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  • Writer's pictureStefan Ivanov

Tsepina Fortress

Once upon a time there was a fortress that no one ever managed to capture it in battle.

It rose to the top of the Batak Mountains and its walls revealed such a view that it was breathless.

The ruins of Tsepina fortress in Rhodopes, Bulgaria

My dear friends, Tsepina Fortress rises high on a hill in the Western Rhodopes, about 4 kilometers after the village of Dorkovo, Rakitovo Municipality - on the conical peak Tsepina, which is 1136 meters high. The peak is surrounded on the east by the Metoshko gorge, on the west by Kostin dol, and on the north it borders the Kirkaria gorge. The fortress is only accessible from the south, where the real city was located at the foot.

It is obvious that the place was not chosen by chance - there is a captivating panoramic view of the whole area. You can see the rocky ridges of Pirin, as well as the nearby peaks of Rila.

What is the fortress itself?

The fortress consisted of two parts: a fortified city center with an inner city (the fortress itself) and an outer city (suburbium or suburb). The suburb, called "polis" by the Byzantine chroniclers, was located at the foot of the fortress. Here were the homes of the population. This area has not been explored, except for one church. The research is focused on the area of ​​the fortress.

The route of the outer fortress walls of the fortified city core with a length of 640 meters and a thickness of 1.8 meters has been discovered. They surround an area of ​​25 acres with a single entrance in the southeast.

In the northeast corner there was a tower with a polygonal irregular shape.

The walls are reinforced and built of quarry stones, soldered with white mortar, with hidden wooden nets of longitudinal and transverse beams (santrachi), typical of the construction of mature feudalism.

The space in the highest and naturally protected part of the city center was surrounded by walls, 142 meters long and 1.8 meters thick. They form the citadel itself. It has an irregular polygonal shape in accordance with the terrain. The walls were built in the same way of quarry stones welded with mortar. Two of the largest water reservoirs are included in this self-fortified ensemble, probably the seat of the feudal lord. On one of them, which was built on the very top, 8 meters high, with a rectangular shape on the inside and octagonal on the outside, arched at the top, probably stood a polygonal tower - a dungeon for defensive purposes.

The inner fortress in its western part is connected with the western fortress wall of the fortified city core with a transverse wall. There were two quarter towers on its south side.

From that time are both churches and the other two reservoirs in the southern part of the fortress.

The study of the fortress "Tsepina" became possible thanks to the numerous information given by Byzantine sources and concerning the history of Bulgaria.

How to get to here?

If you are traveling on the road Pazardzhik - Velingrad, at the fork for Rakitovo turn left. Keep the road to Dorkovo. Once you enter the village, follow the signs that will take you out of the village on a really good and wide road. You will find yourself in a nice parking lot at the foot of the hill and the fortress. Here you can leave your car, and the ascent on the wide and flat path is almost imperceptible.

The walk is suitable for people of all ages.

On the way up you will enjoy truly unique panoramas that open from this height. The views are phenomenal, as you will see from the photos I managed to take.

In no more than ten minutes you will be on top of the hill. You will be greeted by ancient remains of majestic antiquity, as well as information boards that will tell the story of this interesting place.

The history of the fortress

Archaeological excavations in the area have established that during the Early Iron Age there was a Thracian settlement here, which also existed during the Roman and Late Antiquity.

The hill has been inhabited since the end of the 5th millennium BC. Remains of a Thracian sanctuary of the Bessi tribe have also been found. After the Christianization of Thrace in the IV century, a large monastery complex appeared on the hill, from which traces can be found even today.

Remains of a three-nave basilica from the early Christian era (V - VI century) have been found, which was rebuilt into a single-nave church during the First Bulgarian State. A large number of homes have been found. They were quadrangular buildings, built in their lower part of stones, welded with mud, in a superstructure with bricks, covered on wooden structures with large tiles - tegulas and teapots.

The apartments are mostly one-piece, some of them connected by corridors. They were built next to each other, without yards, but with transitions between them.

In the IX century the formed fortress entered the borders of the then Bulgaria, but later in the XI it was conquered by Byzantium.

In 1205, after the majestic victory of Tsar Kaloyan in the battle of Edirne, the fortress became part of Bulgaria again.

Tsepina Fortress and the whole region flourished in the first half of the 13th century, when the place was inhabited by the despot Alexy Slav, who separated from the Bulgarian state in 1207-1208 into an independent feudal estate.

The ruins of Tsepina fortress in Rhodopes, Bulgaria

Who is Alexy Slav?

Alexy Slav is the son of one of the sisters of the Assenevtsi brothers.

After the death of Tsar Kaloyan in 1207, the throne was taken by his nephew Boril - son of his other sister and cousin of Slav.

Alexy Slav does not recognize Boril as ruler.

A view from the ruins of Tsepina fortress in Rhodopes, Bulgaria

Despot Slav's estates covered a large part of the Rhodopes and the Pirin region. They were reunited with Bulgaria after the battle of Klokotnitsa in 1230.

With diplomacy and tenacity, Despot Slav managed to preserve his possessions for more than twenty years, despite the difficult situation in the Balkans at the time.

He is also known to have been a great builder.

A view from the ruins of Tsepina fortress in Rhodopes, Bulgaria

In the Middle Ages the Rhodopes were called Slaveevi forests. It is supposed to come from the name of Despot Slav, whence later derives the name of the town of Dospat.

In 1208 Alexy Slav brought to the fortress "Tsepina" his young thirteen-year-old wife Margaret-Isabel, illegitimate daughter of the Latin Emperor Henry of Flanders.

An empty shell on a grass

When the young aristocrat arrives at her husband's harsh stone fortress on the Rhodope Mountains, she is met on the doorstep by her mother-in-law Tamara, Alexy's mother.

The girl looked at the inaccessible stone walls and said in French: "My God, this will probably be my grave!"

Tamara, who doesn't understand a word, decides it's a blessing and replies, "Amen, God may it happen!"

A view from the ruins of Tsepina fortress in Rhodopes, Bulgaria

Unhappy and far from home, the young girl spent hours contemplating the surrounding hills, legend has it.

Unfortunately, she died a year later.

At her request, she is buried on the neighboring peak, so that at the dawn of the new day, the sun shines first on her grave.

Later, Despot Slav remarried - this time to the niece of the ruler of Epirus - Theodore Comnenus.

In the period 1246 - 1254 the fortress was owned by the Nicaean emperor John Duka Vatatsi, but Michael II Assen managed to regain it.

During the reign of Ivan Assen II the fortress became part of the Bulgarian state again. Its last ruler was Ivan Alexander. In 1256, on the occasion of the conclusion of the Regina Peace Treaty, Theodore II Lascaris wrote: "The magnificent, famous and famous fortress of Tsepina was ceded to my kingdom."

In the second half of the 13th and 14th centuries the fortress was the subject of fierce disputes between Bulgaria and Byzantium due to its unique location.

Legend has it that Tsepina was conquered by the Turks in the 14th century with treachery.

According to legend, the attackers caught a small child and threatened his mother that they would kill him if he did not tell them how to cross the fortress walls. The frightened woman advises them to cut off the water supply and go through the canals.

When the Ottomans conquered the Rhodopes, the fortress was destroyed.

The population is fiercely resisting.

Legends tell the tragic fate of the Rhodopes during the conquest of this area - the guard of the Rhodopes surrendered after a 9-month siege, after the fall of the fortress "Rakovitsa" near the village of Golyamo Belovo.

Although the fortress was destroyed, the area was not depopulated during the Ottoman rule. The settlement at its foot still exists. The two fortress churches were rebuilt, there were probably monks in them.

However, the mass conversion to Islam in 1666 in the Rhodope region ended life here.

218 churches and 33 monasteries from Kostenets to Stanimaka were destroyed.

"And so, by God's will, the Bulgarians were scattered in" Tsepina" - priest Metodi Draginov ends his note with pain. Then the two churches in the fortress were probably destroyed, the settlement was abandoned and life was deserted for a long time.

This is the rich history of this charming place.

And now walk with me through the impressive remains, witnesses of so many events, destinies, joy and sorrow.

I wish you an exceptional and impressive walk!

And as an ending,

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