Ancient Thracian Settlement, Byzantine Fortress in Central Bulgaria Sold to Private Firms, Local Historian Alarms

Land properties in Central Bulgaria containing archaeological monuments from Ancient Thrace and Early Byzantium have been sold to private firms by Veliko Tarnovo Municipality, alarms Rusi Dimitrov, a local history researcher, who has alerted Bulgaria’s Chief Prosecutor, Presidency, and Council of Ministers, among other relevant institutions.

Dimitrov, a native of the town of Vetrintsi, Veliko Tarnovo District, has been researching for decades the local history of the towns of Vetrintsi, Balvan, Gostilitsa, and others which are located in an area that is extremely rich in archaeological sites which have not been explored by the Bulgarian archaeologists yet.

He says that sales of plots with archaeological monuments to private investors made by Veliko Tarnovo Municipality in 2013-2014 are unlawful.

“There are violations of the legislation, and in particular of the Cultural Heritage Act. Entire areas have been sold instead of assessing [the cultural value of] of each individual property,” Dimitrov explains, as cited by the Bulgarian daily Trud.

He emphasizes an “extremely scandalous case” with the sale of an area known as Stari Balvan (“Old Balvan”), which is known for its ancient ruins and artifacts, to a private firm.

“A private firm has already acquired ownership over this property, and has fenced it off,” states the local historian.

In his letter to the Bulgarian institutions in which he sounds the alarm about the “sold” archaeological sites, he cites written sources, including works by Czech-Bulgarian archaeologist Karel Skorpil, who founded modern-day Bulgarian archaeology at the end of the 19th century together with his brother Hermann Skorpil. Karel Skorpil even managed to map the area of Stari Balvan.

“This traveler who explored Bulgaria’s historical monuments dedicated 10 pages to the description and his impressions about this area. This area [Stari Balvan] was partially excavated by archaeologists 25 years ago but for lack of funds the excavations were terminated,” adds Dimitrov.

Yet, he notes, the excavations were sufficient to document the existence of an Ancient Thracian settlement and an Early Byzantine fortress from the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I the Great (527-565 AD).

Rusi Dimitrov hopes that the Bulgarian Prosecutor’s Office will launch an investigation based on his letter.

“Selling this property is like selling the Tsarevets Fortress (in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo) or the Ancient Roman city Nicopolis ad Istrum (in the District of Veliko Tarnovo),” stresses the local historian.

He has also mentioned another example of a cultural monument from more recent times sold by the local authorities: the old town hall in Vetrintsi, which is one of the oldest Modern Era buildings in Veliko Tarnovo Municipality.

In his words, the building is important because it is connected with the history of the April Uprising of April-May 1876 in which the Bulgarians rebels against the Ottoman Empire but their push for freedom and national liberation was suppressed with brutal atrocities and massacres by the Ottoman Turks.

The old town hall in Vetrintsi is where Bulgarian revolutionaries and rebels Bacho Kiro Petrov and Hristo Karaminkov, key members of the band (“cheta”) of voevode Pop (Father) Hariton Halachev, hid from persecution by the Ottoman Turkish authorities, after their band was besieged and most of its members were slaughtered in the nearby Dryanovo Monastery in May 1876.

Local historian Rusi Dimitrov points out that the argument for selling the building to a private firm was that it “had been abandoned”.

The region of the town of Vetrintsi in Central Bulgaria is known not only for these perplexing sales of cultural monuments by the local authorities, and for the fact that most of the archaeological sites there have not been excavated, but also for the rampant and savage looting by treasure hunters, who, according to a recent report of the Veliko Tarnovo daily Borba, flock there from all over Bulgaria with hi-tech equipment.

Background Infonotes:

Treasure hunting and illegal trafficking of antiques have been rampant in Bulgaria after the collapse of the communism regime in 1989 (and allegedly before that). Estimates vary but some consider this the second most profitable activity for the Bulgarian mafia after drug trafficking. One recent estimate suggests its annual turnover amounts to BGN 500 million (app. EUR 260 million), and estimates of the number of those involved range from about 5 000 to 200 000 – 300 000, the vast majority of whom are impoverished low-level diggers.

Nicopolis ad Istrum (also known as Ulpia Nicopolis ad Istrum) was an Ancient Roman and Early Byzantine city (not to be confused with Nicopolis Ad Nestum in today’s Southwest Bulgaria).

Its ruins are located near today’s town of Nikyup, Veliko Tarnovo Municipality, 18 km northwest of the city of Veliko Tarnovo in Central Northern Bulgaria. Its name means “Victory City on the Danube River”. It was founded by Roman Emperor Marcus Ulpius Traianus (r. 98-117 AD) to honor his victories over the Dacian tribes between 101 and 106 AD (most probably in 102 AD) on a plateau on the left bank of the Rositsa River. This is where the two main roads of the Danubian Roman provinces intersected – the road from Odessus (Odessos) on the Black Sea (today’s Varna) to the western parts of the Balkan Peninsula, and the road from the Roman military camp Novae (today’s Svishtov) on the Danube to the southern parts of the Balkan Peninsula.

(Ulpia) Nicopolis ad Istrum was first part of the Roman province of Thrace but after 193 AD it was made part of the province of Moesia Inferior. Nicopolis ad Istrum flourished in the 2nd-3rd century, during the Nerva-Antonine Dynasty (96-192 AD) and the Severan Dynasty (193-235 AD). It further developed as major urban center after the reforms of Emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305). Its organization was similar to that of Roman cities in Thrace and Asia Minor such as Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamon. It was ruled by a council of archons, a city council and an assembly, with local priests worshipping Ancient Roman and Greek deities such as Zeus, Hera, Athena, Asclepius, Dionysus, Mithras. At the time, Nicopolis ad Istrum was inhabited by Thracians, Roman military veterans, and settlers from Asia Minor. Nicopolis ad Istrum is known to have minted 900 different emissions of bronze coins. The city had orthogonal planning, with an agora (city square), a cardo maximus and a decumanus maximus (main streets), a market place, other public buildings and residential areas, limestone-paved streets and underground sewerage, as well as three aqueducts and several water wells, many of which has been unearthed in archaeological excavations.

The fortress walls of Nicopolis ad Istrum were erected only after the city was ransacked by a barbarian attack of the Costoboci, an ancient people possibly linked to the Getae (Gets) inhabiting an area in today’s Western Ukraine. The city square (agora) featured a statue of Roman Emperor Trajan mounted on a horse, a number of other marble statues, a Ionic colonnade, a three-nave basilica, a bouleuterion (a public building housing the boule – council of citizens), a building to the cult of goddess Cybele, a small odeon (theater), thermae (public baths) as well as a building which according to an inscription was a “termoperiatos” which can be likened to a modern-day shopping mall – a heated building with shops and closed space for walks and business meetings. A total of 121 stone and brick tombs and sarcophagi have been found by the Bulgarian archaeologists excavating the city’s necropolis. Some villas and other buildings in the residential parts of Nicopolis ad Istrum have also been excavated.

Nicopolis ad Istrum is sometimes described as the birthplace of Germanic literary tradition because in the 4th century AD Gothic bishop Ulfilas (Wulfila) (ca. 311-383 AD) received permission from Roman Emperor Constantius II (r. 324-361 AD) to settle with his flock of Christian converts near Nicopolis ad Istrum in the province of Moesia, in 347-8 AD. There Ulfilas invented the Gothic alphabet and translated the Bible from Greek into Gothic.

The Ancient Roman city Nicopolis ad Istrum was destroyed in 447 AD by the barbarian forces of Attila the Hun, even though it might have been abandoned by its residents even before that. It was rebuilt as a fortified post of the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) in the 6th century AD. The Early Byzantine fort covered one about one forth of the Ancient Roman city – 57.5 decares (app. 14.2 acres) out of a total of 215.5 decares (app. 53.2 decares), and was also the center of a bishopric. The Early Byzantine fort was destroyed at the end of the 6th century AD by an Avar invasion. Later, it was settled as a medieval city in the Bulgarian Empire between the 10th and the 14th century.

Nicopolis ad Istrum was visited in 1871 by Austro-Hungarian geographer and archaeologist Felix Kanitz who found there a statue of the wife of Roman Emperor Septimius Severus (r. 193-211 AD). The city was first excavated in 1900 by French archaeologist J. Seur whose work, however, was not documented, and in 1906-1909 by Czech archaeologist B. Dobruski. In 1945 and 1966-1968, there were partial excavations led by T. Ivanov from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. Systematic excavations were started in 1970 and were led again by T. Ivanov. Between 1985 and 1992, Nicopolis ad Istrum was excavated by a joint Bulgarian-British expedition from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia and a team of the University of Nottingham. The joint Bulgarian-British excavations were resumed in 1996. The Nicopolis ad Istrum archaeological preserve is managed by the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History. In 1984, the Ancient Roman city Nicopolis ad Istrum was put on the Tentative List for consideration as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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