FORTRESS ON THE EDGE

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Asenova Fortress embodies history of entire region

asenova fortress.jpg

Bulgaria's Route 86, that leads from Plovdiv to Smolyan in the heart of the Rhodope mountains, is a slow and winding drive through a maze of rising tops, dense forests, crumbling villages and depopulated towns. It is a route you take to escape from the urban noise into one of the quietest corners of Bulgaria.

It wasn't always so.

In Antiquity and the Middle Ages, what is now Route 86 was a part of a busy road that linked the Thracian Plain to the north with the Aegean to the south. Armies and merchants, settlers and invaders all used it for generations. The empires and local potentates who controlled the area were aware of its importance and when they had the money, the time and the incentive, they tried to secure it.

Asenova Fortress, by the northern end of the route, is arguably the most impressive remains of the efforts of rulers long gone to provide safety to both travellers and people in the area. Small, yet sturdy, it still commands a high promontory above the Chepelarska River and Route 86 with its traffic of weekend tourists.

The first fortification to appear here was a fort built by the ancient Thracians, in the middle of the 1st millennium BC. Under the Romans, the place fell silent, as there was no need of a fort so deep into the secure lands of the empire.

But in the 5th-6th centuries the empire – now divided into an eastern and a western part – began to weaken and to shrink under the unceasing waves of Barbarians. Having a fortress on the spot again became important. The new castle here was built in the 6th century as a part of Emperor Justinian I wider programme for reinforcing the old and building new fortifications in the Balkans. He aimed to reclaim the peninsula from the invading Slavs, Proto-Bulgarians and other newcomers who were eager to grab a slice of his realm.

Justinian ultimately failed, as a century later Bulgaria was established north of the Stara Planina. The new state was here to stay, and it soon started eyeing the lands of the Thracian Plain and beyond.

Asenova Fortress

The fortress church is the only part of the compound that remained in use after the Ottoman conquest and is more or less authentic

 

During the following few centuries, the fortress had several different occupants. It was called Petrich at the time, and in 1083 the Byzantine aristocrat Gregory Pakourianos gave it to the Bachkovski Monastery, which he founded the same year further upstream the Chepelarska River.

In 1083, there was no Bulgaria as it had been under Byzantine rule for two centuries. Two years later, a revolt broke out north of the Stara Planina mountains, led by the ambitious Asenevtsi Brothers, who reestablished Bulgaria as an independent political entity. In the 1200s, one of them, King Kaloyan, arrived at the gates of Petrich, and laid a 13-month siege to capture the fortress, which by that time was no longer Byzantine, but belonged to the knights of the Fourth Crusade.

King Kaloyan failed, but the region and the fortress nevertheless became part of Bulgaria. In 1231, the king's nephew, King Ivan Asen II, rebuilt the Petrich fortress, and commemorated this with an inscription hewn in the rock.

The next time the Petrich Fortress caught the attention of history was at the beginning of the 15th century. The young Ottoman Empire had already taken over Bulgaria, but an internal struggle between the three princes fighting for the Ottoman throne was at its height. Petrich became the battlefield between two of them – Musa had taken refuge there, while his brother Süleyman was besieging it. The latter won, and ordered the fortress destroyed. So it was done.

The only building to survive the devastation was the Holy Mother of Christ Church, a beautiful brick-and-mortar confection in the Byzantine style from the 12th-14th centuries. It remained almost unchanged and was used by the locals until the 20th century, when it was reconstructed. Today the church is the best preserved building in the fortress. The rest is by large a maze of foundations outlining where the former fortifications and houses used to stand.

The inscription of King Ivan Asen survived the Ottoman destruction. In 1883, however, the mayor of nearby town of Stanimaka today's Asenovgrad ordered that it be erased from the rock surface. The region was still under Ottoman control and Stanimaka and the area around it had a significant Greek population. For these people, the existence of an inscription where Bulgarian King Ivan Asen calls himself "a king of Bulgarians and Greeks" was a threat – and an encouragement for the Bulgarians in the region.

Stanimaka became part of Bulgaria in 1885, with the unification of the Principality of Bulgaria and the Ottoman province of Eastern Rumelia. Greek emigration started, voluntary and forcible, with its last big wave in the wake of the Great War.

The inscription of King Ivan Asen was hewn again, next to the place where it had originally been, and the fortress was renamed Asenova Fortress. Stanimaka became Asenovgrad.

Sadly, the recent enthusiasm for making archaeological sites more "appealing" for mass tourism has taken its toll in Asenova Fortress. Replicas of mediaeval siege engines are scattered around, and an interactive billboard advertising the fortress obscures much of the real thing.

  • COMMENTING RULES

    Commenting on www.vagabond.bg

    Vagabond Media Ltd requires you to submit a valid email to comment on www.vagabond.bg to secure that you are not a bot or a spammer. Learn more on how the company manages your personal information on our Privacy Policy. By filling the comment form you declare that you will not use www.vagabond.bg for the purpose of violating the laws of the Republic of Bulgaria. When commenting on www.vagabond.bg please observe some simple rules. You must avoid sexually explicit language and racist, vulgar, religiously intolerant or obscene comments aiming to insult Vagabond Media Ltd, other companies, countries, nationalities, confessions or authors of postings and/or other comments. Do not post spam. Write in English. Unsolicited commercial messages, obscene postings and personal attacks will be removed without notice. The comments will be moderated and may take some time to appear on www.vagabond.bg.

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.

Discover More

IS RACISM IN BULGARIA ON THE RISE?
"We are fascists, we burn Arabs": the youngsters start chanting as soon as they emerge from the metro station and leave the perimeter of its security cameras.

HOW WOODROW WILSON AND CHARLES DARWIN CAME TO SOFIA
The names of foreigners, mainly Russians, are common across the map of Sofia – from Alexandr Dondukov and Count Ignatieff to Alexey Tolstoy (a Communist-era Soviet writer not to be confused with Leo Tolstoy) who has a whole housing estate named after him.

EMBRACE THE PAST
Picturesque old houses lining a narrow river and tiny shops selling hand-made sweets, knives and fabrics: The Etara open air museum recreates a charming, idealised version of mid-19th century Bulgaria.

JESUS CHRIST ASTRONAUT
Christ was an alien. Or if He was not, then four centuries ago there were UFOs hovering over what is now southwestern Bulgaria.

OF SHPAGINS, TANKS AND ALYOSHAS
Unlike other countries in Central and Eastern Europe, which removed, stashed away or demolished most remnants of their Communist past as early as the 1990s, Bulgaria is a curiosity.

VARVARA'S IRON TREE
Agroup of friends meet each summer at the seaside, a small community who know one another so well that boredom becomes inevitable, and so do internal conflicts. And death.

TAILLESS CATS AND MADMEN MAKING POLITICAL DEMANDS
Descendants of millennia-old rites, the scary kukeri, or mummers, are the best known face of Bulgarian carnival tradition. Gabrovo's carnival is its modern face: fun, critical, and colourful.

LET'S PICK SOME ROSES
Both high-end perfumes and more run-of-the-mill cosmetics would be impossible without a humble plant that thrives in a couple of pockets around the world, the oil-bearing rose. Bulgaria is one of these places.

FROM BLACK ROCK DESERT, NV, TO NOVO SELO, BG
Organisers of the notorious Burning Man festival seem to have heeded the lessons of 2023 when festival-goers, paying uprwards of $500 for a ticket, had to wade, owing to torrential rains and flashfloods, through tons of mud in the northern Nevada desert.

AMAZING PLANTS & ANIMALS OF BULGARIA
In Bulgaria, nature has created a number of little wonders. They might not be spectacular or grandiose, but they constitute a vital part of the local wildlife, create a feeling of uniqueness and are sometimes the sole survivors of bygone geological epochs.

THE MANY FACES OF PALIKARI ROCKS
Next time you visit Sozopol, pay more attention not to the quaint houses in the Old Town, the beaches around or the quality of food and service in the restaurants. Instead, take a stroll by the sea and take in... the rocks. 

MOSQUE OF LEGENDS
Bulgaria's Ottoman heritage is the most neglected part of the rich past of this nation. This is a result of the trauma of five centuries spent under Ottoman domination additionally fanned up under Communism and up until this day.