Vidin: Rock of ages
Article by Paul Morton, The Sofia Echo, 21st - 27th October 2005
|LIMESTONE is a sedimentary rock formed over 100 million years, as fossils and other materials compress and congeal in shallow water. During the earths inevitable climate changes, the waters recede, leaving all the building blocks man has ever needed. Limestone that was originally formed farther away from the coasts in a different ecological age is generally purer, more compact and better-suited to serve as the foundation of large buildings, such as the Baba Vida fortress in Vidin, which was built a relatively short time ago in the 10th century.|
This is how Ed Monroe looks at a building. Monroe, 34, is an American Fullbright Scholar, specialising in geoarchaeology. An archaeologist at Baba Vida wants to know how the old Bulgarians who built the place and the Ottomans who took it over five centuries later, used the limestone. Such things interest Monroe as well, but hes more fascinated by the limestone, and its own particular history, itself.
This is just a different way to look at a building that I think can make it interesting in a different way, he says. People choose stones based on three things: beauty, usability and durability.
|As Monroe gets inside the minds of those who decided to use the limestone (this would be the historical element of his research) he gets a better idea of where the stone comes from (the natural history part). |
For the past 10 months, Monroe inspired by the book Building Stones of Our Nations Capital, in which geologists catalogued materials used in Washington DCs historical buildings has been studying Bulgarias grand edifices from the Ancient Roman ruins in Nessebar to communist-era monstrosities in Sofia.
He will be leaving Bulgaria soon, but I accompanied him on one of his last trips in the field hes based in Sofia where he has the benefit of a giant geology library to do his research to Vidin and Belogradchik, two gorgeous historical towns in northwestern Bulgaria.
|It may be a function of the direction of his interests, but Monroe does not treat the historical monuments he sees in his work with the same awe as the average tourist, who, even if he isnt amazed by the ruins he sees, often says that he is. |
All this Turkish stuff looks the same to me, Monroe says, looking at the Turkish gate in Vidins centre. The fortress in Nis (Serbia) looked like this.
At some point, as we studied Baba Vida together, he felt the great need to say, What a sloppily put together building.
|Indeed it was. There were pieces from an old Roman wall that had been built in the area in the 1st-6th centuries. The stones were placed together in a bizarre slipshod mess. When we got closer to the fortress itself, Monroe pointed out the look of fossils embedded in the stones. You can see the shapes there. And yes, there, within the stones themselves, are the traces of very long-dead marine organisms. |
A few days later back in Sofia, after he had been to the library, Monroe found that while many of the stones in the fortress came from the old Roman ruins that had been built on the site, some had been originally transported from Ratsiaria, an old Roman settlement 30km away on the Danube River. It seemed an anticlimactic conclusion to the tour he had given me.
On a taxi ride to Belogradchik, Monroe asked the driver if he knew about any quarries in the area. Though I understood it was Monroes job, it seemed a strange question to ask anyone. Of all the places Ive lived, I couldnt tell you where the quarries for the stones that make up the buildings in my neighbourhoods are located.
And no, the taxi driver couldnt give Monroe a good answer, but several people we met in Belogradchik, many of whom had lived there their entire lives, pointed to the town of Oreshets, which was on the other side of the mountains, and which today provides the source for road building materials in the area.
The fortress at Belogradchik is a stunning site, as much for its relation to the giant red stone outcroppings conglomerates, Monroe calls them, meaning that they are made up of a whole mess of materials within which it is nestled as for anything else. Sandstone, unlike limestone, was formed closer to the coasts in the older ecological ages and it is a more pliable material. This is what formed much of the fortress at Belogradchik.
As much as Oreshets was the most likely answer as the source for the fortress stones, Monroe was still a little skeptical. My guess is that they didnt carry anything too far. Think about how much they had to carry and where they were going. His report, filed a few days later, was inconclusive.
Back in Vidin, Monroe pointed out one more material to me.
Vratsa limestone, whose name comes from the small city halfway between Sofia and Vidin where it is found, is among Bulgarias most valuable natural resources. Its a uniquely hard limestone that can be perforated in a way, Monroe says, that no other limestone can.
Other kinds of limestone would just break apart, he says.
You can see the effect of its use in the ridged edifices of Bulgarias communist-era buildings, among them the municipal building in Vidin.
Ive travelled around and I havent seen this anywhere else in any other communist country.
Vratsa was also heavily used in the construction of the Alexander Nevski cathedral in Sofia, built in 1910, as well as the new American embassy that opened in December. The politics and aesthetics of those who have used the rocks have changed, while the lifeless rocks, which evolve on a much slower calendar, remain, in our eyes, constant.
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