Asen’s Fortress near the town of Asenovgrad in Southern Bulgaria was built in the 9th Century by the Byzantine Empire to guard the gate of the Aegean pass and to secure the Byzantine border in this area. Asen’s Fortress is located on a 300-meter-high isolated rock, on the northern slope of the Rhodope Mountains.
With drops that are almost vertical and at times even overhanging above the river below, it is impregnable on three sides.
In 1204, the fortress fell into the hands of the Crusaders of the Third Crusade 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 Kaloyan (reign 1197-1207), according to The Chronicle of the Fourth Crusade.
In 1231, Tsar Asen II (reign 1218-1241) completed the largest expansion and rebuilding of the fortress, as proclaimed on a carved stone monument. This is the reason why the fortress was later named after him. Asen’s Fortress was captured by Byzantium after Tsar Ivan Asen II‘s death, and regained by Bulgaria in 1344 under Tsar Ivan Alexander (1331-1371).
It was conquered by the Ottomans Turks during their invasion of Bulgaria at the end of the 14th century. After the death of the Ottoman Sultan Bayazid in 1402, there was a struggle for succession between his sons Suleiman 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, so it could no longer appeal to opponents of the throne as a strategic location. For some unknown reason only the fortress church was spared, and it is now one of the most notable examples of Medieval Christian architecture.
The Church of the Holy Mother of God is two-storey, cross-dome, one-nave church with a wide narthex and a big square belfry above it. The church is one of the oldest in all of Eastern Orthodoxy, and has a tower once used as a belfry and watchtower. The church was built around the 12th Century before the time of Tsar Asen II.
Whilst the upper story was certainly the church proper and the place of liturgy, the role of the lower story is unclear. There are theories that its lower story was constructed due to the rocky terrain or it may have served as a storage facility. Although it was common to reserve the lower story of a church for tombs, no human remains have been discovered inside.
The architecture of the church is similar to the Ossuary of the Bachkovo Monastery which is the sole surviving building of the original Bachkovo monastery located just two kilometres away from Asen’s Fortress. The monastery was founded by a Georgian army commander, it initially served as the centre for Georgian monks.
The frescoes which line the walls of the upper story of the church date back to the 13th Century. The eyes of the saints have all been blinded. A punishment reserved during the reign of Tsar Asen II for conspiracy and treason.
The Devil’s Prayer
In my quest to find locations for The Devil’s Prayer I discovered Asen’s Fortress. A remote church built before the 13th Century which had some Georgian influence. It was chosen as a meeting point.
Asen’s fortress is located near the Bachkovo Monastery Ossuary and both these structures miraculously were left untouched although the Fort and the Monastery which both these belonged to were razed to the ground.
For some may take liberties with God but very few are game to mess with the Devil.
You can view the amazing locations of The Devil’s Prayer at http://www.devilsprayer.com.au
Asen’s Fortress is accessible from Sofia but it is a long drive to visit it and return in a day. I chose to stay the night in Plovdiv after visiting both Asen’s Fortress and the Bachkovo Monastery. The ancient city of Plovdiv is a must visit destination as well. The next day I visited the ancient Thracian city of Perperikon and Dyavolski Most (the Devil’s Bridge).
I hired Zig Zag travels who provided me with a guide and driver to take me around. The trip included a one night and two day private tour and I would highly recommend their services.