Bulgaria was born, according to the most commonly accepted theory, in 681 when, after a humiliating defeat, the Byzantine emperor Constantine IV signed a peace treaty with Khan Asparuh, the man who had led the proto-Bulgarians south of the Danube.
What happened next is still a keenly debated part of early Bulgarian history, but one thing is certain: the first centuries of Bulgaria's existence were turbulent.
Wars were waged against the Byzantines, lands were conquered and lost, and the alliance forged with the Slavs and the surviving Thracians gave birth to the Bulgarian nation. There were coups, and there was the construction of temples, fortifications, palaces and churches. There were battles at the gates of Constantinople with the Byzantines and Arabs. Khan Tervel helped the deposed Byzantine emperor Justinian II to reclaim his throne, while Khan Krum severed the head of Byzantine Emperor Nikephoros I and used it as a wine cup. Paganism flourished and then was forsaken, replaced by Christianity. There was a Golden Age of culture, followed by long decline that ended with Byzantium subjugating Bulgaria in 1018.
The region that witnessed most of these crucial events is now in Bulgaria's northeast. The first capitals of Bulgaria, Pliska and Preslav, are easily reached from the nearest city, Shumen. The region is also the home of one of the most formidable creations of young Bulgaria, the Madara Rider hewn in the rock of a high plateau.
Pliska appeared first. Founded by Khan Asparuh shortly after that peace treaty, it covers an area of 5,683 acres. Protected by a rampart and a moat, it had an outer and an inner city, and a citadel. The size of the place indicates the need of the early Bulgarians, who were nomads, for enough space for their horses and their portable tents. The khan and his family lived in a wooden palace. After it was burned in 811 during the sage of Pliska by Emperor Nikephoros, Khan Krum built a grand stone palace.
In 863, Pliska found itself at the centre of an 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, the creators of the first Slavic alphabet, were warmly welcomed in Pliska. The capital became the centre of the new Bulgarian 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, in Pliska, 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 Greek ones, 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.
Reconstructed gate in Preslav's fortification
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 have settled down and now needed less space. The ambitious Simeon waged a number of successful military campaigns, enlarging Bulgaria to borders that are now the dream of modern nationalists, and spent lavishly on his capital. Exquisite churches were built and monasteries proliferated, providing homes for men of letters and the arts. Simeon's wars and the Golden Age, however, 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 conflict had begun that lasted for decades and ended in 1018.
Pliska and Preslav survived the destruction, and remained lively urban centres until the 12th-13h centuries, yet they never reclaimed their glory, and after they were finally abandoned, they were 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 first Bulgarian capitals. Today, both sites are on the tourist map – and here comes the problem.
In both cities, the remaining buildings 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 of Pliska and the and the fortress and the Golden Church of Preslav were reconstructed.
In the 2000s, with its raging 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 marble plaque that looks just like the tombstone of a mafia boss. A "miraculous" spring was found beside Pliska's Grand Basilica and the complete reconstruction of the church is now underway, although no one has any 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 that make you understand why Asparukh's people decided to settle here, 1,300 years ago. 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.
Then, there is the Madara Horseman. Considered to be the biggest mediaeval relief in Europe, he still chases a lion, followed by his dog, on the rocks of the Madara Plateau. He is worn thin by time, 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. Around the horse, several inscriptions retell the deeds of khans Tervel, Krum and Omurtag, some of the men who laid the foundations of Bulgaria.
A column remaining from the Throne Hall at Preslav
Time and use of ruins as cheap construction material have taken their toll on the remains of the once glorious and rich Pliska and Preslav
The Madara Horseman probably represents one of the early Bulgarian rulers. It is an UNESCO World Heritage Site
The so-called Big Cave near the Madara Horseman was inhabited since prehistoric times and in Antiquity was a sanctuary to the Nymphs
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.