The fortress of Odessos and Varna

Established in 6th century B.C. the town of Varna (Odessos) quickly proves to be a major strategic and commercial centre. During the era of the regular Barbarian attacks and everlasting wars, when the blossoming cities turn into an easy and desired target, the defense became a priority. That's why, the most important central part of the towns, if not the whole settlements, was surrounded with fortress walls. Varna (Odessos) was not an exception.

As there are not preserved remnants of the walls surrounding Varna, we can judge about their existence in the past from the antic writings. The earliest information can be found in the writings of the Gothic historian Jordanes who describes the unsuccessful attempts of Phillip II Macedonian to take over the town in 341 B.C. - the priests and local governors go in front of the gates and negotiate an agreement. During 1st century B.C., as a part of the aim of the Gothic king Burebista as all Pontos cities, Odessos was damaged, and the fortress walls were destroyed. The revival and reconstruction of the town lead to rising up new walls. More information and archaeological structures are preserved from the Roman period. According to a preserved sign from Odessos, the reconstruction of the fortress took place in the beginning of 1st century B.C., during the rule of emperor Tiberius. Additional supporting operations follow later, as the one in 536, when Odessos is proclaimed to be an administrative center of a quaestura. As a result of the cruel attacks of the Avars during the 7th century, it can be defined that the Bulgarians led by khan Asparukh, discovered the walls of Odessos - Varna damaged and destroyed. They built up high bank on their place, along the coast, south of the town - the so-called Bank of Asparukh. After Varna was taken over by the Byzantines they rebuilt the fortress. We do not keep any exact proof of when these works took place, but it is recorded that the town was well defended against the attacks of the Pechenegs and Kumans in 11th and 12th centuries. Later on Nikita Honiat writes that the town walls were destroyed by the troops of Bulgarian tsar Kaloyan in 1202. Next, during the siege of Amedeus VI duke of Savoy in 1366, the fortress is again a stable defense; similar is the situation during the battle in 1444. The Europeans and the Turks, visiting the town during the ages to follow, all describe the "castle", "citadel", "tower" of Varna. The fortress was greatly developed and taken care of, in the end of Turkish rule - further descriptions and plans also being preserved from this period.
How did the fortress of Varna look through the ages?

The Antique Fortress

The scarce archaeological works in the nowadays densely populated region of old Varna, can partly define the location of the Roman fortress. Some preserved fragments were also discovered along "Primorski" Blvd across from the Aquarium, "Mihail Koloni" Street, next to the "St Nicholas" church, close to the spot of "Happy" - now to a popular restaurant in downtown Varna, next to the Navy headquarters etc., and continuing further along the coastline. Later on a part of the fortress falls apart and as the Shkorpil brothers inform, the remnants "could still be seen under the water level". With the construction of the breakwater the formed sand beach slowly destroyed the steep coast. The base of the walls (around 3 m under its contemporary level) was formed from small stones, and the upper part was constructed from larger stone blocks, tightly aligned. Their height rises up to 8 m, and in width they vary from 1 to 3.5 m in the vulnerable parts. It is supposed that along the top of the fortress were located the weapon turrets and a corridor where the soldiers would walk. Only the quadrangular turrets were less, on certain strategic locations - higher and slightly forward. The only hexagonal turrets were around the gates. We suppose that in the town centre, in the area of the Roman thermae, there was an acropolis, even though no archaeological works prove it. The streets plan in old Odessos is not known either. As in every other antic town, two main streets crossed it. They followed the four directions of the world and were called Dekumanus maximus and Cardo maximus, and the parallel streets formed the different neighborhoods. At the crossing point of the two major streets was the town plaza - The Forum. The time of last existence of the Roman fortress is not agreed upon. Their recorded usage dates back to 6th century, but according to various researchers, they were more or less utilized until 10th, 14th or 15th century.

The Fortress during the Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages the fortress and the town were much smaller compared to the antiquity. Even though no proofs tell us about its exact location and period of existence, some written sources can be helpful. In the beginning of the 20th century the Shkorpil brothers assume that the fortress had been utilized in the Middle Ages. However the feudal abilities were limited, and the construction and maintenance of big fortresses impossible. Later records describe smaller dimensions of the fortress and also its antic origin. These descriptions lead to the conclusion that the Roman fort walls were in use until 10th and 11th centuries and then abandoned; and the new fortress that takes their place, was being equalized with the so called Kale Ici (Turkish - Old town), which existed until 1830.

The fortress from the period of the Middle Ages went around the area of the House of the Transport Workers and the upper part of "San Stefano" Street. It has unusual shape, oriented in directions Northwest-Southeast, and surrounded an area of close to 40000 sq.m. The walls were built as high as 8 m, and as wide as 1.5 to 2 m; the material for the construction was huge stone blocks. Along the walls are located the weapon turrets and 12 quadrangular higher turrets. In the next period the fortress was surrounded with an additional outer wall, as high as 3 m. In the old records it is mentioned that a dig, swamped in the coastal end, surrounded the walls. In 18th century when Brogniart (Bronyar) arrived, the dig still existed only along the northern part; and after the beginning of 19th century the dig was gradually deserted and destroyed. The fort gate Buyuk kapusu (Turkish - the Big Gate) was located in the southern part, guarded by two turrets. A removable bridge over the dig was to enter through this gate. The Shkorpil brothers describe another small gate in the northern wall.

Inside the fortress, attached to the western wall, raises the Citadel. The building was quadrangular with dimensions 38 x 28 m, and as high as 10 m. Antic pieces and marble columns, used during the construction, were visible at different places. The Citadel was divided into a few halls, and after the fire weapons were introduced, was also used as depot for fire weapons (Baruthane) and weapon arsenal. The Turkish historian and geographer Evlia Chelebi describes this in 1656.

The Citadel is not the only building inside the fort, as Turkish residential buildings and the Kale mosque were located in the southwest corner. The town itself was located outside of the fortress, and the scenery formed from densely built small houses; narrow and dirty streets in no straight order. This fact complemented with the rough surrounding lay and the swamps from south also make the fort unreachable.

During the Russo-Turkish war from 1828 the Russians define Varna's destiny for two years. After the Russian troops retreat, the fortress was destroyed, and only the Citadel (Baruthane) survived. The area was divided in small parts and new buildings were constructed.

Next: The Turkish fortress

Special thanks to Milena Minkova for the translation of this page.

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