Crossroads of civilisations

Kaleto, a fortress towering over the city of Mezdra, holds traces spanning almost the entire human history

Photo: Adelina Lozanova The solid fortress walls tower over the hill, which protects major thoroughfares connecting northern and southern Bulgaria.

Less than 100 kilometres northwest of Sofia, perched on a steep rocky hill overhanging the left bank of the River Iskar in the outskirts of the city of Mezdra, lies a remarkable archaeological complex called simply Kaleto (which translates as “The Fortress”). The hill has the natural protection of its surroundings and is located at the intersection of major thoroughfares used from ancient times to this day.

This crossroads of civilisations keeps remnants from periods spanning almost the entire human history - from the Chalcolithic until the Middle Ages. The hill holds traces of two fortified settlements dating back to the late Chalcolithic (5th millennium BC) and the transition to the Bronze Age (4th millennium BC), which were destroyed by conflagrations. Numerous finds indicate that at the end of the Chalcolithic the settlement near modern Mezdra was a thriving craftsmen's hub.

Among the most significant finds of that time is the so-called Aurochs Sanctuary, dedicated to a now extinct species of wild cattle which the ancient people believed held up the world on its horns. In the 1st millennium BC, an early Thracian sacred complex was built on the same site. Thracians from the Triballi tribe inhabited the area when in the 1st century BC the entire region of Moesia was conquered by the Roman Empire.

Over the ensuing centuries Kaleto operated as a Roman stronghold, fortified settlement and a pagan cult centre. Many bronze coins minted under the rule of the Roman emperors Domitian, Claudius II and Probus have been discovered in addition to bronze fibulas, belt adornments, ceramics and weapons. An extremely rare find is the bronze casting in the shape of an eagle found under the base of the fortress wall. It represents one of the earliest depictions of this majestic bird - the symbol of the Roman Empire, an embodiment of power and strength.

The fortress was destroyed multiple times during the Migration Period. It was restored yet again sometime after the 8th-9th century, when the region was finally placed under the control of the medieval Bulgarian state. Kaleto was once again ravaged in the 11th century after its conquest by the Byzantine Emperor Basil II. It was rebuilt in the 13th-14th century during the Second Bulgarian Empire and ruined one last time at the end of the 14th century in the wake of the Ottoman occupation.

After years of intensive excavations, in 2013 the complex was restored and turned into a tourist attraction thanks to efforts under the History, Culture and Nature - The Tourist Attractions of Mezdra Municipality programme funded with EU assistance. Some of the finds uncovered during the excavations are permanently on show in the complex's exhibition hall. The fortress itself has been restored to its Roman and late antiquity look (2nd-5th century).

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