Excavation Project for ‘Great’ Basilica in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv to Focus on Early Christian Mosaics Restoration

Current view of the site of the Great Basilica in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Photo by Realsteel007, Wikipedia

Current view of the site of the Great Basilica in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Photo by Realsteel007, Wikipedia

The project for the excavation and restoration of the 5th century Great Basilica in the Southern Bulgarian city of Plovdiv is going to focus on the recovery, restoration, and conservation of its Early Christian mosaics, lead archaeologist Elena Kisyakova has explained.

The restoration and excavation of the Great Basilica of ancient Philipopolis, as Plovdiv was known after the conquest of Ancient Thrace by King Philip II of Macedon in 342 AD, is a long awaited project which will be funded with a grant of BGN 4.9 million (app. EUR 2.5 million) by the America for Bulgaria Foundation, a Bulgarian-U.S. NGO.

The work on the Great Basilica is about to begin any moment now pending a final approval by a government commission in Sofia, Kisyakova, who first found the Early Christian church in 1982, has told Radio Focus Plovdiv.

She explains, however, the project will focus on the restoration, conservation, and exhibition of the Great Basilica and its mosaics, and only partial excavations will be done on an “as needed” basis.

“Our work will be precisely to observe the restoration and conservation work and the activities connected with it – archaeological uncovering and its documenting. The entire time there will have to be someone to observe the overall work,” Kisyakova adds.

In their work on the Great Basilica, or Bishop’s Basilica, in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv, the expert time will aim at the maximum conservation and restoration of the structures excavated in the past, and those are primarily mosaics.

Thus, their first job will be to uncover the Early Christian mosaics explored in the 1980s which were covered with nylon and sand after the excavations ended. After that the mosaics will be restored and exhibited.

Kisyakova says this will be done by the restorers themselves, and then a protective building will be constructed. During its construction, the necessity for excavation drilling might arise.

“Unfortunately, we cannot afford to do an all-out archaeological exploration because the goal is to preserve, exhibit and restore the ancient monument,” the lead archaeologist concludes.

The project for Plovdiv’s Great Basilica, which is sometimes likened to similar historical monuments from ancient Constantinople and Ravenna, the last capital of the Western Roman Empire, is the second of this kind, after in 2010-2014 Bulgaria Culture Ministry, Plovdiv Municipality, and the America for Bulgaria Foundation collaborated for the excavation and restoration of another Early Christian monument, the so called Small Basilica dating back to the 5th century AD.

The Small Basilica project was financed by the America for Bulgaria Foundation with a BGN 1 million (app. EUR 511,000) grant, and was formally opened for tourists in May 2014.

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 Early Christian Great Basilica (or Bishop’s Basilica) is located in the center of the ancient city of Philipopolis, which is itself in the downtown of today’s Plovdiv in Southern Bulgaria. It was discovered in 1982 by a team of archaeologists led by Elena Kisyakova. The excavated remains of the Great Basilica were fenced off as part of conservation efforts but have not been excavated further ever since. Back in 2002, Plovdiv Municipality sold the property to a private firm even though it contained a formally recognized monument of culture. As a result, once the scandalous deal unraveled, it took the municipality and the central government seven years of court trials to regain the ownership of the Great Basilica site. The Philipopolis Bishop’s Basilica is impressive in size – its length totals 86.3 meters (the combined length of its naos with the apse is 56.5 meters), and its width is estimated to be 38.5 meters. The entire floor of the three-nave basilica is paved with unique Early Christian mosaics covering a total area of 700 square meters. The mosaic floors were created in two construction stages. The color mosaics feature primarily geometric motifs and images of birds typical of the second quarter of the 5th century. About 70 different species of birds have been identified, some of which appear to be unknown to contemporary ornithology. Based on the mosaics, the Early Christian Bishop’s Basilica in the ancient city of Philipopolis is dated back to the first half of the 5th century BC, the Late Roman – Early Byzantine period. It was destroyed in the middle of the 6th century, possibly during a barbarian invasions. It was built on the foundations of an earlier building of similar size and potentially with similar functions.