In the 2010s, Bulgaria witnesses something it stopped seeing in the Middle Ages. Here and there, in and around cities and villages, fortresses are rising, built from scratch. High walls adorn the Trapezitsa Hill in Veliko Tarnovo, and the previously unheard-of village of Belchin near Samokov, has got its own fortress with walls and turrets, with an entire "medieval" church thrown in as a bonus.
The reason behind the hectic fort-building is not a foreign invasion or fear of advancing refugees. It is a programme of the Culture Ministry, funded with EU money through the Regional Development Operational Programme. Its official name is Support for Monuments of Culture With National and World Significance, Contributing for the Stable Development of Tourism. Since 2011, it has poured about 170 million leva into the projects of 46 municipalities all over Bulgaria.
Bulgaria's rich historical heritage has been in dire need of some investment for ages. Poor tourist infrastructure and an endemic lack of signage have devalued the experience of discovering the sites of Bulgaria's history for far too long.
There is also the problem of the ruins themselves. Over the centuries, Bulgaria was dotted with rich cities and mighty fortresses, ornate churches and temples, bustling with life. Wars, destruction, treasure-hunting, later buildings and the habit of later generations to reuse stones and bricks from older constructions have led to the disappearance of much of this. The ruins of bygone centuries are now mostly of interest to historians, as scientific importance does not always equate with visual attractiveness.
Many ruins were conserved during Communism, but economic hardship in the late 1980s-early 2000s put an end to this. Lack of proper care from the state has also contributed to the poor condition of many historical sites and there are places, particularly excavated and abandoned Thracian burial mounds, where conservation is crucial for the survival of the sites.
For the ordinary tourist, however, this is of little interest. When you visit a place, you want to see something more than the remains of few low but carefully preserved walls. You want to have your picture taken against the backdrop of a high fort, or a strategic tower or an ancient amphitheatre. You want, too, something to help you re-imagine the glorious past of the place. So, in Bulgaria, building of "new" ruins is seen as the main way to "translate" a historical site for the ordinary visitor.
Bulgaria is not the only country trying to solve the conflict between preserving the authenticity and scientific value of a historical site on the one hand, and making it more alluring to a broader audience by rebuilding old walls, towers and palaces, on the other.
In 1964, the International Congress of Architects and Technicians of Historic Monuments in Venice tried to solve what in essence is a philosophical question. The result was the Venice Charter, which stipulates the basic principles and rules of restoration of historical remains. According to it, the authenticity of a monument is paramount. All reconstruction should be clearly labeled, and has to be done with materials as close to the original as possible, and designed after the original appearance of the monument. These principles were reaffirmed in 1994, in the Nara Document of UNSECO's World Heritage Committee.
Sozopol before it got its new "ruin"
Bulgaria has for long had issues following these principles. In the case of its monuments visual, written or oral evidence of how this particular church or that particular fortress looked a millennium ago is typically scarce or non-existent. Architects and restorers have to rely on artefacts found in situ and on deduction – or imagination. If you have two buildings from the same period and one of them is better preserved, its design is applied to the reconstruction of the building in the worse condition. There is some logic to this. Probably the first example of its application is the so-called Baldwin Tower on Tsarevets Hill, the heart of medieval Tarnovo. Only the foundations of the tower were originally preserved, but in the 1930s it was rebuilt after the design of the better preserved Cherven fortress, near Ruse.
More reconstruction and rebuilding followed in the late 1970s and the 1980s, when Bulgaria celebrated with great pomp and circumstance the 1,300 anniversary of its founding. Tsarevets Hill got "proper ruins," with fortress walls and towers, and a whole cathedral was built from scratch. Its interior was painted with expressionist murals glorifying... Communism. So much for authenticity.
In the same period, buildings rose in the old capitals of Pliska and Preslav, too. The economic difficulties in the sunset years of Communism, its collapse and the first decades of transition towards democracy terminated further reconstruction. There was hardly any money for archaeological research.
Yet, some work was done. In 1993, for the 1,100th anniversary of the proclamation of Preslav as the capital of Bulgaria, the once glorious Golden Basilica was reconstructed. In the mid-2000s, the ancient wall of Sozopol was heavily "reconstructed," too.
Sozopol with its new "ruins"
The 2011 EU-funded programme, however, elevated this to a whole new level.
In fact, a lot of important remedial work was funded by it. Many sites, like the Roman city of Nicopolis ad Istrum and the Villa Armira near Ivaylovgrad received proper tourist infrastructure and much needed conservation. The crumbling Ottoman Cross-Shaped Barracks in Vidin were renovated and conserved. It is not longer that dangerous to walk around the precipitous Asenova Fortress, near Asenovgrad, and the replica of a Roman ship and a wooden tower, along with provision for experimental archaeology at Sexaginta Prista, the Roman fortress near Ruse, make the site more interesting.
The list of positive changes include obligatory excavations before the actual reconstruction, the creation of exhibition spaces in situ and of internet pages, and the organisation of historical re-enactments – from battles to religious rituals to events of everyday life. All these have brought history closer to the public without changing the face of the historical monuments.
Some of the improvements instituted under the EU-funded programme, however, are at least dubious. The crude wooden parapet of the new path leading to the late-Antiquity Red Basilica near Perushtitsa, for example, is by any standard an eyesore.
Most controversial are the projects where new buildings rise on the foundations of older ones, as already completed projects demonstrate. Some examples are the late-Roman fortress near the village of Belchin and the medieval Krakra Fortress in Pernik.
Many archaeologists and the general public agree that the reconstruction of the fortress and church near Belchin was a success. In 2013, the project even won the Building of the Year Award for conservation and restoration of cultural and historical heritage – together with the Small Basilica museum in Plovdiv.
However, the use of concrete in the reconstruction at Belchin has nothing to do with the methods used 1,500 years ago. The complete rebuilding of a whole church is also questionable.
The reconstruction of the Krakra Fortress in Pernik attracted more outrage. Perched on a plateau, the fortress was a place of fierce Bulgarian opposition against the Byzantines at the end of the 10th Century. Like everywhere else, some walls and other structures were preserved, but for decades the ruins were seen more as a nice place for a stroll rather than an awe-inspiring piece of history. The municipality began wondering how to change this and in 2013 they unveiled the results of their labours.
On the stone walls of the fortress now rises a construction of steel and plastic. In the daytime it represents how the fortification looked and by night, the "artistically illuminated" plastic panels look like shields. Or at least that was the idea. The result is pure kitsch. People compared the new Krakra Fortress to the remains of some cheap movie prop and dubbed it Pernikland.
The mayor of Pernik, Rositsa Yanakieva, defended the project and said that the municipality never meant to achieve a faithful reconstruction, but rather create a "tourist attraction." The project was also given the green light by the National Institute for Cultural Heritage, the state watchdog that sanctions all activity on historical sites.
The "reconstructed" fortress in Sozopol received a lot more criticism. In 2012, the Bulgarian committee of ICOMOS, or the International Council on Monuments and Sites, included the "new" walls in Sozopol in its list of cultural heritage in danger. The complete overbuilding of the wall has destroyed its authenticity and reinforcement works have damaged the sea coast. All of this (and much more) has been in breach with the Venice Charter, the Nara Document and the International Charter for Cultural Tourism.
Significantly, the projects to restore and provide safe access to sites of cultural heritage which have been almost unanimously praised were done not with state-controlled EU money but with independent foreign funding.
In 2012, the ancient stadium of Plovdiv was reconstructed with Norwegian funding and in 2013, the mosaics of the Small Basilica in Plovdiv were restored and exhibited with the financial help of the America for Bulgaria Foundation. Both projects combine the preserved remains of the original ancient structure with modernistic architecture and materials – to much more pleasing effect than the fake walls of the new Bulgarian fortresses.
Some EU-backed restoration projects
- An Ottoman and a Roman fortress in Belogradchik
- Storgozia ancient fortress in Pleven
- Ancient city of Novae, near Svishtov
- Hotalich fortress, near Sevlievo
- Transmariska ancient fortress, near Tutrakan
- Abritus archaeological reserve, Razgrad
- Veliki Preslav archaeological reserve
- Yaylata archaeological reserve
- Late-Antiquity and medieval fortress Dionisopolis, in Balchik
- St Atanas Cape fortress
- Ancient city of Deultum, near Burgas
- Late-Antiquity and medieval fortress Tuida, near Sliven
- Roman villa Armira, near Ivaylovgrad
- Momchil's Fortress, near Kardzhali
- The ancient city of Hissar
- Peristera fortress, near Peshtera
- Late-Roman fortress at Trayanovi Vrata Pass, near Ihtiman
- Nicopolis ad Nestum Roman city, near Gotse Delchev
- Late-Roman fortress near Belchin, near Samokov
- Krakra fortress, in Pernik