6 September 2016 – Unification Day
Bulgarian Unification Day commemorates the unification of Eastern Rumelia (Southern Bulgaria) and Bulgaria in 1885. Bulgaria was never pleased with the terms of the 1878 Treaty of Berlin, when they lost parts of southern Bulgaria to the Ottoman Empire. Bulgarians gave up hopes for Macedonia and the rest of Thrace and concentrated on regaining East Roumelia. In 1885, a group of former revolutionaries organized in Plovdiv (the capital of Eastern Roumelia) and on 6 September the palace in Plovdiv was surrounded. Prince Alexander prepared for war with the Ottoman Empire and agreed to become the leader of a Unified Bulgaria. Bulgaria successfully defended its interests on the battlefield in the Serbo-Bulgarian War. Thus, today we celebrate Unification Day.
Our 2-hour drive from Sofia is through mostly a flat, agricultural land of apples, cherries, strawberries, cabbage, corn, and veggies of all kinds. Rain is sporadic as our driver takes the fastest path of least resistance to safely deliver us in Plovdiv.
One of Europe’s oldest cities, Plovdiv rests along the Maritsa River and has both an old city, much the same as it was when Prince Alexander arrived in 1885, and a new city much as one would expect once Burger King and McDonalds arrived. Found on the fertile plains of ancient Thrace where the mystical Thracians built their sanctuary atop Nebet Hill, this ancient city dates back to 4000 years BC. Thracians fortified their settlement but was conquered by Philip II of Macedon in 342 B.C. Here also are several well-preserved archeological sites from the Roman period of the city (1-4th c.) including an Ancient Theater, Roman Stadium and Forum.
As I stroll cobble stone streets, I enjoy both ancient sights and architecture of the more recent Bulgarian Revival Period. Houses and public buildings, ruins and archeological sites tell the story of this wonderful historic town.
The Old Town, as the complex is known, lies on a natural elevation of three hills (Dzhambaz, Nebet, and Taksim Hills) along the Maritsa River. Many people have inhabited this place through the centuries. During the reign of the Roman Empire, Plovdiv (then called Trimontium) was an important district center. The town flourished and there was a construction boom of buildings, equipment and roads.
Many well-preserved remains have survived from the prospering town, such as paved streets, fortification walls, buildings, water-supply and sewerage systems. Some of the more interesting sites from the Roman Period are the Roman Amphitheater, the Stadium, and an Ancient Forum. Constructed during the rule of Emperor Trajan at the beginning of the 2nd century, the well-preserved Amphitheater could seat over 7000 spectators.
The Roman Stadium is located beneath Dzhumayata Square in the more modern section of the city and only part of it is visible. It was built in the 2nd century and was designed after the Stadium at Delphi. The nearby cafes offer the opportunity for a pleasant drink while contemplating these spectacular ruins.
The Ancient Forum lies near Tsentralen Square. It was built in the 1st century during the reign of Emperor Vespasian. It is a complex of buildings including a library, a mint, and an odeon.
Then came the Byzantine period for Plovdiv, which began the end of the 4th century. Not long after that the Slavs also came here and they named the town Paldin.
When the First Bulgarian Empire was established (7th century) Paldin was outside of its borders. Being along an important east/west route, the territory was lost and won several times but the Byzantines managed to conquer it back with varying degrees of success. Control over the town switched many times, and there was even a brief period when it was governed by the knights of the Fourth Crusade. In 1344, the Bulgarians eventually gained control.
Then came the Ottomans who conquered Plovdiv in 1364, giving a new direction to the town. The Byzantine architecture was succeeded by a completely new construction style with Oriental features. The new name of the town was Filibe. Dzhumaya Mosque (located in the centre of the town, next to the Ancient Stadium), and the 16th century Clock Tower on Sahat Hill are examples from this period.
During the Revival Period, Plovdiv became an important economic center.
The Bulgarian Revival Period is when Bulgarians began to form their own identity and regain autonomy from their Ottoman rulers and is generally accepted as ending with the country’s liberation from Ottoman rule in 1878. It is traditionally divided into three periods, the first from the 18th until the beginning of the 19th century, the second from the Ottoman reforms of the 1820s to the 1850s and the Crimean War, and the third from the Crimean War until the Liberation in 1878. The revival processes continued a bit later in Plovdiv in Eastern Rumelia and Macedonia.
In this period a Bulgarian middle class emerged, accumulating wealth through trade with the countries of the Ottoman empire as trade routes met in the east/west crossroads of Bulgaria. Bulgarians began migrating from their remote villages back to the towns and crafts thrived. Literacy, education, culture and a sense of national identity was encouraged among Bulgarians. The Orthodox church, which had managed to preserve itself, hidden away in mountain monasteries, provided much needed spiritual guidance.
Plovdiv’s Old Town is a living museum of the National Revival architecture of the early to mid 1800s. The homes and public buildings are exceptionally rich and large in comparison to other buildings of the era. They show a love for ornate decoration, bright colors and wall paintings.
There are two main types of houses in the Old Town: asymmetrical and symmetrical depending on whether all rooms lead off symmetrically from one main central room. Their design was varied by adding bay-windows and “gossip rooms” on the upper floor. The main sitting room was elaborately decorated with wood carved ceiling and wall niches with decorative murals such as vases of flowers or painted curtains creating a fake window. Walls, ceilings and parts of the façade were painted with floral motifs and Greek columns; ceilings, porches, doors and furniture were carved out of wood and painted. Additional annexes such as marble wells, storehouses for valuable goods, rooms for the servants, and even Turkish baths with laundry rooms were built.
Wealthy, educated and well-traveled citizens returned to Plovdiv with exotic goods and imaginative ideas for their homes. Plovdiv merchants demonstrated their prosperity by constructing beautiful, richly ornamented houses. Unlike the small, asymmetrical and practical adobe houses from the beginning of the Revival Period, the designs of the buildings that were constructed later were more imaginative and dashing and their focus was on splendor and details. Walking the streets of Old Town is a joy for those of us who enjoy both history and craftsmanship.
Two other sights to visit include the ruins of the ancient fortress on Nebet Hill with panoramic views of the area’s seven hills, now six after one was excavated and used to rebuild the city. Here one can also see all along the river and across to the huge Soviet monument on another hill. There is some debate as to what to do with the monument
A second stop should be the small but beautifully frescoed St. Konstantin and Elena Orthodox Church (Constantine and Helena). The frescoes in the portico lead to the richly decorated interior with ornate iconostasis and enormous chandeliers.
There are many places to eat along the pedestrian street of Knyaz Alexander I, starting around Dzhumaya Mosque and the Roman Stadium. Food in Bulgaria has proven to be inexpensive and tasty. The soups and salads are delicious and local beer and wine quite good. After lunch, with renewed energy, we drive 14 miles southeast to the other must-see sight in the vicinity – Asenovgrad Castle.
Asenovgrad Castle, or Asen’s Fortress, is a medieval fortress in the Bulgarian Rhodope Mountains and one of the best-preserved castles in Bulgaria. Set on a high, rocky crag on the left bank of the Asenitsa River, the fortress dates back to the Thracians. (The Thracians were a group of Indo-European tribes inhabiting a large area in southeastern Europe. They spoke a branch of the Indo-European language family.) It is an awesome sight to behold as it perches high above the countryside, built to protect this critical pass from invaders.
The fortress rests 915 ft above sea level on a precarious perch that must have taken some serious schlepping of rock up steep trails to build. The earliest archaeological artifacts date from the time of the Thracians, the fortress being also inhabited during the Ancient Roman and Early Byzantine times. The fortress gained importance in the Middle Ages and was conquered by the armies of the Third Crusade.
It was renovated in 1231 during the rule of Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Asen II to be used as a border fortification against raids. The foundation walls were 9.5 ft thick and 10 to 39 ft high. A feudal castle of 30 rooms and three water repositories have been excavated from this period.
The best preserved part of Asen’s Fortress is the 12th-13th century Church of the Holy Mother of God. It is a two-storey cross-domed single-naved building with a large rectangular tower, and features some partially restored examples of mural paintings from the 14th century. Taken by the Byzantines after Ivan Asen II’s death, the fortress was once again in Bulgarian hands in 1344 only to be conquered and destroyed by the Ottomans in the 14th century. The whole fortress was left to decay and only the church remained standing in its original appearance and was restored in 1991.
The view of the mountains and pass is extraordinary. Surrounded by peaks draped in cloud, it is almost a mystical spot. I can imagine the hoards of invaders and inhabitants fighting for dominance of these important trade routes. The land passing back and forth among the victors be they Romans, Thracians, Ottomans or Bulgarians. They knew a good piece of land when they saw it.