From Plovdiv we head towards the Rhodope Mountains passing through the pretty town of Asenovgrad. Nearby we visit the remarkable remains of King Ivan Asen’s Fortress – a wise ruler of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom. Its strategic location and natural defenses explain why it has been used since the days 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 some 300 fortresses erected to defend the Empire against invasions by Slavic tribes.
Later Asen’s Fortress has seen three periods of substantial construction – during the 9th, 11th, and 13th centuries. The first small fortress tower was built by the Byzantines. Given its strategic location at the entrance to the pass connecting Thrace with Northern Greece and the Aegean Sea, and since it is located in the midst of fertile farmland, gradually Peter’s Fortress (as it was called then) became an independent agricultural center with its own administration, army, and military command.
In 1204, the fortress fell into the hands of the Crusaders who were commanded by the Belgian knight René du Trois. The knight withstood a 13-month siege laid by the forces of the Bulgarian Tsar (King) Kaloyan (reign 1197-1207), according to The Chronicle of the Fourth Crusade recorded by Jeffrey de Village Dien, Court of Champagne. In 1231, Tsar (King) Asen II (reign 1218-1241) completed the largest expansion and rebuilding of the fortress, as proclaimed on a carved stone monument, which we can see.
This is the reason why the fortress was later named after him, and why the inhabitants of Stanimaka, the city beneath the fortress, renamed their city Asenovgrad in 1934. Beneath the feudal castle was discovered the well-preserved, two-story Blessed Virgin of Petrich Church. After the death of Sultan Bayazid in 1402, there was a struggle for succession between his sons Syuleiman and Musa Kesedzhi.
Musa further fortified the Petrich Fortress but he couldn’t hold it and put it at the mercy of his brother. After Musa’s capitulation, the fortress was razed to its foundations. Only the fortress church was spared, and it is now one of the most notable examples of Medieval Christian architecture.
The fact that the fortress has been controlled by the Thracians, Romans, Byzantines, Crusaders, Bulgarians, and Ottomans, and that each era has left its archeological record, all preserved in the historical museum in Asenovgrad, explains why the Medieval Asen’s Fortress is one of the most-visited tourist destinations in the Asenovgrad region.