Bulgaria’s Plovdiv Seeks Ownership of Early Christian Great Basilica from Central Government

A reconstruction of the inside view of the Great Basilica in the ancient city of Philipopolis in Bulgaria's Plovdiv. Photo by

A reconstruction of the inside view of the Great Basilica in the ancient city of Philipopolis in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv. Photo by “Свети места” svetimesta.com

The municipal authorities in the southern Bulgarian city of Plovdiv have declared their intention to seek from Bulgaria’s Ministry of Culture a transfer of property rights over the entire site of the Early Christian Great Basilica, an archaeological monument which is about to be re-excavated, restored, and exhibited as a cultural landmark and tourist attraction.

“We don’t want management rights for 10 years, we want ownership because we believe that this way we will be a lot more efficient in managing the project for the restoration of the largest Early Christian basilica in the region," says Plovdiv Mayor Ivan Totev, as cited by local news site Top Novini Plovdiv.

The upcoming session of Plovdiv’s City Council is set to approve a motion for requesting a transfer of property rights over part of the site of the Great Basilica of the Ancient Thracian and Roman city of Philipopolis, which is currently owned by the central government represented by the Bulgarian Culture Ministry. Plovdiv Municipality owns only part of the site.

Totev also argues that the ownership of the 5th century AD Great Basilica by Plovdiv Municipality will “restore justice" as the Municipality used to be the owner of the property in question.

Back in 2002, under then Mayor Ivan Chomakov, 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 battles to regain the ownership of the Great Basilica site. Plovdiv Municipality even had to pay the private owners BGN 500,000 (about EUR 255,000) as a compensation for a plot of 1,500 square meters.

The local authorities in Plovdiv have already cleared the area of the remains of the Great Basilica, an impressive Early Christian archaeological monument which is due to be excavated, restored, and exhibited as part of a long anticipated project funded by the America for Bulgaria Foundation, a NGO.

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.

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.

Lead archaeologist Elena Kisyakova, who first found the Early Christian church in 1982 together with archaeologist Elena Kantareva, 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.

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.

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 together with archaeologist Elena Kantareva. 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. Plovdiv Municipality even had to pay the private owners BGN 500,000 (about EUR 255,000) as a compensation for a plot of 1,500 square meters. 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.