 which led to the capture of Constantinople by the Western European knights, and the temporary destruction of the Byzantine Empire and the establishment of the Latin Empire of Constantinople (1204 – 1261) – even though the Crusader knights were routed the following year by Bulgaria’s Tsar Kaloyan of the newly liberated Second Bulgarian Empire in the Battle of Adrianople of 1205.

The period during which the “Small Fortress" near Voden existed, namely, the 11th – 12th century, was the time when the Eastern Roman Empire, more widely known today as the Byzantine Empire, managed to subjugate and conquer the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680 – 1018 AD), restored later as the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185 – 1396/1422 AD).

The period between 1018 and 1185 in Bulgarian history is thus known as the “Byzantine Domination" or “Byzantine Yoke".

The Yambol Museum of History points out that the Small Fortress near Voden, a Byzantine stronghold from the High Middle Ages, is the Byzantine archaeological site on today’s Bulgarian territory which is closest to Constantinople, today’s Istanbul in Turkey, but back then the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium).

Back in 2017, the Bulgarian government granted the Byzantine fortress near Voden destroyed by the Western European Crusaders from the Third Crusade the status of an archaeological monument of “national importance", the highest possible.

The site has been researched since 2008 by a team led by Assist. Prof. Stefan Bakardzhiev, Director of the Yambol Museum of History.

The Museum explains that the medieval Byzantine fortress in question was a small rectangular stronghold with a total area of 1,083 square meters. Its sides were 32, 33, 29, and 30 meters long, respectively.

The ruins of the small Byzantine fortress near Voden in Southeast Bulgaria, which was destroyed by the Third Crusade led by King Richard I the Lionheart of England, King Philip II of France, and Holy Roman (German) Emperor Friedrich I Barbarossa at the end of the 12th century. Photo: Yambol Regional Museum of History

The ruins of the small Byzantine fortress near Voden in Southeast Bulgaria, which was destroyed by the Third Crusade led by King Richard I the Lionheart of England, King Philip II of France, and Holy Roman (German) Emperor Friedrich I Barbarossa at the end of the 12th century. Photo: Yambol Regional Museum of History

So far the archaeological team has excavated the entire western fortress wall of the Small Fortress near Voden in Southeast Bulgaria, parts of the northern and southern walls, and the entire western half of the enclosed area.

The western fortress wall in question had a round corner bastion. The fortress wall itself was made of crushed stones and white mortar, and was about 2 meters thick. Today it is preserved up to a height of between 2.5 and 3.8 meters.

The entrance of the medieval Byzantine fortress near Voden destroyed during the Third Crusade at the end of 12th century BC was in the middle of its northern fortress wall.

Behind the western and southern fortress walls of the Byzantine stronghold, the archaeologists have unearthed a chain of internal structures shaping an inner yard.

The partially surviving parts of the buildings inside the medieval fortress demonstrate that their facades were decorated with mortar plasters, brick cases and niches, and brick arcs.

“[Their builders] used widely decorative bricks and ceramic plastic arts decorations which is not typical of civilian buildings," the Yambol Museum of History says.

It points that the “representative character" of the medieval Byzantine fortress near Bulgaria’s Voden is further epitomized by the various artifacts found inside it.

These include a large amount of diverse luxury imported pottery artifacts, lead seals, a procession cross, a gold-plated button, box appliques, and fragments from glass plates and murals.

The earliest coins discovered in the Small Fortress near Bulgaria’s border with Turkey were minted by Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX Monomachus (r. 1042 – 1055 AD), which is considered further evidence that the stronghold was erected in the second half of the 11th century.

It is especially intriguing that the archaeologists have found a total of five lead seals which belonged to the local Byzantine feudal governor who used the fortress as a residence for his family. The high number of the discovered lead seals is construed as a testimony to his high rank in the Byzantine hierarchy.

The researchers theorize that the fortress in question shows evidence of a rather luxurious lifestyle, whereas there is little evidence of the longer-term stationing there of military units.

The small Byzantine fortress near Bulgaria’s Voden is said to be the Byzantine archaeological site in today’s Bulgaria that was the closest to Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Roman Empire for some 1,200 years, today Instanbul in Turkey. Map: Google Maps

“The great importance of the research of the Small Fortress is also underscored by the opportunity to trace the historical development of the region within a relatively short period of time (11th – 12th century)," says the Yambol Regional Museum of History.

“The fortress in question appears to be the only known archaeological site in Bulgaria’s so far reflecting the architectural renaissance in the Eastern Roman Empire during the time of the Comnenius Dynasty (Komnenian Dynasty) (r. 1081 – 1185 AD)," the Museum adds.

“The medieval Small Fortress is the archaeological site in Bulgaria that is closest to Constantinople, which has invariably exerted extremely powerful influence [on it], and is setting it apart from most [Byzantine fortresses] located in Bulgaria’s interior," the Yambol Museum states.

The 2020 archaeological excavations of the Byzantine fortress near Voden destroyed by the Crusaders from the Third Crusade at the end of the 12th century have been carried out with a total of BGN 21,000 (app. EUR 11,000) in funding from Bulgaria’s Ministry of Culture.

The excavations led by archaeologist Stefan Bakardzhiev included students from the University of Library Studies and IT in Sofia.

A map of the naval and land routes of the Western European troops which took part in the Third Crusade. Map: Wikipedia

A map showing the known land route of the Western European troops which participated in the Third Crusade through the then territory of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire. The location of the Small Fortress near Voden is slightly to the northeast of Adrianople (Odrin, Edirne). Map: Wikipedia

A map showing the known land route of the Western European troops which participated in the Third Crusade through the then territory of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire. The location of the Small Fortress near Voden is slightly to the northeast of Adrianople (Odrin, Edirne). Map: Wikipedia

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Ivan Dikov, the founder of ArchaeologyinBulgaria.com, is the author of the book Ugly Bargain: How the European Union and Bulgaria’s Post-Communist Oligarchy Fit Together, among other books.

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