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Tsarverets fortress at Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria          Source: Ongala/ Adobe Stock

Tsarverets Castle, Bulgaria: The Rise and Fall of an Empire

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The Balkan nation of Bulgaria is blessed with many archaeological sites. One which played an important part in Bulgarian history is the Tsarverets (or Tsarevets) Castle. This bastion, now mostly in ruins, has great symbolic importance for the European nation and is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Bulgaria.

Glory and Destruction, the History of Tsarverets Castle

The Bulgarians are descended from a nomadic people who swept into the Balkans in the 8 th century AD. Although they initially defeated several Byzantine Emperors and established what is known as the First Bulgarian Empire, they came under the cultural influence of the Byzantines and became Christians.

Emperor Basil II, brother of Constantine VIII, conquered the Bulgarians and they became part of the Byzantine Empire. In 1183 they revolted and established an independent state and made Tarnovo their capital. On the hill above the town they built or more likely expanded upon an existing castle.

In 1204 the Latin Crusaders captured Byzantium which enabled the Bulgarians to expand. In 1205 they defeated the Crusaders and captured the Latin Emperor Baldwin I at the Battle of Adrianople. The captured emperor was taken to the fortress of Tsarverets where he later died.

In the 13 th century the Second Bulgarian Empire expanded until it stretched from the Adriatic to the Black Sea. During this time, the castle at Tsarverets was expanded and many monasteries and palaces were built within its walls. They were all designed in the Tarnovo style, which was popular in south-east Europe. Tsarverets was the chief residence of the Tsar of the Bulgarian Empire and became the primary castle in the entire realm as it was also its administrative, cultural and religious heart.

After the invasions by the Mongols, however, the Second Empire went into decline. In the 14 th century the Ottoman Turks attacked the weakened state and conquered much of it. In 1393, while ransacking the fortress at Tsarverets much of its was set ablaze. The palaces, churches, and monasteries were burned to the ground.

The remains of Tsarverets Castle (ollirg/ Adobe Stock)

The remains of Tsarverets Castle (ollirg/ Adobe Stock)

The fall of Tsarverets Castle is seen as the end of the Second Bulgarian Empire as the Turks took over the citadel and Bulgarians were excluded from entering its walls. Later it was abandoned and fell into neglect. In 1930 restoration work started on the fortress and it was completed in 1981.

The Incredible Remains of Tsarverets Castle

The ruins are located on Tarnovo hill which overlooks the modern city of Veliko Tarnovo. The entire complex is enclosed by strong walls up to 12 feet (3.6 meters) thick.

Access to the fortress is through three gates, the main entrance being the Western gatehouse, which is built on a massive rock outcrop. The second gate is some 600 ft (180m) away from the main gate, and the third gateway collapsed in the nineteenth century.  

Within the castle is the former palace of the Bulgarian Tsars with the remains of two entrances. This building once extended to 52,000 square feet, but today only its walls survive. It is possible to visit the ruins of the throne room and the Royal Chapel.

The medieval Tsarevets fortress and the Patriarchal church (petiast/ Adobe Stock)

The medieval Tsarevets fortress and the Patriarchal church (petiast/ Adobe Stock)

At the top of the hill is the patriarchate, a large space of 30,000 sq. feet, now in ruins. The modern Patriarchal Cathedral that was built on an earlier basilica that was destroyed during the Ottoman siege, has been restored. It dates from 1981 and it contains a large number of Christian frescoes. One of the most striking buildings in the complex is Baldwin’s Tower, which was restored in 1930. It is named for the emperor who reputedly died within its walls.

There are also many remains of residential buildings and over twenty monasteries and churches. Sadly, many are no more than low stone walls. A rather grizzly, but popular attraction is Execution Rock.  This outcrop of stone hangs over the Yantra River and those whom the Bulgarian Tsars believed to be traitors, were pushed from this rock into the river below.

The Journey to Tsarverets Castle, Bulgaria

The modern town of Veliko Tarnovo can be reached by public transport. The fortress is near the city, a good walk from its center. An entry fee is charged and there are guided tours of the site in a number of languages, including English. A great deal of walking is required to see all the attractions, including spectacular sound and light shows held at the fortress, and a regular changing of the military ceremonial procession during the summer season.

Top image: Tsarverets fortress at Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria          Source: Ongala/ Adobe Stock

By Ed Whelan


Barakov, V. The medieval city of Tarnovo

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Keene, D., Nagy, B., & Szende, K. (2016). Minorities and Foreigners in Bulgarian Medieval Towns in the Twelfth to Fourteenth Centuries: Literary and Archaeological Fragments. In Segregation–Integration–Assimilation (pp. 153-170). Routledge

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Madgearu, A. (2016). The Asanids: The Political and Military History of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1280). Brill

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Gary Manners's picture

Hi. Yes, thank you. The link should not have gone to Constantine the Great.


In the second paragraph I think you mean Constantine VIII, not Constantine the Great

Ed Whelan's picture


My name is Edward Whelan and I graduated with a PhD in history in 2008. Between 2010-2012 I worked in the Limerick City Archives. I have written a book and several peer reviewed journal articles. At present I am a... Read More

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