My introduction to Veliko Tarnovo was a lung bursting hike up to the old town while dragging a stuffed suitcase behind me. The accommodation I had chosen – another Hostel Mostel – turned out to be on the opposite side of the city from where the bus had dropped me off. After trudging almost a mile, I arrived at the front desk with my clothes completely soaked in sweat. After a quick check in, I dropped off my suitcase and skipped showering so I could spend the entire afternoon exploring the ruins of the medieval citadel known as Tsarevets. This was my number one reason for coming to Veliko Tarnovo. I was not to be disappointed.
Gloriously Dangerous – Ruling The Second Bulgarian Empire
While crossing over the stone causeway that acts as an entrance to the citadel, I was immediately struck by the size and breadth of the ruins. Stone walls up to three and a half meters thick lined the hillside. There were towers, battlements, remnants of a large royal palace and the restored Church of the Blessed Savior crowning the complex. Below the citadel flowed the Yantra River. Tsarevets stood high atop a hill in a natural defensive setting that contributed to its stunning beauty. During my visit the sky was a dark cauldron of brooding gray clouds that looked to be on the verge of bursting at any moment. This stormy atmosphere added to the fantastic impression of a mighty fortress that once stood unassailable against all but the elements of nature.
The power and majesty of the Second Bulgarian Empire was conveyed to me through these ruins. I could see why it had once been referred to as the “New Constantinople.” Tsarevets looked like something that would be associated with ancient Rome, rather than a lost empire in the heart of the Balkans. The Empire had once been the major threat to Byzantium, ruling a land mass stretching from the Adriatic to the Black Sea, now the ruins of its fortress capital stood slowly crumbling in majestic solitude amid quiet mountains. I imagined that rulers of such an Empire were fierce warriors who ruled with unquestioned authority. A bit of research shattered this illusion. To be a Tsar of the Second Bulgarian Empire may have been glorious, but it was also a precarious undertaking that cost many a ruler his life or even worse.
The personal danger for a Tsar of the Second Bulgarian Empire cannot be understated. It was an inherent hazard of the position. The first four Emperor’s of the Second Bulgarian Empire including its founding figures, Petar IV and Ivan Asen (both originally from Tarnovo) were murdered. As for the fifth one, Boril (1207-1218) he was deposed and blinded. Blinding could be a fate worse than death and in many cases more painful. It involved gouging out the eyes, including at times with a white hot poker. In other cases an acidic, boiling substance such as vinegar would be poured into the victim’s eyes. Such methods could lead to infection, followed by an excruciatingly slow death. Blinding was used as a way of incapacitating a ruler or rival so they would no longer be able to lead an army in warfare or take part in politics.
The Power And Majesty – The Insecurity & Depravity
The first ruler to die a natural death in the Empire was Ivan Asen II (1218 – 1241) who ruled for more than two decades. Ivan’s successor and son, Kaliman Asen I (1241 – 1246) was not so lucky. At the tender age of twelve he was poisoned to death. Other emperors died of strangulation, beheading, fighting in battle or murdered by family members. The latter cause of death was especially frequent. For instance, while on a hunting expedition in the woods surrounding Tarnovo, Emperor Michael Asen II (1246 – 1256) was murdered by his cousin Kaliman, who took the throne for a short period before also being murdered. Of twenty-four rulers in the Second Bulgarian Empire, only eight are sure to have died a natural death and three of these were only able to do this by fleeing abroad.
Any potential ruler who wanted to call the splendor and might of Tsarevets their home had to fight for it. There was no such thing as a popular election of rulers. Glory and power was most often won on the field of battle. Emperors were self-promoted through cunning, guile and military exploits. These same traits helped the best of them to keep power. The massive scale of Tsarevets was more understandable to me after I learned how difficult it was to hold power. The emperors needed all the protection they could get from both within and without. Unfortunately there was little protection other than the sword or purges against ambitious family members and treasonous retinues.
The greatness and grandeur of Tsarevets was matched only by the insecurity and depravity of those vying for the throne. But what would be termed depravity today was a survival technique in the power struggles of Bulgaria’s early medieval era. It was an era of kill or be killed, with lurid court politics that more often than not turned lethal. There were also external enemies, the Byzantines, Magyars and Serbs. Besieged from within and without, it is little wonder that two-thirds of the Second Bulgarian Empire’s rulers died violently.
The Greatness of Bulgaria – An Iron Grey Sky On A Stormy Spring Day
The emperors ruled over an empire that was either threatening or threatened, expanding or contracting, on the verge of conquest or calamity. Tsarevets was a symbol of the heights to which the empire ascended. The ruins were also a symbol, of its ultimate fall. What was left standing before me was a rough approximation of the best this empire had to offer, but by the late 14th century it was not good enough. The Ottoman Turks surrounded it in 1393. For three months the fortress held out, until finally taken in July. With its fall the Second Bulgarian Empire was history. For the next five centuries the Ottoman Turks would rule Bulgaria with a heavy hand, but the memory of Bulgarian greatness was kept alive by the ruins at Tsarevets. And under an iron grey sky on a stormy spring day I could still feel the power of that greatness.