BULGARIA'S OLD CAPITALS THEN & NOW

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Think Sofia says it all? Think again

sofia_0.jpg

You know Sofia is now the capital of Bulgaria, but what about the past? Indeed, Bulgaria's history is rich, glorious and traumatic enough to have produced about a dozen capital cities.

From the founding of Bulgaria at the end of the 7th Century until its fall under the Ottomans at the end of the 14th Century, with two centuries of Byzantine rule in between, the Bulgarian rulers put a lot of effort into creating capital cities to match their political ambitions. That meant rivalling the splendour and the economic as well as political importance of Constantinople, the capital of Bulgaria's arch-enemy, Byzantium.

In periods of prosperity and political stability for Bulgaria, a city would remain a capital for generations, growing in size and accumulating wealth and people. The best examples are Pliska and Tarnovo, both of whom were capitals for more than 200 years. But when Bulgaria was crumbling and threatened with invasion, the king would pack up his men and leave, settling his court in less refined but more secure places where he would try to regroup.

Between 970 and 1018, when the Bulgaria of (mostly) King Samuil fought for its life with the Byzantium of Emperors John I Tzimiskes and Basil II, the Bulgarians changed capitals several times. The exact number of capital cities in this period is still disputed by historians.

The place where the very first Bulgarian capital was is also debatable. When the horse-riding Proto-Bulgarians, led by Khan Asparuh, came to the Balkans they settled at a place called The Onglos. Byzantine historians and archaeological research do not agree on where The Onglos was exactly, but today it is widely believed that it was somewhere in the vast Danube delta, with its ever-changing canals, waterways and islets. There, in 680, the Bulgarians defeated the Byzantines and the peace treaty signed in 681 is the official beginning of the Bulgarian state. The people of Asparuh then crossed the Danube, settled in what is now north-east Bulgaria and made an alliance with the Slavs – other newcomers who had arrived a century earlier. In the centuries to follow, their state was to become a political fixture in the region.

Following is a list of the most important capital cities of Bulgaria before Sofia, in chronological order.

 

PLISKA

When: 681–893
Where: Northeastern Bulgaria
 

Partially restored remains of the Big Basilica of Pliska. When it was built in 875, it was among the grandest in the BalkansPartially restored remains of the Big Basilica of Pliska. When it was built in 875, it was among the grandest in the Balkans

Then: Asparuh achieved his uneasy peace with the Byzantines whereupon he chose the open plain as the best place for his capital, Pliska. The city spread over an area of 6,000 acres and saw 20 rulers in its 212 years as a capital. It was defended by several fortification walls, providing shelter for the ordinary inhabitants, the nobles and the ruler's inner circle, who lived in a spacious palace with central heating and baths. The capital suffered great damage in 811, when the army of the Byzantine Emperor Nicephoros I pillaged it and massacred the inhabitants, but the city was soon restored.
 

Now: Throughout the centuries, much of the ruins of medieval Pliska were lost as local people salvaged materials to build homes, and British engineers used them for the construction of the Ruse-Varna railway in the 1860s. Pliska was discovered at the end the 19th Century. Its remains, however, were deemed too uninteresting for modern tourists and in the 1970s–1980s parts of the fortifications and the Grand Basilica were rebuilt with questionable accuracy and results.

 

PRESLAV

When: 893–971
Where: Northeastern Bulgaria


A column remaining from the Throne Hall at Preslav
A column remaining from the Throne Hall at Preslav

Then: Preslav, at the foot of the Stara Planina, was chosen as a capital in dramatic circumstances. After proclaiming Bulgaria a Christian state (864), Prince Boris I withdrew from society, leaving the power to his eldest son, Vladimir, in 889. Vladimir decided to bring back paganism. Enraged, Boris left his monastery, dethroned the apostate and installed in his place another son, Byzantine-educated Simeon. In a symbolic breach with the pagan past, the capital was moved to Preslav, where the ambitious Simeon turned it into a gem of a city. Soon, however, the Byzantines started to prevail in the century-long cat-and-mouse game with the Bulgarians. Preslav was sacked by the Russians and the Byzantines in 970–971 and the north-east was lost. The centre of struggling Bulgaria moved westwards.
 

Now: Preslav's ruins became a museum ground in 1906 and have since produced a wealth of artefacts, including an impressive ceramic icon of St Theodore Stratilatos and a gold treasure of about 170 objects. As with Pliska, lack of spectacular ruins led to dubious reconstructions and in recent years a mutra-esque polished black marble plaque of King Simeon appeared beside the yellow-painted concrete walls of the once marvellous Golden Church.

 

SKOPJE

 

When: 971–991
Where: Former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia

The medieval fortress of Skopje before restoration

The medieval fortress of Skopje before restoration

Then: In the early 970s, the eastern parts of Bulgaria were already under Byzantine rule. Western Bulgaria, however, was still alive and kicking – and nurturing resistance, which was led by an aristocrat, Samuil. He chose Skopje to be the capital of the weak King Roman. The city was protected by its fortress and the mountains, but times were hard. In 992, the Byzantines captured King Roman and as he had no heir, Samuil proclaimed himself king and again moved the capital.
 

Now: In 1944, Skopje became the capital of the Yugoslav Socialist Republic of Macedonia and has been the capital of the independent state since 1991. In recent years the humble remains of the medieval fortress (Macedonians think of King Samuil as a Macedonian king) were heavily rebuilt, although they are surpassed by the over-the-top monuments and neo-Baroque buildings in the centre of the city, dubbed Skopjeland.

 

PRESPA, OHRID, BITOLA

When: 991–1018
Where: Greece, former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia and Albania

The St John Kaneo church overlooking Lake Ohrid was build in the 13th Century

Ohrid


Then: Prespa is not a city, but an area, including the mountainous Prespa Lakes and the forbidding slopes of several high peaks, now on the border of Greece, former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia and Albania. It was the safe heaven which King Samuil wanted as a capital while trying to save Bulgaria. King Samuil himself died there, in 1014, and was buried in the basilica of St Achilles island, in the Small Prespa Lake. By this time, however, he had already moved his capital even farther from the Byzantines, in Ohrid on the eponymous lake because of the security that the mountains provided. After his death the city withstood a mere two years before his successor moved the capital in Bitola, in the mountains. It didn't last. In 1018 the city was subjugated by Emperor Basil II – together with the independence of Bulgaria.
 

Now: Divided between three states that were no particularly friendly to each other, Prespa was for long a no-go region. Now, it is an ideal destination for anyone seeking pristine nature, an undisturbed pelican colony, beautiful scenery and historical monuments. Both the Samuil family chapel in the village of Agios Germanos, and Samuil's grave are on Greek territory.

The gem of Macedonia's tourist industry, Ohrid is arguably the country's most beautiful city. In it, the remains of the Samuil fortress and dozens of medieval churches are complemented by houses from the Ottoman period, the calm waters of the lake and the blue wall of the mountains. Bitola today is a major economic centre of the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, yet its main tourist attractions are from the Ottoman period.

 

TARNOVO

When: 1185–1393
Where: Northern Bulgaria
 

Tarnovo

Then: The Byzantine rule ended in 1185 with the rebellion of the Asenevtsi Brothers, Bulgarian aristocrats living in a mighty fortress on the meanders of the Yantra River. They turned this fortress, Tarnovo, into the capital of their kingdom and, in a fashion already seen in Pliska and Preslav, tried to make it a rival to Constantinople. To a point, they succeeded. Beautiful churches rose in Tarnovo, and the palace intrigues and the mystic literature of the local school were in the best Byzantine tradition. Tarnovo remained a capital almost as long as Bulgaria remained independent. Besieged by the Ottomans, it fell in 1393.

In 1879, Tarnovo was the place where, after liberation from the Ottomans, the first Bulgarian parliament met to adopt the Bulgarian Constitution and here they chose Sofia as the capital of reborn Bulgaria.

Today: The medieval ruins of Tarnovo are in a state of constant rebuilding. The trend started in the 1930s, flourished in the 1970s-1980s and was re-established in the late 2000s, continuing to this day.

 

NIKOPOL

When: 1393–1396
Where: On the Danube
 

Nikopol

Then: Nikopol became a capital only because it was the best place that King Ivan Shishman, the last Bulgarian ruler, had left after Tarnovo was lost. In 1396, however, the Ottomans prevailed against the united European armies in the messy Battle of Nikopol. The Bulgarian state was extinguished for the next five centuries.


Now: Nikopol remained an administrative centre until the 17th Century. After that, a period of decline began and the trend was barely reversed in the following centuries. A church and a much-rebuilt fortress are all that remains of its medieval past.

 

VIDIN

When: 1371–1396
Where: On the Danube
 

Constantly built and rebuilt since Antiquity, at the end of the 14th Century the Vidin fortress was the stronghold of the short-lived kingdom of Ivan Sratsimir

Then: There was a time when there were two Bulgarias with two capitals, for the reason that King Ivan Aleksandar did not want to quarrel with his second wife, Sarah, over which of his sons would inherit. So he divided his kingdom. He gave the throne of Tarnovo to Ivan Shishman, his son with Sarah, and presented his eldest son, Ivan Sratsimir, with the mighty fortress of Vidin and the western parts of the kingdom. Understandably, the two princes did not like each other and after their father's death, in 1371, they fell out. This only made it easier for the invading Ottomans. After Shishman's death at Nikopol, Sratsimir accepted Ottoman sovereignty but was captured and disappeared from history.
 

Now: Situated at the northwestern corner of modern Bulgaria, plagued with unemployment, Vidin is one of the most depressed cities in Bulgaria. Its medieval fortress, however, still stands on the banks of the Danube.

America for Bulgaria FoundationHigh 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.

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