Have YOU ever heard of Veliko Tarnovo?

It goes without saying that exploration facilitates my discovery of new places and cultures. Sometimes, however, I also discover entire historical epochs that I had no idea existed until I have the great fortune of stumbling upon their physical remains in some foreign city.

Case in point: I just recently became aware of the Second Bulgarian Empire. Second Bulgarian Empire, you say? Huh?  And what about the First? Or Third?  Yes, they existed too.  I don’t know about you, but I had never even heard of any of them, much less recognized their significance in Central European history.

My visit to Bulgaria included a stop in Veliko Tarnovo, a charming city in the northern part of the country which sprawls out over three large hills (called “Trapeztisa,” “Tsarevets,” and “Sveta Gora”) and straddles the Yantra River. It is most famous today for the massive fortifications and ancient buildings on the Tsaravets hill that are leftover from – yes, the Second Bulgarian Empire. In reading about them, I discovered that they are often compared with fortresses in Rome and Constantinople – heady company for a population center and an empire I’d never heard about.

I’m not sure I have ever been so impressed by Medieval ruins as I was upon visiting Tsaravets hill. While I may have seen bigger or better preserved complexes of walls, fortresses, and towers before, I was prepared for those. Because I knew nothing about this city before arriving at it, I was dumbstruck.

For starters, the location of the fortress is textbook. It doesn’t so much “sit on” the Tsaravets hill; it essentially IS the hill.  There are views of the surrounding rolling forested terrain in all directions, and the slopes down to the river are extremely steep. During its heyday, there were only three access points to the complex, all of them gated and one featuring a drawbridge. To say that this place is “protected” is an understatement. If you took a spear in the side while attacking this fortress, you would fall a long way to the rocky river that nearly surrounds the hill. Knowing that, the Medieval residents created an “execution rock” which merely required a gentle push to achieve its aims.

In addition to its noteworthy location, the sheer scale of the fortress is amazing. The defensive walls that ran for 2.8 miles were up to thirty feet thick and forty feet tall. Within them, archaeologists have discovered the remains of over 400 buildings ranging from palaces to cooking and storage facilities. Of that construction, little remains intact. The entire city was sacked by the Ottomans in the 13th century, and only small parts of it have been restored. As a result, visitors to the site today need to use some imagination to reconstruct the scenes of bustling urban life.

It didn’t take much for me to call up visions of armored knights patrolling the fortress walls or to picture watchmen using all of the complex’s incredible viewpoints to keep an eye on the dominion below and the hinterlands on the horizon.

What was harder for me was digesting the fact that Bulgaria was a significant Medieval power, as evidenced by the city before me.

How had I missed this?

The Second Bulgarian Empire began when two brothers, Asan and Peter, led a successful revolt against the Byzantines in 1185. Under them, and then under their younger brother Kaloyan, and his nephew, Ivan Asan, Bulgaria became the dominant power in the Balkans. They laid claim to all of the land between the Adriatic Sea on the west side of the peninsula and the Black Sea on the east side, and from what is now Hungary in the north to the Aegean Sea in the south.

Veliko Tarnovo was the city at the heart of this substantial kingdom. It was an agriculturally fertile area, where wheat, honey, livestock, and wine were produced. Mining provided the raw materials for a thriving metals industry that included the minting of coins. Trade flourished, and foreign merchants abounded in this cosmopolitan city that included large numbers of Armenians, Jews, and Franks (Western European Catholics).

For a time, the Second Bulgarian Empire also became the spiritual center of Eastern Orthodox culture. Constantinople, the former capital of the Byzantine Empire, had just been sacked by Western European Crusaders in the 13th century, driving Eastern Orthodoxy underground – or out-of-town, in this case. It found a home in Veliko Tarnovo, where religious thinking, writing, art, and architecture flourished with support from the state. Frescoes from the Tarnovo Artistic School are still celebrated today, and texts from the Tarnovo Literary School influenced Russian thinkers.

All of this cosmopolitan civilization came to a halt in the late 13th century with the coming of the Ottomans, who ruled the area until 1876, imposing their own set of cultural mores.

From the looks of it, however, the spirit of the Second Bulgarian Empire is back. The church at the top of Tsaravets Hill has spectacular Siquieros-style modern murals depicting historic scenes. Modern Veliko Tarnovo boasts two universities, a blossoming art scene, and a healthy tourist economy. And, it’s the city with the largest expatriate community in Bulgaria, just like it was in the good old days of the 13th century. It’s fascinating to me how history can spiral back on itself in that way – as if there is something in the landscape of a place that fosters its soul, or a residue in the soil that ensures a certain cultural character.

Of course, you have to know the lineage of a location to see its spirit shine through.  At least I now have a bit of historical context that allows me to begin to appreciate Veliko Tarnovo.

It does, however, make me wonder how many other empires exist out there that I know nothing about.

I’d better keep traveling in order to find out.

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