Archaeologists Discover Grave of Bulgaria’s First Christian Martyr, Crown Prince St. Boyan Enravota

The holy well, i.e. sacred spring or ayazmo, in the Great Basilica in Pliska, capital of the First Bulgarian Empire in the 7th-9th century AD, where Bulgarian archaeologists have discovered the grave of St. Knyaz Boyan Enravota (Voin), heir to the throne and the first Bulgarian Christian martyr. Photo: Top Novini Shumen

The holy well, i.e. sacred spring or ayazmo, in the Great Basilica in Pliska, capital of the First Bulgarian Empire in the 7th-9th century AD, where Bulgarian archaeologists have discovered the grave of St. Knyaz Boyan Enravota (Voin), heir to the throne and the first Bulgarian Christian martyr. Photo: Top Novini Shumen

The archaeologists who have recently started the excavations of the Great Basilica in Pliska, capital of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018) between 680 and 893 AD, have discovered the grave of St. Boyan Enravota, an heir to the throne who became Bulgaria’s first martyr for Christianity in the early 9th century AD.

The discovery of the grave of St. Boyan Enravota, also known as Voin (“Warrior"), who lost not only the throne but also his life because of his devotion to Christianity, has been announced by Bulgaria’s National Museum of History. Bulgarian media have immediately described it as “sensational“.

A team of archaeologists led by Assoc. Prof. Pavel Georgiev from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology has recently started excavating the ruins of the Great Basilica in Pliska, the largest Christian temple in Europe from the 9th until the 16th century. The excavations are supposed to set the ground for the restoration of the Great Basilica in order to promote both “patriotic sentiments”, and cultural tourism in Bulgaria.

The grave of St. Boyan Enravota has been found during the excavation of the Great Basilica’s holy well (i.e. sacred spring, also known with the Greek word “ayazmo", a spring or a small body of water revered by pagans and/or Christians).

Georgiev’s team has found what is described as a “luxury masonry" grave right underneath the dome of the holy well. The archaeologist believes that this is the martyrium of the first Bulgarian Christian martyr, St. Knyaz (i.e. Prince) Boyan Enravota (Voin).

St. Knyaz (i.e. Prince) Boyan Enravota (Voin) was the first-born son of Khan (or Kanas) Omurtag, ruler of the First Bulgarian Empire in 814-831 AD, and grandson of Khan (or Kanas) Krum the Fearsome (r. 803-814 AD).

After Khan Omurtag’s death, Knyaz Boyan Enravota was supposed to inherit his father’s throne. However, some of the members of the high aristocracy of the Ancient Bulgars known as boilas were opposed to his ascension to the throne because of rumors that he had become a Christian. (The First Bulgarian Empire adopted Christianity as its official and only state religion later, in 865 AD, and until then the Ancient Bulgars, Slavs, and Thracians who merged into the Bulgarian ethnicity were still worshiping their different pagan gods.)

After he was confronted about his faith, Knyaz Boyan Enravota not only did not deny that he was a Christian but he also proudly refused to renounce Christianity.

According to historical sources, as a result of his decision, he was considered a traitor to the Ancient Bulgar tradition, and was slaughtered outside the fortress walls of Pliska, in 832 AD.

The Bulgarian crown was inherited by his minor brother, Khan Malamir (r. 831/2-836 AD) who died very young, and the crown was passed onto Khan Presiyan (r. 836-852 AD), nephew of Enravota and Malamir, and son of their brother Zvinitsa.

According to Bulgaria’s National Museum of History, around 845 AD, Khan (or Kanas) Presiyan constructed a small martyrium church above a holy well (sacred spring or ayazmo) where his Christian uncle Boyan Enravota had been executed.

Bulgaria formally adopted Christiniaty only during the reign of Khan Presiyan’s son and Boyan Enravota’s grand nephew, St. Knyaz Boris I Mihail in 865 AD, with contemporary Bulgaria just celebrating 1150 years since its adoption of Christianity in May 2015.

The ruins of the Great Basilica in Pliska, capital of the First Bulgarian Empire in the 7th-9th century AD. Photo: National Museum of History

The ruins of the Great Basilica in Pliska, capital of the First Bulgarian Empire in the 7th-9th century AD. Photo: National Museum of History

Bulgaria’s National Museum of History says it is no accident that the Great Basilica in Pliska, which was built in 865-875 AD, was erected where its ruins lie today – on the holy well with the grave of St. Boyan Enravota. While the Great Basilica was razed to the ground by the invading Ottoman Turks at the end of the 14th century, the holy well itself was in use, and worshipped by the local people until the 19th century, shortly before Bulgaria’s Liberation from the Ottoman Yoke in 1878.

“In addition to everything else, this huge temple was supposed to symbolize Christianity’s victory over paganism, and the grave of St. Boyan Enravota symbolically supports its foundation," says the Museum statement.

“This is not a proper tomb but a dome covering the holy water well in order to remember the event – the execution of the first Bulgarian Christian martyr which was committed on this site before Bulgaria’s adoption of Christianity. We have been studying the well, which was first discovered in 1900 by [Czech-Bulgarian archaeologist] Karel Skorpil, and our latest discoveries have justified our expectations," explains Georgiev, as cited by Novinite.

The excavations of the Great Basilica in Pliska described as “the mother of all Bulgarian churches" are currently being conducted with funding from the Bulgarian government amounting to BGN 500,000 (app. EUR 255,000). The entire restoration of the Great Basilica will cost about BGN 8 million (app. EUR 4.1 million).

Bulgaria’s National Museum of History has appealed to all Christian pilgrims who might wish to visit immediately the grave of the first ever Bulgarian Christian martyr St. Knyaz Boyan Enravota (Voin) urging them to approach the excavation site in the ruins of the Great Basilica in Pliska with extreme caution so as to prevent any accidents, and not to disrupt the work of the archaeologists.

Background Infonotes:

Pliska and Veliki Preslav (Great Preslav) are two of the capitals of the First Bulgarian Empire. Pliska was the capital of the First Bulgarian Empire in 680-893 AD, and Veliki Preslav in 893-970 AD, at the height of the Bulgarian state. The state capital was moved from Pliska to Veliki Preslav, a new medieval city nearby, in 893 AD in order to seal Bulgaria’s adoption of Christianity and the Bulgarian (Slavic, Cyrillic) script (in 865 and 886 AD, respectively). The ruins of both Pliska and Veliki Preslav can be seen today in the Shumen District in Northeast Bulgaria.

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The Great Basilica “St. Sofia" in the city of Pliska, capital of the First Bulgarian Empire between 680 and 893 AD, was built between 866 and 875 AD, after Bulgaria’s adoption of Christianity as the official state religions in 865 AD under Knyaz Boris I Mihail (r. 852-889; 893 AD).

The Great Basilica in Pliska, the first capital of Bulgaria south of the Danube, was the largest Christian cathedral in Europe in the Middle Ages. It was 102.5 meters long and 30 meters wide, which means it was 20 meters longer than the Hagia Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople, the titular temple of the Ecumenical Patriarchate during the period of the Byzantine Empire, and about 30 meters longer than the San Pietro in Vincoli Cathedral in Rome. Thus, the Great Basilica in Bulgaria’s Pliska was technically the largest Christian temple in Europe until the 17th century, i.e. until the completion of the Papal Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican in 1629 AD.

The Great Basilica in Pliska was built with huge white limestone quadras from the quarries in the nearby town of Kyulevcha. Around the basilica there was a large monastery complex and the residence of the Bulgarian Archbishop (between 870 and 917 AD), and the Bulgarian Patriarch (from 917 AD onwards). In this monastery complex, Bulgarian archaeologists have found a scriptorium for the “production" of medieval books in Old Bulgarian, also known as Church Slavonic. As Bulgaria’s National Museum of History points out, “it is with these books that the monastery monks and missionaries converted [to Christianity] the peoples of modern-day countries Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Romania, Moldova, Serbia in the 9th-10th century."

The Great Basilica in Pliska was still standing until the Late Middle Ages but was razed to the ground by the Ottoman Turks after their invasion at the end of the 14th century, and in the 15th century, because according to the laws of the Islamic Ottoman Empire no Christian temple could stand taller than a Muslim man mounted on a horse. The construction material from the unique buildings in Pliska was used by the Ottomans for the construction of the Turkish military barracks and the Tombul Mosque in the nearby city of Shumen,, and whatever had been left of it by the 19th century – for the construction of the Varna-Ruse railway in 1866 under Ottoman governor Midhat Pasha.

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Bulgaria’s adoption of Christianity as the formal and only state religion took place in 864-865 AD under the leadership of Khan / Knyaz Boris I Mihail (r. 852-889; 893 AD).

As a result of the successful reigns of Khan (or Kanas) Krum (r. 803-814 AD), Khan (Kanas) Omurtag (r. 814-831 AD), Khan (Kanas) Malamir (r. 831-836), and Khan (Kanas) Presian (r. 836-852 AD), by the middle of the 9th century the First Bulgarian Empire had become a huge empire spanning from the Black Sea in the east to the Adriatic Sea in the west, and from the Northern Carpathian Mountains in the north to the Aegean Sea in the south, including the entire or part of the territory of modern-day Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Greece, Turkey, Albania, Macedonia, Hungary, Moldova, and Ukraine. However, the major peoples inhabiting the Bulgarian Empire – the Ancient Bulgars (whose religion is known as tengriism) and the Slavs as well as the local Thracian population and others – worshipped different gods according to their own religions and mythologies. This was true even though there were entire areas in the then Bulgarian Empire which had been Christianized in earlier periods, and even though the first Khans from the House of Dulo are believed to have been Christians who were baptized by the imperial court of the Eastern Roman Empire, i.e. Byzantium: Khan (Kanas) Kubrat (r. ca. 630-ca.660) who founded the so called Old Great Bulgaria in 632 AD on the territory of much of modern-day Ukraine and Southwest Russia; Khan (Kanas) Asparuh (r. ca. 680-700) who expanded the state to the southwest technically creating modern-day Danube Bulgaria around 680 AD; and Khan (Kanas) Tervel (r. 700-718/721) who saved Europe from an Arab invasion during the siege of Constantinople in 717 AD. This led Khan Boris I to decide to unite the different ethnicities in the First Bulgarian Empire with a new common religion, and to pick Christianity (even though the adoption of Islam and Judaism were also offered to him by foreign emissaries) because Bulgaria was then the only still pagan major European power, and he wanted Bulgaria to be treated as an equal by the Byzantine Empire in the east and the successors of the Frankish Empire in the west.

While Khan Boris I initially intended to adopt the Western form of Christianity from the Pope in Rome via the Kingdom of the East Franks (East Francia in modern-day Germany) because Byzantium had been Bulgaria’s major geopolitical foe, he was forced to change his decision after an unsuccessful war with the Byzantines imposed on him the adoption of the Eastern form of Christianity as part of a peace treaty signed in 863 AD. This resulted after the First Bulgarian Empire had had to fight simultaneously Byzantium in the southeast and Great Moravia in the northwest. Thus, in 863 or 864 AD, a mission from the Patriarch of Constantinople Photios came to Pliska and converted the Bulgarian Tsar, his family and high-ranking dignitaries, who were baptized as Christians. Khan Boris I became Knyaz Boris I Mihael – taking the name of his baptist, Byzantine Emperor Michael III (r. 842-867 AD), and in 865 AD there was baptism en masse of the entire Bulgarian population. Thus, even though the subsequent years saw the first major clashes between the Pope in Rome and the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople over the “Bulgarian Question", i.e. whose diocese the large and powerful newly baptized First Bulgarian Empire should belong to, Bulgaria remained in the camp of Eastern Orthodox Christianity subsequently helping pass it on to later emerging nations such as Serbia and Russia, and thus modifying forever the history of Europe.

Bulgaria’s adoption of Christianity, however, went far from smoothly, and not only because of the clashes between the Pope in Rome and the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople over whose diocese the newly converted Bulgarians should belong to. In 865, conservative Bulgar aristocrats from all 10 komitats (administrative regions) of the First Bulgarian Empire revolted against Boris, who now took the Christianized title of Knyaz (i.e. King) in order to restore the old religion, tengriism. Knyaz Boris I managed to suppress the revolt executing 52 Bulgarian boyars (heads of noble families). According to some sources, he also had their entire extended families executed. Until the end of his life, Knyaz Boris was haunted by guilt about the harshness of his measures and the moral price of his decision in 865. In his later correspondence with Pope Nicholas I, the Knyaz asked whether his actions had crossed the borders of Christian humility, for which the Pope offered forgiveness: “You have sinned rather because of zeal and lack of knowledge, than because of other vice. You receive forgiveness and grace and the benevolence of Christ, since penance has followed on your behalf."

Knyaz Boris realized that the Christianization of Bulgaria gave Byzantium great influence over the domestic affairs of the Bulgarian Empire. Thus, juggling the differences of Rome and Constantinople, he eventually managed to get Byzantium’s Ecumenical Patriarchate as well as the Pope in Rome to recognize an independent (autocephalous) Bulgarian Archbishopric, which was created in 870 AD in an unprecedented development for Europe because independent churches had been only those founded by Apostles or Apostles’ disciples. For example, the Papacy in Rome had been challenging Constantinople’s claim of equality to Rome on the grounds that the Church of Constantinople had not been founded by an Apostle of Jesus Christ. Nonetheless, this development was also a success for Byzantium, and during the decade after 870 AD, Pope Adrian II and his successors kept trying desperately to convince Bulgaria’s Knyaz Boris to leave Constantinople’s religious sphere.

Knyaz Boris I Mihail sealed the success of his deed, the adoption of Christianity, in 886 AD when Bulgaria welcomed the disciples of St. Cyril and St. Methodius, St. Kliment Ohridski and St. Naum Preslavski, helping them to teach thousands of Bulgarian clergymen to serve in Bulgarian. Thus, Bulgaria adopted the Bulgarian script, also known as the Slavic script – first the Glagolithic and then the Bulgarian (Cyrillic) alphabet. This allowed Knyaz Boris, and his successor Tsar Simeon I the Great to declare Bulgarian (also known as Old Bulgarian or Church Slavonic) as the official language of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church during the Council of Preslav in 893 AD (which also moved Bulgaria’s capital from Pliska to Veliki Preslav (Great Preslav)). As all over Europe religious services were held in the “official" church languages Latin and Greek, this “nationalization" of the liturgy language by Bulgaria became another exceptional development in medieval Europe after the recognition of the independent Bulgarian church.