Bulgarian Archaeologists Uncover Further Lower Layer of Early Christian Mosaics at Plovdiv’s Great Basilica

The two layers of the Early Christian mosaics at the 5th century Late Roman / Early Byzantine Great Basilica in Bulgaria's Plovdiv are clearly visible Photo: Plovdiv24

The two layers of the Early Christian mosaics at the 5th century Late Roman / Early Byzantine Great Basilica in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv are clearly visible Photo: Plovdiv24

Bulgarian archaeologists working on the re-excavation and restoration of the 5th century AD Great Basilica in the southern city of Plovdiv have made further progress with the uncovering of the lower layer of ornate Early Christian mosaics at the Early Byzantine temple.

Over the weekend, they have been aided by about 40 volunteers from the America for Bulgaria Foundation, which sponsors the excavation and restoration works at the Great Basilica, reports local news site Plovdiv24.

The older layer of Early Christian mosaics as well as murals on the masonry ruins, and a separate Later Roman building have been reached only recently.

What turns out to have been the upper layer of the ornately decorated color Early Christian mosaics in the Early Byzantine Great Basilica was re-excavated shortly after the Bulgarian archaeologists and restorers started the project for the further excavation, conservation, and restoration of the Late Antiquity temple last month.

The Early Byzantine Great Basilica in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv was discovered in the 1980s but its ruins and unique floor mosaics have been re-buried with soil and sand as a means of preserving them in anticipation of the resolution of legal disputes over the property, and the securing of sufficient funding for the further excavation and conservation of the site.

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.

Over 1,400 square meters of Early Christian floor mosaics are to be restored and exhibited at the Great Basilica in Bulgaria's Plovdiv. Photo: Plovdiv24

Over 2,000 square meters of Early Christian floor mosaics are to be restored and exhibited at the Great Basilica in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv. Photo: Plovdiv24

The lower layer of Early Christian mosaics at the Late Antiquity Byzantine Great Basilica in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv is considerably more ornately decorated and colorful but also better preserved. It has not been revealed before, and its excavation is described as “an adventure" for the archaeologists working on the site. Many of the lower layer mosaics revealed so far are depictions of crosses.

The lower layer of the mosaics is covered with several centimeters of mortar leading the archaeologists to assume that at some point in the life of the Great Basilica in Plovdiv, which was one of the largest public buildings in Southeast Europe in the Late Antiquity, it was decided to cover its initial mosaic floor with mortar in order to create new mosaics which feature primarily depictions of birds.

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 is 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, has made it clear that the project focuses 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 total of 2000 square meters of Early Christian floor mosaics at the basilica, which was built at the beginning of the 5th century AD, will be restored and exhibited in situ, and ready to welcome visitors by the summer of 2017.

The new tourist center will have a roof, an inner yard, and a performance space which will be used for different types of events.

Recently, Plovdiv Municipality has moved to seek from Bulgaria’s Ministry of Culture a transfer of property rights over the entire site of the Early Christian Great Basilica. Plovdiv Municipality owns only part of the site.

The beautiful Early Christian floor mosaics in the 5th century Byzantine Great Basilica in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv come in two layers. Photo: Plovdiv24

The beautiful Early Christian floor mosaics in the 5th century Byzantine Great Basilica in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv come in two layers. Photo: Plovdiv24

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. 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.

***

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 Turkishword for “hill"), one of the seven historic hills where Plovdiv was founded and developed in prehistoric and ancient times.

Thanks to the prehistoric, ancient, and medieval settlement and fortress of Nebet Tepe, Plovdiv hold the title of “Europe’s oldest city" (and that of the world’s six oldest city, according to a Daily Telegraph ranking).

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 periodEumolpia / 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.