Travel northeast to discover medieval beginnings
If power and the economy were gravity, the gravitational centre of modern Bulgaria would be Sofia, where the population and the important agencies of the state, economy and culture are located. If we go back to the Middle Ages, when Bulgaria was still young, the country's centre of gravity would be elsewhere – in the northeast, close to the city of Shumen. There, the remains of Bulgaria's first capitals, Pliska and Preslav, still survive – next to an astonishing piece of medieval art, the Madara Horseman.
Bulgaria was born in the late 7th century when the proto-Bulgarians, led by Khan Asparuh, crossed the Danube on their quest southwards. After a decisive battle with the Byzantines, he created a loose union with the Slavs and the Thracians who inhabited what is now the northeast of Bulgaria. This region was perfect for the new nation. It was fertile, pleasantly flat for the horse-riding Bulgars and protected by the Stara Planina mountain range.
As the centuries went by, Bulgaria's fate oscillated between territorial gains under talented rulers, and defeat and stagnation caused by cunning Byzantine politics, coupled with never-ceasing internal strifes among the early Bulgarian noblemen. Monumental events came and went, changing history forever. Christianity was adopted in the 860s and the disciples of Cyril and Methodius, the creators of the Slavic alphabet, arrived soon thereafter.
The remains of the Great Basilica in Pliska were heavily restored under Communism. In the 2010s there were plans for "restoring" them even further in a bid to boost patriotism. The Great Basilica was the biggest church in early medieval Bulgaria, which adopted Christianity in the 860s
In the early 11th century, Bulgaria fell to the Byzantines. For most of its existence, the northwest had remained the seat of rulers.
Pliska was the first capital of the young Bulgarian nation. Founded by Khan Asparuh, it covered an area of about 6,000 acres. Protected by a rampart and a moat, it had an outer and an inner city, and a citadel. The size of the site indicates the need of the early Bulgarians, who were nomads, for enough space for their horses and their tents. The khan and his family lived in a wooden palace. After it was burned in 811 during a vicious siege by the Byzantine Emperor Nikephoros, Khan Krum built a grand palace of stone.
A wax figure of Khan Krum represents the ruler in his most notorious moment, when he turned the skull of Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus, whose head he had cut off, into a wine chalice. Nicephorus invaded Pliska, in 811, and slaughtered its people. Krum's revenge was brutal. The Byzantine emperor was eventually defeated, killed and turned into table ware. The wax figure is showcased in a private museum in Pliska
In 863, Pliska found itself at the centre of a historical event that still defines modern Bulgarians. Prince Boris adopted Christianity, forcing all of his people to follow suit. A grand basilica, thought to be the largest in the Balkans at that time, was built and soon the students of Cyril and Methodius were warmly welcomed in Pliska. The capital became the centre of the new Bulgarian clerical culture.
There was, however, a backlash. Boris's successor went back to paganism, which forced the retired prince to leave his monastery and summon a council. Held in 893, the council took some important decisions. The erring prince was deposed and his young brother, the Byzantine-educated Simeon, took the throne. Bulgarian replaced Greek in the liturgy and Bulgarian priests, instead of Greeks, were from now on to serve in local churches. Pliska would be the capital no more. With a view to breaking with the pagan past, a new city was chosen for this role, nearby Preslav.
The heavily reconstructed ruins of the Golden Church at Preslav. When it was in use, in the 10th century, it was exquisitely adorned and was used by the king and his retinue
Preslav was a beautiful city, as contemporary chronicles and the remains on site show, but it was significantly smaller than Pliska. Understandably so – the Bulgarians had settled down and now needed less space. The ambitious King Simeon waged a number of successful military campaigns, enlarging Bulgaria all the way from the Black Sea to the Adriatic and the Aegean, and spent lavishly on his capital. Exquisite churches were built and monasteries proliferated. However, Simeon's wars and his Golden Age exhausted Bulgaria's finances. After a long period of decline, Preslav was sacked twice, by the Russians in 970 and the Byzantines in 971. A time of conflict began. It lasted for decades, ending in 1018.
Pliska and Preslav survived the destruction of Bulgaria's independence, and remained lively urban centres until the 12th-13th centuries. They, however, never reclaimed their glory. Gradually, they were abandoned, then forgotten. In the 1860s, their ruins were plundered for materials to construct the Ruse-Varna railway line. It was only in the early 20th century that researchers identified them as the locations where the first Bulgarian capitals used to be.
Reconstructed section of Preslav's fortification walls
Today, both sites are on the tourist map. Bulgarian school kids are taken on obligatory bus tours to see them, and there is even in inchoate tourist industry. Importantly, in both cities, the remaining ruins are hardly a representation of the glory of the past. For the sake of making them more interesting and "inspiring" to modern tourists, reconstructions were built in the final years of Communism, when the fortifications and the Grand Basilica and the fortress of Pliska and the Golden Church of Preslav were built from scratch. Bulgaria's restoration squads do not take any hostages.
In the 2000s, with its nationalism and the craze for constructing new ruins, things got worse. The concrete walls of the reconstructed Golden Church were painted yellow and King Simeon the Great was honoured with a black marble plaque that looks just like the tombstone of a latterday mafia boss. A "miraculous" spring was found beside Pliska's Grand Basilica. The government, spurned by some historians, wanted to "reconstruct" the church although no one had an idea what it had looked like in the first place.
Still, a trip to the first Bulgarian capitals is a rewarding experience. This part of Bulgaria is beautiful in a subtle way, a mosaic of lush plains, meandering rivers, hills and rocky plateaus. Spread over the plains, Pliska will awe you with its sheer size, when you realise that you are driving, and driving, and still driving through the outer parts of a mediaeval city. Preslav's charm is different: tucked amid lush hills, it is the perfect combination of a green park and an archaeological site.
The Madara Horseman depicts an idealised pagan Bulgarian ruler
Then, there is the Madara Horseman. Considered to be the biggest medieval relief in Europe, the horseman still chases a lion, followed by his dog, on the rocks of the Madara Plateau. The relief has bene heavily weathered, but is still mesmerising. When and why exactly the rider was created is a matter of debate, but the most common explanation is that it is a representation of Khan Tervel, the son of Khan Asparuh. Around the horse, several inscriptions retell the deeds of khans Tervel, Krum and Omurtag, some of the men who laid the foundations of Bulgaria.