Archaeologists Discover Saint’s Crypt in Early Christian Basilica in Roman and Byzantine Fortress Zaldapa in Northeast Bulgaria

Archaeologists Discover Saint’s Crypt in Early Christian Basilica in Roman and Byzantine Fortress Zaldapa in Northeast Bulgaria

The newly found Early Christian crypt in the Bishop's Basilica in the Roman and Byzantine city of Zaldapa in Northeast Bulgaria was opened in the presence of journalists. Photo: Krushari Municipality

The newly found Early Christian crypt in the Bishop’s Basilica in the Roman and Byzantine city of Zaldapa in Northeast Bulgaria was opened in the presence of journalists. Photo: Krushari Municipality

The crypt of a Christian saint or martyr has been discovered in an Early Christina basilica by the archaeologists excavating the Ancient Thracian, Roman, and Early Byzantine fortress Zalpada located near the town of Abrit, Krushari Municipality, in Northeast Bulgaria.

The crypt has been found in the most sacred place of the Early Christian basilica in Zaldapa, the altar space, Krushari Municipality has announced in a statement, stressing that the architecture of the tomb seems to be unlike any other known crypt in the Christian world.

The Early Christian basilica in Zalpada, which was major Roman and Byzantine city in the Scythia Minor province in the Late Antiquity, is rather impressive itself, with its width of 22 meters, and length of over 55 meters making it one of the largest Early Christian temples.

The archaeologists from the Dobrich Regional Museum of History, the Silistra Regional Museum of History, and the Varna Museum of Archaeology have started to clean up the crypt, which is filled with marble and ceramic fragments. So far they have removed over 1,000 fragments from it, including a large pillar capital.

A large pillar capital is one of the numerous fragments removed from the inside of the newly found Early Christian tomb in Zaldapa. Photo: Krushari Municipality

A large pillar capital is one of the numerous fragments removed from the inside of the newly found Early Christian tomb in Zaldapa. Photo: Krushari Municipality

Marble and ceramic fragments from both the Late Antiquity and the time of the First Bulgarian Empire in the Middle Ages have been removed from inside the newly found Early Christian crypt in the Late Roman and Early Byzantine Fortress Zaldapa. Photo: Krushari Municipality

Marble and ceramic fragments from both the Late Antiquity and the time of the First Bulgarian Empire in the Middle Ages have been removed from inside the newly found Early Christian crypt in the Late Roman and Early Byzantine Fortress Zaldapa. Photos: Krushari Municipality

IMG_8350Lead archaeologists Prof. Georgi Atanasov from the Silistra Regional Museum of History and Assoc. Prof. Valeri Yotov from the Varna Museum of Archaology hope that upon reaching the floor of the crypt they will have discovered a saint’s relics, or at least an inscription with the saint’s name.

The archaeologists have found that the crypt in the Early Christian basilica in the Zaldapa Fortress was broken into during the period of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD).

They have hypothesized that this occurred in the 10th century when it was “fashionable" to seek out relics of Early Christian saints in order to consecrate newly built churches in the medieval Bulgarian Empire which was officially christianized in the 9th century AD.

According to Krushari Municipality, the archaeologists expect to figure out by September 8, 2015, whether the newly found Christian crypt in the Late Roman and Early Byzantine fortress Zaldapa contains any holy relics.

The unearthing and the opening of the newly discovered crypt in the Early Christian Bishop's Basilica in the ancient city of Zaldapa in Krushari Municipality, Dobrich District, Northeast Bulgaria. Photos: Krushari Municipality

The unearthing and the opening of the newly discovered crypt in the Early Christian Bishop’s Basilica in the ancient city of Zaldapa in Krushari Municipality, Dobrich District, Northeast Bulgaria. Photos: Krushari Municipality

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IMG_8318 IMG_8326 IMG_8328 IMG_8335The very discovery of the crypt itself has been described as “incredible success" for the archaeological excavations of Zaldapa which first started in 2014, and are now in their second season.

Lead archaeologist Georgi Atanasov has told the media that the newly found crypt in Zaldapa is impressive with its size, and appears to be the only one of its type to have ever been found in the Balkan Peninsula.

“There is one Early Christian crypt in Niculitel and one in Halmyris (aslo in the Late Roman province of Scythia Minor, today both are located in the region of Northern Dobrudzha in Romania – editor’s note) but none of them is of such size even though the crypt in Niculitel had the relics of four saints. The crypt we have just discovered in Zaldapa is 3.8 meters long, 2.5 meters wide, and 2.5 tall. It is located in the most sacred place of the Bishop’s Basilica, the altar space. In the Early Christian period it was a tradition to build temples on top of crypts," Atanasov explains noting that crypts were usually smaller because of the size of the reliquaries holding the holy relics.

He adds that when the archaeologists discovered the crypt they were overjoyed because the slab covering its entrance was intact. Later, however, they found that the crypt had been broken into through the roof.

The archaeologists believe that the crypt was broken into during the time of the First Bulgarian Empire in the Middle Ages because together with the Antiquity marble fragments, inside it they have also found ceramics roughly dated to the 10th century AD.

“We don’t know if we will find any relics inside but we hope to at least find out the name of the saint buried in it when we clear it out completely," Atanasov says.

Bulgarian Orthodox priests performed a service at the opening of the Early Christian crypt in Zaldapa. Photo: Krushari Municipality

Bulgarian Orthodox priests performed a service at the opening of the Early Christian crypt in Zaldapa. Photo: Krushari Municipality

Also check out the other stories from the 2015 summer excavations of the Ancient Thracian, Roman, and Byzantine fortress Zaldapa in Northeast Bulgaria:

Bulgarian Archaeologists Find Stone Inscription, Red Marble Pillar in Bishop’s Basilica in Roman and Byzantine Fortress Zaldapa

Treasure Hunters Steal Ancient Artifacts from Roman and Byzantine Fortress Zaldapa in Northeast Bulgaria

French, Canadian Archaeologists Visit Bulgarian Colleagues for Excavations of Ancient Roman and Byzantine Fortress Zaldapa

Bulgarian Archaeologist to Excavate Late Roman, Early Byzantine Fortress Zaldapa for 2nd Year

Background Infonotes:

The Ancient Thracian, Ancient Roman, and Early Byzantine fortress Zaldapa located between the towns of Abrit and Dobrin, Dobrich District, Northeast Bulgaria, is said to be the largest fortified settlement in the geographic region of Dobrudzha (covering much of Northeast Bulgaria). Because of the name of the town of Abrit, for a long time, in the 19th and the first half of the 20th century, the Bulgarian archaeologists and historians thought the Zaldapa Fortress was in fact the legendary ancient city of Abritus – until the ruins of Abritus were discovered some 100 km to the southwest, near the city of Razgrad, in 1953.

Zaldapa (meaning “yellow water") was originally an Ancient Thracian settlement founded in the 8th century BC. It is located on a large peninsula-shaped plateau with a length of 1.2 km and a width of 500 meters (totaling 0.6 square km). Archaeological observations indicate that Zaldapa was densely built-up and populated. The entire settlement covered an area of 35 hectares (app. 86 acres). Zaldapa’s fortress wall appears homogenous meaning it was probably constructed in a single campaign, without major reconstructions in subsequent periods. It has a lot of straight sections as well as a total of 32 fortress towers of various shape and size, as well as 3 main and 2 smaller gates. The type of the fortification indicates that it was built in the Late Antiquity, i.e. the Late Roman period, most probably in the second half of the 4th century AD.

Zaldapa was first explored in 1906-1910 by Czech-Bulgarian archaeologist Karel Skorpil, one of the founders of modern-day Bulgarian archaeology. Later archaeological exploration has been reduced to terrain observations. Between World War I and World War II, when the region of Southern Dobrudzha was part of Romania, Zaldapa was also researched by Romanian archaeologists any findings they might have had have not made it to the Bulgarian archaeologists. Proper archaeological excavations at Zaldapa were carried out for the first time in 2014 by archaeologists from the Silistra Regional Museum of History, the Dobrich Regional Museum of History, and the Varna Museum of Archaeology (Varna Regional Museum of History). Unfortunately, since the end of the 19th century the Ancient Thracian and Roman city of Zaldapa has been targeted by looters and treasure hunters. All archaeological explorations there to date have studied part of the fortifications, a Roman civic basilica, an Early Christian basilica, and a huge water reservoir.

The so called Roman civic basilica was explored by Czech-Bulgarian archaeologist Karel Skorpil in the first decade of the 20th century. It is located in the center of Zaldapa, and has dimensions of 101 by 18 meters. Its walls are constructed according to the Roman style opus implectum, and its floor is tiled with bricks. According to Bulgarian archaeologist Assoc. Prof. Sergey Torbatov from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology, the basilica was probably an entire architectural complex consisting of two basilicas with a common entryway; it was a Roman public building with judicial and commercial functions.

In 1906, Karel Skorpil also explored an Early Christian church, a three-nave, one-apse basilica with dimensions 27 meters by 16 meters, situation in the east-west direction. It was built in the same style as the fortress wall and the civic basilica, most probably at the end of the 5th and the beginning of the 6th century AD, during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Anastasius I Dicorus (r. 491-518 AD). A bishop’s basilica was discovered at Zaldapa in the first regular excavations in 2014 by archaeologists from the Silistra Regional Museum of History, the Dobrich Regional Museum of History, and the Varna Museum of Archaeology (Varna Regional Museum of History) led by Prof. Georgi Atanasov and Prof. Valeri Yotov.

The water reservoir of the Zaldapa fortress was discovered in 1949 by Bulgarian archaeologist M. Mirchev. It is located northwest of the fortress itself. It was a rather complex engineering facility consisting of two spaces. The water reservoir was connected with the fortress with a secret passage, a rock tunnel which is 3 meters wide and 3 meters tall. The Bulgarian archaeologists believed that because of its vulnerable location outside the fortress wall and the secret passage, it was covered with earth immediately after its construction to hide it from the enemy forces. The water reservoir was likely constructed in the second quarter of the 4th century AD together with other Late Roman urban infrastructure in the city of Zaldapa.

According to the works of 7th century AD Byzantine chronicler John of Antioch, the city of Zaldapa was the birthplace of Byzantine general Vitalian (d. 520) who led a rebellion against Byzantine Emperor Anastasius which grew into a 5-year civil war. The city of Zaldapa is also found in the list of fortifications renovated during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565 AD) where it was also mentioned as the seat of a Christian bishop under the diocese of the metropolitan in Tomis (today’s Constanta in Romania). The fortress of Zaldapa was in use by the Later Roman Empire and Early Byzantine Empire (i.e. the Eastern Roman Empire) for about 250 years – between the second half of the 4th century AD, and the end of the 6th century AD when the city of Zaldapa was depopulated as a result of the great barbarian invasion of the Avars in 585 AD.