Nicopolis ad Istrum – the great Roman city near Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

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A walk among the Roman streets and ruins of marvelous buildings, almost 2000 years old

It took us more than 10 minutes to drive the last 2 km from the road from Veliko Tarnovo to Nicopolis ad Istrum, the ancient Roman city in Bulgaria that once flourished in the area. We had taken the shortest but the most damaged road to the site, after we left the main road from Veliko Tarnovo to Ruse. Later we understood that the better road to the archaeological site is through Nukyup village

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Никополис ад Иструм 43.219720, 25.612564

The history of Romans and Byzantines has always excited me. So we planned to spend half a day at Nicopolis ad Istrum. We prefer to travel slowly, to take our time and enjoy the places we visit for as long as possible. And despite Nicopolis ad Istrum is not the first Roman city we are visiting (Pompeii was the first), we were very excited and curious.

Founding of Nicopolis ad Istrum

This story is not much about us. We are just jumping from stone to stone, Anna is blowing dandelions and Maria is reading every information plate. But it was not an ordinary spring walk, because the place we are visiting was once one of the most important cities in the area.

Sprin walk in Nicopolis ad Istrum, Bulgaria

Spring walk around Nicopolis ad Istrum, Bulgaria

Everything in the city started with Roman emperor Marcus Ulpius Traianus. He was the second one of the Five Good Emperors during whose rule the Roman empire achieved its best success. Nicopolis ad Istrum was founded after the victory against the Dacians in 106 AC. The location of the city was very important – it was on the main road between Odesos (today’s Varna) through Serdika (now Sofia) to the western provinces of the empire. The city also lied on the road from Nove (today’s Svishtov) to Istanbul and the Asian provinces of the empire.

On the streets of the ancient city

We felt the glory of this place just upon entrance. Our visit started with a walk by a long old street covered with stone tiles. Nowadays the entrance to the site if from its Northern gate. The gate and the street still keep visible tracks of the thousands of chariots and wagons that passed by it. The street itself is made of huge stone tiles, most of them well preserved until nowadays. As far as we know, the street survived in its authentic look, only some of the stones were moved somehow. Even though there were not many people in the site that day, it was not difficult to imagine how busy life here was.

The street we were walking on was almost perfectly North-South oriented. The city was planned to follow the 4 directions of the world (the orthogonal system). The streets crossed in straight angle and all of them had curbstones on the sides.

A long street leading to the Northen gate at Nicopolis ad Istrum

A long street leading to the Northen gate at Nicopolis ad Istrum

In most Roman cities there used to be two main streets. Cardo maximus was usually the main street oriented North-South and Decumanus maximus was the other one, oriented East-West. Cardo means a Roman street oriented North-South and as you might guess, “maximus” meant the largest street.

Anna on the Roman street at Nicopolis ad Istrum, near Veliko Tarnovo. Bulgaria

Anna on the Roman street

 

The perfectionism of ancient Romans

It is amazing what perfectionists Romans were. All the streets in Nicopolis ad Istrum have a slight deviation from Northwest to Northeast, just 4°30‘‘. It is known that the Sun has such deviation only 2 days in the year – 31 March and 18 September. And 18 September is also thought to be the birth date of the city because on 18 September 53 AD was born the founder of the city emperor Trajan.

The well-preserved street near the city centre

The well-preserved street near the city centre

In the beginning, the city did not have fortification walls. However, after an attack by Costoboci  in 172 were erected 8 m. tall walls with towers as tall as 12 metres. The fortification walls again followed the cardinal directions and the city had 4 gates – Northern, Southern, Eastern and Western. The main gate was the western one because “all roads lead to Rome”. And of course it was called Porta Romana. After the invasions of the Goths in 3th century the gate was reconstructed multiple times.

A walk around the city centre

A walk around the city centre

 

Nicopolis ad Istrum and its drainage system

Romans were great engineers. Nicopolis ad Istrum had both wonderful water supply system and drainage system. The main pipeline was an aqueduct starting from Musina cave. The water was collected in a tank nearby the Western fortification wall and then was transported across the city through a network of pipes (made of clay or lead). The drainage system was just under the streets where channels were dug to take the waste waters out of the city. These channels and parts of the pipeline are visible today.

Ancient water pipes at Nicopolis ad Istrum Bulgaria

Ancient water pipes at Nicopolis ad Istrum

 

Our family standing above a shaft on the street - Nicopolis ad Istrum

Our family standing above a shaft on the street

 
Before we went to Nicopolis ad Istrum, we contacted the director of the history museum in Veliko Tarnovo Dr. Ivan Tsarov. Later at Nicopolis we saw a wonderful book written by him in both Bulgarian and English. It is named The Aqueducts in the Bulgarian Lands, 2nd-4th century AD and features wonderful pictures and illustrations. 
 
Pieces of Nicopolis ad Istrum

Pieces of Nicopolis ad Istrum

 

Culture of Nicopolis ad Istrum

The many remains of buildings in Nicopolis ad Istrum tell us a lot about the life in this city. For people like us it takes some imagination to recognise what was what but luckily there are information plates all around. Here people spoke Ancient Greek language and honoured mostly Greek gods – Zeus, Hera, Athena and others. Of course, the cult to the emperor was also present. The citizens were of various origins – Roman veterans, Thracian, people coming from Minor Asia.

The central part of Nicopolis ad Istrum, an ancient Roman city in Bulgaria

The central part of Nicopolis ad Istrum

One of the most interesting buildings for me was the Odeon. Its foundations are still visible today. It could host up to 350 people and was a scene of various performances. But the Odeon is just one of the many buildings that once made the city full of life. To experience all of its energy, you really need to go there, to take a walk among the ruins and let the kids have fun with the many dandelions and lizards in the area.

Nicopolis ad Istrum is also an example of the genius Roman engineering. In the city there was a building pretty much like today’s malls – a large buildings with many shops with heated floor to ensure comfort in the winter.

The remains of the Odeon at Nicopolis ad Istrum

The remains of the Odeon at Nicopolis ad Istrum

Nowadays Nicopolis ad Istrum has its contemporary traditions. Annually in the site is held the Ancient Roman Festival “Nike – the game and the victory“. In 2018 it will be held on 13 July. The main accent will be the Roman-Dacian wars, but there will also be many lectures, discussions and other Roman attractions.
Archaeological works at Nicopolis ad Istrum

Archaeological works at Nicopolis ad Istrum

The end of Nicopolis ad Istrum

The city was probably destroyed in late 7th century after an attack by Avars. Nowadays it stays aside from all present cities and villages. It may be a little forgotten, but I hope it will be awaken for new life.

Maria exploring Nicopolis ad Istrum

Maria exploring Nicopolis ad Istrum

Information about the working time of the site and other useful things you can find on the website of Veliko Tarnovo History Museum

If you are wondering where to stay in the area, we stayed in the village of Arbanassi. It is a very beautiful and calm village just 3 km from Veliko Tarnovo, with many old houses and old churches. We had picked a wonderful hotel with view to Tsarevets hill – Park Hotel Arbanassi ****.

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