Pliska and Preslav – the First Bulgarian Capitals in the Balkans

If you ask a Bulgarian for something about the history of their country one of the first things that will be mentioned will be that Bulgaria is one of the oldest European states and one of the few that has never changed its name.

There is no doubt that such a claim is arguable but is very popular among the Bulgarian people and a definitive reason for national pride. After this very probable start of the conversation, a Bulgarian will talk about the National Revival, the fights against the Ottomans and the Wars for National Unity. The Middle Ages will be somehow left outside of such historical description – not that the Bulgarians are not proud with Cyril and Methodius, Tsar Simeon and the Golden Age and the rule of John Assen II, but all of these events happened so far in the past that very often seem irrelevant.

Such attitude towards the Medieval history of Bulgaria is to some extent self-understandable and could be discussed a lot. What is important in this case, however, is that this leads to omission of some of the most important events, monuments and artefacts of the Bulgarian past not only from conversations but also from tourist guides and routes.

If we continue the topic for the unchanged name of the country, we should say that Bulgaria changed its capital a few times during the centuries.

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Here in the Balkans, centres of the state were in chronological order Pliska, Preslav, Sredets (Sofia), Ochrid, Tarnovo, Sofia.

Pliska and Preslav are commemorated but not so often visited by tourists.

There are a few reasons why people do not visit so often the first two capital cities of Bulgaria. The most important one is the infrastructure – there is a very long and tedious road to both excavation sites. There is still no direct motorway from Sofia to them and even the motorway from Varna is not useful enough. The closest city is Shumen and it is a nice base for exploration of a region that is full of important Medieval remains and monuments such as the Madara Rider.

In fact, Pliska, Preslav and Madara were the heart of the First Bulgarian Empire. Therefore, a trip for visiting them is something that is worth it.

The obvious first place to visit is Pliska. It is considered to be chronologically the first capital, and also was capital of Bulgaria from 681 to 893. According to Medieval Bulgarian accounts, it was founded by Khan Asparukh, the leader of the Bulgarians that settled between Danube river and Stara Planina. At its apogee, the town was 22 large and was considered to be one of the largest cities in Europe. It consisted of an Outer and an Inner town. Among the preserved and excavated buildings in the Inner Town are a palace, a basilica and several aristocratic buildings. The Outer town is considered to be the place which was inhabited by the probably initially nomadic Bulgarian people.


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There were two really important events during the history of Pliska as a capital – the burning it by the Byzantine troops in 811 during the time of the Bulgarian Khan Krum and the conversion to Christianity done in 864-866 by the Bulgarian prince Boris. Both events changed not only the history but also the architecture of the city. Another change happened in 886 when the students of Cyril and Methodius came to Pliska and founded there one of the centres of the Bulgarian education and culture. The Pliska Literary School was headed by Naum of Pliska.

Unfortunately, there were also tragic events connected to the city and its importance. In the period 889-893, it was ruled by the first-born son of Boris – Vladimir. He tried to return to paganism and this led to persecutions of Christians and damage to different buildings related to Christianity. In the end, Boris was forced to come back from the monastery, attack Pliska and capture his own son. After that, he pronounced his other son – Simeon - as the ruler. Pliska was abandoned as a capital because of its paganistic past and a new one was built – Preslav.

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Preslav was a relatively small city, the centre of Christianity and culture and after 893 became not only capital of Bulgaria but also the centre of the cultural transformation that Simeon did in the country.

At a council from the same year held in the new capital Simeon pronounced the Bulgarian alphabet and language as the official one in the religious services of the country and started the Golden Age of the Bulgarian Literature and Culture. Preslav was thought to become a real competitor to the most influential city in the East – Constantinople. It was not a competition only for architectural achievements – Simeon managed to create a strong cultural tradition in Preslav that was able to compete with the Byzantine one as an equal.

The Bulgarian capital consisted similarly to Pliska of Inner and Outer Town. Some of the most important monuments as the Round Church were built in the Outer Town and were accessible for the ordinary people. The city was famous for its ceramic workshops that produced art ceramics, glazed tiles, ceramic icons and iconostases.

The fate of the city after the deaths of Simeon and his son Peter was unfortunate.

It was conquered successively by the troops of Svetoslav the prince of Kiev, the army of the Byzantine Empire, the forces of the Bulgarian Tsar Samuil and again by the Byzantine army.

In the years before 1018 when Bulgaria was conquered by the Byzantines, the Bulgarian capital was transferred to Ochrid.

After almost two centuries under the Byzantine rule in 1186, it became the centre of the power of Peter, brother of John Assen I. Both brothers were the restorers of the Bulgarian Empire. Because of another misfortune, they were not able to reestablish the capital in Preslav (the Byzantine garrison resisted their attacks successfully) and proclaimed Tarnovo for the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire.

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Nowadays, in both cities, there are many archaeological excavations and even attempts of recreating the beauty and greatness of the Medieval buildings and remains.

The archaeological sites are complemented by rich expositions in the museums of Pliska, Preslav and Shumen. The curious tourist tempted by the might of the Medieval Bulgarian state should also visit Madara where the Madara Rider still represents the art and historical memory of the ancient Bulgarians.

Above the monument, on the Madara plateau, there is a well-preserved fortress.  If you want to visit also a Christian site from the age of the glory days of Preslav, next to the city is located the monastery of Saint Panteleimon or Patleina. According to the accounts, prince Boris founded it. The history of the place and the spectacular view really worth it.

All these sites could be visited in one day if you reach them very early in the morning.

However, after that, you will need to stay for the night in Shumen. On the next day, you can go and visit the 1300 years of Bulgaria Memorial above the city of Shumen. It is well preserved and very emblematic for the communist art.

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Bilyana Ninova

Bilyana Ninova is a Marketing specialist, content creator and hobby photographer.

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