Rousse Regional Museum of History
"All that I experienced afterwards had already been in Roustchouk". Elias Canetti
The Medieval Town of Cherven

Stoyan Yordanov, Curator at theArchaeology Department


At around 35 km to the south of Rousse, next to the contemporary village of Cherven in the valley of the Cherni Lom river, is located the Medieval town of Cherven – one of the largest towns of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom (12th-14th century) and one of the best preserved and studied archaeological sites in present-day Bulgaria.

In the period of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom over the rock hill, surrounded by the Cherni Lom river was located the large and glorious town of Cherven, one of the most significant military, administrative, economic and spiritual centers of Bulgaria. As early as the 6th century on a part of the hill was erected a large Early Byzantine fortress. It existed only several decades, but on its site during the First Bulgarian Kingdom (7th-11th century) appeared not very large settlement. When the Second Bulgarian Kingdom was created in 1187, the fortress already bore the name of Cherven.
The central location of Cherven in the Rousse Lom river valley, the important roads, which are crossing here, the terrain which is easy for defense, the fertile lands around, as well as other favourable conditions, predetermined its fast growth. After the restoration of the independent Bulgarian Church in 1235, Cherven became the seat of one of the largest archbishoprics, which placed it among the important clerical and cultural centers of the country. Remarkable in this occasion is the evidence, preserved in the historical records, that when St. Theodosius of Tarnovo, a prominent Bulgarian public figure and propagator of Hesychasm, left the capital of Tarnovo, he arrived in Cherven to continue his spiritual growth.

During the second half of the 13th century the town was distinguishable among all of the others in the Rousse Lom river valley. The new settlers became the reason in the 14th century the settled territory to grow several times, and the new territories were being surrounded with separate fortification walls. Other unfortified neighbourhoods emerged as well. The prosperous two-century development of Cherven was to a large degree the result of its remoteness from the zones of active military struggles. Despite that, it has been conquered, and probably destroyed, several times. In the spring of 1241 it has been devastated by a Tatar army, which ravaged the flourishing settlements of the Rousse Lom river valley. In 1277 it was conquered by a Byzantine army, which fought with the Bulgarian rural Tzar Ivaylo. The fatal conquest of the town took place in 1388 by the Ottoman army, which is recorded by the historical chronicles. This time Cherven was destroyed by a massive fire, which is being affirmed by the archaeological research. The following centuries were marked with a gradual decay in its development. In the beginning the town preserved its administrative and military functions within the Ottoman state, but gradually turned into a small provincial settlement. Its population decreased rapidly, but continued to be primarily Bulgarian. In the 16th century the seat of the Bishop of Cherven was transferred to Rousse. At that time the inhabitants of the town have left the rock hill and lived only in its foot. Travelers, brought by its old glory, discovered only ruins. Over the hill continued to rise only the tower, which turned into a symbol of indestructibility and eternity.

The hill of Cherven was revived again in 1910/1911. This is the time when Vassil Zlatarski placed the beginning of the archaeological research by excavating one of the cathedral churches of Cherven. The following excavations again brought out of the earth and oblivion the old town, inspired to it new life and glory, gave to it a new meaning. Nowadays the rock hill of Cherven attracts thousands of visitors, which are coming to see one of the most imposing, studied and well preserved Bulgarian Medieval towns.

The built-up territory of Cherven had an area of around 180 ha and significantly surpassed the size of the rest of the Medieval Bulgarian towns. There were differentiated a so-called “inner” fortified town, which covered the rock hill, and an unfortified “outer” town or “undertown”, which was located at its foot. Cherven was build with public, residential and economic buildings, and their density inside the Inner town was higher. The buildings were rising to several storeys and narrow streets were running between them. The main streets, with around 2 m of width, crossed in length the whole of the town. A local specific is that due to the staging growth of its area, the inner town was also separated into several zones. The most distinguishable is the Citadel, which covered the highest part of the hill. It covered the area of the former Byzantine fortress. In the Citadel were located the Castle of the Cherven’s Boyars (aristocrats) the public buildings, the largest and most beautiful churches. At the eastern end of the Citadel was located the town’s square. The remaining territory of the town, located to the west of the Citadel, has been acquired gradually. In the beginning there were predominantly craftsmen workshops, but in the 14th century they were pushed away by residential neighbourhoods. The Outer town is still being studied. Some investigations show that there were located the more polluting and noisy craft productions of iron, and has probably been the residence of poverty.

The great military-strategic significance of Cherven was the reason for it to have a complex fortification system, which combined the characteristics of the Medieval Bulgarian fortification construction with some local peculiarities. The fortification walls were blocking only the accessible directions, and in the more dangerous sections they were strengthened with guard towers. They were constructed with crushed stones and plaster, but sometimes beams were also built within the wall. The walls reached about 10 m height, and the towers – 12 m. The strongest one was the eastern fortification wall of the Citadel, where three large rectangular thick towers were located. The path to the gates was a narrowed pass, which increased its sustainability. Well preserved even nowadays are the fortification stairs, which can be seen on the internal face of this wall. The western wall of the Citadel was the raised surviving and high standing old Antiquity wall, which was shaped by large rectangular stone blocks. A new pass was shaped here, the shape of its single tower was also changed and it became rectangular, rising up as high as three floors. It was destined that this tower due to its strong construction to survive through the centuries and today to be one of the few examples for the outlook and the capabilities of the Bulgarian Medieval fortification construction. This is the model, followed in the 1930s in the old capital of Tarnovo for the reconstruction of the so-called “Baldwin’s tower”. The Citadel had a fortification wall to the north as well. It followed the wreath of the slope and had no towers. The fortification facilities in the western part of the Cherven rock hill were constructed in several stages, depending on the growth of the settlement territory. The surrounding wall here has passed along the edge of the slope but it also had additional internal walls. In the most western part, where the height of the rock hill is the lowest and it reaches down almost the level of the river valley, probably during the second half of the 14th century, the last expansion of the fortifications of Cherven was implemented. The fortification towers here were located very close to one another they were small and with semi-circle shape, which distinguishes them from the ones of the Citadel. Some data is showing that this wall has been the most vulnerable and that the Ottomans have conquered the town through entering from here. For a more reliable defense of the town and of its fortification facilities, the residents of Cherven were also searching for a higher, divine protection. This is the reason for some of the churches to be built insde the fortification wall itself. Large stone blocks with incised crosses were walled in it. The crosses and images of saints-patrons of the town were also located around the gates. Independent fortifications were constructed around the two underground water-supply facilities, which were of vital importance for the survival of the castle. Cherven is the only place in Bulgaria, where such facilities have been exhibited for visitors. They consist of an underground spring, from where the water has been delivered to the Inner town through a tunnel and through stairs, carved into the rock.

The Medieval Bulgarian towns where castles are found are only few. The largest among them is the castle of the Tsars in Tarnovo, but the one in Cherven has been excavated earlier and is notorious with its size and representativeness. The castle was an independent internal fortress, which was taking the most leveled in the southern end of the Citadel. It had strong outer walls, supported with buttresses. To the walls were attached the several-storey economic and residential premises. In the ground floors there were military warehouses, where 30 large stone battle balls were discovered. Inside the vast internal yard of the castle a small church has been constructed with a deep cistern, carved into the rock near the church. During the time of its long existence the castle has been reorganized more than once. The most significant were the changes in its eastern end, where a large residential wings has been constructed, together with a keep tower (donjon) for last defense. This was the place where the stairs of one of the water-supply facilities was leading to, and thus increased the reliability of the defense of the castle.

So far in Cherven have been revealed the ruins of 12 Orthodox churches, which have different size, decoration and architecture characteristics. An inscription says that once there has also been an Armenian church. The construction of new churches did not cease even after the town was conquered by the Ottomans, but the churches built after that were smaller and simple. At that time one of the Orthodox churches (№10) was transformed into a mosque, and in order for the superiority of Islam to be underlined, another one was erected in the high part of the town.
The largest and most representative ones were Churches № 2 and № 4 inside the Citadel and № 1 and № 10 in the west section of the rocky hill. They are uniting in their plan the cross – the notorious Christian symbol, and the dome, which is a strong architecture construction. All elements of the church are given the meaning by a deep Christian symbolism. There the dome and the altar are representing Heaven, and the lower parts – Earth, the eastern part is Paradise, and the western – Hell. The wall decoration was also subdued to this symbolism, but better preserved frescoes are revealed only in Churches № 5 and № 10.
The churches had vast naves and large narthexes, over which the bell tower as rising. Their facades were very picturesque. The typical were composed of alternating belts of stone and bricks, as well as the ceramic ornaments with shining polish, built into the high parts of the walls. Church №2 has been covered with lead plates, and the rest – with tiles.

The finds, discovered during archaeological excavations, show that Cherven has been a significant crafts and trade center. Most of the crafts known at the time where practiced there as well, and the served to the everyday needs of the population. The potters made ceramic vessels with sgraffito decoration, the stonemasons made churches and homes, the woodworkers made furniture, the weavers and tailors dressed the citizens of Cherven. The large amount of goldsmith tools show that gold processing was widely spread. Of all crafts, typical for Cherven, were the extraction of iron and metallurgy. The iron ore, which is spread in small quantities on various places along the Rousse Lom river valley, was half-melted in pear-shaped kilns carved into the rock massive, and after that by forging the impurities were removed. The remains of these kilns are still very well preserved. During the archaeological excavations were discovered many coins, the predominant number being from the 14th century. Several large coin hoards have also been found, which except for Bulgarian, are containing Wallachian and even early Ottoman coins. They represent the town as a large center for trade not only with the territories beyond the Danube, but also with the southern ends of the Balkan Peninsula, which have already been conquered by the Ottomans.