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.
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.
Vibrant Communities: Spotlight on Bulgaria's Living Heritage 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.