Maiden’s Fortress (Devingrad) – Tarnovgrad – Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

The Hill of Momina Krepost (“Maiden’s Fortress”), also known as Devingrad (“Virgins’ Town”), is one of the historic hills of Tarnovgrad, the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD), today’s city of Veliko Tarnovo. It is a Late Antiquity Early Byzantine and medieval Bulgarian fortress located about 600 meters to the east of the Tsarevets Hill, one of the two fortresses of the inner city acropolis of Tarnovgrad (Veliko Tarnovo), on the right bank of the Yantra River. In the Late Antiquity and Early Byzantine period, the fortress of Momina Krepost (“Maiden’s Fortress”), also known as Devingrad (“Virgins’ Town”), was established to protect the connection of the Early Byzantine town on the Tsarevets Hill to the road between Nicopolis ad Istrum (north of Veliko Tarnovo) and Kabile (near today’s southeastern Bulgarian city of Yambol). The Maiden’s Fortress is located on a triangular hill with three terraces.

The Maiden’s Fortress in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo was first explored by Czech-Bulgarian archaeologist Karel Skorpil who together with his brother Hermann Skorpil founded modern-day Bulgarian archaeology at the end of the 19th century. Later excavations and observations were carried out there in 1942-1943 by Dr. Ivan Velkov, in 1963 by Bogdan Sultov from the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History, and more recently by Assist. Prof. Evgeni Dermendzhiev from the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History. The citadel of the Maiden Fortress is about 300 meters long and 30-40 meters wide, and has a total area of 9 decares (app. 2.2 acres). The Maiden Fortress was built at the end of the 5th century AD by Byzantium, and was used the Byzantines in the 6th and the beginning of the 7th century AD. During the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) it was part of the Bulgarian capital Tarnovgrad (Veliko Tarnovo).

The medieval name of the Maiden Fortress or Virgins’ Town is known from a marble slab inscription discovered on the Tsarevets Hill during archaeological excavations which mentions Devingrad. It was published by Nikola Angelov, and was construed by Ivan Galabov who believes it refers to the Maiden’s Fortress. According to Prof. Velizar Velkov (1928-1993), the name might stem from the Thracian name of the city. The Thracians used the word “deva” to mean a city (dava in Greek, and deva in Latin) meaning a fortified place. The Slavs, however, translated the word as “deva” meaning a virgin. The Ottoman conquerors after them called it kuzhisar (kuz meaning a girl, and hisar – a fortress). After Bulgaria’s Liberation from the Ottoman Empire in 1878, the name became Momina Krepost, Maiden’s Fortress.

There are also numerous legends which claim that the fortress was named after young girls who committed suicide there out of their desperate love, or found a heroic death. One of the legends has it that Velislava, the beautiful daughter of Strashimir, a rich and powerful Bulgarian boyar (a medieval Bulgarian title for a noble second in rank only to the Tsar, i.e. Emperor) was in love with a brave and beautiful but poor young man named Borimir. Instead, Strashimir wanted to marry Velislava to the rich but cowardly Svetoslav. Borimir was summoned to the Bulgarian army during a Byzantine invasion, with the war putting off the wedding between Velislava and Svetoslav. When the Bulgarians fended off the attack and peace was restored, the wedding was supposed to take place but the night of the wedding celebrated with a feast in the imperial palace in Tarnovgrad, Velislava disappeared and was found in her wedding dress near the Yantra River, after she had jumped off the tower of the fortress across from the Tsarevets Hill. After her death, Borimir left a flower on her grave, and nobody ever saw him again, and the locals called the fortress where the young woman committed suicide the “Maiden’s Fortress”.

Another legend tells about a young woman named Malina who decided to rebel against the hated Bulgarian Tsar Boril (r. 1207-1218 AD) who was an usurper of the throne in Tarnovgrad taking it after his predecessor Tsar Kaloyan (r. 1197-1207 AD) was murdered. Malina and her beloved man Valkan gathered a band of rebels to march against the Tsar. As they raised their flag, Malina’s red scarf, as a banner on the high hill opposite the Tsarevets Fortress to summon the rebels, however, two arrows suddenly killed them. Despite that Malina held onto the banner, and the rebellion was launched. Malina’s banner is said to have been seen on the high hill at moonlight, and that’s why the locals called it the “Maiden’s Fortress”.

According to a third legend, one of the daughters of Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Asen II (r. 1218-1241 AD) refused to marry a rich boyar. As she disobeyed her father’s will, she founded a monastery on the hill across from Tsarevets where one day out of sorrow she jumped off the cliff into the Yantra River – hence the name the “Maiden’s Fortress”.

Still another legend refers to a later period after the Second Bulgarian Empire was conquered by the Ottoman Turks. It tells of two Bulgarian girls who jumped off the cliff into the Yantra River to their deaths in order to avoid being forced into a Turkish Muslim harem.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Archaeology in Bulgaria. and Beyond