Sites along the Bulgarian Danube
One of the best ideas in terms of a travel route (which can be applied in many places in the world) is to follow River routes. This way the traveler can “connect” energetically and symbolically to the spirit of the land. The landscapes changes, but the River is like a woven thread that connects everything into one story, flowing and not fixed.
The length of the Danube is about 3,000 km. Its importance lies in the fact that it is possible to sail along almost its entire length, and thus it connects central Europe with the Balkans and the Black Sea by waterways and enables water transportation to Vienna and Budapest. There are five capitals along the Danube: Vienna, Budapest, Bratislava, Belgrade, and Bucharest (which is connected to the Danube by a canal), and it passes through the territory of ten countries. It can fairly be said that the Danube was critical to the development of Europe, by virtue of it being the only major River that flows in a general west-east path.
Not many people know this, but Bulgaria borders almost 500 km of the course of the River, which serves as a border between it and Romania, i.e. close to one-sixth of its length. In Roman times, the areas of Bulgaria along the banks of the Danube were much more populated than today and there was considerable cultural and economic development along the River. The land bordering the Danube was called “Moasia” and it was one of the richest and most important provinces of the empire.
During the Roman period, there were large cities and military Fortresses along the Danube which later became colonies of soldiers. It was the frontier region of the empire, and in the 2nd-3rd centuries AD the Roman emperors spent much of their time there. The region flourished for other reasons as well: the great River allowed lively trade (in ancient times it was much cheaper to sail goods on the water than to carry them in carts) and it was profitable to produce goods near it and export them throughout the empire by waterway. Important land routes also passed through this region.
When the Bulgarians established their country and consolidated their culture in the Middle Ages, the settlements near the Danube kept their importance and the ancient capitals were built not so far from the fertile Danube valley. The Ottomans used the Danube a supply line as well. Here are some of the most beautiful and important historical sites along the Danube River, from west to east.
The Iskar River is the largest River that joins the Danube in Bulgaria. It is also the only River that crosses the Balkan Mountains, therefore along it passed the historical road from the areas north of the empire (Romania and beyond) to the ports of the Mediterranean Sea. It was the only place where you could cross the Mountains without climbing them. It would have been better to wind along the Iskar gorge from the Danube to Sofia (and from there through the Struma River valley to the shores of the Mediterranean, than to risk the Mountain passes.
At the mouth of the River Iskar emptying into the Danube there are the remains of a large Roman City called Oescus, which at its peak had 100,000 people and was the largest City in this part of the Danube. In this place, Emperor Constantine briefly built a bridge across the River that connected Bulgaria, then called Moasia, with Romania. At the time it was the longest bridge in the world (more than 2 km), but it lasted only 27 years and was destroyed by the barbarians in their first invasions in 355 AD.
The City of Oescus was established as a military Fortress on the defensive line of the empire inhabited by parts of the Macedonian legion. In addition to it, there were many Fortresses along the Danube, some of which became cities, such as the Fortresses of Nikopol and the Fortress of Novaya in Svishtov. At the beginning of the 2nd century, the emperor Triajan gave the City of Oescus the status of a colony and settled veterans there, and since then it was called – Ulpia Oescus. Ulpia is the middle name of Trajan and Oescus is the ancient name the Thracians called the River Iskar.
In 167 AD, the City’s residents received full Roman civil rights, and later built temples to the Gods. This was a time when Plovdiv and other Roman cities throughout Bulgaria reached their peak. The City probably became rich from the trade with the northern countries (Romania) and also from crafts and artisan workshops that were established in it and whose products were exported throughout the empire by boats that sailed on the Danube.
The City of Nikopol is an hour’s drive east of Oescus, and is one of the oldest and most important cities along the River. The human settlement in it begins already in prehistoric times. In the Roman period, a village existed here and a dedicatory inscription was found (as in the Trajans tablet up the River). But the importance of the City increases with the establishment of the First Bulgarian Empire, and even more so with the establishment of the Second Bulgarian Empire in the 12th-14th centuries. Shortly before that, it received its name from the Byzantines – Nikopolis (Nika – the Goddess of victory).
Nikopol is squeezed in a narrow area between the Danube and the limestone hills that border the River. In the line of hills there is an opening of a valley into which the City expands, and on both sides of the narrow valley are hills with neighborhoods on top of them. On the western side, a neighborhood of the Turkish residents and a monument commemorating the battle that took place there during the war for the liberation of Bulgaria; And on the eastern side of the stream a neighborhood of the Bulgarian residents, next to it are the remains of the Ottoman citadel that was built there. In the valley in-between the hills there is a water spring with a Roman structure on it. Nearby there are the remains of an ancient Church from the Middle Ages, and a little further up the present Church of the town from the 18th century.
At the exit of the valley towards the narrow flat area between the hills and the Danube there is a beautiful garden with a large copper representation of a Hebrew book and a dedication inscription in stone to Rabbi Yosef Karo, who lived in the City for 14 years during the 16th century, before moving to Safed, and wrote there parts of the book “Beit Yosef” which is the basis of the “Shulchan Aruch” – one of the most canonical Jewish books of religious law. It turns out that Nikopol had an important Jewish community and in the 16th century no less than six synagogues were established there. This is the reason why Nikopol was chosen as a twin City of Safed in Israel – the City of Kabala.
Around Nikopol (named after the Goddess of victory “Nika”), many battles were fought, but it is important to remember that one side’s victory is the other’s loss, and in fact it can be said that usually in wars both sides lose. After the fall of the capital of the second Bulgarian kingdom, Veliko Tarnovo, to the Ottomans in 1393, the last Bulgarian Tsar, Ivan Shishman, moved to Nikopol, where he continued to resist the Turkish occupation until the fall of the City two years later. In order to help their Christian brothers against the Ottoman enemy, a final crusade of European knights led by nobles from France, Venice, Hungary and all over Europe went to Bulgaria, and it was called the Nikopol Crusade, but it ended in a crushing defeat.
Be that as it may, today a total of 3,000 people live in the City. There are beautiful beaches along the River, and in one the cliffs overlooking them you can see a rock-hewn cave of medieval monks. One can take a local boat from Nikopol to the nearby islands of the Danube; the feeling is like sailing on the Amazon, especially when you stop at one of the forested islands for “grilled fish”.
If you continue with the Danube to the east around 50 kilometers, you will reach the City of Svishtov, which is a regional center, an important port and a crossing point (ferry) of the Danube to Romania. It is the southernmost City on the Danube and the closest as the crow flies to the Aegean Sea. Because of that there is an important historical north south road from Svishtov to the Agean. It starts from Bucharest in Romania, goes through Svistov to Veliko Tarnovo, and from there to the Mountain passes of the Balkan Mountains, from there to the Valley of the Roses and the City of Kazanlak, to the City of Satra Zagora, and from there along the Maritza River to the Agean near Alexandropoli.
Svishtov is a relatively large City (compared to Nikopol) and quite modern. Like the other cities along the Danube it has remains from the Stone Age and from the time of the Thracian kingdoms, but the most impressive archaeological remains are from the Roman period. A large military camp of the Macedonian legion called Novae was excavated near the City. It should be understood that a permanent camp of a legion was used by the Roman army for hundreds of years and looks more like a City than a military camp. Bath houses, aqueducts, a Nymphaeum, a sort of columned forum (stoa) and other public buildings were found in the excavations of Novae. Indeed, in the 4th century a City began to develop around the camp which existed until the time of Justinian in the 6th century. It was the invasions of the Slavs and the Avars that brought about its destruction.
Novae is one of the most excavated sites in Bulgaria. There is a Museum with a display of some of the finds and you can walk around the site among the buildings, some areas of the City camp were partly reconstructed. Near the Novae there is a beautiful park with sculptures and a cafe on the banks of the Danube.
During the Ottoman period, Svishtov became one of the main cities in northern Bulgaria and the most important port on the Danube, an important citadel was built there and an renown Jewish community developed. When Bulgaria gained independence, the City was rebuilt in a European style, and important Bulgarian personalities such as the writer Elko Konstantinos lived and worked there. In the City center there are beautiful gardens, an impressive bell tower and ancient houses, some of which are used as ethnic Museums. Up the hill stands an impressive Church from the 19th century called the Church of the Holy Trinity.
From Svishtov it is a little more than an hour’s drive to Ruse. It is the fifth largest City in Bulgaria (150,000 people), after Plovdiv, Sofia, Burgas and Varna, and is an important port on the Danube and a gateway to Romania. Ruse is only 75 km from Bucharest. The City is known for its neoclassical architecture and is therefore called “Little Vienna”.
The name ‘Ruse’ in Bulgarian means “blond hair”, legends say that a blonde founded the City. Indeed, like other places along the Danube, it was considered a sacred place for the Goddess and was already inhabited in the Neolithic period. Ruse became a City in the Roman period, was destroyed by the Avar invaders and rebuilt in the Middle Ages.
At the end of the Ottoman Empire it was a meeting place between Austria-Hungary, Russia, the Ottomans, and Bulgarian and Romanian nationalism. The City rose to prominence in the 19th century and replaced Svishtov as a port and the main City on the Danube. Writers and intellectuals flourished there, consulates were established, trade and industry developed, but the peak was yet to come. In 1878, after liberation from the Ottoman rule, it was rebuilt in a European style. Educational institutions were founded and it was the second or third largest City in Bulgaria. Ruse also had an important Jewish community.
In Ruse there is the tallest tower in the Balkans (200 meters) and a restaurant at the top, and it also has an important regional Museum of history, the remains of a Roman Fortress, a pantheon of heroes of the Bulgarian revival, a nature Museum, galleries, a university, sports facilities, an opera, a theater, important Churches, and a synagogue. In 1954, a bridge was built over the Danube connecting Bulgaria to Romania and the importance of the City as a transportation center increased.
Rusenski Lom Park is an area of spectacular cliffs along the River Lom, which is a tributary of the Danube, not far from the City of Ruse. The area was a favorite of monks who practiced the Hesychasm tradition during the Second Bulgarian Empire. The monks cut secluded caves and Churches in the rock cliffs, and in the Monastery named Ivanovo they painted spectacular paintings that brought recognition to the place as a world heritage site.
The rock-cut Monastery halls excel in special and high-quality Frescoes. The painting expresses Paleological art (the last Byzantine dynasty in the 14th-15th centuries) at its peak. This is a kind of renaissance before the renaissance, in which we see nude figures of Atlas, faces with expressions and perspective, as well as a special cycle of paintings related to Saint Gerasimos of the Jordan Valley, who lived near Jericho and started the Jordan Basin monasticism in the 5th century AD, including a painting of Gerasimus with the lion.
According to the legend, the monk Gerasimus met a lion with a thorn in his leg during his wanderings in the Judean desert; he extracted the thorn from the lion’s foot, and from that time on the animal accompanied him on all his journeys, and breathed her last breath on the day of his death. The tradition of Hesychasm, which originates from Mount Athos, directs man to interpret stories allegorically, and in this respect the lion in the story of Gerasimus symbolizes the desires that the monk must befriend and tame.
Further along the bends of the Lom River is an impressive citadel called Chervan, which was second in importance in the Second Bulgarian Empire to Veliko Tronovo, and today is an impressive archaeological site, especially due to its wonderful location. T
The region of northern Bulgaria is rich in sites related to the second Bulgarian empire period (12th-14th centuries AD), and in this respect it is unparalleled. This is a large area from the Balkan Mountains to the Danube River with beautiful natural landscapes, an area of wooded sloping hills with Rivers flowing through them creating impressive cliff landscapes. Today it is one of the most remote and forgotten areas in Bulgaria, a fact that actually helps maintain its charm.
Silista is the most northeastern City on the Danube, part of the Dobruja region, an important historical City of about 40,000 people. In the past, there was a Roman City called Dorostrum, from which several monuments remain, especially an impressive Roman tomb from the 4th century AD with well-preserved pagan Frescoes. In addition to this, in Silistra there are remains of citadels from the Middle Ages and the a well built Fortress from the late Ottoman period.
Dorostrom was established as a City and a Roman Fortress during the time of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, who spent the best of his years as an emperor on the banks of the Danube defending the borders of the empire. 100 years after his death, some of the soldiers stationed in the citadel became Christians, and were therefore executed by Emperor Diocletian and became the first Christian martyrs in Bulgaria. Among them were St. Dasius, whose remains are in Ancona in Italy, and St. Julius the Veteran, also called Julius of Dorostrom.
In the 4th century, the City was conquered by the Goths, and with their conversion to Christianity, it became an important Arian heresy center. During the Middle Ages, Silistra-Durostrom played an important role in the struggles for control of the Balkans between the First and Second Bulgarian Empires and the Byzantines, Hungarians, and even the Russians and Mongols.
In 1400 it was conquered by the Ottomans and changed its name, after which it became one of a chain of important Fortresses along the Danube, which protected the supply route to Europe. The Ottomans used to conduct war campaigns thar reached the gates of Vienna every summer, and these were helped by supplies transported by River.
During the wars between Russia and the Ottomans, Silistra was liberated and recaptured several times, until its final conquest in 1877. Today it is an agricultural and administrative center of northeastern Bulgaria. During the Communism period it was prosperous and the population reached 70,000 people, but since then the numbers have decreased by almost half due to low birth rates and negative immigration.
In the years 1819-1826, Rabbi Eliezer Papo was the leader of the old Jewish community in Silistra. He came to the City on a miraculous journey when he was 27 years old from Sarajevo and wrote here the book “Pele Yoetz” and several other books. Seven years later he died when he was only 34 years old. Rabbi Papo was a great ascetic who delved into prayer and study. Many miracle stories have been attributed to him. It is believed that his death in 1827 brought an end to an epidemic in the City. Before his death, he said that anyone who prostrates on his grave after baptizing, prayer, and reciting chapters of the Psalms, will be blessed and saved, and so His grave has become a pilgrimage site. Tens of thousands of Jewish Hassidim come from all over the world to get his blessings.
Sveshtari and Demir Baba Tekke
To the north of the Balkan Mountains there is an area of sloping hills for about 100 km to the valley of the Danube River. In this area lived the Getae tribes (Gatae Thracians – Dacians. One of their centers was the sacred burial site of Sveshtari in northeastern Bulgaria, where ancient mounds were found and an important temple tomb that was declared a world heritage site, because it is unique and different in shape from the other Thracian tomb temples. Tombs with gold treasures from the same period and other mounds were found next to it.
What is special about the Sveshtari temple is the rectangular shape of the inner chamber, in contrast to the round shape of the other temple tombs. In addition to that, the walls of the room are integrated with one-of-a-kind sculptures of ten women holding up the ceiling. They stand with their hands raised up, in positions that combine plant motifs, in a way reminiscent of the column capitals of the caryatids in Greek temples (the Archatheon in the Acropolis of Athens).
Not far from the Sveshtari Tomb Temple is an important Sufi Muslim site called Tekke Demir Baba, inside a hidden and magical gorge that can be reached by stairs. There is a holy spring, the saint’s tomb, a meeting place and a mosque that was built later. The building has a conical dome and is built in the Seljuk style. The complex is surrounded by an outer wall with huge cyclopean stones, which are probably very ancient, from before the time of the Thracians, and on them are mysterious geometric signs