In our series focusing on the Cities of Islam, let’s turn our attention to the captivating city of Plovdiv. With its historic streets and welcoming atmosphere, Plovdiv has a rich history that warms the hearts of its visitors. Join us for an engaging exploration of this unique city.
Historic European City: Plovdiv
Situated on both banks of the Maritsa River in the Upper Thracian Plain, Plovdiv stands as one of the oldest settlements in Europe, boasting a remarkable history that spans over 5,000 years. Presently located in the southern region of Bulgaria, Plovdiv ranks as the second-largest and second-most populous city in the country, following only the capital, Sofia.
Historical Titles Across the Ages
The city’s original name, Pulpudeva, was bestowed by its ancient founders, the Thracians. During that era, the name Evmolpiya also found use, a reference to the legendary Thracian king. Upon its conquest by King Philip II of Macedonia in 342 BC, the city was renamed Filippolis. In the subsequent centuries, the city underwent numerous changes of ownership among different civilizations, experiencing a series of invasions. With the arrival of Ottoman rule, the name Plovdiv was given, a name that continues to be used by the Turks. However, the Bulgarians refer to it as Plovdiv due to its roots in the ancient name, Pulpudeva.
An Ottoman Legacy
Before its capture by the Ottoman forces led by Lala Shahin Pasha in 1363, Plovdiv exchanged hands multiple times between Bulgarians, Byzantines, and Crusaders, enduring countless invasions. Finally attaining stability during the Ottoman period, Plovdiv emerged as a significant economic and commercial hub. Efforts to rebuild and resettle the city’s ruins were undertaken, and construction of structures such as mosques, madrasas, bridges, and bazaars—typical of classical Ottoman cities—began shortly after its conquest.
These developments breathed new life into the city’s religious, commercial, cultural, and social spheres. As commercial activities flourished, migration to the region increased. The population was divided into five groups: Turks, Orthodox Christians, Armenians, Catholics, and Jews. This diverse composition persisted in the city until the late Ottoman era.
The most imposing Ottoman structure still standing is the Grand Mosque, also known as the Ulu Camii or the Friday Mosque. Rumored to have been constructed in 1367 by Sultan Murad I, this architectural marvel exhibits characteristics of early Ottoman mosques, crafted using cut stone and brick in a harmonious blend of techniques. The mosque remains a place of worship today and stands as one of the city’s most important Ottoman symbols. Another mosque open to worship is the Şahabettin Imaret Mosque, erected by Şahabettin Paşa during the reign of Murad II (1444-45). The structure later served as a hospice during the era of Bayezid II, catering to the spiritual needs of Muslim travelers.
Constructed in 1410, the Plovdiv Mevlevi Lodge was a pivotal religious and educational center during the Ottoman era. Despite suffering substantial damage from earthquakes, it was restored in 1970 and now serves as a restaurant. A further surviving Ottoman relic is the Clock Tower, built in the 16th century, which bears resemblance to a minaret and stands as one of Eastern Europe’s oldest towers.
UNESCO-Protected “Old Town”
The Old Town, situated on Nebet Tepe, Diambaz Tepe, and Taksim Tepe, represents the oldest settlement within Plovdiv. Exhibiting a harmonious blend of Ottoman, Greek, and Byzantine architectural influences, this historic enclave received UNESCO World Heritage status in 2004. Notably, an Ottoman-inspired neighborhood akin to Cumalıkızık and Safranbolu, complete with traditional houses, can also be found in the area.
The Hisar Kapı, Ancient Roman Theatre, Plovdiv Mevlevi Lodge, Stariyad Grand sculptures, fountains, mosques, churches, Archaeological Museum, Ethnographic Museum, Aviation Museum, Balabanov House, Klianti House, Lamartine House, and the Clock Tower are emblematic of the region and serve as premier tourist destinations. The Ancient Roman Theatre, constructed in the 1st century AD, is regarded as one of the world’s most well-preserved ancient theaters, accommodating various events to this day.
Throughout its history, Plovdiv’s embrace of diverse civilizations, fertile lands, abundant underground resources, and strategic positioning within a commercially and politically significant landscape have solidified its status as a prominent Balkan center. Presently recognized as the “Cultural Capital of Bulgaria,” the city has adeptly preserved its cultural and historical heritage and earned the distinction of being named the “2019 European Capital of Culture,” attracting attention in the fields of tourism and media.
Ahmed Hilmi of Plovdiv
The mere mention of Plovdiv conjures thoughts of Ahmed Hilmi of Plovdiv, the Ottoman philosopher of the Second Constitutional Era. Born in Plovdiv in 1865 and commencing his educational journey there, Ahmed Hilmi became associated with the city’s name. Moreover, due to his father’s role as a consul, he was also known as “Şehbenderzade.” Completing his education in Istanbul, Ahmed Hilmi founded the weekly newspapers “İttihat-ı İslam” and “Hikmet.” However, owing to his critiques and certain perspectives, he experienced various periods of exile. His most renowned work, “A’mâk-ı Hayâl,” succinctly encapsulates his ideas.
Plovdiv in Evliya Çelebi’s Seyahatname
Evliya Çelebi, who visited Plovdiv in the 16th century, provides insight into the city as follows:
Among Turkish cities, Plovdiv holds a distinguished place among the ten extraordinary cities of the empire in Europe, and it remains unforgettable.
Within his Seyahatname (Book of Travels), Evliya Çelebi offers a vivid depiction of Plovdiv during his time, delving into its architecture, trade, social fabric, and religious landscape. According to his chronicles, the city boasted 53 mosques, 70 schools, 7 daru’l-kurra, multiple madrasas, 11 tekkes (lodges), 8 baths, 9 caravanserais, and a bustling market teeming with 880 shops. Built atop nine hills and nestled amidst streams, Plovdiv was enriched with minerals like gold, silver, and iron.
Muslim Population Today
Having experienced Ottoman rule for approximately five centuries, Plovdiv became part of Eastern Rumelia after the Ottoman-Russian War of 1877-78. Subsequently, in 1885, it was seized by the Principality of Bulgaria. Over time, the Muslim population gradually dwindled. According to Bulgarian records from 1888, Plovdiv’s population had diminished to 33,000. At present, the city hosts a population of around half a million, encompassing roughly 20,000 Muslims, along with nearby Turkish villages.
Yahya Kemal Beyatlı’s Memories of Plovdiv
Yahya Kemal Beyatlı, the poet, reminisces about Plovdiv during the Bulgarian rule:
“Until a hundred years ago, Plovdiv, like Bursa and Eyüp Sultan, was imbued with Turkishness down to its very marrow. I yearned to see Plovdiv. In 1921, I finally had the opportunity. I hopped on a train from Sofia. (…) The train came to a stop. Plovdiv! Plovdiv! The call resounded. At the station, a crowd of peasants and a soup vendor converged. Turks strolled about wearing faded pants and ill-fitting fezzes. I disembarked and instructed, ‘Take me to Hotel Mole!’ Hotel Mole is Plovdiv’s Perapalas—a hotel with a row of restaurants below and rooms above. The rooms were somewhat clean, the corridors resembled cell blocks.
However, the name is a name that has been dedicated to Plovdiv. I secured a room on the street. Across from me stood a small mosque. It was a solid, stately structure from the early days of the Ottomans. It stood there alone, evoking the memory of Çelebi Sultan Mehmed. I was perhaps among the last Turkish citizens to witness Plovdiv. Because shortly after my return to Istanbul, I read in the newspaper that it had been demolished to widen the road.”