Old Bridge – Svilengrad, Bulgaria

The Old Bridge in the southern Bulgarian town of Svilengrad is a 16th century arch bridge over the Maritsa River. It is 295-meters long, 6 meters wide, and has 21 arches. It was built in 1529 AD as the first major work of the most famous Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan. It was part of a medieval Ottoman waqf complex (a property given to a religious establishment for charity purposes, which existed near the bridge). It included a caravanserai (inn), a mosque, a bazaar (market), and a hammam (Turkish bath). The only of these structures to survive to this day is the Turkish bath which has been renovated and turned into an art gallery. It is around this complex that the town of Svilengrad developed. Some historical sources allege that the Ottoman complex near the bridge was built at the initiative of legendary Roxelana (1502-1558), the favorite wife of Ottoman Turkish Sultan Suleiman I the Magnificent (r. 1520-1566 AD), an ethnic Ukrainian.

During the period of the Ottoman Yoke, i.e. when Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire (1396-1878/1912), Svilengrad’s Old Bridge was known as Mustafa Pasha Bridge because its construction was ordered by Coban Mustafa Pasha, an Ottoman statesman and vizier. A flood destroyed some of the arches in 1766, and they were rebuilt in 1809. The Ottoman army unsuccessfully tried to destroy the Old Bridge as it was fleeing the Bulgarian advance after the Battle of Lule Burgas during the First Balkan War in November 1912.

The Old Bridge in Bulgaria’s Svilengrad is comparable to the Mehmed Pasa Sokolovic Bridge on the Drina River in Visegrad, Republika Srpska, Bosnia and Herzegovina, which, too, was built by Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan but much later in his career – in 1577 AD. However, Visegrad’s Mehmed Pasa Sokolovic Bridge is much shorter: it is 179 meters long, and has 11 arches. The other major difference between the two bridges of the legendary Ottoman architect is that the bridge in Bosnia was proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007, while the bridge in Bulgaria lacks that status.

However, in Bulgaria the Old Bridge in Svilengrad has been recognized as a “monument of culture of national significance”. Its restoration will comply with the recommendations of Bulgaria’s National Institute for Cultural Heritage Monuments issued several years ago. One of the recommendations is to make the Old Bridge a pedestrian zone once its rehabilitation is completed. Bulgaria has a large number of monuments from the Ottoman period, and for the most part those have been preserved after Bulgaria’s National Liberation (1878). This was certainly not the way the invading Ottoman Turks handled the monuments of the medieval Bulgarian Empire at the end of the 14th century: most of the some 6,000 Bulgarian fortresses, cities, and monasteries were destroyed by the Ottoman invaders. This is just one of the reasons, and actually a less important one, why this period of Bulgarian history is known as the “Ottoman Yoke”.

Mimar Sinan (1490-1588) is the most famous Ottoman architect. He is believed to have been of Christian origin (Byzantine, Armenian, or Bulgarian Bogomil) as he was taken at an early age into Janissary Corps under the brutal Ottoman blood tax (devsirme) – an annual practice by which the Ottoman forces abducted boys from the Christians in the empire, converted them to Islam forcefully, and trained them as fierce Islamist fighters or civil servants. Sinan built more than 300 major structures. His masterpiece is the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne, although his most famous work is the Suleiman Mosque in Istanbul.

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