YEAR 681 0F THE CHRISTIAN ERA: THE FOUNDATION

It was the Year of Grace 680. Constantinople, the magnificent capital of the Byzantine Empire, was a scene of theological disputes again. Theologians contested a deviation from the Orthodox faith. The Sixth Ecumenial Council was convened for that purpose and Emperor Constantine IV /668-685/ took an active part in it. The purity of the Orthodox faith was saved but a prosaic event suddenly interrupted the wise debate.

As a matter of fact a rebellious people, the Bulgars of Khan Asparuh, had been causing trouble at the delta of the river Danube for some dozen of years already. As a result of the vicissitudes of history they had moved away from the tribal core in the northern Pontic steppe to seek a new homeland in legitimate Byzantine territories. All the resistance put up by the Byzantine garrisons in the forts was in vain. What was most terrible was that the Bulgars entered into close relations with another large barbarian people, The Slavs, whom the Empire suffered from for centuries. It was exactly the reason behind the Byzantine Emperor's decision to abandon his ecclesiastical affairs and undertake a difficult and risky campaign in the Danube delta.

In those days the old Roman border along the Danube was in a deplorable state after the numerous barbarian invasions. The onetime strong cities "Oeskus", "Nove", "Ratiaria" and others were abandoned in ruins. The Emperor Justinianus I /527-565/ tried to reinforce the border by putting up hundreds of new forts along the range of mountain Haemus /N.B. which today is Stara Planina/. He did it only partially because of the never-ending Slav waves sweeping the Empire.

The Byzantine emperors found it was beyond their capacity to fight with the Slavs. The latter were not an organized army that one might battle with normally but huge masses of people invading the state from the north. Inspired by the thought of Byzantine wealth the Slavs chose to raid cities like Thessalonica. However, the Slav settlement all over the Balkans down to the Peloponnes scared Byzantium a lot more. Byzantine authors were grieved to note that the Empire was being Slavicised.

Archaeological studies recreate what the numerous poor Slav villages along the Danube were like. These were organized in the proximity of the declining Byzantine cities. Ultimately, the Empire had to swallow their presence. This is how the situation looked when the well organized mounted Bulgars arrived.

The strong Byzantine army left Constantinople in the spring of 680. Some of the troops made a land crossing while the core troops led by the Emperor Constantine IV disembarked at the Danube delta. On seeing how numerous these were, the Bulgars and their allies, the Slav detachments, retreated to the fort "Onglos". In the next couple of days the Byzantines did not attack and the troops were demoralized. The culminating point was when a gout attack suffered by the Emperor sent him away with courtiers to the nearby spa in "Mesembria".

Khan Asparuh seized the excellent opportunity. Taking advantage of the rumor of the Emperor's flight he delivered a mortal blow to the Byzantine armies. The defeated troops were chased down to "Odessos". Most of the Byzantines were killed or taken prisoner of war and the news of the terrible defeat spread fast round the Empire. In the next couple of months the Khan of the Bulgars took the trouble to polish relations of alliance with the Slavs and was involved in several blitz operations south of the Haemus.

Thus all of a sudden the Byzantine Empire was forced to comply. In the summer of 681 Constantine IV had to conclude a peace treaty with the Bulgars and, to quote a contemporary who recorded the events in a chronicle, an annual tribute was to be paid according to the terms of the treaty which was a " disgrace to Romans". A new star, the State of Bulgars and Slavs, rose above the Balkans. Theirs was the first barbarian kingdom that scarred the face of the Eastern Roman Empire in what used to be the province of Moesia Inferior - north of the eastern chain of Haemus. The future was to be one of rivalry and wars between the two states but also of cultural and economic cooperation.

 

SUPPLEMENT: VELIKA PLISKA

The remains of Pliska lie some two kilometers north of the present-day town bearing the same name. The oldest monument, in which the name of the first Bulgarian capital is mentioned is the Chatalar column from the reign of Khan Omurtag. It is beyond any doubt that by 681 Pliska was already the capital of the young state. The town was surrounded by a deep moat, which neither invasions and destruction, nor the five-centuries-long foreign domination, nor modern agriculture have been able to obliterate. A strong wall divided the town into an "Inner City", which contained the palaces, the public edifices and the citadel, and the "Outer Town", which comprised the remaining part of the settlement. It was here that were discovered remains of dwellings and artisan's workshops, warehouses and, of course, the Grand Basilica, erected by the last Khan and the first Prince of Bulgaria, who has gone down in history as Tsar Boris.

The conversion of the Bulgarians to Christianity under Prince Boris was one of the main reasons for transferring the capital to Veliki Preslav in year 893. Pliska continued to exist but was overshadowed by the new capital. Nevertheless, the town retained some of its importance and is mentioned in chronicles and geographical maps until the XVIIth and XVIIIth century. Later it sank into oblivion and even the remnants of the ancient capital gradually disappeared.

In the early post-Liberation years Pliska was a veritable enigma for the historians. No one knew where to look for the ruins of the mythical capital city. Konstantin Irecek, in 1886, was the first to suggest that the ruins near the then village of Aboba were very likely remains from the ancient capital. But there was no trustworthy evidence to confirm its existence and location. The name remained a myth - and a dream - in the people's consciousness! A myth which captivated the minds of two young foreigners that had come to Bulgaria and embraced it as their second homeland. These were two Czech teachers, Hermann and Karel Skorpil, a mathematician and a naturalist, who for years on end went round the high schools of Varna and Sliven, Plovdiv and Sofia, fascinated by the legends of ancient Bulgaria. It was precisely in the brief months of the school vacations, while the learned historians were arguing "for" and "against" the existence of the mythical city, that the two brothers unearthed near Aboba the first stone fragments of the Bulgarian Khans' capital.

The excavations undertaken by Karel Skorpil in 1899-1900 at Pliska restored to the nation a unique historic and archaeological monument and with it the pride and dignity of thirteen centuries of Bulgarian history. It is still difficult to form any comprehensive idea of what the first city looked like. What we have to rely on are the unearthed remains of monumental palace buildings - the Throne Room and the Big Palace, the Small Palace, the boyars' dwellings, the trade and artisan structures around the southern gate and the Grand Basilica, the first Christian edifice in Bulgaria.

The austere grandeur of Pliska, the timeless wisdom embodied, as it were, remind the visitor of such great monuments of Antiquity as Mycenae and legendary Troy. And just as in Troy, the remains of the first Bulgarian capital were first touched not by professional archaeologists and historians, but by the fascination of a vision coming from the remote past of Bulgaria. Especially striking is the impact on the visitor by his first encounter with the remains of the Great Palace, by the huge stone blocks that went into its construction and the severe and awe-inspiring lines of the architectural design.

The finds that have come to light, so far, testify that the building traditions of the early Bulgarians, influenced by the monumental Eastern and Roman architecture, had found their first large scale application here. Three concentric fortified systems were erected at Pliska. The Outer Town, enclosed by the already mentioned deep moat, covered an area of 2.5 km2. Almost at its center rose the inner fortress, which was the core of the Inner City, covering an area of about 0.5 km2. At each corner of the wall there rose a trapezium-shaped tower, while a gate flanked by two pentagonal towers was pierced in the middle of each of the walls. The eastern gate seems to have been the main entrance.

The third innermost defensive ring was set apart by a massive brick wall surrounding the citadel with the palace complex, of which the so-called Great Palace deserves special attention. It is the largest and relatively best preserved /though in ruins/ structure of the Inner City. A high wall separates the Great from the Small Palace. The mode of construction of both, however, is the same - large stone blocks and fired bricks. The monumental aspect of the Great Palace contrasts with the light and graceful structure of the Small Palace, covering an area of 568 m2. In the small Palace were the Khan's apartments. It is from this earliest period that also date the other finds in the palace complex: the round basin, the chamber used as a bath with a hypocaust /built-in hollow space allowing the passage of hot air to heat the room/, the big rectangular pool, the water-storage reservoir, etc. In the Inner City were the dwelling of the boyars, in which Prince Boris accommodated Methodius' disciples on their return from Great Moravia.

Three secret passageways were discovered in the Inner City. One served as a link between the Great and the Small Palace. The best preserved is the tunnel which led from the apartments of the Small Palace outside of the north wall. It is 1 meter wide and 2 meter high. The walls are faced with tiles.

The Grand Basilica, whose foundations can clearly be distinguished, was the largest Christian three-aisle church at that time in the central parts of the Balkan Peninsula. Some 100 meters long and 30 meters wide, it is considered one of the grandest creations of Bulgarian architecture from the second half of the IXth century. Several marble columns survive from the Grand Basilica, bearing inscriptions of the cities of Rodosto, Burdiso, Arcadiopolis and others. They were probably re-used for the construction of the church, having previously served to line in a double row the alley leading from the main entrance to the Great Palace. The names of the cities were associated with important victories of the Bulgarian Khans, which had led to their incorporation into the Bulgarian State.

The museum at the archaeological site houses numerous finds uncovered at excavations, as well as plans, sketches and small-scale models of the buildings and fortifications of Pliska. Adjacent is the grave of Karel Skorpil who had expressed the wish to be laid to rest in the visionary world of his dream.