Bulgaria’s Varna Completes New Visitors’ Center of Large Roman Thermae of Ancient Odessos

Part of the surviving ruins of the Large (North) Roman Thermae (public baths) of ancient Odessos (Odessus) in Bulgaria's Varna. Photo: Darik Varna

Part of the surviving ruins of the Large (North) Roman Thermae (public baths) of ancient Odessos (Odessus) in Bulgaria’s Varna. Photo: Darik Varna

Bulgaria’s Black Sea city of Varna is wrapping up the construction of a new visitors’ center for one of its top archaeological landmarks, the Large (North) Ancient Roman Thermae (public baths) of the Ancient Thracian, Greek, and Roman city of Odessos (Odessus).

The Large Roman Thermae of ancient Odessos were built by the Romans in the 2nd century AD, and were in use for about 100 years.

They are ranked as the fourth largest preserved Roman thermae in Europe after the Baths of Caracalla and Baths of Diocletian in the imperial capital Rome and the baths of Trier, and as the largest in the Balkans.

With a total of area of 7000 square meters, and a height of 20-22 meters, the Large Thermae in Varna are the largest public building from the Antiquity period unearthed in Bulgaria.

The wrapping up of the new visitors’ center of the Large (North) Roman Thermae in Varna has been announced at a special news conference by Prof. Valentin Pletnyov, Director of the Varna Museum of Archaeology, reports Darik Varna.

The new visitors’ center, which will be formally opened in the spring of 2016, features a ticket center, a book store, a buffet, and a service facilities as well as a large information screen.

Varna Municipality has invested a total of BGN 220,000 (app. EUR 110,000) from its own budget into the construction of new visitors’ center and the partial archaeological restoration of the Large Roman Thermae.

Architect Vladimir Rachev from the Inspectorate of the Bulgarian Ministry of Culture, who also participated in the news conference, has dismissed criticism that the new visitors’ center “looks like a gas station”.

“A lot of archaeological sites in Europe and the world have visitors’ facilities. Some of those that were built on the same principle include the ticket office on the 5th Avenue and Broadway in New York, and the city information center in front of the St. Paul’s Cathedral in London,” he has argued.

“People will be flocking here, too, just like at a gas station but instead of filling up gas, they will be filling up some culture,” he has added regarding the criticism.

The almost completed new visitors' center of the Large Roman Thermae in Bulgaria's Varna. Critics say the center "resembles a gas station". Photo: Darik Varna

The almost completed new visitors’ center of the Large Roman Thermae in Bulgaria’s Varna. Critics say the center “resembles a gas station”. Photo: Darik Varna

After the completion of the new visitors’ center and the partial restoration of the Large Roman Thermae, the archaeological site will be opened for visitors every day until 10 pm.

In addition to welcoming tourists, it will also be hosting cultural performances and other events on a stage amidst the Ancient Roman ruins.

The Varna Museum of Archaeology and Varna Municipality are also considering the establishment of an audio-visual show at the Large Roman Thermae, not unlike similar shows at the Aladzha Rock Monastery located outside of Varna, or the Sound and Light show on the Tsarevets Hill Fortress in the city of Veliko Tarnovo.

Pletnyov says that the Aladzha Rock Monastery generates a total of BGN 70,000 (app. EUR 35,000) in annual revenue from its audio-visual show.

However, the installment of sound and lighting equipment at the Large Roman Thermae will be a much more complicated task because of the delicate ruins.

The construction of the new visitors’ center and the partial restoration of the Large Roman Thermae in Varna started in June 2015. The project is supposed to be fully completed before the end of 2016.

In recent years, the Large Roman Thermae have been visited by about 10,000 tourists per year, generating about BGN 30,000 in annual revenue from admission ticket sales.

The Varna Museum of Archaeology has also developed a project for the restoration of the Aladzha Rock Monastery worth BGN 4 million (app. EUR 2 million) but the funding has not been secured yet.

Both the Large Roman Thermae and Aladzha Rock Monastery are among the total of six archaeological sites for which the Bulgarian government recently granted management rights to Varna Municipality so that the local authorities can develop them as cultural tourism landmarks.

Background Infonotes:

Ancient Odessos (known as Odessus in Roman times) is considered the precursor of the Bulgarian Black Sea city of Varna. It was founded by Miletian Greek colonists at the end of 7th century BC, the earliest Greek archaeological material dating back to 600-575 BC. However, the Greek colony was established within an earlier Ancient Thracian settlement, and the name Odessos had existed before the arrival of the Miletian Greeks and might have been of Carian origin. Odessos as the Roman city of Odessus became part of the Roman Empire in 15 AD when it was incorporated in the Roman province Moesia. Roman Odessos is especially known today for its well preserved public baths, or thermae, the largest Roman single structure remains in Bulgaria, and the fourth largest Roman public baths known in Europe.

The First Bulgarian Empire (680-1018 AD) conquered Odessos (Varna) from Romes successor, the Eastern Roman Empire, or Byzantium, in the late 7th century. It is even believed that the peace treaty in which the Byzantine Empire recognized the ceding of its northern territories along the Danube to Bulgaria was signed in Odessos. The wall (rampart) that the first ruler of Danube Bulgaria, Khan (or kanas) Asparuh built at the time as a defense against future Byzantine incursions is still standing. Numerous Ancient Bulgar settlements around Varna have been excavated, and the First Bulgarian Empire had its first two capitals Pliska (681-893 AD) and Veliki (Great) Preslav (893-970 AD) just 70-80 km to the west of Varna. It is suggested that the name of Varna itself is of Bulgar origin. In the Middle Ages, as a coastal city, Varna changed hands between Bulgaria and Byzantium several times. It was reconquered for the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) by Tsar Kaloyan (r. 1197-1207 AD) in 1201 AD.

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The Large (North) Ancient Roman Thermae in Bulgaria’s Black Sea city of Varna are the ruins of the first and larger public baths that functioned in the Ancient Roman city of Odessus (known as Odessos in Thracian and Greek times). They are located in the southeastern part of today’s Varna. With a total of area of 7000 square meters, and a height of 20-22 meters, the thermae in Varna are the largest public building from the Antiquity period unearthed in Bulgaria.

The Roman Thermae in Bulgaria’s Varna are ranked as the fourth largest preserved Roman thermae in Europe after the Baths of Caracalla and Baths of Diocletian in the imperial capital Rome and the baths of Trier, and as the largest in the Balkans. They were built in the 2nd century AD, after the previously Ancient Thracian town and then Greek colony of Odessos was made part of the Roman province of Moesia in 15 AD, and were in use for about 100 years. Coins of Roman Emperor Septimius Severus (r. 193–211) have been found among their ruins. The Thermae featured facilities such as an apodyterium (changing room), a frigidarium (cold pool), a tepidarium (warm pool), and a caldarium (hot pool) as well as a palaestra (a space with social and athletic functions). They were heated with a hypocaust, an underfloor heating system of pipes.

The Roman Thermae in Varna were first seen an archaeological site by Austro-Hungarian researcher E. Kalinka in 1906, and were later excavated by Czech-Bulgarian brothers Karel and Hermann Skorpil, who are known as the founders of Bulgarian archaeology. They were also excavated in 1959-1971 by a team led by Bulgarian archaeologist M. Mirchev. In 2013, Varna Municipality allocated BGN 150,000 (app. EUR 75,000) for the rehabilitation of the Large Roman Thermae.

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The Small (South) Ancient Roman Thermae in Bulgaria’s Black Sea city of Varna are the ruins of the later and smaller public baths that functioned in the Ancient Roman city of Odessus (known as Odessos in Thracian and Greek times). They are located in the southeastern part of today’s Varna but further south than the Large Roman Thermae. They were built in the 5th-6th century AD as the city of Odessus experienced a decline (at the time the entire Roman Empire was in decline), after the Large Thermae were abandoned and partly destroyed in the 3rd-4th century AD.

The Small Roman Thermae were erected on top of an Ancient Thracian temple or sanctuary that honored Ancient Greek god Apollo as well as a female deity that the Varna achaeologists at first believed was Ancient Thracian goddess Bendis but have recently changed their interpretation to believe that it was in fact Ancient Greek goddess Aphrodite that the Thracian had worshipped. In 2013, Varna Municipality allocated BGN 130,000 (app. EUR 65,000) for the rehabilitation of the Small Roman Thermae.