Asen’s Fortress is built on a cliff overlooking the Asenitsa River in Bulgaria’s Rhodope Mountains, and is impregnable on three sides. It isn’t surprising therefore that there has been a fortification here since the time of the Thracians, who fortified it in the 5th century BC. The fortress was rebuilt during the time of the Roman Emperor Justinian as one of a series of fortresses erected to defend the Empire against invasions by Slavic tribes.
The fortress has since seen three periods of substantial construction, during the 9th, 11th, and 13th centuries. The third of these periods was under Tsar Asen II, who in 1231 undertook the largest expansion and rebuilding of the fortress; hence its present-day name.
Views from the path to the fortress
The fortress tower (all that remains of the main fortress) is at the highest point and below it the Church of the Holy Mother of God. I would describe as a chapel rather than a church, it is so small.
When I visited with my Virtual Tourist friends it was raining, and the white marble path leading to the church was slippery in places. I was glad when it changed to concrete steps and then to a flatter track. It wasn’t far to walk; once we arrived our guide told us about the typical Byzantine style in which the church is built, with a crypt on the ground floor and main church above.
It is constructed from brick and stone, in decorative layers. What appear to be bricked-up windows (reminiscent, to me at least, of those often see in England because of earlier window tax laws) are in fact deliberate ‘blind arches’; this is another design element very typical of medieval Bulgarian architecture.
This was one of the first churches in the country to have an attached bell tower; that way it could be used for defence and as a place of refuge if the fortress came under attack. The tower is considered to be the earliest preserved example of its kind in the Balkans.
The church was spared destruction in the early 15th century when a feud between two brothers, Syuleiman and Musa Kesedzhi (who were battling to succeed their father Sultan Bayazid), led to the rest of the fortress being razed to the ground. The reason for its being spared is unknown; but it allowed local Christians to carry on using the church for prayer. As a result the church is still largely intact, albeit restored (in 1936, after an earthquake, and again in 1991).
We started our visit in the crypt, which was possibly originally intended as an ossuary although never used as such. I found it very atmospheric if plain. You are in no doubt here that you are in a fortress church – look at the width of the walls.
The upper church
The walls of the upper church, on the contrary, are covered with the faded remains of 14th century Byzantine frescoes. Our guide pointed out some of the most interesting, including the Assumption of Mary above the entrance door. He told us this image is commonly painted on the west wall of Bulgarian Orthodox churches and showed us a painting of how it would once have looked. A pagan is kneeling at Mary’s bedside trying to drag her down to Hell, his hands chopped off at the wrist by an angel to prevent him succeeding.
Other paintings are of saints including John the Baptist; the apostles Peter and Paul; Constantine and Helena; and of Bible scenes including the Baptism of Christ, and His trial by Pilate. I tried my best to get photos although it was very dark inside.
Leaving the chapel, a number of those in our group climbed further, to the fortress tower itself. From there you can get great views of the mountains and of Plovdiv, as well as looking down on this church. My friend Kirsty kindly let me have a couple of her photos to share.
I stayed below, wary of more slippery steps (accident-prone as I am!) I enjoyed chatting with friends while soaking up the views which were beautiful despite the drizzle.
This little church is still in use today. What an amazing setting this must be in which to come and worship.
I visited Bulgaria in 2019