Odd 13th-century Bulgarian worship hall may be country’s sole medieval synagogue
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Archaeology'Synagogue' joins only a handful of Medieval shuls in Europe

Odd 13th-century Bulgarian worship hall may be country’s sole medieval synagogue

Its location in a traditionally documented Jewish quarter outside a Middle Ages fort and its unusual architecture leads archaeologist to believe building is a unique synagogue

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

  • A bottom of a vessel decorated with a hexagram (Star of David), discovered near the possible 13th century synagogue, in the Tsarevets Palace in ancient Tarnovo, Bulgaria. (courtesy Dr. Mirko Robov)
    A bottom of a vessel decorated with a hexagram (Star of David), discovered near the possible 13th century synagogue, in the Tsarevets Palace in ancient Tarnovo, Bulgaria. (courtesy Dr. Mirko Robov)
  • The excavation site of what could be a 13th century synagogue, the sole remaining archaeological evidence of a medieval Jewish community in Bulgaria, at Tarnovo, Bulgaria on the Trapezitsa hill. (courtesy Dr. Mirko Robov)
    The excavation site of what could be a 13th century synagogue, the sole remaining archaeological evidence of a medieval Jewish community in Bulgaria, at Tarnovo, Bulgaria on the Trapezitsa hill. (courtesy Dr. Mirko Robov)
  • The Jewish Quarter of medieval Trapezitsa, Bulgaria, is noted by the number 1. (Mirko Robov, 1988)
    The Jewish Quarter of medieval Trapezitsa, Bulgaria, is noted by the number 1. (Mirko Robov, 1988)
  • Bulgarian archaeologist Dr. Mirko Robov at the excavation site in medieval Tarnovo, Bulgaria. (courtesy)
    Bulgarian archaeologist Dr. Mirko Robov at the excavation site in medieval Tarnovo, Bulgaria. (courtesy)

What may be the sole archaeological remains of Bulgaria’s medieval Jewish community are currently being uncovered in the country’s ancient capital of Tarnovgrad (today’s Veliko Tarnovo). At a November 11 press conference in Sofia, archaeologist Dr. Mirko Robov proposed that a large, two-roomed 13th century structure he is excavating is not a church as originally thought, but rather a synagogue.

The proposed Jewish house of worship was discovered on the outskirts of a medieval fortress complex located on the city’s Trapezitsa Hill. Although digging began there in 2014, so far only a quarter of the structure has been excavated, Robov told The Times of Israel this week in an email interview. It is a large building that was built during the 1240s and survived until the fall of Tarnovo during the Ottoman conquest in 1393 when the town was completely razed.

The northern Bulgarian city of Veliko Tarnovo is often referred to as the “City of the Tsars” in a nod to its historical place as a capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire. Located close to modern day Turkey, its position along the Yantra River is important both strategically and for trade routes. The old town is spread out on three hills, Tsarevets, Sveta Gora, and Trapezitsa, where the potential synagogue was found.

One of the only European country to have more Jews in its borders after World War II than before, Bulgaria boasts a 2,000-year-old Jewish community, some of which has been documented to have lived in a Jewish quarter on the Trapezitsa Hill during the Middle Ages. “Trapezitsa was the second most significant fort in Metropolitan Tarnovo. As a capital, Tarnovo was an ethnically diverse city. One of the ethnic groups we know of were the Jewish people,” said Robov.

The Jewish Quarter of medieval Trapezitsa, Bulgaria, is noted by the number 1. (Mirko Robov, 1988)

If confirmed as a synagogue after further research, it would be the only one from Bulgaria during this era, and one of only a handful that have been discovered throughout the continent.

“Of course, I need some additional data to be completely sure. I hope I will be able to collect it during the next season of archaeological excavations… At this stage I believe I’m on the right track,” Robov said.

Bulgaria is home to a much earlier, third century CE synagogue which was unearthed in the city of Plovdiv. According to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Center for Jewish Art, the Bulgarian Jewish community could even be traced back “to the destruction of the First Temple, when a small group of Jews arrived in the Balkan Peninsula after passing through Asia Minor. Based on the discovery of coins from the Bar Kochba revolt found in the area, historians maintain that Jewish slaves arrived after the failure of the revolt in 132-5 CE.”

The excavation site of what could be a 13th century synagogue, the sole remaining archaeological evidence of a medieval Jewish community in Bulgaria, at Tarnovo, Bulgaria on the Trapezitsa hill. (courtesy Dr. Mirko Robov)

There are also several examples of 19th-century structures still dotting the country. But while the existence of a medieval Jewish community is documented in several contemporary texts, there is a vacuum of archaeological evidence which this new structure may now fill.

“This new-found building is not a church, because it’s characterized by a different planning and construction,” said Robov. “It’s coated from the inside, but there are no wall-paintings. This is why I connect the building with the religious practices of a different ethnic group.”

The proposed synagogue consists of two sections: An eastern part, which was coated with unadorned mortar and constructed using pillars, houses an apse on its eastern side, which Robov said differs from others in churches in the city. A second, impressively large room measuring 11.5 m X 14 m, is built of mud and stones, and was attached on the west side of the mortar structure. It has a western entrance, which was sealed with a single door, said Robov.

Bulgarian archaeologist Dr. Mirko Robov at the excavation site in medieval Tarnovo, Bulgaria. (courtesy)

“Two types of buildings were formed with an apse in the west — churches and dining rooms. This one is neither. Its planning and its constructional arrangement from the east signifies a specific cultural purpose,” said Robov.

Robov explained that all of the known toponyms or place names that are connected with the city’s Medieval Jewish population are found in areas on or around the Trapezitsa fort. These include a Jewish quarter, a Jewish graveyard in the northwestern foot of the hill, and an area in the southwestern foot of Trapezitsa Hill called Chifutluk.

“This leads me to the hypothesis that this newfound religious building could be related to the Jewish people from Metropolitan Tarnovo,” said Robov.

The discovery of a few artifacts adorned with a hexagram, or Star of David, also points to a Jewish connection, at least in modern perceptions of the symbol: Although found in very ancient Jewish buildings and texts, the six-pointed star was not used for purely Jewish purposes until later in history.

A bottom of a vessel decorated with a hexagram (Star of David), discovered in the possible 13th century synagogue in ancient Tarnovo, Bulgaria. (courtesy Dr. Mirko Robov)

That being said, the Star of David symbol is depicted on a few artifacts found in ancient Tarnova, said Robov, one from the Trapezitsa hill site and two from a medieval palace on the Tsarevets hill. Robov said the symbol is not commonly found on contemporary pottery there and “therefore we can speak of a specific semantics of the hexagram.”

According to Robov one of the possible origins of the hill’s name, “Trapezitsa,” could be connected to the Jewish merchants who once lived there. The word “trapeza,” he wrote, is “a table used for exchange of money — an activity attributed to the Jewish community.”

According to the 2009 book, “Segregation – Integration – Assimilation: Religious and Ethnic Groups in the Medieval Towns of Central and Eastern Europe,” Jews held a relatively high status in 13th-century Tarnovo due to the Jewish origins of the second wife of Tsar Ivan Alexander, Sarah-Theodora. The book cites a contemporary text, “The Life of Theodosius of Tarnovo,” in which Theodosius writes of Jews’ bad behavior — including insulting priests — as a result of their “self-confidence arising from their influence in the royal court.”

Regardless of the community’s so-called influence, the Jewish neighborhood in Trapezitsa was isolated and outside the fortress’ walls. “Though quite powerful and wealthy, the Jews in the medieval capital were spatially segregated from the rest of the citizens — just as it was recommended by Archbishop Demetrios,” write the authors.

A map of the possible 13th-century synagogue located within medieval Tarnovo’s Trapezitsa Hill fortified city in Bulgaria. (courtesy Dr. Mirko Robov)

Additionally, the authors cite the use of forced conversion to Christianity as a means of assimilation. And tellingly, there is the possibility that Bulgarian rulers followed a Byzantine tradition of forcing Jews to be their executors, “as a token of humiliation.”

The current archaeological excavations on the Trapezitsa Hill began in 2006, but for archaeologist Robov it’s been a start-stop exploration. It is unlikely researchers will be able to confirm whether the structure is indeed a synagogue until the building has been fully excavated.

“If the Bulgarian Ministry of Culture doesn’t refuse to finance my excavation site (the reason why I conduct the excavations with significant interruptions) in 2020 the entire building will be fully uncovered and researched,” said Robov.

The excavation site of what could be a 13th century synagogue, the sole remaining archaeological evidence of a medieval Jewish community in Bulgaria, at Tarnovo, Bulgaria on the Trapezitsa hill fort. (courtesy Dr. Mirko Robov)
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