Like history? Then Plovdiv, Bulgaria, is for you.
The city is overflowing with history. It’s been occupied since 4,000 BCE, which makes it the 3rd oldest continually inhabited city in Europe (after Argos and Athens – both in Greece), and one of the top ten oldest continually inhabited cities in the world.
Every house, church, street, and public plaza is built on top of something much, much older. And that older structure has been built on top of something older again. In some places the deposit of archaeological material is up to 12 metres deep.
The first to settle in Plovdiv were the Thracians, a loosely-organised band of tribes that populated the region between the Black and Aegean Seas.
Nebet Tepe (Turkish for Guard Hill) bears the remains of a Thracian fortress that dates back to 4,000 BCE. Sadly, the passage of 6,000 years has turned all but the most solid of foundations into dust – much of what can be seen today are recent additions, built in the 6th Century CE, during the rule of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I.
Still, if you squint a little, and imagine all those modern buildings on the plains replaced by woodland, you get some inkling of what life would have been like in Thracians times, when all there was in the way of civilisation was this one, tiny, lonely fortress.
And there are a few items of interest on the hilltop, including the remains of a water reservoir (for times of siege), and part of an old postern (escape tunnel) that led to a nearby river.
The Roman Empire
There is far too much history in Plovdiv to go over it all in fine detail. Here’s a quick rundown of the next few millennia: following Thracian occupation Plovdiv became part of the Persian Empire (516 BCE), then the Odrysian kingdom, then was conquered by Philip II of Macedon, then went back to the Odrysian kingdom. The city was sacked by the Celts in 270 BCE, reconquered by Philip V of Macedon in 183 BCE, then went back to being a Thracian entity. In 72 BCE it became part of the Roman Empire, but soon reverted to being a Thracian state.
In 46 CE Plovdiv – or Philippopolis, as it was known at the time, named for Philip II who conquered the city in 342 BCE – was reunited with the Roman Empire. And this time the Romans really left their mark.
Plovdiv Roman Theatre
Built in the start of the 2nd Century CE, the Roman Theatre has a three-storey stage and seating for 7,000 people. It was discovered by chance in the 1970s after being uncovered by a landslide.
The restored theatre is considered one of the best-preserved Roman theatres in the world, and continues to be used in theatrical productions to this day.
Plovdiv Roman Stadium
The Roman Stadium, at 240 metres in length, is one of the largest Roman structures in the Balkans. It was built during the reign of Hadrian in the 2nd Century CE, in the style of the stadium at Delphi, Greece. When it was complete it was able to host 30,000 audience members.
The stadium is mostly un-excavated; it’s part of the 12 metre deep layer of cultural fabric lying beneath the city. Only a small part of the northern curve of the stadium is accessible today.
Plovdiv Roman Forum
Roman ruins are scattered throughout Plovdiv. Take a short wander by yourself and you’re bound to stumble upon something. The ruins of the Roman Forum, in the photo above, are jammed in between major arterial roads, government office buildings, and private residences.
The Ottoman Empire and the National Revivalist Movement
Time to skip forward another 1500 years – in the intervening period Philippopolis is smashed by the Goths in 250 CE, pummelled by the Huns (of Attila fame) in 441 CE, smashed a second time by the Goths in 471 CE, and then the next millennia is spent flip-flopping between being an independent Bulgarian state and being part of the Byzantine Empire, with much bloodshed and violence along the way.
The Ottomans seized Plovdiv in 1364 CE as part of their expansion across the Balkans. They held the city in their grips for the next 512 years.
Old Town of Plovdiv
The Old Town of Plovdiv is a treasure-trove of buildings dating from the late 18th to early 19th Centuries, a period known as the National Revivalist era, or Bulgarian Renaissance.
Though intended as an expression of traditional Bulgarian architecture, these National Revivalist structures are similar in shape and form to Ottoman houses (examples can be found in my post: Berat, Albania), although their colour and decoration set them apart.
Plovdiv Regional Ethnographic Museum
Kuyumdzhioglu House, built in 1847, is the current home of the Plovdiv Regional Ethnographic Museum. The museum, which was established in 1917, was an essential part of the National Revivalist movement: a centre dedicated to the preservation of Bulgarian culture.
The museum exhibitions on agricultural tools and household utensils are unlikely to hold your attention for long, but the displays of traditional clothing are interesting, and it’s worth entering the museum just to get a closer look at the building itself.
Alyosha Monument, Plovdiv
Skip forward to 1878. Bulgaria is freed from the Ottomans thanks to the Russo-Turkish War. Bulgaria is thankful to its liberators.
During WWII Bulgaria sides with the Axis (Germany, Japan, Italy), leading to its invasion by the USSR in 1944. Bulgaria is no longer so fond of its former liberators.
The Alyosha Monument, completed in 1957, remembers those killed during the USSR’s occupation of Bulgaria in WWII. But it doesn’t commemorate Bulgaria’s fallen; it’s a memorial for the USSR’s war dead. The locals view it with mixed emotions. Many want it demolished.
And that brings us up to the modern day.
Modern Plovdiv is… well… the photo above says it all. Plovdiv has grown to become the second largest city in Bulgaria. It’s an economic powerhouse, containing one of the largest industrial zones in Eastern Europe. And the city will be the Bulgarian host of the European Capital of Culture in 2019.
Plovdiv has been continuously inhabited for the last 6,000 years, and it seems it has a few more years in it yet.
Practical information and how to reach Plovdiv:
There are frequent buses running between Plovdiv and Sofia (2 – 3 hours), and less frequent buses to Kazanlak (2 hours), Veliko Tarnovo (3 – 4 hours), and Edirne in Turkey (3 – 4 hours depending on border delays). More transport info here.
Plovdiv is on the tentative list for UNESCO World Heritage status.