The New York Times, August 7, 1877, p.2:|
THE PASSES OF THE BALKAN.SIX OF THEM AVAILABLE FOR AN INVADING ARMY--
THE PECULIARITIES OF EACH--
FIGURES SHOWING THE DISTANCE BETWEEN
AND HEIGHT AT VARIOUS POINTS.
In dividing Bulgaria from Roumelia, the Balkan range separates the hill country from the plain. Bulgaria, with the exception of the marshy belt along the Danube, and a few sandy tracts upon the sea-shore, is a "rolling" region, in the fertile valleys of which are concentrated nearly all the life and cultivation of the province. Roumelia, on the other hand, in its eastern and more important section, presents the appearance of a spacious and well-watered plain, covered in many places with wild grass as high as a horse's girth--its boundaries being the Balkan on the north, the sea on the east and south, and on the west the range of Despoto-Planina or Dospad Yailasi, called by the ancients Rhodope.
Though usually spoken of as one range, the Balkan radiates into no fewer than three distinct ridges as it trends eastward, beginning from a point a little beyond the Roumelian town of Slivno. The southern or main ridge runs almost due east to Cape Emineh, on the Black Sea, whence its name of Emineh-Dagh. The central range, called by the Bulgarians Stara-Planina, (old mountain,) follows the same direction, though with a slight bend to the north, as far as the junction of the two branches of the Kamtchik River, and the northern spur, passing Kasson, ends in the vicinity of Smadova and the Great Kamtchik, while beyond it, still further to the north, lies the crescent-shaped outwork formed by the Binar Mountains, the heights around Shumla, and the rocky ridges through which the Pravadi flows downward to Varna and the Black Sea.
Till the present year, only one Russian army had ever passed this great natural barrier, viz., that of Count Diebitsch, in 1829, who thus earned the title of Za-Balkanski, (beyond the Balkan). Singularly enough, the passage of the Balkan was then made by the easternmost of all the passes--that along the sea-shore to Misivri--whereas now it is the westernmost--that between Gabrova and Kasanlik, popularly known as the Schipka Pass--which has admitted the invader.
But, in 1829, Servia and Roumania were in no condition to co-operate with the Russian forces, and to secure their rear, as at present; and the route chosen, as bringing the army within reach of the assisting fleet, and keeping its left flank constantly covered by the sea, was probably the best that could have been selected under the circumstances.
The six routes across the Balkan which are available for the passage of an invading army divide themselves naturally into two groups, the eastern radiating from the central point of Shumla, the western from that of Tirnova. From Sistova to the latter place the distance by road is only 75 to 80 miles; but the highway is in wretched condition, everywhere broken into ruts and holes, and like all other lines of communication in this district religiously left unrepaired--the only road-mending witnessed by this generation being attributed to Midhat Pasha, when, as Governor of the "Danube Vilayet," he repaired the old Roman highway from Pannonia to Byzantium.
At the village of Senovtzy the Sistova road joins an equally bad one from Rustchuk, traversing a succession of terrace-like plateaus, one above another, and passing the dangerous defile of Biela, on the Jantra, where a Russian reconnoitring force sustained a severe check some weeks ago. Just beyond this point it crosses the river by one of the finest ridges in Bulgaria, and, skirting the left bank, traverses the Samavoden ravine and reaches Tirnova.
Tirnova, or Trenova, though fallen from the high place which it held in the days of Bulgarian independence, is still of some importance as the capital of Sandjakat (district) and the meeting point of many lines of communication. It has a strong position on a branch of the Jantra, between two steep pyramidal hills, once crowned by extensive fortifications. On this road (which it completely closed to an enemy) stood the royal fortress of the Bulgarian Kings, which the traveler passes on his way south to the Balkan. At the foot of the range itself he crosses the Jantra by a stone bridge and enters the town of Gabrova, (Grahova,) one of the most noted of the native Bulgarian towns, both from its extensive manufactures and from the generous assitance given by it to the establishment of native schools.
The ascent from Gabrova to the summit of the ridge, though gradual, is very fatiguing; the passage of the limestone rocks in which the road is being cut is no trifle in Summer; but as you mount higher a splendid oak forest throws its refreshing shade over the road, and shelters you almost to the summit. This is the famous "Schipka Pass" through which Prince Mirski entered Roumelia a few weeks ago. It will be remembered that when Sultan Abdul Medjid visited Silistria by this route in 1836, a road 30 miles long had to be made expressly for him! But the road is now being widened by the Russians, and rendered practicable for artillery.
The height of the pass at its summit is 4,500 feet, and for the first three miles of the descent, as far as the village of Schipka, rivals in steepness any "cliff path" in the Alps--commanding, however, a glorious view of the wide green valley below, in which, half hidden by the countless gardens whence the famous "otto of roses" is supplied, lies the charming little town of Kasanlik, justly praised by Col. Baker as one of the lovliest spots in Turkey. The general effect is very much that of the first view of Caracas from the crown of the Silla ridge, though the Turkish valley unquestionably surpasses the Venezuelan in luxuriance of vegetation.
Next on the list comes the Tivarititzka Pass, named after a village on the southern slope, near which Gen. Gourkhe crossed the chain to fall on the rear of the Turks guarding the Schipka Pass against Prince Mirski, though he appears to have made use of the mountain path to Hainkoi, pointed out by his Bulgarian guides, rather than the actual "Tivarititzka Pass." The latter is reached from Tirnova by a road through the valley of the Slatzar (Saltar) to the old Bulgarian town of Helena, (Jelena or Ilena,) and thence by a path over the mountains, debouching into the Tundja (Tundscha) Valley, 30 or 40 miles east of Kasanlik.
A little beyond Tivarititzka commences the branching off from the main Balkan range of the three mountain ridges already mentioned; and through these run the various lines of the "Schumla group." Schumla is to Eastern what Tirnova is to Western Bulgaria, or Adrianople to Eastern Roumelia, the centre from which radiate all the local high roads. On this account it is always the objective point of an army invading Bulgaria by the eastern route, and the strength of its position has more than once seriously impeded the Russian advance. The basin in which it lies is only penetrable on two sides, the other two being defended by impassable precipices, split in every direction by deep narrow gullies.
The surrounding hills are crowned by numerous defensive works, recently repaired and enlarged under the direction of two Prussian officers in the Turkish service, Capts. Blum and Strecker, now called Reschid Pasha and Blum Pasha. It is calculated that 60,000 men might encamp commodiously within the circle of defense; and the impracticable nature of the surrounding country, cut up by innumerable ravines, would render an assault or a blockade equally difficult.
In the hollow between the Kutchuk and Stara-Planina branches of the Balkan, surrounded on every side by the steep hills in which rises the Lesser Kamtchik, lies the little town of Kasan, called by the Bulgarians "Kotel," (Kettle,) from the peculiar shape of the gorge enclosing it. Through the gorge passes the road from Osman-Bazar, crossing on its way the Binar-Dagh and Kutchuk ranges, which are still crowned by forts built generations ago, and sorely in need of the repairs which they never get.
Beyond Kasan lies the famous pass of Demir-Kapu, (Iron Gate,) a narrow and gloomy defile, which, as a recent traveler justly says, "a handful of resolute men could hold against an army;" but, however impregnable in front, it may easily be turned by a detachment of light infantry following the path on the right.
The two roads which branch off, a little further along, to Slivno (Selimno) and Karnabad are eminently defensible, traversing deep gullies and crossing numerous streams which flow into the Tundja. These swell into furious torrents after a few hours rain, and any army attempting to cross them must carry with it an ample supply of all requisites for bridge-building, none whatever being obtainable on the road.
The chain may be crossed from Kasan by another route, running south-eastward through the narrow defile of Kotlenski-Bunz, and entering the town of Karnabad from the west.
The Dobrot Pass is the most direct approach from Shumla, but can only be reached by taking or masking that fortress, which completely commands the road leading to it. The line of march crosses the Kamtchik near Eski-Stamboul, the river being shallow, and only 70 feet broad at that point, with a stony bottom, well suited for a trestle bridge.
Passing over the Stara-Planina at a height of 900 feet, it crosses the Lesser Kamtchik near the town of Tchalikawak, a kind of duplicate of Kasan, but with good camping ground and pasture, and well supplied with both wood and water.
Thence to Dobrot, a succession of perilous gorges and barely fordable streams, only one of which has even a plank bridge over it, confront the invader. The pass itself is 2,000 feet high, and even when Karnabad is reached, the "Buyuk-Derbend," one of the most formidable defiles in Turkey, lies between it and Adrianople, while along the whole of this part of the route there is absolutely no forage whatever.
The road leading to Aidos over the Nadir-Derbend Pass starts from Pravadi, on the Varna Railway, lying in a narrow, tunnel-like cleft, 600 feet deep, through which the River Pravadi flows. The first part of the line of march, (which, however, may be varied by taking the other road through Jenikoi,) is the most difficult of all the eastern routes, crossing the same stream 40 times in the Delidah Valley, and traversing a defile barely 60 yards wide. It was by this road that the Russian General Rudiger, crossing the Kamtchik at Kuprikoi, and traversing the high table-land upon which the two roads from Pravadi meet, came down upon the Aidos in July, 1829, while his colleague, Gen. Roth, reached the same point by the "shore road" from Varna to Misivri, (Mesembria,) the last of the Balkan routes.
The resistance of the Turkish right was broken by the activity of the Russian fleet, which took Ankhialo (Akhiolou) and Szozopoli (Sisebolou,) and threatened Burgos itself. Their left was meanwhile shattered by two defeats at Slivno and Jamboli, (the present terminus of the incomplete Adrianople-Shumla Railway,) and the whole army fell back upon Adrianople, the surrender of which soon after terminated the war.
The four towns of Slivno, Karnabad, Aidos, and Misivri stand in a line from west to east along the road traversing the southern slope of the Balkan, forming the natural base of defense for this part of the range, though the shifting of the seat of war to the west has for the present left the two latter almost beyond the circle of operations.
Slivno, formerly an independent "Voynik" village, is the largest and most important of the four, containing a mixed population (chiefly Bulgarians) of 20,000 to 25,000. But the key of the district, the present objective point of the Russian forces, is Adrianople itself. This city, the capital of the district of that name forming the north-east section of Roumelia, was formerly a place of considerable strength, though its defenses, like those of nearly every fortress in Turkey, have been suffered to fall to decay; and when the Russians began their march across the Balkan it had not a single man fit for use. Whether the "100 pieces of cannon" hastily ordered thither from Constantinople will arrive in time to be of any service remains to be seen.
The western part of the Balkan chain averages 5,000 feet in height, some of the peaks being covered with snow till the end of June. Further east, the mean height is only 3,500 feet, and the huge terraced cliffs of the lower slopes are rounded off by thickly-wooded bluffs. The southern slope is steeper than the northern, and has fewer spurs; but both are equally woody and equally bare of population. In Winter the roads are absolutely impassable, and in Summer the want of water and the parching up of all herbage by the excessive heat are severly felt.
Nothing can be more picturesque than the effect of the great masses of rock towering several hundred feet above the dark forests around, and at times taking the shape of parapets, towers, or gateways; but the almost total absence of bridges, the deplorable state of the roads, which a single shower suffices to render impracticable, and the incredible filthiness of the mountain hamlets are very considerable drawbacks.
Our survey has made no mention of the Topolnitza Pass, in the Western Balkan, near Etopol, which has more than once played an important part in the wars of mediæval Europe. When Vladislav, King of Poland and Hungary, invaded Turkey in 1443, proclaiming himself, like the Czar to-day, "the champion of Eastern Christianity," he reached and took Sophia, but failed in his attempt to penetrate through "Trajan's Gate." The Bulgarian moutaineers, however, guided him by way of Slatitza into the Topolnitza defile on Christmas Eve, and the Turks, thus taken in the rear, were routed with great slaughter on the following day.
But its distance from the scene of action is too great to admit of its figuring in the present struggle for the possession of Adrianople; and, except in the event of an advance upon Sophia by way of the Timok Valley, its share in the war will probably be but small.
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