Plovdiv is the second largest city in Bulgaria, home to nearly half a million people and it sits in an excellent location in the heart of the fertile Thracian plain and is a center of industry, culture and art.
Plovdiv in antiquity
The city consists of seven hills next to a river – a winning combination in terms of the sacred geography of ancient times (like Rome), and indeed the place was inhabited for 7,000 years.
According to Professor Peter Detev, a settlement with an advanced stone culture more than 6,000 years old was discovered in a mound called Yastepe, which is now inside the city of Plovdiv, and therefore Plovdiv is one of the first ancient cities in Europe. In addition to that, in one of the hills of the city called Nebet Tepe, the remains of a Neolithic village were found.
In 1,000 BC, the Thracian tribe Bessi settled here. The Thracians believed that the legendary Orpheus came here in search of Eurydice. And so, on the hill where the Neolithic village was, a Thracian citadel was built.
According to official history, Plovdiv was founded by Philip, the father of Alexander the Great, who conquered ancient Thrace and brought Hellenic culture to the region. Part of the establishment of the new culture was expressed in the construction of polis – Greek cities in strategic locations from a military point of view and from a cultural and religious point of view, and such was Plovdiv. Philip called it Philippolis after himself, but before that it was called Evmolpia by the Thracians. The god of the city was Hercules and the sacred animal was the bull.
Archeological Museums in Plovdiv
The Archaeological Museum in Plovdiv is one of the oldest and most important in Bulgaria. It contains the most important Thracian treasure in the world, named after the tomb where it was discovered – Panagyurishte, as well as Thracian gold masks from 2,500 years ago. The prehistoric room houses the largest collection of Maritza culture from 6,000 years ago, as well as the finds from the Yastepe site.
In addition to the prehistoric exhibition rooms, the museum has displays of finds from the Hellenic period, the Roman period, the Middle Ages, including an impressive collection of icons and a large collection of coins from all periods.
In addition to the archaeological museum, in the center of the city there is a small museum of the history of Plovdiv called Irena House. In its center is a beautiful mosaic of a woman named Irena who lived in Plovdiv at the end of the 3rd century AD. In the museum there is an impressive collection of glass vessels from the 1st century AD with the symbol of a menorah, as well as collections of items from the Neolithic period, including goddess statues.
The first to build the City of Plovdiv was Philip, the father of Alexander the Great, who conquered ancient Thrace and brought the Hellenic culture to the region. He named the City after him Philipopolis. During the time of the Romans, Plovdiv becomes the capital of the province of Thrace and was declared a metropolis, with its own senate and parliament. Via Militaris, the main military road of the Balkans passed through it, and the City developed and grew. The Roman City has a theater, an amphitheater, a hippodrome for 30,000 people, baths, public buildings, water and sewage system, temples, and when the Romans became Christian Churches were built as well. Over the years, its name was changed to Trimontium (the City of the three hills, named after the three central hills of the City that constitute a kind of energetic triangle, with the Thracian citadel being one of its vertices).
The impressive Roman Theater that still exists today was probably built during the time of Emperor Trajan (beginning of the 2nd century AD) and could seat 7,000 people. The hippodrome is in a similar to that of Delphi, and there are only 12 like it in the world. The forum is near Tsentralen square. It was built during the time of Emperor Vespasian (1st century AD) and has a library, a coin mint and an Odeon. Other parts of the City (including the wall) were built by the emperor Marcus Aurelius (2nd century AD). In the 3rd century the City was burned by the Goths, recovered, but was destroyed again by the Huns in the 5th century.
The Slavs arrived here in the 7th century. They called the place Paldin, hence the name Plovdiv. With the establishment of the First Bulgarian Empire, it becomes a border area between the Bulgarians and the Byzantines. In order to protect their borders, the Byzantines settled in Plovdiv during the 10th century Armenians related to the Paulican heresy. They brought Christian Gnosticism with them, and that made Plovdiv one of the important centers of the Bogomils in later years. In order to balance their influence, the Byzantines brought monks from Georgia and established the Monastery in nearby Bachkovo.
During the Second Bulgarian Empire, the City was the center of a struggle for control between the Bulgarians and the Byzantines and passed from hand to hand. The Ottomans conquered the City at the end of the 14th century and rebuilt it. They built one of the first mosques in the Balkans called Dzhumaya Mosque and it still exists today. Plovdiv becomes a Jewish and Muslim center with Tekkes of the Sufi orders. On the central hill to this day is a traditional building and Sema hall that was used as a Tekke of the whirling dervishes from the Mevlevi order. The Ottomans called the City Filibe. Much of the late Ottoman Plovdiv is preserved; it sits above the Roman-Hellenic City of Philippolis.
During the 18th century there were attempts to subjugate the Bulgarian Church to the Greek Church and the Bulgarian language was forbidden to be used in prayer. In the 19th century, with the independence of Greece and the reforms of the Tanzimet in the Ottoman Empire, the process of separating Bulgarian Christians from submission to the Greek Patriarchy began, this process was completed in 1870 with the re-establishment of the independent Bulgarian Church in Plovdiv, which the most important City in Bulgaria at the time. In 1858, the liturgy of Christmas was celebrated for the first time in the Bulgarian language in the Church of the Virgin Mary in Plovdiv.
Plovdiv was also the center of Bulgaria’s cultural, national and economic revival in the 19th century, the largest City in Bulgaria with a population of 33,000. Here the first School was opened and the first celebrations in honor of Cyril and Methodius were celebrated, here the first exhibition of Icons and pictures was presented and the first books were printed. The first Bulgarian theater and the first beer distillery were also opened in Plovdiv (both in 1881).
At the end of the 19th century, Plovdiv was liberated by the Russians, and in 1881 a statue of Tsar Nicholas was erected on top of Bunardzhik hill, which is now in the heart of a City park. At the top of this hill, the members of the “White Brotherhood” meet every morning to perform the Paneurhythmic dance associated with the sunrise. Their teacher Peter Dunov noted this hill as a sacred place.
The ancient part of the City is from the Ottoman period and contains many Museums, among which the Museum of the Revival stands out. It is located in a peach-colored house near one of the ancient gates and has a display of life in the City during this period, including a Jewish chapter. The Ethnographic Museum of Plovdiv is located in an ancient house on the main street of the old town and is considered one of the most beautiful and important in Bulgaria. It presents the Folklore and culture of Thrace, Rhodope and the Balkans in the middle of the 19th century – arts and crafts, paintings and silver smiting, wood and metal work, carpets and textiles.
Plovdiv today is a center of industry, high-tech and culture. It is the second largest City in Bulgaria and has around half a million people. It has many interesting sites, cultural institutions, galleries, a bustling pedestrian street, performances, and it was even chosen as the cultural capital of Europe in 2018. The best way to get to know Plovdiv is to wander the Pedestrian Street and alleys of the old town and enjoy the galleries, cafes, and beautiful Museums. The Roman Hippodrome is now under the City’s main shopping promenade, but its northern end is exposed and has a small Museum and audio-visual display, including a film showing the Roman City. For archaeological Museums in Plovdiv, read the Ancient Bulgaria route part.
Monastery in Bachkovo
Much has already been written and said about the beauty and uniqueness of the Rhodope Mountains, and about the impressive Thracian and Megalithic sites. In addition to them there are several important sites related to the Christian Bulgaria route, the most important of which are the Monastery of Bachkovo and the Cross Forest.
The second most important Monastery in Bulgaria and the most important in the Rhodope Mountains is the Monastery in Bachkovo. The Monastery was first built at the end of the 11th century by monks who came from Georgia with the support of the Byzantine authorities, probably to balance the growing influence of the Bogomil heresy. It was dedicated to Mary’s ascension to heaven (the Bogomils opposed the worship of Mary as the Mother of God). Since then it has been destroyed and rebuilt several times.
In the 13th century, Tsar Ivan Asen, one of the greatest rulers of the Second Bulgarian Empire, adopted the place, and built a Fortress not far from it at the mouth of the Chaplara River. When the Ottomans conquered the Bulgarian capital Veliko Tarnovo at the end of the 14th century, the last independent Bulgarian patriarch Avtimi arrived at the Monastery together with his students, and there he continued the School of literature and religious education founded by him in Veliko Tarnovo, spiritually fortifying Bulgaria for the dark centuries of the occupation.
The only thing that has survived from this period is an ancient burial structure with two floors and room in which are 14 graves, it is a building unmatched anywhere else in the world, located about 300 meters from the Monastery, that contains paintings and Frescoes, including a 14th century fresco of King Ivan Asen holding the Church in his hand .
The Monastery consists of two courtyards surrounded by buildings organized like a defending wall. It was rebuilt at the beginning of the 17th century, with the great courtyard having a beautiful cathedral built on top of an older structure destroyed by the Ottomans. In the narthex you can see beautiful paintings from the 17th century showing the two donors to the Church, officials and high-ranking businessmen from Istanbul. The interior of the Church is decorated with paintings from the 19th century. The Iconostasis is an artistic woodwork from the 18th century. But the most important part of the Church is an ancient miracle-working Icon from the 13th century of the Merciful Mary, brought here from Georgia. Many come to receive blessing from the Icon.
On the north side of the courtyard is the monks’ dining room, the refectory, with wonderful paintings, including landscape scenes from the 19th century. On the outside of the building there is a panorama painting, the largest of its kind in the Balkans, showing the history of the Monastery. Among the figures seen is the Byzantine emperor Alexius Comnenus, the founder of the Comnenan dynasty, who gave the directive to establish the Monastery in the 11th century. This emperor was known for his struggle against the Bogomil heresy, and his daughter Anna Komnena wrote the most comprehensive treatise against the Bogomils that we have from that period.
Next to the dining room there is an opening to the additional northern courtyard, where there is another Church, named after the archangels Michael and Gabriel. Its foundations are probably from the 12th century and the beautiful paintings in it were painted in the 19th century by Zahari Zograf, from the painting School of Samokov. At the end of the courtyard is the Museum of the Monastery with religious artifacts and also the sword of Frederick Barbarossa, the German king who led the Third Crusade, no one knows how it got there.
Bachkovo Monastery is a pilgrimage site, from a Jewish point of view its importance lies in the fact that this is where two Righteous people are buried, Patriarch Kiril and Metropolitan Stefan, who were largely responsible for saving Bulgarian Jews in the Holocaust.
Cross Forest (Borovo)
The cross on which Jesus was crucified is considered one of the most important holy relics in Christianity, an object that produces miracles. Over the years it was lost, but according to Bulgarian tradition, part of it is buried near the village of Borovo in the Rhodope Mountains. The place is located on a beautiful Mountain peak in the Rhodope Mountains and around it a contemporary pilgrimage center has developed, the largest and most important in Bulgaria.
Queen Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, found the cross during her journey to Jerusalem and brought it to the Palace in Constantinople. Legends say that Russian messengers stole some of it. When Helena learned of this, she sent horsemen after them, and they decided to hide the cross on top of a high Mountain in Rhodope. Later a Monastery was established there and people would come to it to be healed. With the arrival of the Turkish conquerors, the cross was hidden and so was the holy Monastery that was around it, and it was forgotten.
At the beginning of the 20th century, a man named Yordancho from the village of Kovachevitsa dreamed of a holy place near Borovo in the Rhodope Mountains that is waiting for the time when Bulgaria is ready to be discovered. He made his way on foot and discovered the remains of the ancient Cross Monastery on a hill near the village of Borovo.
He told about the discovery to none other than King Boris, who surprisingly believed the man’s visions and built a Church on the spot (1936) with a bronze cross. After that a holy spring was found and an Icon of the shroud of Mary with miraculous powers was brought (the legends and development of the place are somewhat reminiscent of the site of Međugorje in Bosnia). This is how the forest of the cross became the most important pilgrimage site in Bulgaria, especially on the day of the Holy Cross on September 14th.
In the 1990s, the site experienced massive construction, the Church of the Shroud of Mary was built at the top of the hill, and 12 chapels were built on the sides of the path leading to it through the forest, they were decorated with love and dedication by talented young artists. Visitors to the cross forest report miracles and some stay there at night. The place is an hour’s drive through beautiful Mountains on side roads starting near the Monastery of Bachkovo.
Pamporovo and Smolyan region
From the Monastery in Bchkovo our route continues towards the highest part of the Rhodope near the ski resort of Pamprovo. Our first stop is at the beautiful village of Mumchilovski. Many of the Rhodope poems are dedicated to the hero Momchil, a local ruler in the 14th century who succeeded in bringing the Rhodope region under his rule, fought the Byzantines and the Ottomans and had many successes, until he succumbed to their joint effort and died on his sword.
According to legend, he was the uncle of King Marko, who was the last independent king of Macedonia and fought the advancing Ottomans from his Fortress in Prilep. The beautiful village, which is named after Momchil, Serves today as an art, culture and tourism center
From the village there is a road descending to the valley below, where the town of Smolyan is located, it is the regional capital of the south-central Rhodope Mountains, with a population of around 30,000 people. In Smolyan there is an important regional archaeological and historical Museum.
Between Smolyan and the ski resort of Pamprovo is the town of Shiroka Luka (the meaning of the name is the wide valley), which is a kind of architectural Museum of ancient houses from the revival and Ottoman periods, with slate roofs and a local traditional architectural style. In this town, the Metropolitan Stefan, was born and raised, he was a major contributor to the saving of the Jews during world war II, and there is a monument in his honor in the center of the town. In addition to this, in Shiroka Luka one finds the largest School for bagpipe players and music in Bulgaria, as well as several restaurants and guest houses, local artists and more.
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