Bulgaria’s Plovdiv Unveils Early Christian ‘Small’ Basilica in Major Archaeology Restoration Project

Floor mosaics from the Small Basilica in Bulgaria's Plovdiv depicting a deer. Photo by Petya Tarnovaliyska, petminuti.com

Floor mosaics from the Small Basilica in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv depicting a deer. Photo by Petya Tarnovaliyska, petminuti.com

The authorities of the southern Bulgarian city of Plovdiv have opened for visitors the newly restored so called Small Basilica, an Early Christian monument excavated and rehabilitated with funding from the America for Bulgaria Foundation.

The project for the excavation and restoration of the 5th century AD Small Basilica of the ancient city of Philipopolis, as Plovdiv was called in the Roman and Byzantine period, started back in 2010.

It has been executed jointly by Plovdiv Municipality, Bulgaria’s Ministry of Culture, and the America for Bulgaria Foundation, a U.S.-Bulgarian NGO which provided over BGN 1 million (app. EUR 511 000) in funding.

A similar project for the excavation and restoration of Plovdiv’s Great Basilica (Bishop’s Basilica) is expected to start in 2015.

The ticket for visitors of the restored Small Basilica, which has been turned into a museum with amazing Early Christian mosaics, costs BGN 5 (EUR 2.55) for adults, and BGN 2 (EUR 1) for students and children, Plovdiv Mayor Ivan Totev has announced, as cited by Nova TV.

The newly created museum of the Small Basilica of ancient Philipopolis features well preserved Byzantine floor mosaics on an area of 100 square meters.

The basilica’s unique baptistery is the only one of its kind in Bulgaria. The color floor mosaics display images of a deer, pigeons, and other Early Christian symbols.

Early Christian floor mosaics in the newly restored Small Basilica in Bulgaria's Plovdiv. Photo by Realsteel007, Wikipedia

Early Christian floor mosaics in the newly restored Small Basilica in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv. Photo by Realsteel007, Wikipedia

Background Infonotes:

The Small Basilica of ancient Philipopolis, which is located in the downtown of today’s southern Bulgarian city of Plovdiv, was built in the 5th century in honor of then military commander of the province of Thrace, Flavius Basiliscus.

Basiliscus became Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, i.e. Byzantium (r. 475-476 AD) but was deposed by his predecessor, Byzantine Emperor Zeno (r. 474-475 and 476-491 AD) who ordered the destruction of any traces left by Basiliscus. This led to the deletion of several lines from a donation inscription in the Small Basilica in Philipopolis.

The basilica itself It is a three-nave Early Christian church with a length of 20 meters, including the apse, and a width of 13 meters. It is located on the eastern outskirts of the ancient city of Philipopolis close to the inside of the eastern section of the fortress wall near a fortress tower dating back to the 2nd-4th century.

It was discovered by accident in 1988 during construction works for a residential building, and has been granted the status of a national culture monument. It was restored between 2010 and 2014 under a project of the Bulgarian Culture Ministry, Plovdiv Municipality, and the America for Bulgaria Foundation, which provided a USD 1 million grant for its excavation and restoration.

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The history of the southern Bulgarian city of Plovdiv – often dubbed the oldest city in Europe – began with the human settlement on the ancient hill of Nebet Tepe (“tepe" is the Turkish word for “hill"), one of the seven historic hills where Plovdiv was founded and developed in prehistoric and ancient times.

The hills, or “tepeta", are still known today by their Turkish names from the Ottoman period. Out of all of them, Nebet Tepe has the earliest traces of civilized life dating back to the 6th millennium BC, which makes Plovdiv 8,000 years old, and allegedly the oldest city in Europe. Around 1200 BC, the prehistoric settlement on Nebet Tepe was transformed into the Ancient Thracian city of Eumolpia, also known as Pulpudeva, inhabited by the powerful Ancient Thracian tribe Bessi.

During the Early Antiquity period Eumolpia / Pulpudeva grew to encompass the two nearby hills (Dzhambaz Tepe and Taxim Tepe known together with Nebet Tepe as “The Three Hills") as well, with the oldest settlement on Nebet Tepe becoming the citadel of the city acropolis.

In 342 BC, the Thracian city of Eumolpia / Pulpudeva was conquered by King Philip II of Macedon renaming the city to Philippopolis. Philippopolis developed further as a major urban center during the Hellenistic period after the collapse of Alexander the Great’s Empire.

In the 1st century AD, more precisely in 46 AD, Ancient Thrace was annexed by the Roman Empire making Philippopolis the major city in the Ancient Roman province of Thrace. This is the period when the city expanded further into the plain around The Three Hills which is why it was also known as Trimontium (“the three hills").

Because of the large scale public construction works during the period of Ancient Rome’s Flavian Dynasty (69-96 AD, including Emperor Vespasian (r. 69-79 AD), Emperor Titus (r. 79-81 AD), Emperor Domitian (r. 81-96 AD)), Plovdiv was also known as Flavia Philippopolis.

Later emerging as a major Early Byzantine city, Plovdiv was conquered for the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680 – 1018 AD) by Khan (or Kanas) Krum (r. 803-814 AD) in 812 AD but was permanently incorporated into Bulgaria under Khan (or Kanas) Malamir (r. 831-836 AD) in 834 AD.

In Old Bulgarian (also known today as Church Slavonic), the city’s name was recorded as Papaldin, Paldin, and Pladin, and later Plavdiv from which today’s name Plovdiv originated. The Nebet Tepe fortress continued to be an important part of the city’s fortifications until the 14th century when the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) was conquered by the Ottoman Turks. During the period the Ottoman yoke (1396-1878/1912) when Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire, Plovdiv was called Filibe in Turkish.

Today the prehistoric, ancient, and medieval settlement on Nebet Tepe has been recognized as the Nebet Tepe Archaeological Preserve. Some of the unique archaeological finds from Nebet Tepe include an ancient secret tunnel which, according to legends, was used by Apostle Paul (even though it has been dated to the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565 AD)) and large scale water storage reservoirs used during sieges, one of them with an impressive volume of 300,000 liters. Still preserved today are parts of the western fortress wall with a rectangular tower from the Antiquity period.