Straight streets intersecting at right angles. Stara Zagora, a southern Bulgarian city of 150,000, is known as the only one in Bulgaria with this type of planning. It is the result of a tragedy and a necessity. In the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War, Stara Zagora was razed to the ground after a vicious battle. Rebuilding began in 1878 after a project by an Austro-Hungarian architect.
But no one was aware then that beneath the debris of houses, churches and mosques lay the remains of an ancient city with meticulous straight-street planning.
It was the Roman city of Augusta Traiana.
Situated in a fertile plain near mineral springs and major roads, the region around today's Stara Zagora was a coveted place for settlement since Neolithic times. A well-preserved two-story house from this period, with all the crockery, is now exhibited in situ in the yard of Stara Zagora's hospital. In the Chalcolithic age there was a copper mine nearby, and in the 1st Millennium BC the area was inhabited by Thracians.
It was only natural that the Romans would appreciate the place. In 106, Emperor Trajan founded a self-governing city and named it after himself: AugustaTraiana. A period of prosperity began. In the decades which followed, mainly under Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Augusta Traiana turned into an exemplary Roman city, with paved streets and an agora, water supply and sewage systems, richly decorated temples and mansions. It was granted the right to mint its own coins. The local economy included pottery production, metal and glass processing, and fine arts.
Around the city a thick net of villas of the rich spread – one of them is now under the waters of the Chatalka Dam, complemented by sanctuaries to the Thracian God Rider, Apollo, Zeus and other deities.
A fortification wall with towers and gates protected Augusta Traiana from the Barbarians, whose raids became regular after the invasion of the Goths of Cniva in 251.
As Roman Antiquity waned and became Middle Ages, Augusta Traiana changed its name to Beroe. This took place in the fateful times when Christianity took over as official religion. Beroe became a bishopric, with the bishop living in a spacious palace. The city had as well a martyrion, or a shrine to some local martyr of the faith.
The period was one of prosperity but also of danger, as Beroe was regularly on the way of Barbarian peoples like the Huns, the Avars, the Slavs and the proto-Bulgarians. It experienced its greatest devastation under the Huns of Attila in the mid-5th Century.
Yet Beroe was spared the fate of so many other Roman cities abandoned in the late 6th Century. Instead, it morphed into a mediaeval city and remained inhabited until modern times. In the 20th Century new construction and regular excavations started to gradually bring back chunks of the ancient life – public and private buildings, necropolises and shrines, streets and fortification. This continues today, and Stara Zagora's archaeologists are regularly in the news with new discoveries.
Arguably the best example of Stara Zagora's rich past is the Old Mosque, the only building which survived the devastating fire of 1878. In the 10th and 9th centuries BC a Thracian shrine existed at the spot. In the Roman era, a sanctuary of the Thracian God Rider is believed to have existed, and in the 10th and 13th centuries the land was taken up by a Christian cemetery and a church. In the 15th Century the Ottomans built a mosque, which is now the premises of the Museum of Religions.
The legacy of Augusta Traiana is now largely kept at the Stara Zagora History Museum, one of Bulgaria's finest and richest exhibition institutions. A Roman street is exhibited in situ in the subterranean level, along with statues and reliefs, a replica of a Roman chariot, and some of the most beautiful Roman mosaics you are likely to see across the country. Don't miss the one depicting a procession of Dionysus.
More of Augusta Traiana's incredibly detailed and well-preserved mosaics can be seen in the Central Post Office.
The so-called forum of the Roman city was discovered during the construction of the local palace of justice, and includes the western gate of Augusta Traiana, parts of fortification walls, an open semiamphitheatrical space, parts of the main street running from east to west and of the city public baths. The area is open for visits, but the use, in the reconstruction, of concrete and reinforced steel has taken off some of its ancient charm. If you happen to be in Stara Zagora in the theatre season, don't miss the regular opera and theatre shows there – the city has one of the best theatre troupes and opera companies in Bulgaria. Ticket prices are nowhere near those in the West.
The village of Starozagorski Mineralni Bani is a spa resort because of its thermal mineral springs. The Romans of course used these – and though not in perfect state, part of the then public baths survives and is worth a visit.