Have you heard of Cherven?
We hadn’t until we visited Bulgaria.
And yet Cherven was one of the most important cities during the period of Bulgarian independence in the 12th to 14th centuries.
Even Lonely Planet doesn’t do it enough justice. Our South-East Europe book only devotes two sentences to Cherven. Which is a shame because if you are in the Ruse area, then you really don’t want to miss out on Cherven.
Cherven is great when it comes to first impressions. Perched high up on a cliff top plateau, the fortress and town only needed two walls as the natural cliffs provided all the protection it needed. As I climbed the many, many steps to the fortress, I began to admire more and more the determination of the people who built their town up here. Just imagine carrying all your building materials up that many steps!
As we reach the top, our guide, Iskren, points out what looks like a water basin or fountain, but with some curious holes in it.
“Do you know what this was used for?” he asks?
It looks like it would be used for water, but the holes would cause it all to drain out.
“That was where visitors could tie up their horses when they arrived at the fortress.” he explains, “Most people think it was for water, but there is actually no water up here.”
No water up here? That’s strange. Most towns are built around water supplies for a good reason – we need water to survive. There is a river nearby at the bottom of the hill, but it is a good hike away.
As we enter the fortress, Iskren promises to explain how the people gathered their water, and how they protected their access to water during times of siege.
As we come into a grand aristocrats residence (it even had it’s own private church within it’s walls), we approach what appears to be a well. But how can you have a well on top of a mountain? As we look closer we see it is a long and dark stairway. Iskren explains, “this passage leads all the way down to a water source at the bottom of the hill, the structure no longer survives, but it would have been covered all the way down.”
Have you ever heard of a more clever scheme for getting water to such a strategic location?
But that isn’t the only interesting and quirky thing about Cherven. The site has the largest concentration of churches ever found in a Bulgarian site, with 15 found so far. Considering that only a 1/4 of the site has been excavated, and that the town would only have supported a population of 15,000 this is pretty impressive indeed.
The churches, mostly in the Byzantine style also have a record number of inscriptions which have been preserved and found, making this site a treasure trove of information for archeologists.
Ever wonder what a structure from the medieval ages would look like if it was still standing? Then you need to visit Cherven. One of the highlights of the site is the old tower. The tower was originally a gate when the area was part of the Byzantine empire. Later when the town became a Bulgarian town the walls were refortified and the gate was turned into a tower. This tower has been incredibly important to archeologists and serves as a model when other towers from the period are reconstructed.
Eventually in 1388 the site was conquered by the Ottomans, and some of the artillery “battle balls” they used are still on the site. The Ottoman period was a period of dramatic change for the Bulgarian people. Ruse became the main political and economic centre for the region. The archdeacon moved his church and residence to a walled in area just outside the citadel region, before finally moving to Ruse where he is still located today.
The Ottomans didn’t have much use for Cherven. It soon fell to disuse and ruin. But for the last several years archeologists have been diligently excavating and studying the site and some structures have been partially restored.
For visitors to the Ruse region, make sure you don’t miss out on Cherven. In fact, if you are planning to visit the rock hewn monasteries of Basarbova and Ivanovo, then it isn’t difficult to add Cherven to your itinerary. We visited all three sites in one day easily.