Veliko Tarnovo – Bulgaria’s Medieval Capital

16.05.2012 § 11 Comments

In the foothills of the Balkan mountains, around the twists and turns of the Yantra river rise three hills: Tzarevetz, Sveta Gora and Trapezitza. Perched atop these hills and reflected in the river are the houses and castle walls of Veliko Tarnovo – the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire and once the beating cultural heart of South-Eastern Europe.

When the Ancient Bulgarians first set foot in Moesia in the 7th century, they built their fortresses in the style of the horse-taming civilizations of the Asian steppes: in the plains, in a rectangular arrangement, with high walls composed of large granite blocks. Gradually, the diversity of the terrain and advancements in engineering taught them to build their cities and fortresses in naturally hard to reach and easy to defend places. Medieval Tarnovo was born as an outpost on three tall rocky hills, defended by the steep banks of the winding Yantra river.

It was here that the Bulgarian state was resurrected after two centuries under the yoke of the Byzantine empire. Brothers Asen and Theodor-Petar, the founders of the Asen dynasty, selected the city as their capital after the successful uprising of 1185. Tarnovo became the heart of a rapidly expanding Bulgarian empire. It launched the successful marches against the ruler of Epirus Theodore Komnenos, against the Crusaders and against the Latins. The soldiers of Asen’s nephew Ivan Asen II returned to Tarnovo laden with treasure and tales of their tzar’s benevolence and mercy. Baldwin I, the ruler of the Latin empire, spent his final days as a prisoner of war of tzar Kaloyan in a Tarnovo tower. The city grew with the prosperity of the resurrected nation and its walls rose tall, proud and indomitable, a symbol of Bulgarian unity.

Under the sceptre of the Assen dynasty Bulgaria experienced a second Golden age of prosperity and culture and Tarnovo became the cultural centre of the Bulgarian empire. Over 30 monasteries rose on the Sveta Gora hill, a literary and visual arts academy was founded in the city and the palaces of Tzarevetz rivalled those of ancient Rome in luxury and scope. The foundations were laid for the Tarnovo library, churches and mansions were built. The city became not only a fortress of Bulgaria’s military might but also of Slavic culture in general.

But the glory and safety of Tarnovo are intrinsically tied to the strength and unity of the Bulgarian state. The end of the Asen dynasty foretells the decline of Bulgaria’s might. The nation’s resources are sapped in internal conflicts and intrigues and when in the 14th century the Ottoman Turks land on the Balkan peninsula, they find Bulgaria torn into three warring nations, divided by fraternal hatred and competition.

In 1393 the Ottoman sultan Bayazid I besieges Tarnovo. Tzar Ivan Shishman, expelled from the capital, has locked himself in the fortress of Nikopol and doesn’t dare stand up to the might of the Ottomans. The patriarch of the Bulgarian church Evtimii is tasked with leading the defence of the city and sustaining it for three whole months. In the end, exhausted, discouraged and betrayed, the city surrenders on July 17, 1393. The strongest fortress on the Balkans, built over two centuries of prosperity, succumbs thanks to the disunity of the Bulgarian people. The city walls are razed, the aristocracy is slaughtered, and Tarnovo’s most prosperous citizens are exiled to Asia Minor. Libraries and monasteries are burnt to the ground, the royal palaces are sacked and set ablaze.

There are few surviving reminders of the medieval lustre of Veliko Tarnovo: books, rescued from the pyres and carried abroad, churches converted into mosques, the ruins of hard-to-reach towers. But the memory of Tarnovo’s and Bulgaria’s might persists. During the period of Ottoman rule, Tarnovo remained a stronghold of Bulgarian culture and of the struggle for independence. It is home to a dozen separate uprisings and to countless artisans (notably Kolyu Ficheto and Zahari Zograf) and there in 1870 is founded the independent Bulgarian church.

Veliko Tarnovo joyfully greeted the victorious Russian army that liberated it from Ottoman rule on July 7, 1877, after almost exactly 484 years of foreign rule. In the Ottoman-era town hall in 1879 was convened the first National Assembly, creating Bulgaria’s first constitution.

Today Veliko Tarnovo offers its visitors an unparalleled journey through time. The walls of the medieval fortress, restored and rebuilt in the 20th century, rise above the city and surround the Patriarchal Church at its summit. Houses from the National Revival period (19th century), perched on the hillside, reflect in the river. The four bronze horsemen representing the Asen dynasty watch over the city from the riverbank housing the city’s art gallery. Blacksmiths, woodworkers and other Revival era artisans work on the old market street. The entire city is visible from the bridges of Yantra. In the newly restored St. 40 Martyrs church are kept relics from seminal Bulgarian rulers such as kan Omurtag and tzar Ivan Asen II. Tzar Kaloyan, third ruler of the Second Bulgarian Empire is also buried there. Tzarevetz comes alive at night under the sights and sounds of the multimedia Light & Sound show that tells the city’s story while the Sveta Gora monasteries are beautiful sanctuaries of contemplation and respite.

Veliko Tarnovo is neither the largest nor the oldest Bulgarian city, but there is no other city in the country that attracts and enchants Bulgarians and tourists alike – a city of legends, of ancient and proud histories, of trials and victories.

By the way, the “Veliko” in Veliko Tarnovo is the Bulgarian word for “great”, and this city deserves it.

For more photos of Veliko Tarnovo please visit this flickr gallery.

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