Preslav Historical-Architectural Reserve

Veliki Preslav National Historical-Architectural Reserve in the northeastern part of Bulgaria is one of the 100 Tourist Sites of Bulgaria situated on the Golyama Kamchia River, 20 km away from the district center of Shumen, 25 km away from Targovishte. The Veliki Preslav is ancient fortified city which was the capital of the Second Bulgarian State, established at the beginning of the 9th century. In medieval Bulgaria Preslav became one of the most beautiful and grandeur towns in Southeastern Europe where significant monuments of the culture of Pliska and Preslav were later discovered. Veliki Preslav was not only the home of the Bulgarian Tsars but it also became a center of cultural arts.

The name of Preslav is of Slavic origin. Apparently it was initially founded and functioned as a Slavic settlement when its fortification was strengthened at the beginning of the 9th century. The proximity to the then Bulgarian capital of Pliska led to the fast development and expansion of Preslav during the reign of the Khans Krum and Omurtag. By the time of the coronation of Khan Boris I in 852, Preslav had turned into an important strategic military center and was the seat of the high-ranking officer and commander of the garrison of the First Bulgarian Empire. The First Bulgarian Empire, as it is today considered in the history, was the Bulgarian state that existed from 681 till 1018 and spread on the vast territory from the Danube Delta in the northeast and the Tisa River in the northwest, up to the present Edirne in the southeast and the Ionian Sea in the southwest. A number of churches were built in the city after the conversion of the Bulgarians to Christianity in 864.

The pagan revolt of the Pliska nobility led by Prince Vladimir in 892 was decisive for the future destiny of the city. In 893 Vladimir was dethroned and during the Council of Preslav Boris I, pointed Simeon the Great as his successor and decided to move the capital of the state from the still somewhat pagan Pliska to Preslav. In the following 80 years the city developed rapidly, turning into a center not only of Bulgarian politics and diplomacy, but also of culture, literature and the fine arts. A chronicler mentioned that it took Tsar Simeon 28 years to establish and build up his new capital. Archaeological excavations at the Prelav have, however, proved that the city continued to develop also during the 930s and 940s and reached the peak in its growth and magnificence in the middle of the rule of Tsar Peter I of Bulgaria. There were bathrooms with swimming pools heated through hot air system. The Golden Church, built during the reign of Tsar Simeon I (893 – 927), stood on a high terrace near the palaces of Veliki Preslav. It was a magnificent monument of church architecture of the First Bulgarian Empire and a unique monument of Bulgarian architecture in general. A lead seal of Tsar Simeon I the Great (ruled 893-927 AD), ruler of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD), and probably the most powerful Bulgarian leader of all time in terms of both military victories and cultural and literary achievements, has been found in his capital Veliki Preslav (Great Preslav) in today’s Northeast Bulgaria. Tsar Simeon’s seal has been discovered by locals doing construction work not far from the ruins of the so called Round or Golden Church in Veliki Preslav, capital of the First Bulgarian Empire in 893-970 AD.

In view of the impressive town planning, the vital economy and the grandeur of buildings like the Round Church and the Royal Palace, Preslav was a true rival of the largest and most important city centers in the western hemisphere. The Preslav palaces were built on a high plateau. The impressive remains of the Preslav palace complex consisting of two monumental buildings – the Large Palace and the Western Palace, have been preserved to this day. The throne hall had a nave and two aisles and was divided in three sections. The ruler’s palace was located in a central spot in the Inner Town and was connected to the ruler’s palace by a straight 35 m-long street. The Preslav temple was impressive in size: 21 m by 40 m. It was built in the 10th century and was related directly to the development and construction activities of either Tsar Simeon I or Tsar Peter (who reigned in the period 927 – 969). The sewerage and water supply system of Preslav were of significance for their time. The remarkable golden jewel in the shape of a heart decorated with a five-color enamel, which may have belonged to the wife of Tsar Petar I (r. 927-969), has been discovered by archaeologists during excavations in Veliki Preslav (“Great Preslav”), Shumen District, in today’s Northeast Bulgaria, which was the capital of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680 – 1018) from 893 until 970. The heart-shaped 23-karat gold jewel has been found in the ruins of what is believed to have been an imperial residence of the Tsars of the First Bulgarian Empire who ruled from Veliki Preslav.

Tsar Petar I was the second son of Tsar Simeon I the Great (r. 893-927) and the successor of his throne. Unlike his father, Tsar Petar I did not wage victorious wars, and dedicated his reign to the Christianity, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, and the Old Bulgarian literature and culture. For this, he was canonized as a saint by the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.

Culturally, it was the center of the Preslav Literary School which was founded in Pliska in 886 and was moved to Preslav along with the rest of the court in 893. The greatest Bulgarian writers from the Old Bulgarian period worked in Preslav, among them John Exarch, Constantine of Preslav, Chernorizets Hrabar. It was probably around the Preslav Literary School that the Cyrillic script developed in the middle of the 10th century. The famous Preslavian literary school, established in Pliska, together with the Ohrid Literary School, also founded in 886, compete for the prestigious status of the First Slavic University. 

The city had also large ceramic workshops which produced art ceramics, glazed tiles, as well as ceramic icons and iconostasis. The remains of this rich and powerful early medieval town are laid out for visitors in the Veliki Preslav National Historical-Architectural Reserve. These included literature, sculpture, painted ceramics and glass, including the icon of Saint Theodore Stratelates produced at the nearby monastery of Saint Pantaleimon. A highlight is the 10th century Golden Church of the Veliki Prslav which had lavish architectural decoration including marble columns and pulpit. St. Cyril and St. Methodius Temple-Monument, built on the occasion of the 1000th anniversary since the passing away of St. Methodius and Tsar Simeon and the Archaeological Base of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences are situated there. The temple stands in one of the quietest recesses of Veliki Preslav complex. The on-site museum houses all kinds of objects recovered from excavations including the unique collection of lead seals of Bulgarian and Byzantine officials, and painted ceramics, adornments, weapons, all significant monuments of medieval Preslav, including Preslav Gold Treasure, the ceramic iconostasis of the palace monastery, a copy of the monumental icon of St.Theodore Stratilates and other valuable items, various ancient inscriptions etc.

The city’s fortune underwent a dramatic downturn at the end of the 960s, when it was occupied by Kievan Prince Sviatoslav. The ensuing war between Rus’ and Byzantines left the city burnt and ravaged by the army of Byzantine Emperor John I Tzimisces, when it was named Yoanopol. The conquerors took away the treasury, the Bulgarian Tsar’s regalia and a large part of the library of Tsar Simeon. Preslav remained under the Byzantine rule during the 11th and the 12th centuries. Although the city did not lose its importance in the next three hundred years, the neighboring outskirts and the big monasteries became desolate, the economy lost its vitality and significance.

Preslav regained some of its importance in Bulgarian politics during the first years of the joint rule of the founders of the Second Bulgarian Empire, Peter IV of Bulgaria and Ivan Asen I. Apparently, Ivan Asen ruled from the center of the uprising, Tarnovgrad, whereas his brother and co-ruler Theodore Peter resided in Preslav as a symbol of the renewed statehood of Bulgaria. The strategic advantages of Tarnovgrad were, however, decisive in the long run and the significance of Preslav waned in the course of the 13th century. The Tatar raids during the 1270s drove away the last citizens of Preslav, along with the proto-throned bishop of the city. In 1388 Preslav was captured by the troops of the Ottoman general Ali Pasha.

Some of the surviving refugees built up a village of the same name only 2 km north from the fortified fortress where the contemporary town of Veliki Preslav is now situated.