Yailata Fortress & Yailata Archaeological Preserve – Kavarna, Bulgaria


Bulgaria’s National Archaeological Preserve “Yailata” (“Yaila” is a Turkish word left over from the Ottoman Yoke period meaning “a high pasture”) is located on Bulgaria’s northern Black Sea coast, 18 km northeast of the town of Kavarna, and 2 km south of the town of Kamen Bryag (“Rocky Coast”). It is a rocky coastal terrace towering 50-60 meters above the Black Sea level, and has a total territory of 300 decares (app. 75 acres).

The Yailata Archaeological Preserve features archaeological and historical monuments form different time periods – from the 5th millennium BC until the middle of the 11th century AD.

The archaeological sites in the Preserve include a “cave town” of 101 dwellings from the 5th millennium BC; three necropolises (family tombs) from the 3rd-4th century AD which, too, were carved into the rocks; a small Early Byzantine fortress, i.e. the Yailata Fortress, dating back to the 5th century AD which features four partly preserved towers and a gate tower; an ancient rock shrine, wineries, four ancient tombs; in the Middle Ages, the caves in Yalata housed a medieval monastery; some of the caves feature Ancient Bulgar runic signs, crosses, and stone icons.

The Yailata Archaeological Preserve was formally established by the Bulgarian government in 1989. It has been excavated and studied by archaeologists since 1980, with the digs focusing mostly on the Early Byzantine fortress Yailata dating back to the  the reign of Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Emperor Anastasius I Dicorus (r. 491-518 AD), the rock necropolises, and the cave homes.

A substantial part of the marvelous archaeological and historical heritage of the Yailata Archaeological Preserve and the nearby Kaliakra Cape and the Kaliakra Fortress is believed to be underwater, a future matter of interest for underwater archaeology.

The area is known to have been a harbor in ancient and medieval times, and local fishermen have found there debris from ancient and medieval ships when fishing at a depth of 60 meters. (What is more, the Black Sea is unique because below 200 meters (60 meters in some parts) it has no oxygen but only hydrogen sulfide, therefore any underwater archaeology sites or sunken ships at greater depths are supposed to have been perfectly preserved.) In 1791, in the Battle of Cape Kaliakra, the Navy of the Russian Empire commanded by Admiral Ushakov defeated the Ottoman Turkish Navy at Kaliakra which was an event when a lot of vessels were sunk.

There is also a legend that Yailata is where Ancient Roman poet Ovid spent his last days, after he was exiled by Emperor Octavian August to the Black Sea port of Tomis (today’s Constanta in Romania). According to the legend, Ovid managed to sneak out of Tomis aboard a ship, and found refuge in the Bay of Yailata where he was hidden by the locals.

The Early Byzantine fortress of Yailata is located in the northern part of the Archaeological Preserve. To the north and east, the fortress is protected by high rocks, which is why it had fortress walls only to the west and the south. The walls have a combined length of 130 meters, and are 2.6 meters wide. The walls, the four towers, and the tower gate are made up of large stone blocks which are up to 2 meters long and 0.7 meters high. Inside the fortress, the archaeologists have unearthed several staircases and buildings. The gate at the fifth tower was 2.6 meters wide.

The archaeological artifacts made of copper, bronze, bone, and clay which have been discovered at the Yailata Fortress indicate that it was built at the end of the 5th and the beginning of the 6th century AD, and was short-lived. It was destroyed during the barbarian invasions at the end of the 6th century AD.

It remained uninhabited for three centuries, until the 9th century AD, the time of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD) when it was reformed into an Ancient Bulgar settlement which had a small Christian chapel. The medieval Bulgarian settlement there was destroyed by the Pecheneg tribes in the middle of the 11th century; after that, the Yailata Fortress never recovered.

The Yailata Archaeological Preserve also features a large number of man-made caves located on several levels. They were used for thousands of years as dwellings, tombs, or rock churches (a rock monastery in the Early Byzantine period).

Over 120 funeral facilities have been found in the three necropolises in the Yailata Archaeological Preserve which feature a variety of rock graves and tombs. Most of the tombs were robbed in the Antiquity and the Middle Ages. However, the discovered funeral inventories including clay bowls, cups, and lamps, bronze and iron buckles, glass beads, and coins have indicated that the tombs date back to the 2nd-5th century.

These were family tombs that were in use for a long period of time, and in some of them the archaeologists have found up to 15 skeletons. Because of their specific features, the rock tombs in the Yailata Archaeological Preserve are believed to have been connected with the arrival of barbarian tribes which were most likely of Sarmatian origin.

According to archaeoastronomers who explored the ancient rock shrine at Yailata, it was built in the 6th-5th century BC. The shrine located in the northern part of the Preserve has been likened to a shrine described by Ancient Greek poet Pindar (ca. 522 – ca. 443 BC) from Thebes as a shrine on the Black Sea coast visited by the Argonauts where their offered a sacrifice.

According to other Antiquity authors, the region around today’s Cape of Shabla located to the north of Yailata was known as Caria, with the so called Carian Port.

Caria is also the name of an ancient region in southwestern Anatolia (today’s Turkey) implying some sort of a connection, possibly the arrival of Carian settlers.

The Ancient Thracian tribes that inhabited what is today Bulgaria’s Northern Black Sea coast, i.e. the so called region of Dobrudzha, are denoted in scientific literature as Getae-Dacians or Thraco-Getae.

In 2013-2014, Kavarna Municipality completed an EU funded project entitled “Yailata – the Ancient Door of [the Region of] Dobrudzha” for the archaeological restoration of the Early Byzantine fortress in the Yailata Preserve. A total of BGN 2.2 million (app. EUR 1.1 million) of EU money from Operational Program “Regional Development” were invested in the project.

However, the restoration of the Yailata Fortress has been vehemently criticized as one of Bulgaria’s botched archaeological restorations because of the used construction materials, and because for some reason the restorers installed a glass banister on top of the fortress wall.

Local civil society activists launched numerous protests against the Yailata Fortress project taking the case even to the European Commission in Brussels. However, according to the inspections carried out by the Bulgarian government, no violations have been found.

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