Bulgaria, October 1927

From a letter written to Mildred Barnes Bliss on October 24, 1927.

I have just returned from Constantinople, dearest Mildred, and must tell you something of my stay there and of my journey in Bulgaria, or I shall burst.

Hayford [1] and I took the boat here and eased down the Danube to Lom Polanka, which is in Bulgaria and a short night by train from Sofia.  It was a two days' trip on the boat, quite comfortable, and on the second day one passes through magnificent gorges, with crags rising sheer 300 metres and another story a little further back 600 metres.  One sees the remains of the road Trajan [2] built; in several places, for hundreds of yards at a time, it was carried on beams fitted into holes cut in the face of the rock a couple of yards above water-level.  There is a great inscription, [3] still perfectly legible, in which Trajan recorded how he vanquished river and mountain in order to conquer Dacia [4] (103 A.D.).  Very wild and primitive country; the peasants all in white or brightly coloured costumes woven by themselves.

Tabula Traiana
Tabula Traiana

Sofia is not at all a bad little place. The League Commissioner there, Charron, [5] is a great friend of mine, and Wilson, [6] our Minister, is a cousin of Hayford’s. Charron looked after us beautifully. The museum [7] has a lot of Byz. stuff of great interest to us, as well as other exciting things, for instance, a gold treasure, [8] discovered during the war and weighing over 20 kilos, consisting of huge massive drinking vessels in solid gold with silver niello of a very strange style. Opinions on it vary from Neolithic (Bégouen) [9] to Mycenaean (S. Reinach) [10] and early Bulgarian, perhaps 7th–8th cent, of our era (Peirce and Tyler). There’s so little ornament that it’s very hard to make a case, but what little there is seems to us to belong to the Barbarian-Provincial-Byzantine world of the Nagy Szent Miklos treasure in Vienna, [11] which all now agree about.

The Boulgres [12] gave us one of the Museum officials to pilot us about the country, and a very good, serviceable fellow he is. We saw, in four days, plus 4 in and round Sofia, very nearly all there is to see, by working pretty hard, travelling by night in a sleeper and motoring a lot in the day. Much of the stuff is wretched, and it was not really surprising to find, where the arch-fumiste Diehl [13] describes “un ensemble important de fresques du XIe-XIIe” [14] nothing but the lowest sort of XVIII and even XIX (Batschkovo). [15] Tirnovo [16] is a wash out, except (geographically) for its extraordinary double-meander, and as far as one can judge by existing remains, the Bulgarian empire of the late Xllth–late XlVth was a one-horse affair.

St. Theodore Icon from the Patleina Monastery
St. Theodore Icon from the Patleina Monastery

But we were altogether unprepared for the stupendous vestiges of the first Bulgarian empire: late VIIth– late Xth. [17] The excavations of the Churches at Preslav [18] and Patleina [19] and the fortress-palace at Plishka [20] [sic] show how absolutely Byzantine the art of that Empire was, and throw much new light on the character of Byz. keramics (entre autre [21]) of the time. [22] At Patleina, they have found an over-life sized head of a saint in glazed tiles, [23] very fine indeed and entirely new as regards technique, which can’t be later than the reign of Ximisus (late Xth) [24] who destroyed Patleina. But the great surprise was the colossal cliff relief at Madara: [25] 35 metres from the ground on the face of a 100 metres-high cliff, the equestrian figure of the Sublime Kahn Krum, accompanied by the lion and the dog which were regarded as sacred by the pagan Bulgars.

The relief was carved, as a long Greek inscription cut on the rock beside it tells, by order of the Sublime Khan Omurtog to commemorate Khan Krum’s (Omurtog’s father’s) defeat of the Byzantine army under Nicephorus I (A.D. 811) who was killed in the battle in a gorge not far from where the relief stands.

The “Madara Horseman”
The “Madara Horseman”
The character of the relief is also absolutely Byzantine – though the way it is placed and the scale give it something of a Sassanian look – and this is of enormous interest as it is the only big piece of Byz. sculpture of that period that has survived. We always felt sure that sometime we’d come across big Byz. sculpture of the VIII–IX, but we thought it would emerge from excavations at C’ple. and never dreamed that we’d find it on the desolate and eagle-haunted Cliffs of Madara. Madara is a strange, almost terrifying place, with pairs of real eagles always circling about the cliffs, in the face of which there are countless dwellings, cut no one knows when or by whom, as the eagles have removed whatever vestiges may have been left in the chambers. At one place, where there are abundant springs, the cliff forms as it were a mighty apse of almost regular semi-dome shape, 50 metres high and 100 wide at the base. I don’t think I’ve ever, anywhere, seen nature and man combine to produce such an awe-inspiring whole.

Of course the dear Boulgres [26] stick to it that the relief proves that their ancestors brought with them to the Balkans a highly developed art, related with that of Persia, and owing nothing to Byzantium. They don’t draw attention to two huge stone magots, [27] now in the museum at Preslav, which were found in Bulgar tumuli and undoubtedly represent what the Boulgre was capable of in the way of sculpture. Not only the Greek inscription, but the character of the relief (I had a very good spy-glass and was able to examine it well) show that it is Byzantine. There are many small fragments in the Museum at C’ple and elsewhere – set into Top Kapu gate [28] for instance, of very closely similar style. Only the huge scale of the relief has prevented people from noticing this so far – such people as have seen it, that is, for Madara isn’t exactly accessible. Choumen (Chumla) is the nearest station, and that is 12 hours by rail from Sofia.

From the top of the Madara cliff one sees the ruins of the huge fortress-palace, [29] built of superb masonry, blocks a good 6 ft. long by 2 or 3 high and deep, and one has an impression that will last of the grandeur and might of that barbaric Bulgar kingdom which gave the Byzantine Empire a run for its money, defeated and slew a Byz. Emperor and mortally wounded his son and heir, [30] but, artistically speaking, was conquered by Byzantium even before it became Christian about A.D. 860. The whole country-side is covered with tumuli of which only a very few have been opened – our cicerone told us there were several thousands of them.

The Virgin Elleusa
The Virgin Elleusa, bronze, 14th century, The Regional Archaeological Museum, Plovdiv, Bulgaria

We ended our tour at Philippopoli – and in the Museum there found a most beautiful Byz. Xth bronze relief of the Virgin [31], a perfect marvel, alone well worth the journey. The poor boobs in the museum think it’s made of lead and pay no attention to it! I expect that if one were for any time in Bulgaria one would have opportunities. As it is, Hayford got some very rare and valuable Byz. coins for nothing. By the way, we aren’t telling anyone that the ground looks promising there, as we’d be sorry to see Kalebdjian [32] set up a consulate in Bulgaria.



1 Hayford Peirce (1883–1946) was born in 1883 in Bangor, Maine. After graduating from Harvard College in 1906, he spent considerable time in Europe, especially in Paris. He met Royall Tyler in 1918 in Paris, where, as a captain in the United States Army, he joined Tyler’s intelligence unit. Like Tyler, Peirce was part of the American delegation to the Versailles Peace Conference after the First World War. Royall Tyler influenced Peirce’s interest in Byzantine art, and Peirce became not only an amateur scholar but also a collector, especially of Byzantine coins. He collaborated with Royall Tyler on various books and articles about Byzantine art for the remainder of his life; these included Byzantine Art and L’art byzantin.

2 Trajan (53-117), Roman Emperor between 98 and 117.

3 The “Tabula Traiana” which measures 4 meters in width and 1.75 meters in height, commemorates the completion of Trajan’s military road and is located near Ogradina, Serbia, on the Serbian side of the Danube River facing Romania. It reads: IMP. CAESAR. DIVI. NERVAE. F / NERVA TRAIANVS. AVG. GERM / PONTIF MAXIMUS TRIB POT IIII / PATER PATRIAE COS III / MONTIBVUS EXCISI(s) ANCO(ni)BVS / SVBLAT(i)S VIA(m) F(ecit). [Emperor Caesar son of the divine Nerva, Nerva Trajan, the Augustus, Germanicus, Pontifex Maximus, invested for the fourth time as Tribune, Father of the Fatherland, Consul for the third time, excavating mountain rocks and using wood beams has made this road.]

4 Dacia, the land inhabited by the Dacians, a branch of the Tracians. Dacia was approximately bounded in the south by the Danube River or, at its greatest extent, by the Haemus Mountains (the Balkan Mountains) In the east, Dacia was bounded by the Black Sea and the Dniester River. Ancient Dacia corresponds to the present-day countries of Romania and Moldova as well as smaller parts of Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, and the Ukraine. The Dacian Wars (101–102 and 105–106) were two military campaigns fought between the Roman Empire and Dacia during Emperor Trajan’s rule.

5 René Charron, the League of Nations Finance Committee’s Commissioner to Bulgaria (1926–1932). Like Royall Tyler, during the Second World War Charron became an assistant (number 492, codename “Boatman”) to Allen Dulles.

6 Charles Stetson Wilson (1873–1947), the United States Minister to Bulgaria (1921–1928).

7 The National Archaeological Museum, Sofia (Национален археологически музей).

8 The identity of this gold treasure is uncertain. It may be the Valchitran Treasure, discovered in 1924 (not during the First World War) with a total weight of 12.5 kg (not 20 kg). It is usually dated ca. 1300 BCE. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valchitran_Treasure (accessed February 6, 2013).

9 Count Henri Bégouen (1863–1956), a French archaeologist and a lecturer on prehistory at the University of Toulouse.

10 Salomon Reinach (1858–1932), a French archaeologist and a keeper at the National Museum of Antiquities at Saint-Germain-en-Laye.

11 The Nagy St. Miklos (Nagyszentmiklós) treasure is a collection of twenty-three early medieval gold vessels, variously dated between the sixth and tenth centuries, found in 1799 in Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary in the Habsburg Empire (modern Sânnicolau Mare, Romania). The treasure was transferred to the Imperial Collection (now Kunsthistorisches Museum), Vienna.

12 “Bulgarians.”

13 “The arch-humbug Diehl.” Charles Diehl (1859–1944), a French historian and archaeologist who was an authority on Byzantine art and history. Born on July 4, 1859, in Strasbourg, he studied there at the École normale supérieure and in 1888 received his Ph.D. in Byzantine history from the University of Nancy, where he also taught. In 1899, he began teaching Byzantine history at the University of Paris, where he became a full professor in 1907. Although an historian by training, he authored numerous books on Byzantine art history, one of the earliest French academics to do so. Diehl died in Paris on November 1, 1944.

14 “An important ensemble of frescos of the 11th–12th centuries.”

15 The Batschkovo Monastery, founded in 1083 in the valley of the Chepelare river.

16 Tirnovo, the fortified former capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire and the seat of the Bulgarian patriarch.

17 The First Bulgarian Empire or the Danubian Bulgar Khanate was founded ca. 680 by Bulgars in the north-eastern Balkans, territory conquered from the Byzantine Empire. This medieval state was ruled by hereditary emperors until the early eleventh century when in 1014 the Byzantine Emperor Basil II defeated the Bulgarians at the Battle of Kleidion.

18 Preslav, the capital of the first Bulgarian empire between 893 and 972. At the royal monastery in Preslev, more than 2,000 whole or fragmented tiles have been discovered.

19 Patleina, a monastery dedicated to St. Panteleimon.

20 Pliska (Pliskusa), the capital of the first Bulgarian empire between 681 and 893.

21 “Among other things.”

22 See Paul Stephenson, Byzantium’s Balkan Frontier: A Political Study of the Northern Balkans, 900–1204 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2008). For the Byzantine ceramics from this area, see D. Talbot Rice, “Byzantine Polychrome Pottery,” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 61, no. 357 (December, 1932), 281–86.

23St. Theodore Icon from the Patleina Monastery, 9th–10th century, made from twenty-one terracotta tiles, National Archaeological Museum, Preslav, Bulgaria. See Joseph Donella Alchermes in The Glory of Byzantium: Art and Culture of the Middle Byzantine Era, A.D. 843–1261, Helen C. Evans and William D. Wixom, eds. (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997), 329–31.

24John I Tzimiskes, brother-in-law of the Byzantine emperor Romanus II Porphyrogennetos, was emperor between 969 and 976. In a series of campaigns on the lower Danube in 970–71, he captured the Bulgarian emperor Boris II and proclaimed the annexation of Bulgaria.

25The “Madara Horseman” is a large rock relief carved on the Madara Plateau east of Shuman in northeastern Bulgaria, near the village of Madara. The relief is now generally dated to ca. 710 CE and to the reign of the Bulgar khan Tervel (ca. 695–718), suggesting that the horseman portrays Tervel thrusting a spear into a lion. The image may also represent the Bulgar god Tangra, an image type based on the Thracian Hero God. The inscriptions probably date to several periods, those of Tervel, Krum (796–814), and Omurtag (814–831). The “Madara Horseman” may commemorate Tervel’s victory in 708 over the Byzantines at the Battle of Anchialus. See Veselin Beshevliev, Die protobulgarische Periode der bulgarischen Geschichte (Amsterdam: Hakkert, 1981), 170, 473–74, ill. 38, pl. 22, and ill. 77, pl. 49. In 811, the emperor Nikephoros I invaded Bulgaria and sacked the capital Pliska, defeating Krum. On Nikephoros’s retreat, however, Krum ambushed the Byzantine army in the mountain, and Nikephoros was killed in the battle. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Madara-rider-gruev.JPG (accessed February 6, 2013).

26 “Bulgarians.”

27 The sculptures that Tyler refers to have not been identified.

28 The Top Kapu (also known as the Cannon Gate and the St. Romanus Gate), the site of the defeat of the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI, by Mohammed the Conqueror on May 29, 1453.

29 The Madara fortress (called Matora) was probably first constructed in the fourth century CE and rebuilt during the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185–1396). It continued in use through 1386.

30 Nikephoros I was killed in 811 at the Battle of Pliska. In 811, the emperor Nikephoros I invaded Bulgaria and sacked the capital Pliska, defeating Krum. On Nikephoros’s retreat, however, Krum ambushed the Byzantine army in the mountain, and Nikephoros was killed in the battle. His son, Stauakios, was paralyzed by a sword wound near the neck at the same battle.

31 See http://www.archaeologicalmuseumplovdiv.org/_m1714/Medieval%20Art (accessed February 11, 2013).

32 In 1905, the Armenian brothers Hagop and Garbis Kalebdjian opened an antiquities dealership, Kalebdjian Frères, at 12, rue de la Paix in Paris. They later relocated to 21, rue Balzac. They also maintained a business in Cairo. Letterhead stationary from the firm employs variant spellings of the name: Kalebdjian and Kalebjian.

 

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Bulgaria, October 1927