Krakra Fortress – Pernik, Bulgaria

The Krakra Fortress in today’s western Bulgarian city of Pernik is a medieval fortress of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD). It is named after Krakra of Pernik, also known as Krakra Voevoda, a Bulgarian boyar, a feudal lord ruling over 36 fortresses in Southwest Bulgaria at the beginning of 11th century. He is known for his resistance against the invading Byzantine forces stopping twice the advance of Byzantine Emperor Basil II the Bulgar-Slayer (r. 976-1025 AD) on Sofia (Serdica, Sredets). Krakra of Pernik ruled during the reign of Bulgarian Tsar Samuil (997-1014 AD) but often acted against Byzantium with his own forces.

The fortress of Pernik was founded after 809 AD when Khan (Kanas) Krum (r. 803-814 AD) conquered Serdica (today’s Sofia) for Bulgaria, probably during the reign of his son, Khan (Kanas) Omurtag (r. 814-831 AD). Before that, the strategically located hill was the site of a major Ancient Thracian fortress from the 6th-5th century BC. Krakra was a relatively large fortress in medieval Bulgaria, with a fortified area of about 50 decares (app. 12.4 acres). Its fortress wall spanned 800 m lining the natural curves of the plateau, and was 2 m thick. The fortress was last used before the Western European knights from the Third Crusade passed nearby in 1189-1192 AD, and after that was abandoned. It was besieged twice by Byzantine Emperor Basil II the Bulgar-slayer, in 1004 and 1016 AD, both times unsuccessfully as the defenders prevailed under the leadership of Krakra of Pernik, as described by 11th century Byzantine historian John Skylitzes (ca. 1040-ca. 1101 AD). The 1016 siege was especially fierce; it lasted 88 days, and cost the lives of many Byzantine soldiers, which is why the valley below the fortress is still known today as “The Bloody”. When all of the First Bulgarian Empire was conquered by Byzantium in 1018 AD, the Krakra Fortress was the last to fall. The ruins of the Pernik fortress today feature remains of the fortress walls, residential buildings, a crossed-dome church, a large three-nave basilica, and a small two-story tomb church. This is where Bulgarian archaeologists have found a silver seal of St. Tsar Petar I (r. 927-970 AD), the only silver seal of a Bulgarian monarch from this time period. Tsar Petar I made a stop at the fortress on his way to meeting Bulgaria’s patron saint, St. Ivan Rulski (876-946 AD), who was living as a hermit in the Rila Mountain.

In 2013-2014, Pernik Municipality carried out partial restoration of the Krakra Fortress with BGN 5 million (EUR 2.5 million) of EU funding under Operational Program “Regional Development”. Unfortunately, the builders used “alternative” materials for some of the restoration giving the restored fortress wall and gate a “plastic” look. Thus, the restoration of the Krakra Fortress has become notorious among Bulgaria’s archaeological restorations, with critics claiming that the EU money was likely embezzled by local politicians and/or construction entrepreneurs who used cheap plastic instead of proper materials. Bulgaria’s some 6,000 ancient and medieval fortresses were destroyed by the invading Ottoman Turks at the end of the 14th century AD, and archaeological restorations are seen today as a means of restoring the national memory and promoting cultural tourism. However, the notorious restoration of the Krakra Fortress and some other archaeological sites such as the Yailata Fortress on the Black Sea coast have made archaeological restorations a highly controversial public issue over alleged embezzlement and clientelism.

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Archaeology in Bulgaria. and Beyond