Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria – the history of the great Tsarevets Fortress

The Yatra River carves a deep, winding gorge through the Balkan Mountains in Central Bulgaria. At one point the river doubles back on itself several times in tight succession, creating a confusing jumble of cliffs, promontories, and canyons. From this rugged, easily-defensible landform rises the city of Veliko Tarnovo.

Tsarevets Fortress wide shot, Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria. Photo credit: Benjamin White

The Thracians

The first to take advantage of the site were the Thracians, who, despite being regarded by their Greek neighbours as savages, were skilled horseman, metalworkers, and warriors.

The Thracians occupied Tsarevets Hill, in Veliko Tarnovo, from as far back as 4200BCE. They continued to inhabit the site throughout the Iron Age and the Bronze Age. But the Thracians weren’t really into cities; they tended to limit their settlements to small fortified villages on hilltops. Little evidence of them remains.

Tsarevets Fortress entrance, Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

The Patriarchal Cathedral of the Holy Ascension of God, atop Tsarevets Hill, Veliko Tarnovo. Photo credit: Benjamin White

The first city, or semblance of a city, to be built on Tsarevets Hill was constructed by the Byzantines in the 5th Century CE.

Church inside Tsarevets Fortress, Bulgaria

The Patriarchal Cathedral of the Holy Ascension of God. Photo credit: Benjamin White

First Bulgarian Empire

The Bulgars, semi-nomadic warrior tribes from Central Asia, saw off the Byzantines when they swept into Bulgaria in the 7th Century CE. The Bulgars were swiftly Slavicized, and went on to establish the First Bulgarian Empire in 679CE.

The First Bulgarian Empire expanded over the centuries. At its peak it covered most of the Balkans, including all of Romania, Serbia, Moldova and Macedonia, and parts of Albania, Bosnia, Hungary and Ukraine. It filled all the land between the Hungarian Empire to the north, and the Byzantine Empire to the south.

Execution Rock, Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

Execution Rock; prisoners were thrown to their deaths from this spot during the 12th to 14th Centuries. Photo credit: Benjamin White

But the reign of the Bulgarian emperors weakened during the 10th Century. They were continually losing wars and land to those pesky Byzantines to the south.

In 1018 CE the First Bulgarian Empire came to an end. The lands of Bulgaria were returned to Byzantium.

Tsarevets Fortress walls, Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

Veliko Tarnovo. Photo credit: Benjamin White

Second Bulgarian Empire

In 1185 the Bulgarians, with the help of the Vlachs, from Romania, and the Cumans, from Hungary, staged a revolt and kicked out the Byzantines for good. The Second Bulgarian Empire was commenced, and at its core, its capital city: Veliko Tarnovo.

The Second Bulgarian Empire rivalled the First Bulgarian Empire for size. It became the undisputed and unrivalled power in the Balkans. Veliko Tarnovo became so mighty it was compared with Rome and Constantinople.

Ruins inside Tsarevets Fortress, Bulgaria

Photo credit: Benjamin White

Veliko Tarnovo

During this era Tsarevets Fortress expanded to the size that it is today, with walls ten metres high and three metres wide. Inside the fortress were 470 houses, 23 churches, 4 monasteries, and a royal palace.

Tsarevets Fortress walls, Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

Photo credit: Benjamin White

Ottoman Occupation of Veliko Tarnovo

Ottoman houses, Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

Ottoman houses in Samovodska Charshiya Street, Veliko Tarnovo. Photo credit: Benjamin White

The Second Bulgarian Empire came to an abrupt end when the Ottomans arrived on the scene in the 14th Century. The city was captured in 1393 following a three month siege, and subsequently sacked and destroyed. The Ottomans went on to take control over the entire Bulgarian empire, and there they remained for the next 480 years.

They weren’t evicted until the Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878).

Villages surrounding Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

Photo credit: Benjamin White

In 1878 the principality of Bulgaria was created with the Treaty of Berlin. Veliko Tarnovo was reinstated as capital. But the following year the capital was shifted to Sofia, where it remains today.

Church rising above Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

Photo credit: Benjamin White

In 1965 the city of Tarnovo, as it was known at the time, was given the prefix Veliko, meaning great in the Bulgarian tongue.

And there ends the story of Veliko Tarnovo: capital of Bulgarian Empire No.2.

Practical information on reaching Veliko Tarnovo:

There are frequent buses to Veliko Tarnovo from Sofia (trip time is 4 hours), Varna (trip time is 4 hours), and Plovdiv (trip time is 4 hours). More transport info here.

More on Bulgaria:

Plovdiv – 3rd oldest city in Europe

Rila Monastery – UNESCO-listed + hellish frescoes = worth visiting?

Kazanlak – Buzludzha, Seuthopolis, a phenomenal Thracian tomb

Sofia – Roman churches, an Ottoman mosque, a landmark cathedral

Belogradchik Rocks – crazy rocks = perfect spot for a fortress

Magura Cave – Stone Age cave paintings + fertility rituals

More on the Balkans:

Northern Macedonia:

Ohrid – an old, deep lake, where Cyrillic was invented?

Skopje – controversial statues, and ownership of Alex the Great?


Bran Castle – Dracula did not live here

Rock sculpture of Decebalus – Guardian of the Iron Gates

Sighișoara – birthplace of Vlad the Impaler (aka Dracula)

Brașov – Christmas in Transylvania. Think snow!

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