Bringing old legend to life

The ancient Tsari Mali Grad fortress revives the look of a true Roman military settlement

Following massive restoration efforts, Tsari Mali Grad opened its doors to visitors a couple of years ago.

Just 50 kilometres south of Sofia and near the village of Belchin is located a fortress that was consigned to oblivion until a couple of years ago. The locals call the St Spas hill, which overlooks the village, Tsari Mali Grad, or the Small Tsarigrad (Tsarigrad means “city of kings” and is how Bulgarians used to call Constantinople - editor's note), as according to local legend there used to be a large settlement on that spot.

Until recently, the hill was dotted with barely discernible ruins that serious restoration efforts have since revealed as a fortress, which has become a true tourist attraction in quick order.

Archaeological data suggests that the hill was inhabited in the Early Iron Age (the 8th to 6th century BC), a period to which the discovered relics of Thracian settlements here date back. The Romans built a strong fortress on the site in the days of Emperor Valens (364-378) to safeguard a strategic military and trade route connecting Constantinople to Pautalia (now Kyustendil) via Philippopolis (modern Plovdiv) during the outset of Barbarian incursions. The hill was reinforced in the late 4th century through building turrets in the most vulnerable points along the long straight sections of the fortress wall.

The fortress was overhauled under Byzantine Emperor Justinian (527-565) and in the days of his successor, Justin II, a defensive fortress wall was built in the north with two strong towers at the corners and a gate. In the medieval period, the fortress lost its importance as a bastion of defence and transitioned into simply a fortified village. It was reduced to rubble in the Ottoman invasion; still its ruins were discernible from afar well until the 19th century.

In addition to a fortress, the hill was a religious site used way back as such by the Thracians. Besides, vestiges of an early Christian church of the 4th century and of an early Christian basilica of the 6th century are extant. A baptistery with a cross-shaped piscine (a shallow basin) were unearthed in the latter. The “Ascension of Christ” church, which is now completely reconstructed, was built there in the second half of the 15th century.

After carrying out a range of restoration and conservation works, Tsari Mali Grad was opened to sightseers several years ago, quickly becoming a draw for history lovers. The fortress is accessible by car and on foot as well as via a panoramic train. Children can play safely on the rope bridges and the outdoor playground built specifically for that purpose. Located at the foot of the fortress, the village of Belchin boasts a water park that utilises the thermal springs in which the region abounds.

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