The core of what Ruse is today emerged as early as the 3–2nd millennium BC on just the same high terrace on the bank of the Danube where it has ever been since then. The earliest reference to the settlement in official sources is in a map dated to the reign of Octavian Augustus where it is called Sexsaginta Prista or just Prista. The town itself was founded 20 centuries ago in the period of the emperor Vespasianus as one of the fortifications on the Roman Empire boundaries.
A prehistoric settlement on a low hill near the river is Ruse’s earliest predecessor. It is dated to the 3rd millennium BC. The clay fishing leads, harpoons and other finds indicate that fishing was the main living in those early times.
The first fortress of a town had existed for 7 centuries before it was ruined by the incursions of various invaders. Sexsaginta Prista was ravaged and burnt down by Attila’s Huns and by the tribes of Slavs and Bulgars during their numerous raids. Nevertheless, life was not suffocated on the ruins of the Roman castle.
The foundation of the Roman town of Sexsaginta Prista (the Port of Sixty Ships) is related to the reign of the Roman Emperor Vespasianus in 69–79 AD. The border castle of Sexsaginta Prista was a navy base.
Later, the Ottoman conquerors appreciated the geo-political significance of the place. Roustchouk, as they called it, grew into a big and important town of the empire – it became the seat of the Turkish Danube Navy and the residence of the admiral. Fortifications were raised again over the ruins of the one-time Roman and later a small Bulgarian fortress. Here is what Evliya Chelebi wrote about it in 1651: "A stone fortress of a rectangular shape on a low rocky promontory by the Danube. The fortress is encircled by the Danube and only to the eastern flank there is an iron gate to the town, with a moat in front of it, dug into the rock. There is a wooden drawbridge over that moat that the soldiers pull up and secure behind the gate every night". The same author described the inhabitants of the town in the following way: "All inhabitants speak Wallach, Moldavian and pure Bulgarian. They are very generous, hospitable, mirthful and give many gifts no matter whether rich or poor since all is abundant here".
The root of the name of Ruse existed in some of its earlier names: Roustchouk, Roussik, Roussi, Roussiko and many other modifications found in various historical sources. The most popular interpretation suggests that the name came from the Indo-European root "ru" that meant a stream, a creek, a brook – all those meanings closely related to the river. Some scholars relate the name to the root "rus" meaning "red", or "rusi" as a direct link to the presence of Russian colonists in the 11th–12th century.
Having grown into a busy port and a centre of commerce, the town attracted people from neighbouring and distant countries. Austrian, Jewish and Wallachian merchants started to settle in Ruse; its port became the major point for the Austrian commerce and business to penetrate into the Ottoman Empire.
The shortest and safest trade way from Middle Europe to the Orient in the XIX century ran along the Danube.
The 19th century bears for Ruse the imprint of an extraordinary boom. In 1864 it was made the administrative centre of the newly constituted Danube Province spreading from Nish and Sofia to Varna and Tulcha; the governor appointed to the province was Midhat Pasha – one of the initiators of the ideology of the Young Turks. All his energy of a reformer committed to Ruse, he tried to transform the town into a model of how the state of the sultan, corrupted and rotten from the inside, could be modernised. In a time when the other Bulgarian towns were marked by backwardness, isolation, primitive life style and primitive economy, Ruse grew into an European and, what is more, a cosmopolitan town. It was wide open to the world, eager to receive its messages.
Austria-Hungary, Russia, Great Britain, France and Italy opened their consulates here, while Prussia, Belgium, Holland, Spain and Greece opened consulates of honour. One could hear all Balkan and European languages spoken in the streets. For the first time ever, streets with sidewalks lit by lanterns from Vienna emerged in Bulgaria. A new administrative system was introduced in the province as well as modern courts of law; hotels and hospitals were built, agricultural banks were incorporated. A steamer company was organised, a printing house came into existence, working with two big Kaiser printing machines, and in it birth was given to The Dunav – the first newspaper in the European part of Turkey that was printed both in Turkish and Bulgarian.
Midhat Pasha came to Ruse in the autumn of 1864. He was Governor of Tuna Vilaet till 1868. Within four years he changed Roustchouk tremendously turning it from a lethargic Oriental town into a town of European culture, architecture and healthcare.
The railway transport turned Ruse into a centre of transit commerce since that was the safest route from Europe to the Orient: by ships on the Danube from Vienna to Roustchouk, by train from Roustchouk to Varna, and from Varna to Istanbul by ships on the Black Sea. The town was already open to Europe, the Bulgarian entrepreneurial spirit awoke: the first manufacturing companies appeared – 2 steam mills, a brewery, a tannery, ship-repair works, a railway traction. A pilot modern land cultivation estate was set up near the town – that was the so-called Numine Chiflik, today it is called Obraztsov Chiflik (the Model Farm). To equip it, ploughs, harvesters and threshing machines were imported from Europe; new sorts of vines were brought from Asia to lay the foundations of wine making with which Ruse is so popular today.
Notre Dame De Sion – the French Catholic School with a boarding house in the alleys of Ruse
The German School (Die Deutsche Schule) in Ruse
The modern trends of Europe influenced tremendously the intellectual life in Ruse. The first secular school opened in 1840; thirty years later a French girls’ school was opened and there the girls studied languages, music and handiwork. The Zora Reading Club organised in 1866 quickly turned into a major centre of the local cultural life.
After the Liberation Ruse was the biggest town of the Principality of Bulgaria. It had another span of time of prosperity when it was rapidly attracting bankers, merchants, entrepreneurs and artists. It became a favourite place for the cream of the Bulgarian nation. Intellectuals and politicians from other parts of the country moved here. New groups of Armenians and Jews moved over, bringing substantial capitals; people of diverse nations still lived here, spoke different languages yet they all had the self-awareness of people belonging to Ruse.
Public utilities started to be developed. The burst of new constructions steered in the new appearance of the town. Now it was really European, a peculiar unity of Gothic, Baroque, Empire, Rococo. Many of the buildings can claim to be as exquisite as any of the famous sites in Europe. Worth mentioning are the Profit-yielding Building (now the Theatre House) made by the architects Georg Lang, Raul-Paul Branck and Franz Scholtz, Nino Rossetti’s building of the ex-Teteven Hotel, Udo Ribau’s building that was till not very long ago the High School of Music. In total, the list of sites of the architectural heritage of Ruse contains 383 items. The central square is a most becoming setting for the Monument to Freedom – the work of the renowned Italian sculptor Arnoldo Zocci that is now the token of the town. The first organ in Bulgaria (made in Germany) was installed in 1908 in Ruse, in St Paul’s Church – the catholic church of Ruse designed by Valentino and erected on the initiative of Polish soldiers and officers who had fought in the Liberation War, of Mr. Doltchet – the consul of Austria-Hungary, and his wife Pauline. The streets of Ruse were paved with squares from France, from the quarries of Saint Raphaele near Marseille
The town preserved and evolved its unrivalled appearance. It never stopped functioning as the gate for European novelties to enter Bulgaria. The lifestyle in Roustchouk was the model for everybody else. That matchless atmosphere must have had a tremendous impact on Elias Canetti; he wrote in The Tongue Set Free: “Everything I experienced later had already happened sometime earlier in Rustchuk”.
“Rustchuk was the first window I have ever leaned through to observe all nations, to listen to all languages, to investigate all customs, to be acquainted with all nations that did, anyway, get along very well together in that microcosm.”
The first decades of the 20th century were a time of vigorous business activities. New establishments and factories sprang in succession, companies of all kinds emerged, new productions were launched. By the end of the war the number of private industrial enterprises reached 412 along with 3 state-owned and 1 municipal company. The biggest number of companies was in the field of textile, clothing and tanning industry followed by food companies, chemical companies, woodworking and pottery works.
Following the end of World War Two – with the Soviet model of economy imposed – ambitious construction projects and large-scale industrialization were initiated in Ruse. Big state companies for heavy-duty equipment, chemical products, textile, food, electronics and power production were launched. The city grew bigger, the two industrial zones got densely populated with new companies and the infrastructure was greaty improved. The number of the population increased twice within a period of 20 years. Ruse became a district centre and later, when a new administrative system was introduced, it was made a regional centre.
The latest period of the history of the city began in 1989, the year when Bulgaria’s political and economic models were radically changed.