You may well be aware of Bulgaria’s Ancient Roman history – after all, the Bulgarian lands were ruled by the Roman Empire for centuries. Sites like Plovdiv’s majestic Roman theatre, Varna’s huge Roman baths or Sofia’s antique churches of Hagia Sophia and Saint George are among the highlights of tourism in Bulgaria. However, the rest of the astonishing Roman ruins in Bulgaria appear to be largely forgotten.
From the (lost) longest bridge of the ancient world to a gate nowadays resembling two camels, kashkaval tourist presents 8 unknown Ancient Roman sites in Bulgaria you haven’t visited!
1. Brick masterpiece: The Red Church, Perushtitsa
A ruin standing proudly out in the open field near Perushtitsa, the Red Church (Червената църква Chervenata tsarkva) impresses with its rare solid brickwork and grand proportions – the dome of the church reached more than 14 metres in height! It is curious that the floor of this ancient basilica was decorated with mosaics, while the walls were painted. Some of the frescoes from the 5th-6th century AD were discovered during the Red Church’s restoration as recently as 2013!
2. Gorgon Medusa on the floor: Villa Armira, Ivaylovgrad
Villa Armira (Вила Армира) is perhaps the best-preserved villa of a Roman aristocrat to be found in Bulgaria. Named after the little river near the town of Ivaylovgrad by it lies, Villa Armira was built as a suburban palace of a Roman noble in the 1st century AD.
The villa is most famous for its striking mosaic decoration – its floor is filled to the brim with incredible geometric, floral and animal motifs! A regular trend on Villa Armira’s mosaics is the depiction of the gorgon Medusa, so be careful and watch out not to be caught in its stare or you may turn into stone!
3. Longest ancient bridge in the world: Oescus, Gigen
Admittedly, Constantine’s Bridge which spanned the Danube between Gigen and Corabia in Romania may not exist anymore, but its story is impressive nonetheless. 2437 metres long, this wooden bridge was by far the longest in the world at the time! But it only survived for a few decades – built by Constantine the Great in 328, it was no longer in use by 367.
There’s still a lot of Roman heritage preserved at the village of Gigen, though. You can walk on the ancient streets among the ruins of the important Roman city of Colonia Ulpia Oescus and see the remains of temples, baths and public buildings.
4. Fascinating wall paintings: Silistra Tomb
The Silistra Tomb contains some of the most amazing examples of provincial Roman art. A small stone building, the tomb was built in the 4th century AD to house the remains of a wealthy Roman noble family… but it was never used. Nevertheless, the Silistra Tomb’s walls are extensively covered by colourful and detailed frescoes showing the family’s servants as well as the masters themselves.
This masterpiece of Roman painting was unearthed in 1942 in the northeastern city of Silistra thanks to a complete coincidence. Unfortunately, the tomb’s secrets often remain inaccessible, as it is rarely open for visits.
5. Engineering feat: Plovdiv’s aqueducts
Plovdiv (Пловдив) may be famous with its Roman theatre, stadium and forum, but did you know anything about Plovdiv’s aqueducts? As a big Roman city of 100,000 people, Plovdiv required a sophisticated sewerage system and a large amount of drinking water. Thanks to two long aqueducts, fresh water was supplied from the rolling Rhodope Mountains to the south.
Nowadays, the reconstructed sections of Plovdiv’s impressive aqueducts can be seen in the Komatevo neighbourhood. The monumental ruins are up to 8 metres tall and constructed of alternating brick and stone layers.
6. A town for a tower: Castra Martis, Kula
Deep in Bulgaria’s Wild Northwest, there’s a little town called just Tower, or Kula (Кула) in Bulgarian. And there couldn’t be a more appropriate name for this place, as it is dominated by the imposing ruined tower of the Roman fortress of Castra Martis.
In Antiquity, Castra Martis was a vital fortification of the Roman Empire’s Danubian border defence (limes). It was constructed under Diocletian in the 3rd century AD. Today, the well-preserved remains of the fortress can be visited in the centre of the town.
7. Birthplace of Germanic literature: Nicopolis ad Istrum, Nikyup
You wouldn’t expect an unknown Roman site in Bulgaria to be the birthplace of Germanic literature, would you? Think again! Nicopolis ad Istrum near the village of Nikyup (Никюп) was the place where Gothic bishop Ulfilas (Wulfila) settled with his followers in the 4th century. There, he translated the Bible into the Gothic language using a script he invented, the Gothic alphabet, in effect starting a literary tradition that would later spawn writers like Goethe and Schiller.
Nicopolis ad Istrum’s historic location retains its antique atmosphere. A lot of the ancient streets, sculptures and buildings are still preserved and visible at the site.
8. Gate of the camels: Diocletianopolis, Hisarya
A town known for its mineral water springs, Hisarya (Хисаря)’s Roman heritage should not be overlooked either. In Antiquity, when Hisarya was called Diocletianopolis, it was already a popular resort for noble Roman holiday-makers.
Many Ancient Roman ruins are preserved in Hisarya, including an amphitheatre and a barracks. The most striking, however, are the fortifications and in particular the enormous city gates. One of the preserved gates was named the Camel Gate because after it was partially ruined, it came to resemble two camels facing one other.