Bulgarian Archaeologist Discovers Early Christian Tomb of Senior Clergyman on Sozopol’s St. John Island in Black Sea
An Early Christian tomb of a senior clergyman, possibly the Father Superior of the monastery, has been discovered by Bulgarian archaeologist Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov on the St. Ivan (St. John) Island off the Black Sea coast near the town of Sozopol, where in 2010 he found relics of St. John the Baptist.
The newly found tomb is located near the northern part of the altar of the Early Christian basilica on the St. Ivan Island which was part of the St. John the Baptist Monastery, reports local news site BurgasNews.
The tomb is dated to the period when the basilica was constructed – the end of the 4th and the beginning of the 5th century AD. At the time, Sozopol and the St. Ivan Island were territory of the Eastern Roman Empire known today as Byzantium.
The newly found tomb has been opened in the presence of journalists and reporters who were specially invited for the purpose. Unfortunately, it has turned out to be empty – the remains of the senior Early Christian clergyman who is believed to have been buried there have not been found inside.
However, Popkonstantinov has found a chain used for holding a sanctuary lamp (altar lamp) – an artifact that confirms his supposition that the tomb belonged to a senior Early Christian priest – as well as fragments from the actual lamp. It is even possible that the tomb contained the body of the first Father Superior of the St. John the Baptist Monastery.
The sophisticated architecture of the tomb is also seen as evidence that the man buried inside it was very important.
“For the field of archaeology this tomb is a major discovery because it is found in this monastery. It shows how the monks were buried. The tomb is 2 meters long and 1.3 meters wide meaning that the buried man was tall. The monks were modest and probably buried him only in his cassock, and possibly with a cross,” the archaeologist explains about his new find.
“We are confident that a [senior] clergyman was buried here because of the discovery of the chain of an altar lamp, which definitely dates back to the 5th century AD. The most interesting thing is that the tomb was built next to the northern part of the basilica. In the 5th century, the monks had a custom of building their own graves while they were still alive. We have also found other tombs such as the tombs in [the Bulgarian capital] Sofia but they are of a different type, while this one is located under a monastery. It reflects burial practices. This discovery is a contribution to Bulgarian archaeology and to Christian archaeology as a whole,” Popkonstantinov adds.
In his words, the location of the tomb is further evidence that it may have belonged to the first Father Superior of the St. John the Baptist monastery.
“When the Farther Superior who is the founder of a monastery passed away, he would be buried either to the north, or to the south of the temple,” he says regarding the funeral customs of Early Christian monasteries.
The archaeologist believes that the remains of the senior clergyman who was buried in the tomb were probably moved somewhere else in the Early Christian monastery, and hopes to find them as he continues his excavation on the St. Ivan Island.
In his words, at some point of the reconstruction of the monastery, the tomb was in the way because there is a 2-meter tall wall fencing it off in order to support further construction.
“Apparently, the monks removed the remains of the clergyman, and re-buried them somewhere else in the monastery. We may be able to discover that place,” Popkonstantinov hopes.
He points out that monastery customs provide for the reading of prayers and the lighting of a sanctuary lamp every day at the place of the tomb.
“We have found the chain and a number of fragments of that sanctuary lamp which seems further evidence for our opinion that here the monks would indeed honor their Father Superior here,” Popkonstantinov concludes.
Back in 2010 during excavations of an ancient monastery on the St. Ivan (St. John) Island in the Black Sea, off the coast of Bulgaria’s Sozopol, to the north of Burgas, Bulgarian archaeologist Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov discovered a reliquary containing relics of St. John the Baptist. The relics of St. John the Baptist, which consist of small bone particles from a skull, jaw bone, arm bone, and tooth, have received lots of international interest in the years since then, and in February 2015 CNN reported that Oxford University scholars had confirmed the possibility of their authenticity by concluding that they belonged to a man who lived in the Middle East at the same time as Jesus Christ.
After the opening of the newly found Early Christian tomb, archaeologist Kazimir Popkonstantinov has told the reporters that between 100 and 300 tourists visit the ruins of the Early Christian monastery on the St. Ivan Island every day to see the place where the relics of St. John the Baptist were found.
The history of the resort town of Sozopol (Apollonia Pontica, Sozopolis) on Bulgaria’s Southern Black Sea coast started during the Early Bronze Age, in the 5th millennium BC, as testified by the discoveries of artifacts found in underwater archaeological research, such as dwellings, tools, pottery, and anchors. In the 2nd-1st millennium BC, the area was settled by the Ancient Thracian tribe Scyrmiades who were experienced miners trading with the entire Hellenic world. An Ancient Greek colony was founded there in 620 BC by Greek colonists from Miletus on Anatolia’s Aegean coast. The colony was first called Anthea but was later renamed to Apollonia in favor of Ancient Greek god Apollo, a patron of the setters who founded the town. It became known as Apollonia Pontica (i.e. of the Black Sea). Since the Late Antiquity, the Black Sea town has also been called Sozopolis.
The Greek colony of Apollonia Pontica emerged as a major commercial and shipping center, especially after the 5th century AD when it became allied with the Odrysian Kingdom, the most powerful state of the Ancient Thracians. As of the end of the 6th century BC, Apollonia Pontica started minting its own coins, with the anchor appearing on them as the symbol of the polis. Apollonia became engaged in a legendary rivalry with another Ancient Greek colony, Mesembria, today’s Bulgarian resort town of Nessebar, which was founded north of the Bay of Burgas in the 6th century BC by settlers from Megara, a Greek polis located in West Attica. According to some historical accounts, in order to counter Mesembria’s growth, Apollonia Pontica founded its own colony, Anchialos, today’s Pomorie (though other historical sources do not support this sequence of events), which is located right to the south of Mesembria. Apollonia managed to preserve its independence during the military campaigns of the Ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon under Philip II (r. 359-336 BC), and his son Alexander the Great (r. 336-323 BC). Apollonia, today’s Sozopol, is known to have had a large temple of Greek god Apollo (possibly located on the Sts. Quiricus and Julietta Island, also known as the St. Cyricus Island), with a 12-meter statue of Apollo created by Calamis, a 5th century BC sculptor from Ancient Athens. In 72 BC, Apollonia Pontica was conquered by Roman general Lucullus who took the Apollo statue to Rome and placed it on the Capitoline Hill. After the adoption of Christianity as the official religion in the Roman Empire, the statue was destroyed.
In the Late Antiquity, Apollonia, also called Sozopolis lost some of its regional center positions to Anchialos, and the nearby Roman colony Deultum (Colonia Flavia Pacis Deultensium). After the division of the Roman Empire into a Western Roman Empire and Eastern Roman Empire (today known as Byzantium) in 395 AD, Apollonia / Sozopolis became part of the latter. Its Late Antiquity fortress walls were built during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Anasthasius (r. 491-518 AD), and the city became a major fortress on the Via Pontica road along the Black Sea coast protecting the European hinterland of Constantinople.
In 812 AD, Sozopol was first conquered for Bulgaria by Khan (or Kanas) Krum, ruler of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD) in 803-814 AD. In the following centuries of medieval wars between the Bulgarian Empire and the Byzantine Empire, Sozopol changed hands numerous times. The last time it was conquered by the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) was during the reign of Bulgarian Tsar Todor (Teodor) Svetoslav Terter (r. 1300-1322 AD). However, in 1366 AD, during the reign of Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Alexander (r. 1331-1371 AD), Sozopol was conquered by Amadeus IV, Count of Savoy from 1343 to 1383 AD, who sold it to Byzantium. During the period of the invasion of the Ottoman Turks at the end of the 14th century and the beginning of the 15th century AD, Sozopol was one of the last free cities in Southeast Europe. It was conquered by the Ottomans in the spring of 1453 AD, two months before the conquest of Constantinople despite the help of naval forces from Venice and Genoa.
In the Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, Sozopol was a major center of (Early) Christianity with a number of large monasteries such as the St. John the Baptist Monastery on St. Ivan Island off the Sozopol coast where in 2010 Bulgarian archaeologist Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov made a major discovery by finding relics of St. John the Baptist; the St. Apostles Monastery; the St. Nikolay (St. Nikolaos or St. Nicholas) the Wonderworker Monastery; the Sts. Quriaqos and Julietta Monastery on the St. Cyricus (St. Kirik) Island, the Holy Mother of God Monastery, the St. Anastasia Monastery.
During the Ottoman period Sozopol was often raided by Cossack pirates. In 1629, all Christian monasteries and churches in the city were burned down by the Ottoman Turks leading it to lose its regional role. In the Russian-Turkish War of 1828-1829, Sozopol was conquered by the navy of the Russian Empire, and was turned into a temporary military base. After Bulgaria’s National Liberation from the Ottoman Empire in 1878, Sozopol remained a major fishing center. As a result of intergovernmental agreements for exchange of population in the 1920s between the Tsardom of Bulgaria and the Kingdom of Greece, most of the ethnic Greeks still remaining in Sozopol moved to Greece, and were replaced by ethnic Bulgarians from the Bulgarian-populated regions of Northern Greece.
The modern era archaeological excavations of Sozopol were started in 1904 by French archaeologists who later took their finds to The Louvre Museum in Paris, including ancient vases from the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC, the golden laurel wreath of an Ancient Thracian ruler, and a woman’s statue from the 3rd century BC. Important archaeological excavations of Sozopol were carried out between 1946 and 1949 by Bulgarian archaeologist Ivan Venedikov. The most recent excavations of Sozopol’s Old Town started in 2010. In 2011-2012, Bulgarian archaeologists Tsonya Drazheva and Dimitar Nedev discovered a one-apse church, a basilica, and an Early Christian necropolis. Since 2012, the excavations of Sozopol have been carried out together with French archaeologists. In 2010, during excavations of the ancient monastery on the St. Ivan (St. John) Island in the Black Sea, off the coast of Bulgaria’s Sozopol, Bulgarian archaeologist Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov discovered a reliquary containing relics of St. John the Baptist. In 1974, the Bulgarian government set up the Old Sozopol Archaeological and Architectural Preserve.