Straight streets intersecting at right angles: Stara Zagora, a southern Bulgarian city of 150,000, is the only one of its type in Bulgaria.
It is the result of a tragedy and a necessity. In the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War, Stara Zagora was razed to the ground after a vicious battle. Rebuilding began in 1878 according to a plan by an Austro-Hungarian architect.
But no one was aware then that beneath the debris of houses, churches and mosques lay the remains of an ancient city with meticulous straight-street planning.
It was the Roman city of Augusta Traiana.
Situated on a fertile plain close to mineral springs and major roads, the region around today's Stara Zagora has been a coveted place for settlement since Neolithic times, and a well-preserved two-story house from this period, with all its crockery, is now exhibited in situ in the yard of Stara Zagora's hospital. In the Chalcolithic age there was a copper mine nearby, and in the 1st Millennium BC the area was inhabited by Thracians.
It was only natural that the Romans would appreciate the place. In 106, Emperor Trajan (98-117) founded a self-governing city and named it after himself: Augusta Traiana. A period of prosperity began. In the decades which followed, mainly under Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180), Augusta Traiana turned into an exemplary Roman city, with paved streets and an agora, water supply and sewage systems, richly decorated temples and mansions. It was granted the right to mint its own coins. The local economy included pottery production, metal and glass processing, and fine arts.
Around the city spread out the villas of the rich, one of which is now under the waters of the Chatalka Dam, complemented by sanctuaries to the Thracian God Rider, Apollo, Zeus and other deities. A fortification wall with towers and gates was built to protect Augusta Traiana from the Barbarians, whose raids became regular after the invasion of the Goths in 251.
As Roman Antiquity waned and became the Middle Ages, Augusta Traiana changed its name to Beroe. This took place in the fateful times when Christianity took over as official religion. Beroe became a bishopric and the bishop lived in a spacious palace. The city had also a martyrion, or a shrine to some local martyr of the faith.
The period was one of prosperity but also of danger, as Beroe was regularly on the path of Barbarian peoples such as the Huns, the Avars, the Slavs and the proto-Bulgarians. It experienced its greatest devastation under the Huns of Attila in the mid-5th century.
Yet Beroe was spared the fate of so many other Roman cities abandoned in the late 6th century, as it developed into a mediaeval city and remained inhabited until modern times.
In the 20th century new construction and regular excavations started to gradually bring to light its ancient life – public and private buildings, necropoli and shrines, streets and fortifications. This continues today, and Stara Zagora's archaeologists are regularly in the news with fresh discoveries.
Arguably the best example of Stara Zagora's rich past is the Old Mosque, the only building which survived the devastating fire of 1878. In the 10th and 9th centuries BC a Thracian shrine stood on this spot. In the Roman era, a sanctuary of the Thracian God Rider is believed to have existed, and in the 10th and 13th centuries the land was taken over by a Christian cemetery and a church. In the 15th century the Ottomans built a mosque, which is now the Museum of Religions.
The legacy of Augusta Traiana is now largely kept in the History Museum of Stara Zagora, one of Bulgaria's finest and richest. A Roman street is exhibited in situ in the basement, along with statues and reliefs, a replica of a Roman chariot, and some of the most beautiful Roman mosaics you are likely to see in the country. Be sure not to miss the one depicting a procession of Dionysus.
More of Augusta Traiana's incredibly detailed and well-preserved mosaics can be seen in the Central Post Office, and at the remains of a late Roman mansion on 117 General Stoletov Blvd, which you can visit if you call in advance to the museum.
The so-called forum of the Roman city was discovered during the construction of the local palace of justice, and includes the western gate of Augusta Traiana, parts of fortification walls, an open semi-amphitheatrical space, parts of the main street running from east to west and of the public baths. The area is open to visit, but during the reconstruction the use of concrete and reinforced steel has taken away some of its ancient charm. If you happen to be in Stara Zagora in the theatre season, don't miss the regular opera and theatre shows there – the city has one of the best theatre troupes and opera companies in Bulgaria. Ticket prices are nowhere near as expensive as those in the West.
The village of Starozagorski Mineralni Bani is a spa resort with thermal mineral springs. The Romans of course used these and, though not in perfect condition, part of the public baths survives and is worth a visit.
The remains of what is interpreted as Augusta Traiana's forum
High Beam is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.