on November 24, 2012
Before I visited Bulgaria, I was pretty well versed on the country's more recent history such as being part of the Ottoman empire, its involvement in WWII and the Communist era. However, I knew little of the deeper past. I was surprised to learn that it is surprisingly rich. It began in the sixth and seventh centuries as Bulgar tribes began to unite in the areas around the Black Sea in the areas south of the Danube, where the eastern part of present-day Bulgaria is situated. In 680, under the leadership of Khan Asperu, the Bulgars defeated the Byzantine's and the first Bulgarian state was officially formed with its capital in Pliska.Pliska itself has something of a dramatic history and played a major role in the development of the Bulgarian state. The capital is thought to have been founded in 682 by Khan Asperu. The capital, at first, reflected the rather tribal nature of the Bulgars. Behind the thick walls (2.5m) the major area of the palace was made up of a large flat area upon which tents were erected. However, as the state grew, these gave way to far more tangible palaces and Pliska began to be seen as one of Europe's great cities. At the start of the ninth century it was even viewed as being a potential rival to Constantinople. There was also a religious element to the city's history. At first, the Bulgars were pagan. However, in the ninth century, Khan Boris I began the process of converting the state to Christianity. As a consequence of this, a large Basilica was built at Pliska. The move to Christianity was not an easy one and in 892 there was a revolt with those who still favoured paganism attempting to reverse the conversion. This ultimately failed and also sounded the death-knell for Pliska. The capital was seen to be somehow tainted with the pagan past and was moved to nearby Preslav.Since the heady days of the ninth century, Bulgaria has 'enjoyed' turbulent times. In the eleventh century, Bulgaria was occupied by the Byzantine empire and fell under the rule of Constantinople for almost two centuries. At the end of the twelfth century as the Byzantine's crumbled, Bulgaria gained independence once more, but subsequently fell under the rule of the Ottoman's, who remained in control until close to the end of the nineteenth century. Then, came two world wars and Communism. Therefore, it is unsurprising that little remains of Pliska. However, it is also unsurprising that the Bulgarians are proud of what the site represents are keen to excavate it and show it off to tourists.Visiting Pliska is like visiting a major heritage site crossed with an archaeological dig. There is plenty to see, but you get the impression that if you were to visit in five years time, it would be a far more worthwhile experience. The area that was taken up by the main palace is well excavated, but all that remains is the foundations. These form a rudimentary but extremely solid grid of large stone. Sadly, nothing remains of what once stood above these stones. The basilica that once stood proudly to mark Bulgaria's move to Christianity is also barely visible. There are a few stones and the occasional pillar still standing, but they give precious little idea of what it would once have been like. When we visited, much of the site was under excavation. Next to the palace building there was a football-sized field that was being dug out to reveal former rooms and buildings. Watching the excavations going on was an extremely interesting process (even though there was not that much to see. Then, in areas surrounding the palace, we saw lots of smaller digs that were delving into smaller sites that would once have been private dwellings. We learned that most of these would have been a cross between dug-outs and huts. The families dug down into the earth to created a base and then built up from that. So, the actual buildings would have been little more than one metre in height, but were spacious inside – although I imagine they would have been very damp. The final place to visit in Pliska was the museum. This was extremely interesting. It explained the formation and growth of the capital and then the nation's move to Christianity and the decline of the city's subsequent decline. However, unfortunately, the English descriptions were barely comprehensible at best and complete gibberish at worst. I was forced to get the majority of my information from my girlfriend's translations.Pliska is an extremely interesting place to visit. However, when you do, you must be mindful that it is the historical significance rather than the present day spectacle that provides its worth. I would also argue that it would be better to go there in three or four years when the excavation is complete.
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