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The Melnik area was first settled by the Thracian Medi tribe, to which the legendary Spartacus belonged. It was later settled by Romans, then by proto-Bulgarians between the 7th and 9th centuries AD. The name Melnik probably comes from the Old Slavonic mel, ‘sandy chalk’, abundant in the surrounding cliffs.

In the early 13th century, Melnik fell under the rule of Despot Alexei Slav, who ran a personal fiefdom from here, while building several monasteries and a large fortress (some remains survive). Melnik became an educational and cultural centre, and its jewellery, woodcarving and ceramics were famous throughout Europe, while Melnik’s celebrated red wine was traded as far away as modern-day Croatia and Venice.

Although Melnik declined after the 14th-century Ottoman invasion, it prospered during the Bulgarian National Revival period in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Many traditional houses were built, often over ruined Roman and medieval homes. Until a century ago, Melnik was a thriving commercial centre with some 20, 000 inhabitants, but with the 1912–13 Balkan Wars, it was largely burned and the town’s Greek population was forcibly removed by the Greek army. Since then, Melnik has been significantly restored and rebuilt.