by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Over-restored ancient, medieval ruins keep popping up in past 15 years

veliko tarnovo fortress.jpg

When Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, the expectation was that membership would bring the struggling former Communist country closer to the more developed economies in Europe. Amazingly, one of the first things Bulgarians started spending EU money on was not on much needed infrastructure such as new roads, industries and businesses, or on modernising the education and healthcare systems. Instead, Bulgarian municipalities across the nation rushed to use EU funding to build... ruins.

Over a decade, larger and smaller towns have erected ancient forts and medieval walls, towers and churches. The new constructions smell of fresh mortar and concrete, and their brand new tiled roofs and plastic-framed windows shine under the sun, but they are being advertised to the public and the media as a revival of Bulgaria's glorious past.

Tsarevets's medieval fortifications, in Veliko Tarnovo, are among the best known images from Bulgaria. All were built either in the 1930s and in the 1980s

Tsarevets's medieval fortifications, in Veliko Tarnovo, are among the best known images from Bulgaria. All were built either in the 1930s and in the 1980s

In fact, constructing new ruins has been popular in Bulgaria for almost a century. It is not difficult to see why. While Bulgarians are proud with their 1,300 years of history, the land lacks spectacular ancient and medieval ruins because wars, conquests and later generations reusing them as building material have destroyed most of them. In the late 19th century, when Bulgaria was liberated after 500 years of Ottoman domination, the lack of ruins became something of a political problem. Bulgarians knew that they were an ancient people with a glorious past, but the humble remains of medieval capitals and ancient cities hardly fostered a feeling of pride. They needed more. The ruins problem became particularly acute after the devastation and trauma caused by the territorial losses in the wake of the Balkan and the First World War in 1913-1918.

Rebuilding medieval ruins in Bulgaria began in the 1930s, in the old capital of Veliko Tarnovo. It was a time of heightened nationalistic sentiment that led to the country's involvement in the Second World War. The construction effort continued on a grand scale in the 1970s and the 1980s, when, after two decades of promoting "socialist internationalism," Communist Bulgaria switched to imaginative representation of those elements of the glorious past that the Communist Party thinkers deemed appropriate for the new order. At this time the foundations of the bigger buildings of the medieval capitals of Pliska, Preslav and Tarnovo were completely or partially rebuilt to what supposedly was their medieval grandeur.

Contractors at work to build Sozopol's supposedly ancient and medieval wall, in 2013. Iron bars, a technology unknown in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, are clearly visible

Contractors at work to build Sozopol's supposedly ancient and medieval wall, in 2013. Iron bars, a technology unknown in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, are clearly visible

But boosting national pride was only a part of the reasoning behind the hectic construction of ruins in the 2000s and 2010s. EU money was abundant and the Regional Development programmes allowed it to be spent on excavation, restoration and opening up of historical sites to foster local tourism and businesses. Raising the ghosts of forts and cities from the ground was seen as a win-win situation. Tourists would find new places to visit and take selfies at. Archaeologists, architects and construction companies would get more employment, locals would get new jobs, and the hotels and the restaurants would get more customers.

However, the enthusiasm of making historical sites more exciting to visitors in combination with the lack of controls over the construction works led to severe breaches of international protocols for the preservation of archaeological heritage. Defined in the so-called Venice Charter and reaffirmed in the Nara Document of UNSECO's World Heritage Committee, the basic principles and rules of restoration of historical remains stipulate that preserving the authenticity of a monument is paramount. All reconstruction should be clearly indicated as such, and has to be done with materials as close to the original as possible. It must be designed after the original appearance of the monument.

The Late Antiquity fortress at the Yaylata plateau after it was rebuilt in the 2010s

The Late Antiquity fortress at the Yaylata plateau after it was rebuilt in the 2010s

This means that you cannot excavate the barely preserved walls of a fortress and then build on top of them towers, gates and crenellations unless you have a verifiable record showing what the original structure looked like. You cannot use concrete building blocks, shiny roof tiles and plastic window frames. A good example is the restoration of central Warsaw, now an UNESCO World Heritage Site, after the destruction of the Second World War: historical documents were referred to to rebuild the city as close to the original as possible. In Bulgaria, this is almost impossible because most of the medieval churches, forts and ancient city walls have been in ruins, literally, for centuries. The memories of their original design, not to speak of any blueprints and building papers, have been lost to time.

The chief result of a decade of hectic rebuilding of ruins in Bulgaria is that the new structures dotting the country from Vidin to Rezovo and from Gotse Delchev to Kamen Bryag look brand new. They lack any atmosphere or authenticity.

The "restored" ruins of the once atmospheric Trajan's Gate fortress

The "restored" ruins of the once atmospheric Trajan's Gate fortress

One of the early rebuilding projects of this sort was the restoration of the ancient and medieval fortification wall of Sozopol at the Black Sea coast. Erected in 2003 by an NGO with EU funding, it is still hailed as a major crowd-puller. Ironically, it has even gained an undeserved aura of authenticity in the hive mentality of Bulgarian social media. In 2021, when an entrepreneur successfully brought a legal case to demolish a part of the fortification wall as it obstructed the sea view from his restaurant, there was a public outcry. The Bulgarian Facebook saw this as yet another assault of uncontrolled capitalism on cultural heritage. Few remembered that the wall was less than 20 years old.

The new ruins built after Sozopol's example mostly focused on Bulgaria's storied medieval past. One of the most notorious examples is in Veliko Tarnovo. Reconstruction in the old capital went on by erecting a brand new fortification wall on Trapezitsa hill, where the wealthy citizens used to live in the 12th-14th centuries. Three towers of the medieval fort overlooking Kyustendil were restored to their supposed original height of 14 m. New structures were also erected at Peristera fort, near Perushtitsa. The list is long.

Plastic-fantastic: The "socialisation" of the Krakra fortress in Pernik went notoriously wrong

Plastic-fantastic: The "socialisation" of the Krakra fortress in Pernik went notoriously wrong

In 2013, the efforts of the Pernik City Council to attract more attention to the town's main tourist site, the medieval fortress of Krakra, backfired spectacularly. Claiming that they wanted to spare the original walls from the weight of a new construction, the investor erected over them a lighter structure of metal 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 set and dubbed it Pernikland.

Ancient Roman ruins were not spared either. The spectacular and deeply atmospheric ruin of a fortification known as Trajan's Gate, near Ihtiman, was rebuilt and reconstructed to such an extent that it has been completely robbed of its spirit. Another blatant example was the complete reconstruction of a Late Antiquity basilica in Sandanski. In the northeast of Bulgaria, the fortress on the Yaylata plateau was reconstructed using poor quality stones that had nothing in common with the original structure.

Near Belchin village, the humble remains of a Late Antiquity fort were heavily rebuilt, complete with a church, gate and towers. Concrete was used for the reconstruction. The thorough rebuilding of a whole church no one had ever seen was at least questionable. Despite this, the Tsari Mali Grad project, as the compound is known and advertised, won the 2013 Building of the Year Award for conservation and restoration of cultural and historical heritage. The project's managers not only invented the architecture of the site, they also invented its history. Little is known about the original fortification and even its name is obscure, but this did not stop the promotion of the newly-named Tsari Mali Grad, or Little King's Town, as the "place where Bulgaria began."

The trend for over-construction also affected one of Bulgaria's most important archaeological reserves. In 2017, the complete restoration of the Grand Basilica in Pliska, Bulgaria's first medieval capital, began. Parts of the church had already been restored under Communism, but in the 2010s this was obviously seen as insufficient. The whole structure should be finished, claimed the project's ideologue, the late Bozhidar Dimitrov, then director of the National History Museum. The Grand Basilica was the symbolic centre from which Christianity spread into the Bulgarian lands, and it was more important to "revive" it than to agonise over the stipulations of the Venice Charter and the Nara Document. Patriotism should come first. After an energetic start, the reconstruction of the Grand Basilica has now stalled, probably because the money ran out.

Amazingly, some communities resisted the temptation to build over their ruins. In 2015 a proposal for the reconstruction of Plovdiv's fortification walls in the Old Town was tabled. Local citizens, architects and archaeologists did all they could, including booing Bozhidar Dimitrov during a public discussion, to have the project cancelled.

Is the building of new ruins justified? The data, where there is any, is inconclusive. Tsari Mali Grad did become a tourist hotspot, to a large extent because of the hotel compound and spa facilities in close proximity to the new ruin. According to rumours, this had been the purpose all along, simply to attract customers.

The large numbers of Bulgarian and foreign tourists taking selfies against the new fortifications at Trapezitsa Hill obviously do not mind. It is mainly locals who can be seen wandering around the restored towers at Kyustendil. For most of the new ruins it is hard to say whether they have generated the intended tourism revenue.

There are also the suspicions that the recent building of ruins in Bulgaria was a smokescreen for some companies and individuals to gain access to EU cash. So far, the only serious claims of financial misdemeanour were made in the summer of 2021, when the then caretaker government announced both the quality of restoration of the Yaylata fort and the money spent on it were suspicious. The scandal did cause some ripples and then died out.

What remains are the facts on the ground: poorly constructed fake ruins now litter Bulgaria's historical landscape.


The Bishop's Basilica and the Small Basilica in Plovdiv

There are examples of restored and socialised archaeological heritage in Bulgaria that show that a better, science-based approach at popularising historical sites is possible. They are both in Plovdiv.

Bishop's Basilica of Philippopolis

The Bishop's Basilica of Philippopolis and the Small Basilica (bellow) were beautifully and intelligently turned into modern museums that tell the story of ancient and medieval Plovdiv

Between the late 4th century and the 7th century, the Bishop's Basilica of Philippopolis and the Small Basilica were two of the focal points of early Christian life in Plovdiv and the region. Both churches were lavishly decorated. The former, which is the largest early Christian church ever discovered in the Bulgarian lands, was particularly spectacular as it was the seat of the local bishop.

Both churches were discovered in the 1980s. Despite the centuries of oblivion, their mosaics stunned. Still, the basilicas were again abandoned, and were left to run to seed.

In the 2010s, first the Small Basilica and then the Bishop's Basilica were brought back to life as modern tourist sites. They were excavated and their mosaics were restored and returned to their original places. New, modern buildings were created over the ruins, to display them and to tell their past with traditional and digital storytelling to attract, entertain and educate Bulgarian and foreign visitors.

small basilica plovdiv

The two basilicas in Plovdiv are now an outstanding example on how to make archaeological heritage attractive without sacrificing its authenticity.

Importantly, both projects were not funded with EU money. Instead, their research, reconstruction and socialisation were sponsored by the America for Bulgaria Foundation and the Plovdiv City Council. 


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