Plovdiv history, museums, and other historical tourist attractions

Exploring the captivating heritage of Plovdiv, Bulgaria, unveils a tapestry of history spanning centuries. This article delves into the city’s evolution through time and its wealth of historical tourist attractions.

From the medieval remnants of Hisar Kapia to the intellectual haven of Ivan Vazov National Library, Plovdiv’s layers unfold. The grandeur of Zion Plovdiv Synagogue and the serene aura of Dzhumaya Mosque offer glimpses into diverse cultural narratives. The Plovdiv Regional Historical Museum and Plovdiv Regional Ethnographic Museum preserve and present the city’s rich past.

Amongst Plovdiv’s architectural treasures stand the House of Dimitar Georgiadi, the ornate Balabanov House, the stately Hindlian House, and the elegant Lamartin House. The historic Yellow School symbolizes educational heritage.

Stay tuned for forthcoming articles spotlighting Plovdiv’s historical churches and the Roman ruins of Philippopolis. Embark on a journey through Plovdiv’s past, where every corner echoes with stories of yore.

A brief history of Plovdiv

Plovdiv, a city with an ancient legacy, boasts a history spanning over eight millennia, evidenced by cultural layers over twelve meters deep. Traces of habitation reach back to the 6th millennium BCE, with Neolithic necropolises like Yasa Tepe 1 and 2.

From the Chalcolithic era, Nebet Tepe displayed an established settlement by the 4th millennium BCE, while Thracian necropolises emerged in the 2nd–3rd millennium BCE.

Initially a stronghold of the Thracian Bessi tribe, the town saw shifts in power. Thrace joined the Persian empire under Darius the Great in 516 BCE. Later, the Persian general Mardonius subjected Thrace again, making it a Persian vassal until 479 BCE.

The town became part of the Odrysian kingdom, conquered by Philip II of Macedon. Thracian power resurged after a Macedonian suzerainty. Overcoming this, the Odrysian kingdom endured, while the city likely fell to Celts around 270s BCE. Philip V of Macedon later captured the city, but the Thracians reclaimed it.

The city has been called Philippopolis, possibly named after Philip II of Macedon, derives from the Greek “horse-lover” (Philippos). Its origin traces to Philip V and was first mentioned by Polybius in connection with his campaign.

In 72 BCE, the city was seized by Roman general Marcus Lucullus but later returned to Thracian control. In 46 CE, Emperor Claudius incorporated it into the Roman Empire, making it Thrace’s de facto capital.

The city held significance within the province, hosting the Union of Thracians. The Via Militaris, a key Balkan military road, ran through it. Roman times marked growth, cultural richness, and grand structures like baths, theaters, and a stadium.

An advanced water system existed, with ruins remaining, yet only a fraction of the ancient city has been unearthed today.

The city’s resilience persisted through Gothic and Hunnic invasions, evidenced by an inscription in the Great Basilica and the gradual Slavic settlement by the 6th century. A Byzantine border fortress, it transitioned to Bulgarian rule in 834, later slipping under Byzantine and then Ottoman dominion.

Ottoman rule began in 1364, though exact dates vary. During Ottoman rule, Plovdiv thrived economically and housed a predominantly Muslim population from the 15th to 17th centuries.

During Ottoman rule, Filibe (as it was then called) played a crucial role in Bulgaria’s national movement and cultural preservation. It housed a diverse population, including Turks, Bulgarians, Hellenized Bulgarians, Armenians, Jews, Vlachs, Arvanites, Greeks, and Roma.

The city underwent periods of religious and cultural transformation, including Hellenization and Turkification. The 19th century saw the resurgence of Bulgarian consciousness, with pivotal leaders emerging.

On January 4, 1878, after the Russo-Turkish War, Plovdiv was liberated by the Russian army, remaining in Bulgaria until July, when it became capital of autonomous Eastern Rumelia. In 1885, both Plovdiv and Eastern Rumelia united with Bulgaria.

Industrialization followed in the early 20th century, bolstering trade and infrastructure. World Wars brought challenges, but the city’s spirit endured.

Modernization continued in the post-war era, including trolleybuses, neighborhoods, and sport facilities. Plovdiv spearheaded Bulgaria’s democratic movement. The city hosted World’s Fair exhibitions in 1981, 1985, and 1991.

In 2019, Plovdiv, alongside Matera in Italy, became European Capital of Culture. The first Bulgarian city to hold this title, it showcased its historic sites, stunning architecture, and vibrant art scene to the world.

Hisar Kapia

Hisar Kapia, which translates to “Castle Gate” from Turkish, stands as a medieval marvel within Plovdiv’s historic district, captivating tourists as one of the city’s most renowned attractions.

Erected during the 11th century AD, this gate finds its foundation upon a Roman predecessor dating back possibly to the 2nd century AD. Among the trio of entrances – Eastern, Northern, and Southern – to the ancient Plovdiv acropolis, Hisar Kapia reveals its enduring significance.

During the Ottoman Empire’s rule, the gate underwent a transformation as revival houses melded with the ancient stone walls, a merging of eras that remains palpable to this day. The gate’s initial incarnation, harking back to the 2nd century AD, evolved under Justinian’s reign in the 6th century, its fortifications fortified.

While the vestiges of the original Roman gate are believed to reside within its foundations, the current architecture of Hisar Kapia embodies the aesthetics of the Middle Ages, particularly the 13th to 14th centuries.

Distinctive to the Second Bulgarian Empire’s craftsmanship, a masonry composition composed of stones and brick fragments bound by luminous mortar graces the arch.

Following the Ottoman influx during the 14th century, the gate’s prominence waned. Yet, the subsequent centuries witnessed the emergence of opulent merchant homes, now forming the edifice’s lower tiers, built atop the gate’s ancient remnants.

In the 20th century, recognizing its deterioration, efforts were made to reinforce Hisar Kapia. Today, this medieval masterpiece stands not only as a testament to the architectural prowess of bygone eras but also as a steadfast marker of Plovdiv’s identity. The gateway, both in its physical form and historical significance, exemplifies Plovdiv’s rich heritage.

Ivan Vazov National Library

The Ivan Vazov National Library, located in Plovdiv, stands as a literary cornerstone honoring the legacy of renowned Bulgarian writer and poet Ivan Vazov.

Founded in 1879, the library emerged from the vision of Joakim Gruyev and Alexander Bashmakov, with the latter becoming its inaugural director. Opening its doors to readers on September 15, 1882, the library played a pivotal role as the national library of Eastern Rumelia until the Unification of Bulgaria in 1885.

Today, the library holds a position of prominence as Bulgaria’s second-largest repository of knowledge, boasting an impressive collection exceeding 1.5 million books. Reflecting its cultural significance, in 1974, the library found a new home in a purpose-built structure designed by architect Maria Mileva. The architectural marvel was adorned by the creative works of esteemed artists like Georgi Bozhilov, Hristo Stefanov, and Todor Panayotov.

The library’s influence extends beyond its physical space. In 2017, a digital initiative transformed 50,000 items from its collection into an online treasure trove. This digital expansion includes the entire catalogue of 61 pre-1944 periodicals, enabling broader access to historical literary treasures.

Employing a staff of 134, including 90 highly qualified specialists and research scholars, the Ivan Vazov National Library stands as a guardian of Bulgaria’s literary heritage, a living tribute to its namesake, and a vibrant hub of intellectual exploration in Plovdiv.

The Zion Plovdiv Synagogue

The Zion Plovdiv Synagogue, located in Bulgaria’s city of Plovdiv, is one of the two active synagogues in the country today, the other being the Sofia Synagogue.

Archaeological research traces its origins to an ancient synagogue in Philippopolis, dating back to Emperor Alexander Severus in the early 3rd century AD. After multiple renovations, the current structure, built in the Ottoman style, emerged in the remnants of the former Jewish quarter, Orta Mezar, during Turkish rule.

The synagogue’s interior features intricate Moorish-style designs, a richly painted dome, and a gilded Aron-ha-Kodesh housing Torah scrolls.

Historically, Plovdiv had a thriving Jewish community, possessing synagogues like Jeshurun (1710), Ahabat-Shalom (1880), and Shebeṭ Aḥim (1882). The Jewish population dwindled due to the Holocaust, communism, and subsequent emigration to Israel.

The synagogue experienced periods of inactivity but underwent a revival. In 2003, it was restored with funding from the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad and the Hanadiv Charitable Foundation.

The synagogue hosts Friday night services, High Holiday gatherings, and cultural and educational events. Plans for a permanent exhibition about Jewish life in Plovdiv and Bulgaria are underway.

Despite its historical and cultural significance, the synagogue’s role has evolved due to changing demographics, making it an emblem of resilience in Bulgaria’s Jewish heritage.

Dzhumaya Mosque

The Dzhumaya Mosque, also known as Cuma Camii in Turkish, stands as a medieval Muslim religious building in the heart of Plovdiv.

Situated at the base of Taxim Hill, the mosque is a venerable Ottoman monument with a disputed origin. Some sources attribute its construction to Sultan Murad I (1362 – 1389), while others place it under the patronage of Sultan Murad II (1421 – 1451).

Initially named Muradiye Mosque after Sultan Murad, who financed its creation, it later became renowned as Ulu Jumaya Mosque, meaning the “Main Friday Mosque.”

Spanning 40 by 30 meters, the mosque lies at the center of the present pedestrian zone, west of Plovdiv’s old town. Its walls are constructed with alternating layers of bricks and hewn stone, a technique known as “cellular masonry,” often employed in pre-Ottoman Balkan architecture for churches and other structures.

This suggests that the builders were likely local craftsmen or Christian captives. Similar masonry can be observed in the Green Mosque (Yeşil Cami) in Iznik and the Hüdavendigâr Mosque (Hüdavendigâr Cami) in Bursa.

The mosque originally had two entrances to the prayer hall (haram). While worshippers entered directly through the eastern entrance, the northern entrance, now the main entrance, led from the market square to the mosque’s interior.

The eastern entrance is now walled off. During renovations in 1784 and 1818, an additional western gate was added, which is no longer in use. The minaret stands in the northeastern corner.

Unlike later Ottoman single-domed mosques, the Dzhumaya Mosque boasts nine domes covering the prayer area, supported by four central columns. Under the central dome, there was once a cement şadırvan (fountain) built in the early 20th century, serving more as a symbol of the required inner courtyard of every mosque than a ritual washing area.

The Dzhumaya Mosque remains a testament to the architectural and cultural legacy of Plovdiv, serving as a place of worship and a significant historical landmark.

The Plovdiv Regional Historical Museum

The Plovdiv Regional Historical Museum, stands as a vital repository of the region’s rich history. Established in 1951, this institution is dedicated to preserving and presenting Plovdiv’s heritage from the 15th century onwards, complementing the city’s ancient past highlighted in the Plovdiv Archaeological Museum.

This museum is organized into three departments, each housed within a distinct historic building. The Bulgarian National Revival exposition unfolds within the Dimitris Georgiadi House, constructed in 1846, spanning 825 m2. Here, the narrative journeys through Plovdiv’s history from the 15th to the 19th century, revealing the tapestry of life under Ottoman rule.

Documents and photographs offer insights into the city’s ethnic diversity, economic progress, and societal aspirations, including the struggle for education, religious autonomy, and national identity.

Another department commemorates Plovdiv’s pivotal role in Bulgaria’s unification. Housed within the former Eastern Rumelian Regional Assembly, the Unification of Bulgaria exposition recounts the path from the Treaty of Berlin in 1878 to the Serbo-Bulgarian War of 1885, underscoring Plovdiv’s centrality in this historic event.

The museum’s offerings also extend to the development of publishing during the Bulgarian National Revival, hosted in the residence of the prominent publisher Hristo G. Danov. Additionally, the Museum Centre of Modern History hosts dynamic exhibitions, seminars, and presentations, fostering a contemporary understanding of the past.

With over 60,000 exhibits, including weaponry, medals, clothing, photographs, and more, the museum’s collections are both vast and diverse. These encompass notable figures like Dr. Konstantin Stoilov and Bozhidar Zdravkov, historical photographs, numismatics, and even a range of historical paintings, thus offering an immersive and comprehensive exploration of Plovdiv’s captivating history.

The Plovdiv Regional Ethnographic Museum

Nestled within Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s captivating Old Town, the Plovdiv Regional Ethnographic Museum has been a custodian of cultural heritage since 1938. Housed within the elegant 1847 Kuyumdzhioglu House, this museum is a captivating tapestry of Plovdiv’s history and traditions.

The museum’s inception was rooted in early plans dating back to 1891, gaining full realization in 1917 through the dedication of local scholar and journalist Stoyu Shishkov. Its revival in 1938, under the guidance of Mayor Bozhidar Zdravkov, breathed new life into the Kuyumdzhioglu House, a splendid example of Plovdiv’s mid-19th century Baroque architecture.

Inside this historical house, the museum’s six exhibitions unfold across separate rooms, offering an immersive exploration of Plovdiv’s rich ethnographic legacy. The collection, comprising over 40,000 artifacts, spans diverse realms including agriculture, crafts, textiles, furniture, musical instruments, religious articles, and artworks. The museum’s scholarly archive, library, and photo collection further enhance its significance.

The Kuyumdzhioglu House, meticulously constructed in 1847 for merchant Argir Hristov Kuyumdzhioglu, stands as a testament to Plovdiv’s architectural prowess. Its symmetrical facade, two stories tall on one side and four stories on the other, is an architectural marvel. Graced with intricate wood-carved ceilings and ornate floral motifs, the house exudes historical charm.

The journey of the Kuyumdzhioglu House mirrors Plovdiv’s evolution, from a merchant’s residence to hosting various functions. Acquired by the municipality in 1938 and meticulously restored, it now houses this remarkable museum, a repository of Plovdiv’s enduring cultural heritage.

The House of Dimitar Georgiadi

The House of Dimitar Georgiadi, an esteemed cultural monument in Historic Plovdiv, stands as a testament to 19th-century architectural elegance. Originally constructed around the mid-1800s for the merchant Dimitar Georgiadi, this house showcases the quintessential Plovdiv architectural style.

Strategically positioned at a street corner, the house boasts a distinctive design that spans nearly the entire width of the modest plot. Comprising a ground floor and two upper levels, the structure is characterized by a stone-built ground floor and a wooden skeletal framework for the upper floors, filled with slender clay bricks set in clay mortar.

Upon entering from the street, a spacious vestibule paved with stone slabs divides the ground floor into two nearly symmetrical sections – one for commerce and the other for dwelling.

The first and second floors mirror this layout, featuring a central vestibule, four corner rooms, a double-flight staircase, and utility spaces. Delightful bay windows on the ground and upper floors allow for observations in both directions along the street.

The main entrance, emphasized by symmetrically placed windows above it, showcases an elegant bay window projecting from the first and second floors, crowned by a graceful pediment.

Inside, the house’s interior exudes opulence with intricately adorned ceilings, each room boasting a unique ornamental design. A captivating composition on one of the first-floor ceilings incorporates decorative elements like crescents and stars.

The House of Dimitar Georgiadi not only stands as a striking architectural landmark but also offers a glimpse into the opulent aesthetics and lifestyle of 19th-century Plovdiv.

The Balabanov House

The Balabanov House, also known as the House of Hadzhi Panayot Lampsha, is a museum house within Plovdiv’s Architectural-Historical Reserve “Old Plovdiv.”

Situated between “4 January,” “Dr. Stoilov,” and “Antranik” streets, the Balabanov House serves as a museum, cultural center for exhibitions, theatrical performances, and concerts.

Erected in the early 19th century by Hadzhi Panayot Lampsha, a wealthy Bulgarian merchant and moneylender hailing from Plovdiv, the house boasts significant historical importance. Lampsha, a member of the guild of shopkeepers, is considered one of the most eminent Plovdiv merchants of the mid-19th century.

In the early 20th century, the house came under the ownership of the merchant Luca Balabanov, from whose family name the house derived its name.

Although razed to the ground in the 1930s, the house was meticulously reconstructed at the same location where it had once stood, following the design outlined in architect Hristo Peev’s book “The Plovdiv House.”

Covering an area of 546 m² and containing a volume of 4723 cubic meters, the Balabanov House is a symmetrical Renaissance-era building with a layout mirroring houses found along the Bosporus coast near Constantinople.

The Balabanov House not only represents an architectural marvel but also embodies the historical and cultural tapestry of Plovdiv, offering visitors a glimpse into the city’s rich heritage.

The Hindlian House

The Hindlian House, located in Old Plovdiv on Artin Gidikov Street, stands as a remarkable living museum.

Built in 1848 by Stephan Hindlian as a bridal gift for his daughter, married to Armenian merchant Artin Gidikov, this house is a rare example of symmetrical Plovdiv architecture, its charm accentuated by its association with the adjacent Balabanov House.

While its exterior boasts a central porch set inward, an unusual feature for its era, the courtyard unites utilitarian structures, a bathhouse, and cellar. The interiors exude symmetrical elegance, despite the property’s irregular shape, with the ground floor organized around a rectangular salon, open to three spacious rooms, a small street-facing bay, entry to the bathhouse with changing room, and a straight staircase leading to the second floor.

The grand hall on the second floor, adorned with ornate frescoes by Moko and Mavroudi, is encircled by two large rooms, one being the “fenar” type with windows opening into the salon. These intricate designs showcase landscapes from distant places like Constantinople, Venice, and Alexandria.

Unique artistic elements include a mirrored representation of the house above the cellar’s entrance, serving as both decor and a blueprint. The kitchen doorway features a similar mirrored design, reflecting the informal part of the house.

The Hindlian House is home to Bulgaria’s sole preserved bath with a continuous flow of warm and cold water, constructed in an oriental style with domes, arches, niches, marble floors, and underfloor heating.

In the midst of the Armenian genocide in 1915, the Hindlian family offered the house as refuge to Armenian refugees. In 1974, the building earned cultural monument status, undergoing meticulous restoration and furnishing to reflect the Bulgarian Revival era.

Today, the Hindlian House stands not just as an architectural gem, but a testament to history, culture, and artistry, offering visitors a glimpse into Bulgaria’s rich heritage.

The Lamartin House

The Lamartin House, originally known as the House of Georgi Mavridi, stands as a remarkable example of Bulgarian Renaissance architecture in Plovdiv. Located on Djambaz Hill, at 19 Knyaz Tseretelev Street, where it intersects with Zora Street, this house is a testament to both history and culture within the Old Town.

Built between 1829 and 1830, the house was commissioned by the affluent merchant Georgi Mavridi. Its historical significance deepened in 1833 when the distinguished French national poet and politician Alphonse de Lamartine resided here for three days during his return from the Orient, resulting in the house being named in his honor.

The Mavridi House is one of the largest symmetrical structures in the Old Town. Due to the steep terrain, the street-facing façade boasts three stories, while the courtyard side features two.

The irregular shape of the ground floor was harmonized on the upper levels with cascading bay windows. The layout comprises two spacious rooms, a smaller chamber, service areas, and a salon.

Recognized as a cultural monument, the Lamartin House underwent extensive restoration work supervised by the Institute for the Restoration of Monuments in 1972. This process involved replacing the original wooden beam support system with steel profiles, overseen by engineer Krasimir Damyanov and architect Petar Dikidzhiev.

Since 1978, the house has served as a creative hub for the Union of Bulgarian Writers, with one room dedicated to a permanent exhibition honoring the French poet.

The Yellow School

The “Yellow School” stands as Plovdiv’s oldest continually functioning building, earning its moniker from the unchanging hue of its façade. This structure, constructed in 1868, is a testament to the Renaissance era and carries the distinction of being the first purpose-built educational edifice of its time.

Crafted by the skilled hands of Todor Damov, the building boasts a towering entrance that exudes a sense of grandeur, a testament to its pivotal role in education. On its eastern corner, nestled between “Tsar Ivaylo” and “Todor Samodumov” streets, original inscriptions in both Bulgarian and Ottoman Turkish recount the school’s origins, stating that it was erected in 1868 with the benevolence of Sultan Abdul Aziz Khan.

Following its completion, the edifice housed the Plovdiv Main School – the city’s inaugural gymnasium. This institution emerged from the foundation of the Eparchial School of “Sts. Cyril and Methodius,” aiming to cultivate future teachers and clergy.

The halls of the “Yellow School” echoed with the footsteps of Ivan Vazov, Todor Kableshkov, and Dimcho Debelyanov. After Bulgaria’s liberation, notable figures like P.R. Slaveykov and Petko Karavelov took up teaching posts here.

Since 1964, the building has served as a home to the Academy of Music, Dance, and Fine Arts, particularly housing the folklore department. Today, the “Yellow School” embodies a living link to Bulgaria’s educational and artistic heritage, offering a vibrant space for the study and celebration of folk culture within the academy’s curriculum.

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