Jewish Archaeological Monuments & History of Jews in Bulgaria (till 20th Century)

The Jewish archaeological monuments, and the history of Jews in Bulgaria go back to the period after all of Ancient Thrace south of the Danube was conquered by the Roman Empire in 46 AD.

The first archaeological monument showing the presence of Jews on Bulgaria’s historic territory is 2nd century AD inscription found on a tomb stone in the major Ancient Roman colony of Ulpia Oescus located close to the Danube River near today’s town of Gigen, Gulyantsi Municipality, Pleven District. The inscription is in Latin, and mentions the leader of the local synagogue, i.e. the archisynagogos Iose Sarcisinao. It is interpreted not just as evidence of the presence of Latin-speaking Jews in Ulpia Oescus but aslo as a testimony to the fact that they had a sizable and well organized community.

The only known ancient Jewish temple on the territory of today’s Bulgaria is the Antiquity Synagogue of ancient Philipopolis, today’s Bulgarian city of Plovdiv (also called Trimontium in the Roman period). It was built in the first half of the 3rd century AD, possibly during the Severan Dynasty (r. 193-235 AD). The ruins of the synagogue were discovered in 1981 by archaeologist Elena Kisyakova from the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology; in 2016, 35 years after the discoverъ, the Museum unveiled and exhibited for the first time the restored floor mosaics from the Antiquity Synagogue.

Another relevant archaeological monument is an inscription from the Ancient Roman city of Stobi (today ruins are located in the Republic of Macedonia) saying a man named Claudius Tiberius Polycharmos, converted to Judaism, and erected a synagogue as a testimony to his righteous life.

In the 6th century AD, Byzantine historian Procopius of Caesarea mentioned in his work “On Buildings” of a “Tower of the Jews” located east of the Roman and Byzantine fort of Dorticum whose ruins are found today near the town of Vrav, Vidin District, in Northwest Bulgaria.

There is little data about the presence of Jews in the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD). In contrast, the presence of Jewish population in the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396) is better known. It is believed that while all of Bulgaria was part of Byzantium between 1018 and 1185, a number of Romaniote Jews settled in the Bulgarian regions.

They established the well-known medieval Jewish Quarter of the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire Tarnovgrad (today’s Veliko Tarnovo). According to one of the hypotheses, it was located on the southern slope of the Trapesitsa Hill Fortress (one of the two citadels of Tarnovgrad, together with the Tsarevets Hill Fortress); however, this hypothesis has been disputed, and the precise location remains uncertain. Tarnovgrad’s Jewish Quarter had a necropolis but neither the quarter, nor the necropolis have been excavated by archaeologists yet.

The earliest known Jewish book, “Lekach-tov”, from Bulgaria’s historic territory appealed in 1093 AD; it was written by the rabbi of Ohrid (today in the Republic of Macedonia). A medieval chronicle from 1185 AD, known as Benjamin’s Chronicle, mentions the Jewish communities in the Bulgarian lands (then still part of the Byzantine Empire).

During the time of the Second Bulgarian Empire, the Jewish communities are known to have had residential quarters in a number of major Bulgarian cities: Veliko Tarnovo, Vidin, Plovdiv, Sofia, Ohrid, Bitola, Pleven, Odrin (Adrianople; Edirne), Kostur (Kastoria).

A better known fact in Bulgarian medieval history is the second marriage of the last Tsar of the entire Second Bulgarian Empire, Ivan Alexander (r. 1331-1371) to a Jewish woman named Sarah, who converted to Orthodox Christianity under the name Theodora.

Sarah-Theodora gave birth to Tsar Ivan Shishman (r. 1371-1395), the last ruler of Tarnovgrad and the core of the medieval Bulgarian Empire who was named heir to the throne even though he was Ivan Alexander’s youngest son. The more logical heir, Ivan Alexander’s surviving son from an earlier marriage (he had lost two other elder sons in battles with the Ottoman Turks), Tsar Ivan Sratsimir (r. 1371-1396), was given the city of Vidin and established his own Vidin Tsardom. The division of what had been left of the Second Bulgarian Empire (other Bulgarian feudal lords also seceded in the geographic regions of Dobrudzha, Macedonia, and Thrace) between Ivan Shishman and Ivan Sratsimir, who were often in conflict with one another, is often cited as one of the major reasons for Bulgaria’s conquest by the invading Ottoman Turks at the end of the 14th and the beginning of the 15th century.

The largest settlement of Jews in Bulgaria occurred during the Ottoman period (known in Bulgarian history as the Ottoman Yoke – 1396-1878/1912). Sephardic Jews from the Iberian Peninsula settled in the Balkans after they were chased away by Spain in 1492. Subsequently, the Sephardic Jews made up over 90% of the Bulgarian Jewish population. Some Ashkenazi Jews from Central Europe also settled in Bulgaria during the Ottoman period.

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