Today, while driving along the Trakiya and Maritsa motorways, which link Sofia and Istanbul, you are inadvertently using an old Roman route: Via Militaris. It used to run diagonally through the Balkans from northwest to southeast, connecting Central Europe with Asia Minor via the Bosphorus.
The old Roman thoroughfares are long gone, but along Trakiya Motorway, close to the town of Ihtiman, you will find the remains of a fortress which the Romans built to protect this section of Via Militaris.
The stretch was in need of protection. There, the road runs through a narrow pass and control over it was crucial in case of sudden invasion. It would have been a disaster if the Barbarians got a foothold there.
The road through the pass was the first to appear, and soon after the Romans established their power in the region. Probably in the 3rd Century, when the threat of Barbarian attacks became more immediate, a fortress was built in the pass to protect it. It was called Soneium, a name later changed to Stipon. A century later the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus described how the pass and the road were widened to accommodate carts in times of peace, but when the need arose it used to be "closed as to check the attempts of great leaders and mighty peoples."
This fortress survived into the Middle Ages. As the road which it once protected crumbled and fell into disrepair, the fortification was crucial for the local powers of the day, Byzantium and Bulgaria. Called Tsarevi Vrata, or King's Gates, in 986 the pass became the battlefield of a significant clash between Emperor Basil II (976-1025) and the future Bulgarian King Samuel (997- 1014). Samuel prevailed, and the emperor made a narrow escape.
As the centuries progressed and the Ottoman Empire exerted its control over this part of the Balkans, the fortress was abandoned at the end of the 14th Century. Merchants, administrators, soldiers and travellers continued to use the pass, but the remains of the old Roman road were badly damaged – it was impossible to walk on the loose stone slabs, and people preferred to wade through the deep mud around. But the remains of the fortress, with their strong walls and the 18-metre arch of a mighty gate were hard to ignore: Their menacing outlines greatly impressed passers-by, especially foreigners. The notes and diaries of foreign diplomats travelling to the capital of the Ottoman Empire between the 15th and 19th centuries are now important, and sad, evidence of how the fortress slowly deteriorated until the final collapse of the arch.
Foreign travellers are the people to thank not only for their accounts of the picturesque dilapidation of the fortress. In the 16th Century one of them was the first to call the ruins the Gate of Trajan. The pass and the site are still known by this name, Trayanovi Vrata in Bulgarian.
It is unclear if Emperor Trajan had anything to do with the site. Interestingly, he is the only Roman emperor whose name has somehow stuck in the common memory of the Balkans and even lives in some fairy tales and toponyms.
Today the road to the Bosphorus doesn't pass by the fortress: It goes almost beneath it, using the only tunnel on the Trakiya Motorway. The archaeological site is clearly labelled from the motorway, making Trayanovi Vrata an easy half-day trip from Sofia or Plovdiv, or a short detour from your trip into Bulgaria's south.
Gate of Trajan after the "reconstruction"
Sadly, Trayanovi Vrata is now one of the examples of archaeological sites which ill-conceived practices of "restoration" have changed beyond recognition. The mysterious, romantically overgrown walls, gates, arches and passages of the fortress are now overbuilt with fresh mortar and bricks.
Yet a visit to the Gate of Trajan is well worth the effort. While there, in the narrow crevice between the wooded hills of the Ihtimanska Sredna Gora mountain, listening to the murmur of the trees and of a nearby river you can easily imagine the Roman past of the place, when carts filled the sturdy Roman road, travellers rested in the road inn close by, and soldiers inhabited the fortress ready to defend it from anyone who would dispute the power of Rome over this part of the Balkans.