When did the hills of Plovdiv become seven?

Posted on 2. декември 2009


Four more tales for Plovdiv in space and time. This article in Bulgarian.

The „tepe“ word

The title should read „The Plovdiv tepes“ rather than „hills“. In Bulgaria the „tepe“ is like a trademark of Plovdiv, although it is simply the turkish word for a hill/mound. The citizens of Plovdiv are very conservative about their vocabulary and especially names of localities and neighbourhoods. These names are often in Turkis but this otherwise unpatriotic use here takes on the charm of regional pride. Of course, the municipal authorities have tried to clean up the landscape from unpleasant reminders of the Ottoman rule. Soon after the Liberation in 1878 the tepes were given new names: The Hill of the Youth, The Liberators Hill, Danov Hill, etc. Yet, even a century later these official names did not overcome the resistance of the old ones: Djendem tepe („the hill of hell“), Bunardjik („the little well“), Sahat tepe („the clock hill“)…

Short history of the tepes

The tepes of Plovdiv are counted as six today. Three of them are not easy to discern, as the dales that separate them are quite invisible now. Nebet tepe, Taksim tepe and Djambaz tepe have been integrated in the urban texture for millennia. On the other hand, the city never climbed on the other three tepes – Sahat tepe, Bunardjik and Djendem tepe. The wave of urbanity swept by their sides and they remain as spots of nature in the city. After the establishment of the modern nation-state in late XIX cent. they were developed as a sort of parks. This was taken up much more systematically in the socialist period: alleys, staircases, memorials and playing grounds were built. Today they have a socialist look, „archaic“ and unkempt for 25 year, which makes them especially charming, relaxing and favourite. Lets hope they remain ignored by the municipality for longer. Private capital, at least, is restricted by their statute as protected zones of the city. The greenery of these three tepes makes up for the otherwise small number of parks in Plovdiv. That’s why the hilltops are busy with people of all ages, especially during the weekends.

However, those three tepes have been at least partly urbanised during all historical epochs. The top of The Bunardjik held soon after the Liberation in 1878 evening dance events for the Russian officers of the Provisional government. A few centuries earlier the Ottoman chronicler writes that the same hill was a favourite spot for leisure walks and discussion meetings by the intelligentsia and nobility of the Ottomans in the city.

At the top of Djendem tepe archaeologists found a temple of Apollo Kendrisos. During Antiquity nearby were organised the Games of Kendrisos. A thousand years later the Ottoman population also organised on the meadows at the foot of the hill large horse games and competitions. Some were attended by the very Sultan, visiting for the occasion from Istanbul. On the hilltop were found also the remains of a large Early-Christian basilica. Although they were ignored and damaged during the hill’s landscape development in the 1960s, today it seems there is a political will to build a new church dedicated to St. Erm, the apostle of the city. Another initiative by a popular nationalist-historian turned tv-star, Bojidar Dimitrov, for enormous monument of the medieval Bulgarian Tzar Simeon has been dropped, luckily.

Until the 20th century these hills were mostly covered by grassland. Today’s forested look is a result of deliberate campaigns of the municipality.  On the other hand, the other three hills that were totally urbanised and the cradle of the Medieval city,  were to a large degree left deserted during the early Ottoman period. For a few hundreds of years there stood the ruins of the medieval houses and palaces, used only as sources for construction material. Only the small churches remained active centres for the Christian population although it now it also preferred living like the Ottoman settlers in the plains below. However, during the times of Anarchy in the 18th century and the following revitalisation of the Christian millet of the Empire, the number of Christians in Plovdiv started to grow – both Greeks and Bulgarians. They began to reclaim the three hills, that were of little value for the Muslim citizen. The 19th century found these hills as a place of prestige for the Christians. There large and wealthy houses were built, mostly by Greek and Armenian merchants and wealthy pro-Hellenic Bulgarians. It was the time when the Christian merchants enjoyed growing prosperity as traders between the vast Empire and the European states. But by the middle of 20th century this economy had long gone, Plovdiv had declined as a centre of economic or political life and the central tepes were again in a semi-abandoned state. Most of the remarkable houses were in disrepair and even collapsing, as the economically less successful heirs didn’t have the means to maintain them. Those those that had inherited the ambitiousness of their fathers had moved to the new national centre, Sofia, or at least descended to the new „European-style“ trade street of Plovdiv. Thus the hilltops stayed quiet until the 1960s, when a massive restoration work was undertaken until the 1980s. The people of Plovdiv attribute the merit for convincing the central authorities about the importance of the restoration project to one clerk in the local municipality, whom they lovingly nicknamed Natcho „the Culture“.

The tepes have borne the city

Once upon a time all the tepes were much more impressive. However, the millennia of coexistence with man have left an indelible mark. Thousands of tons of rock have been removed from the hills and turned into the city cobblestone or into foundations for the buildings. Just when the city was built and beautiful and the hills could take a breath, came the next conqueror of the city – a Macedonian, Roman, Bulgarian, Ottoman, modern – and started to inscribe the new face of his civilization into the city – yet again with rock from the same hills.

Wherever today you see vertical heights or bare rocks – those are likely marks of ancient or more recent quarries. The extraction of stone from the tepes ceased only in the 1930s. By then one of the smaller hills, Markovo tepe, had gone entirely. Only in the beginning of the 20th century the people of Plovdiv started to see the hills in a typically modernist and patriotic way – to value them as a peculiar natural wealth for the city rather than as conveniently situated construction material. Unfortunately, the commercial concessions for exploiting the stone quarries that were given away by the very first city councils after the Liberation were rather uncompromising. Many mayors after the 1900s tried to annul the contracts without success – they had to wait until the 1930s when the agreements expired.

In Antiquity stone was extracted mostly at the base of Sahat tepe and the central three hills (Djambaz, Taksim and Nebet) onto which was constructed the city itself. In modern times extraction was at the south slope of Djendem tepe (the one you pass by coming with a train from Sofia) and at the infamous Markovo tepe which was entirely annihilated. The name „Marko’s Hill“ (or „Marko’s Grave“, because one could see on its top an ancient but empty grave) comes with its own local legends about the well-known South-Slav mythical hero Krali Marko of the time of the Ottoman conquest. One of the Plovdiv legends is that Krali Marko jumped on the hill with his steed and the five characteristic depressions there were left by the legs and belly of  the horse.

Unfortunately, the stone works left just a large pit where was once the tepe. It was for many decades fenced off and excluded from the urban texture. However, because of a new commercial activity now the pit is becoming many times deeper. This gigantic „Marko’s hole“ is at least 30m deep and the digging continues. It is the exact inverse of its former existence as a hill! One can see the bulldozers down there just as small, as they would have once looked on the hill’s top. However, if you come from Sofia you have no doubt already seen many such gigantic pits, that seem like they are going to perforate the world itself! All those are the foundations for Malls. At this spot will be the second shopping centre of enormity in Plovdiv and it will be called „Mall Markovo Tepe“. Let’s see if the architect will try to make a tepe-like building? Maybe he will try to refill the void left in the mind of the Plovdiv citizen after the original tepe was destroyed. Should we look up to a glass-concrete ersatz of the natural hill?

This void indeed exists. In the moment the recognised tepes are six, however with Markovo tepe in the count they would have counted the rather more prestigious number of seven! This would put Plovdiv on the world map – by way of Rome and Athens! In fact most people in Plovdiv think for the city as positioned on seven hills. It is how it is depicted on the municipal heraldry too and how it is talked about by the citizens (if they don’t get into the details for the story about loosing one of the tepes).

Yet, the void left by the seventh hill is an artificial and rather modern phenomenon. It is not clear when exactly this image of the city was born, but historically the hills of Plovdiv have never been counted as seven!

Different centuries, different number of hills

The first reason for this is simply that once Plovdiv was rather smaller in area. During Antiquity it occupied only the heights of three central hills, hence one of its Roman names – Trimontium (mons – lat. „mountain“) For the first time in Roman times it grew and spread in the plains around these three hills. This is no doubt connected to the safety and tranquillity of Pax Romana as well as the economic stimulus provided by the Diagonal road (or Via Militaris) from North Italy to Asia Minor. The city’s core reached Sahat tepe and there was an outer ring of city walls well to the south of the tepes.

In the Medieval Age the city contracted as Thrace became a contested border zone between Bulgaria and Byzantium, as well as harassed by Crusades and steppe barbarians. However, by the 15th century Plovdiv has descended entirely to the plains – in relation to another imperial age of peace, Pax Ottomana. Sahat tepe was integrated as part of the city, The Bunardjik and Markov Grave are sometimes taken into count by the chroniclers but not always. The first mahali (neighbourhoods) reached those tepes from the north, along the river. Further the hills are surrounded by vegetable gardens and by the city cemeteries. At this time though, the three central hills have already been „civilised“ for so long that it is difficult to tell them apart. The European travellers passing through Plovdiv, relying more on personal impressions than on inquiring the locals, often record them as two hills or even one.

Thus, the travel notes published in Europe between the 15th and 19th century cannot agree whether the hills of Plovdiv are three, four or five. In all cases Djendem tepe remained unnoticed. Even at the time of the Liberation it was lying far from the city, about halfway to the village of Komatevo (today a neighbourhood of Plovdiv). The Plovdiv railway station was indeed built near Djendem tepe in 1872, but this was by the custom of Baron Hirsch to lay the railroad  a few kilometers outside settlements. A rather forward-looking decision we can note today when these stations by our contemporary scale for the city are practically in the centre.

Probably Evliya Çelebi’s count of the hills reflects most accurately the perceptions of the local population. After all, he stayed in Plovdiv for a couple of months, and unlike most other writers was an actual Ottoman who could communicate freely with the people of Plovdiv. Interestingly, he includes the tepes in the fields surrounding Plovdiv. And he describes 9 hills! We cannot identify Boz tepe, Tchanli tepe and Valeli tepe. One of them must be Markovo tepe, another probably is a mound to the east of the city, which Bulgarians knew as Kamenitza (bul. „of stone“). However, this one was also destroyed at the end of 19th century. Today its name has passed to a residence quarter and to the well-known beer factory located on the spot. For the third tepe mentioned by Evliya Çelebi we can not say much. It could be one of several smaller rises and mounds in sought-east direction, toward the town of Asenovgrad/Stanimaka. The surroundings of Plovdiv abound also with burial mounds and settlement mounds of prehistoric time, some of which with rather large dimension. In Turkish they would also be called „tepe“ and any of them could be included in the count of Plovdiv tepes.

1890-те май - югозапад от сахаттепе

At the end of the city, probably in the 1880s or 1890s. A photo from Sahat tepe south-west towards Bunardjika. (From the FB group Акция „Фото Пловдивъ“)

Right! So, the hill number is not a lasting marker of the city, although this is how most citizens of Plovdiv nowadays perceive it. The number 7 was introduced only in the last hundred years or so, most obviously as a way to compare to Rome. We tend to add also Athens – the other famous ancient city – although I didn’t find any Athenian tradition for seven hills. The willingness to compare Plovdiv to those cities is a product of the Bulgarian romanticised mode of history-making since the 19th century. We continue to enthusiastically make this comparison today, especially when trying to impress the foreign tourist. We somehow don’t find impressive enough the actual fact that on this place a settlement existed thousands of years earlier than the first traces of habitation on the Palatine hill or the Acropolis. Moreover, very few people in Plovdiv have heard about two other tepes, both once known as Iasa tepe (turk. „Flat Hill“). They are currently in the process of destruction by various business and construction interests. One of them is in the Lauta park, the other in Karshiaka. They are tell-mounds (buried multi-layer prehistoric settlements) dating all the way from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age! (There are speculations that the settlement on Nebet tepe, „the first Plovdiv“, was the result of a migration from those two mounds during the Bronze Age.)

On the other hand, in Wikipedia there is a dedicated article with a list of the cities in the world that claim to have been built on 7 hills. Plovdiv is there, of course – among with 45 more candidates!

Partial bibliography:

Йордан Велчев, „Градът, или между Изтока и Запада, ХІV-ХVІІ век“ (The City, or between East and West in 14th-17th century). Изд. къща „Жанет 45″, 2005.
Никола Алваджиев, „Пловдивска хроника“ (Plovdiv chronicles). Изд. „Христо Г. Данов“, 1984.
Diary of the archaeologist Peter Detev from 1950s excavations in Plovdiv  – http://aquila.skyarchive.org/pub/julia/peter_detev_files_dolu/yassatepe52_59.pdf
Cities on 7 hills – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cities_claimed_to_be_built_on_seven_hills