Bureaucratic Hurdle Causes Major Delay in Opening of Early Christian Archaeological Park in Bulgaria’s Sandanski

The newly restored Early Christian Archaeological Park in Bulgaria's Sandanski features a number of Roman-era structures, including two Christian basilicas, a martyrium, and a holy well. Photo: Sandanski Municipality

The newly restored Early Christian Archaeological Park in Bulgaria’s Sandanski features a number of Roman-era structures, including two Christian basilicas, a martyrium, and a holy well. Photo: Sandanski Municipality

A bureaucratic problem has delayed by more than two months the long-anticipated opening of an Archaeological Park of newly restored Early Christian buildings from the Roman city Parthicopolis in the southwestern Bulgarian town of Sandanski.

The Archaeological Park featuring well preserved and partly restored Early Christian Roman architecture was supposed to be opened in September-October 2015.

However, as of early December 2015, it is closed for visitors regardless of the fact that all construction and preparation works were completed at the beginning of the fall, reports the Bulgarian daily Standart.

The major bureaucratic hurdle for the opening of the new Archaeological Park in Sandanski is the fact that a commission from Bulgaria’s Construction Supervision Directorate has failed to inspect the site and issue a permit for its operation.

The permit in question is known as “Title Deed 16”, and has often been problematic when it comes to restorations of archaeological sites.

Bulgarian archaeologists have complained that in the cases of the so called botched archaeological restorations, the builders would often disregards their concerns or advice in order to prioritize on completing the construction works in order to receive the much desired permit.

In order to alleviate the situation with the delay, in mid-October 2015, Sandanski Municipality and the Sandanski Museum of Archaeology staged a pre-opening that attracted a lot of visitors, Bulgarian and foreign alike.

Unfortunately, ever since then, the visitors have been reduced to trying to catch a glimpse and take photos of the Early Christian basilicas of the Roman city of Parthicopolis from afar.

“We have been awaiting the supervision commission in order to receive the permit for the operation of the Archaeological Park,” says Vladimir Petkov, Director of the Sandanski Museum of Archaeology.

“We, too, have grown impatient to open our doors for visitors but we are obliged to observe the law. There is enormous interest, we have received lots of inquiries by Bulgarian and international tourists,” he adds.

The Early Christian complex in Sandanski, including two Christian basilicas – the Bishop’s Basilica and Bishop John’s Basilica, a martyrium, and a holy well (a spring of holy water), also known as an “ayazmo” – have been under restoration since 2013 under an EU funded project entitled “Sandanski – the Dawn of Early Christianity”.

The project, which is supposed to provide a boost for cultural tourism in the town of Sandanski, a spa resort located near Bulgaria’s border with Greece, is worth BGN 6.1 million (app. EUR 3.1 million), of which Sandanski Municipality has contributed BGN 160,000 (app. EUR 82,000).

Sandanski Municipality expects that the Archaeological Park featuring excavated and restored buildings from the Late Antiquity / Late Roman and Early Byzantine period will become a major cultural tourism attraction in Southwest Bulgaria, a region that is also close to Northern Greece and the Republic of Macedonia.

The Archaeological Park in Sandanski features over 1,000 cultural and archaeological artifacts.

These include the most interesting artifacts of the recent archaeological discoveries from the ancient city of Parthicopolis made as the local archaeologists were working on the further excavation and restoration of the Early Christian complex.

Earlier in August 2015, the archaeologists excavating the so called Bishop’s Basilica of the Ancient Roman and Early Byzantine city of Parthicopolis in Sandanski discovered the last fragment from a marble slab with a christogram, a Christian symbol consisting of a monogram of letters standing for the name of Jesus Christ.

In March 2015, the local archaeologists announced the discovery of the large bronze cross for church procession from the 5th century AD.

In April 2015, the archaeologists in Sandanski found the hand of a huge Roman marble statue while excavating the Early Christian monuments.

Background Infonotes:

Parthicopolis was an Ancient Roman city located in the Roman province of Macedonia; its ruins can be found in the downtown of today’s Sandanski in Southwestern Bulgaria.

It is known to have been an important center of early Christianity, having been located just some 100 km away from the Ancient Greek town of Philippi where Apostle Paul established the first Christian community in Europe.

A testimony for the significance of Parthicopolis as an Early Christian center is the fact that it was mentioned during the Nicaea Council. The town of Parthicopolis was destroyed in barbarian invasions, possibly by the Slavs who tried to capture Thessaloniki in the second half of the 6th century.

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The Bishop’s Basilica is the largest of four ancient basilicas found in Parthicopolis, today’s Sandanski in Southwestern Bulgaria. It consists of an entire complex of early Christian buildings, and was the seat of a bishopric in the late Antiquity.

It was first discovered in 1989 by Vladimir Petkov, then and current director of the Sandanski Museum of Archaeology, and has been excavated ever since. Towering at 16 m and with a length of 30 m and width of 22 m, the basilica is unique for its Early Christian mosaics and murals, including depictions of fish and birds.

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The Bishop’s Basilica must not be confused with Bishop John’s Basilica, which is also one of the four ancient basilicas in Parthicopolis in today’s Sandanski in Southwestern Bulgaria. It is especially known for a mosaic inscription found in the center of its narthex stating that it was built by a “Bishop John”; hence, it has also become famous as Bishop John’s Basilica.

In 2013, the Sandanski Municipality started the partial restoration of the two basilicas, the Bishop’s Basilica and Bishop John’s Basilica, and the Early Christian complex in Parthicopolis with an EU grant of BGN 6.1 million (app. EUR 3.1 million) under Operational Program “Regional Development”. The basilicas and the adjacent buildings were destroyed by arson during barbarian invasions, possibly by the Slavs who tried to capture Thessaloniki in the second half of the 6th century.

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The Sandanski Museum of Archaeology was founded in 1936, and is one of the five archaeological museums in Bulgaria specializing in ancient archaeology. It is situated over the foundations of Bishop John’s Basilica. Its exhibits feature a unique collection of later Roman marble gravestones and tablets and Early Christian mosaics.