Late Antiquity Fortress on St. Athanasius Cape in Bulgaria’s Byala Boasts Lots of Tourists, Further Excavations

The conserved and partly restored ruins of the Early Christian basilica in the St. Athanasius Cape Fortress in Bulgaria's Black Sea resort town of Byala. Photo: St. Athanasius Cape Archaeological Preserve

The conserved and partly restored ruins of the Early Christian basilica in the St. Athanasius Cape Fortress in Bulgaria’s Black Sea resort town of Byala. Photo: St. Athanasius Cape Archaeological Preserve

The partly restored Late Antiquity and Early Byzantine fortress on the Cape of St. Athanasius in Bulgaria’s Black Sea resort town of Byala is emerging as a popular destination for cultural tourism, according to Byala Mayor Anastas Trendafilov.

In the second half of 2014, after the Byzantine fortress in Byala was opened for visitors last summer, it attracted a total of 15,000 tourists, Trendafilov has revealed, as cited by Radio Focus – Varna. In May 2015 alone, when Byala Municipality started charging for the site, the fortress on St. Athasius Cape on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast saw 2,000 visitors.

The Byala Mayor says his administration has moved to promote the archaeological site, which also features remains from the Chalcolithic, Ancient Thrace, and Ancient Rome, as a cultural tourism destination through advertising and establishing connections with tourism companies.

He expects that in 2015 a lot more tourists will visit the fortress on the Cape of St. Athanasius, which dates back to the 5th-6th century AD, regardless of the forecast for a weaker summer tourist season.

Trendafilov also points out that while the partly restored section of the Byzantine fortress is welcoming visitors, as of June 15, 2015, the local authorities and the archaeologists working on it will continue the archaeological excavations of the site which has come nowhere near being fully excavated and researched yet.

The Mayor has expressed his dissatisfaction over the meager government funding allocated for the 2015 summer excavations of the archaeological site on the Cape of St. Athanasius in Bulgaria’s Byala – only BGN 7,000 (app. EUR 3,500) compared with BGN 30,000 (app. EUR 15,300) in 2014.

Back in March 2015, Deyan Yanchev, Director of the St. Athanasius Cape Archaeological Preserve, showed a 1500-year-old bronze lamp (candelarium), discovered during excavations of the Late Antiquity fortress back in 2013, to Pavel Hristov, a Member of Parliament from Bulgaria’s ruling center-right party GERB, as an argument for more government funding for Byala’s archaeological, historical, and cultural heritage but apparently that come to no avail.

A view of the Black Sea coast on the Cape of St. Athanasius in Bulgaria's Byala. Photo: Facebook Page of Ancient Fortress St. Athanasius

A view of the Black Sea coast on the Cape of St. Athanasius in Bulgaria’s Byala. Photo: Facebook Page of Ancient Fortress St. Athanasius

Mayor Trendafilov emphasizes that the funding required for a proper archaeological season including the hiring of lead archaeologists and workers for the digs is about BGN 50,000-60,000 (app. EUR 25,000-30,000). He adds that Byala Municipality will step up once again to support the archaeological excavations on the Cape of St. Athanasius as it has been doing ever since the digs there started 7 years ago.

Thus, in the past seven years, Byala Municipality has invested a total of over BGN 1.5 million (app. EUR 770,000) in the exploration, excavation, and rehabilitation of the Late Antiquity fortress on the Cape of St. Athanasius, which is a major sum for a relatively remote municipality with only about 3,000 inhabitants.

“I don’t know if there is another municipality [in Bulgaria] including among the big ones which has invested so much money in archaeology in so short a period,” Trendafilov is quoted as saying, adding that his administration has slated BGN 30,000 (app. EUR 15,000) for archaeological excavations in 2015.

The Mayor of Byala further stresses that the Byzantine fortress on the Cape of St. Athanasius is the only archaeological site that is opened for tourists on a rather long section of Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast between the city of Varna to the north, and the resort town of Nessebar to the south.

“We must work more on the development of cultural tourism in Bulgaria in order to take advantage of our historical heritage,” Trendafilov concludes.

Baptistery No. 2 in the St. Athanasius Cape Fortress in Bulgaria's Black Sea resort town of Byala. Photo: St. Athanasius Cape Archaeological Preserve

Baptistery No. 2 in the St. Athanasius Cape Fortress in Bulgaria’s Black Sea resort town of Byala. Photo: St. Athanasius Cape Archaeological Preserve

Background Infonotes:

The Late Antiquity and Early Byzantine fortress on the Cape of St. Athanasius, part of the St. Athanasius Cape Archaeological Preserve, near the Bulgarian Black Sea town of Byala, District of Varna, has been rediscovered by Bulgarian archaeologists in recent years. The fortress is located on a plot of about 40 decares (app. 10 acres), and is dated back to the 5th-6th century AD while the precise area of an ancient settlement located on the same site remains unknown. The Early Byzantine fortress has been dated more precisely to the reigns of Byzantine Emperors Anastasius I (r. 491-518 AD), and Justinian I (r. 527-565 AD).

Before the excavations in recent years, the fortress on the Cape of St. Athanasius had only been known from a 1892 note by Czech-Bulgarian archaeologists Karel and Hermann Skorpil known as the founders of contemporary Bulgarian archaeology, and from a brief expedition in the 1970s. The major reason the fortress had not been excavated earlier is that a military base of the Bulgarian Army and Navy was located nearby because the location gives good command of a large section of the Bulgarian Black sea coast. The military base was closed down a few years ago, allowing the local authorities to approach archaeologists for the excavations of the site.

In his writings, Ancient Greek geographer Strabo (64 BC – ca. 24 AD) mentions a fortress called Larissa, which is located south of the Greek colony of Odessos (today’s Bulgarian city of Varna) and north of the Greek colony of Naulochos (today’s Bulgarian town of Obzor). Even though no defining evidence has been found that the fortress on the Cape of St. Athanasius is in fact the fortress Larissa described by Strabo, the Bulgarian archaeologists excavating the site have discovered traces not only from ancient, but also from earlier times. The earliest finds are from the Chalcolithic (also known as Eneolithic or Copper Age) and the Bronze Age, and an Ancient Thracian religious site from the 6th-5th century BC. An Ancient Roman settlement from the 2nd-3rd century AD has also been discovered.

Some of the finds uncovered on the Cape of St. Athanasius include an anti-landing rampart designed to prevent a sea invasion dating back to the Late Antiquity; a fortification consisting of a fortress wall and a moat cutting off the cape from its hinterland; an Early Christian one-apse basilica, two baptisteries, the residence of the head priest, two ceramic ovens, mural fragments and inscriptions; an ancient winery; a 6th century bronze table lamp, also known as a candelarium, found in a rich ancient residential building that collapsed in a fire around 614 AD; a stone plate for grinding powers, herbs, and cosmetic substances taken as a proof that the ancient residents of the St. Athanasius Cape practiced medicine; part of a Byzantine road; a golden ring with a model of the Rotunda of Anastasis in Jerusalem; a marble alter table produced in an imperial workshop on the Island of Paros in the Southern Aegean. The latest coins found in the fortress on the Cape of St. Athanasius as well as other traces have led Bulgarian archaeologist Prof. Dr. Valeri Yotov from the Varna Museum of Archaeology, who excavated the site, to hypothesize that the fortress near Byala was destroyed during the Avar and Slav invasion in 614 AD, during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Heraclius (r. 610-641 AD). The head of the St. Athanasius Cape Archaeological Preserve Deyan Yanchev has described the one-time ancient fortress as a “small port town with a substantial commercial potential”.

Since 2010, the ancient fortress on the Cape of St. Athanasius has been restored with a total funding of BGN 5.4 million (app. EUR 2.76 million), most of which was an EU grant provided from Operational Program “Regional Development”, in order to turn it into a destination for cultural tourism. The recent archaeological excavations started in 2008, and have been carried out every year with funding from Byala Municipality, which invested about BGN 1.5 million (EUR 770,000) in the first seven years of archaeological exploration, a major sum for a relatively remote municipality with only about 3,000 inhabitants.