Newly Restored Floor Mosaics from Antiquity Synagogue in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv Unveiled for the First Time
Absolutely unique 3rd century AD floor mosaics from the Antiquity Synagogue in the southern city of Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s only Jewish temple from the Antiquity period, have been restored by the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology.
The mosaics, which are made with red, orange, green, black, and white stones, have never been shown to the public before, and this is the first time they can be seen in a form that is as close their original as possible.
The Antiquity Synagogue of ancient Philipopolis (Trimontium in the Roman period), as Plovdiv was known in ancient times, was built in the first half of the 3rd century AD, possibly during the Severan Dynasty (r. 193-235 AD) of the Roman Empire.
It might have been the largest Antiquity synagogue on the Balkan Peninsula
at the time of its construction, and is the only known Jewish temple on the territory of today’s Bulgaria from the Antiquity period.
Its ruins were first discovered during rescue excavations in 1981 but its mosaics have been fully restored, and showcased just now, 35 years later.
The Jewish temple was damaged several times in barbarian invasions and anti-Semitic persecution, and was rebuilt after each one of those, until the end of the 6th century AD when it was abandoned for good.
The Antiquity Synagogue was located close to the Small Basilica of ancient Philipopolis; its existence, and the inscriptions in Greek and Latin found in its ruins, are taken to mean that in ancient times, today’s Plovdiv was a truly cosmopolitan city.
The exhibition of the 3rd century mosaics from the ancient Jewish temple by the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology is also the first time the mosaics have been seen in their true scale, reports the 24 Chasa daily.
The central image of the mosaics is a large menorah (a seven-lamp lamp stand, the symbol of Judaism). Unfortunately, the lower part of the candelabrum could not be restored because the mosaics were destroyed in the Early Byzantine period.
To the right of the menorah, there is a depiction of a lulav (a date palm tree branch), and in the bottom corners there are inscriptions in Ancient Greek.
The inscription mentions with certainty the Jewish origin of the temple’s donors – Isaac and Joseph, who are said to be representatives of a sizable Jewish community in the ancient city.
The Synagogue, which is a basilica-type building, also had a second layer of mosaics added after a reconstruction in the 5th century AD; the artists of this second layer appears to have shied away from Jewish symbols.
“[The Antiquity Synagogue] is a unique monument of immense historical and artistic value,” states lead archaeologist Elena Kisyakova who discovered the ruins and mosaics of the ancient Jewish temple during rescue excavations.
The existence of the temple is also construed as evidence of the arrival of settlers from the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire, who are believed to have been rich merchants and craftsmen.
Learn more about Plovdiv, the Antiquity Synagogue, and the restored Small Basilica in the Background Infonotes below. Another ancient temple in the city, Plovdiv’s Great Basilica, is presently being excavated and restored.
Also check out our other stories about Jewish archaeological monuments and Jewish history in Bulgaria:
Learn more about the Jewish archaeological monuments in Bulgaria, and the history of Bulgarian Jews in the Background Infonotes below.
The Antiquity Synagogue in the southern Bulgarian city of Plovdiv (ancient Philipopolis, also called Trimontium in the Roman period) is the only known synagogue in Bulgaria from the Antiquity period. It was in operation in the 3rd-4th century AD.
It is said to be the earliest known and the largest Antiquity synagogue on the Balkan Peninsula.
Its ruins were first discovered by archaeologist Elena Kisyakova during rescue excavations in 1981 but its mosaics were fully restored and showcased by the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology only in 2016, 35 years later.
They were found near the Small Basilica in Plovdiv; only its foundations and part of its floors have been preserved. It was a three-room basilica with a large yard. The archaeological excavations have found two layers of decorative floor mosaics depicting geometric motifs, a large menorah (a seven-lamp lampstand, the symbol of Judaism) (the lower part of the candelabrum mosaics was destroyed), a lulav (a date palm tree branch), and inscriptions in Greek and Latin.
A four-line inscription in Greek names the donors of the synagogue, Isaac and Joseph, and says they were representatives of the large Jewish community in the ancient city. The existence of the Jewish temple and its inscriptions are seen as evidence of the cosmopolitanism of ancient Philipopolis (Trimontium), today’s Plovdiv.
The Antiquity Synagogue in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv was probably built during the time of the Severan Dynasty of the Roman Empire (193-235 AD). It was badly damaged after the Goths conquered the city ca. 250 AD; subsequently, it was rebuilt, and then destroyed again during the persecution of the Jews by Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Emperor Arcadius (r. 395-408 AD).
Later the Antiquity Synagogue was reconstructed and expanded, with a second layer of floor mosaics added. This second layer has been found to have been rougher, without depictions of specifically Jewish symbols.
The Antiquity Synagogue in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv was ultimately destroyed at the end of the 6th century AD.
The Jewish archaeological monuments, and the history of Jews in Bulgaria go back to the period after all of Ancient Thrace south of the Danube was conquered by the Roman Empire in 46 AD.
The first archaeological monument showing the presence of Jews on Bulgaria’s historic territory is 2nd century AD inscription found on a tomb stone in the major Ancient Roman colony of Ulpia Oescus located close to the Danube River near today’s town of Gigen, Gulyantsi Municipality, Pleven District. The inscription is in Latin, and mentions the leader of the local synagogue, i.e. the archisynagogos Iose Sarcisinao. It is interpreted not just as evidence of the presence of Latin-speaking Jews in Ulpia Oescus but aslo as a testimony to the fact that they had a sizable and well organized community.
The only known ancient Jewish temple on the territory of today’s Bulgaria is the Antiquity Synagogue of ancient Philipopolis, today’s Bulgarian city of Plovdiv (also called Trimontium in the Roman period). It was built in the first half of the 3rd century AD, possibly during the Severan Dynasty (r. 193-235 AD). The ruins of the synagogue were discovered in 1981 by archaeologist Elena Kisyakova from the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology; in 2016, 35 years after the discoverъ, the Museum unveiled and exhibited for the first time the restored floor mosaics from the Antiquity Synagogue.
Another relevant archaeological monument is an inscription from the Ancient Roman city of Stobi (today ruins are located in the Republic of Macedonia) saying a man named Claudius Tiberius Polycharmos, converted to Judaism, and erected a synagogue as a testimony to his righteous life.
In the 6th century AD, Byzantine historian Procopius of Caesarea mentioned in his work “On Buildings” of a “Tower of the Jews” located east of the Roman and Byzantine fort of Dorticum whose ruins are found today near the town of Vrav, Vidin District, in Northwest Bulgaria.
There is little data about the presence of Jews in the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD). In contrast, the presence of Jewish population in the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396) is better known. It is believed that while all of Bulgaria was part of Byzantium between 1018 and 1185, a number of Romaniote Jews settled in the Bulgarian regions.
They established the well-known medieval Jewish Quarter of the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire Tarnovgrad (today’s Veliko Tarnovo). According to one of the hypotheses, it was located on the southern slope of the Trapesitsa Hill Fortress (one of the two citadels of Tarnovgrad, together with the Tsarevets Hill Fortress); however, this hypothesis has been disputed, and the precise location remains uncertain. Tarnovgrad’s Jewish Quarter had a necropolis but neither the quarter, nor the necropolis have been excavated by archaeologists yet.
The earliest known Jewish book, “Lekach-tov”, from Bulgaria’s historic territory appealed in 1093 AD; it was written by the rabbi of Ohrid (today in the Republic of Macedonia). A medieval chronicle from 1185 AD, known as Benjamin’s Chronicle, mentions the Jewish communities in the Bulgarian lands (then still part of the Byzantine Empire).
During the time of the Second Bulgarian Empire, the Jewish communities are known to have had residential quarters in a number of major Bulgarian cities: Veliko Tarnovo, Vidin, Plovdiv, Sofia, Ohrid, Bitola, Pleven, Odrin (Adrianople; Edirne), Kostur (Kastoria).
A better known fact in Bulgarian medieval history is the second marriage of the last Tsar of the entire Second Bulgarian Empire, Ivan Alexander (r. 1331-1371) to a Jewish woman named Sarah, who converted to Orthodox Christianity under the name Theodora.
Sarah-Theodora gave birth to Tsar Ivan Shishman (r. 1371-1395), the last ruler of Tarnovgrad and the core of the medieval Bulgarian Empire who was named heir to the throne even though he was Ivan Alexander’s youngest son. The more logical heir, Ivan Alexander’s surviving son from an earlier marriage (he had lost two other elder sons in battles with the Ottoman Turks), Tsar Ivan Sratsimir (r. 1371-1396), was given the city of Vidin and established his own Vidin Tsardom. The division of what had been left of the Second Bulgarian Empire (other Bulgarian feudal lords also seceded in the geographic regions of Dobrudzha, Macedonia, and Thrace) between Ivan Shishman and Ivan Sratsimir, who were often in conflict with one another, is often cited as one of the major reasons for Bulgaria’s conquest by the invading Ottoman Turks at the end of the 14th and the beginning of the 15th century.
The largest settlement of Jews in Bulgaria occurred during the Ottoman period (known in Bulgarian history as the Ottoman Yoke – 1396-1878/1912). Sephardic Jews from the Iberian Peninsula settled in the Balkans after they were chased away by Spain in 1492. Subsequently, the Sephardic Jews made up over 90% of the Bulgarian Jewish population. Some Ashkenazi Jews from Central Europe also settled in Bulgaria during the Ottoman period.
The Rescue of Bulgarian Jews from the Holocaust of the Nazi death camps during World War II is one of the most important events in the history of both Bulgaria and its Jewish community.
After Bulgaria’s National Liberation from the Ottoman Empire in 1878 (1912 for some parts of today’s Bulgaria), it preserved its vibrant Jewish community. By the time of World War II, there were almost 50,000 Jews living in the country. About half of those lived in Sofia, where in 1909 they erected Europe’s third largest synagogue.
The Tsardom of Bulgaria eventually ended up allied, rather reluctantly, to Hitler’s Nazi Germany in 1941 (largely because of Mussolini’s fascist Italy’s failed attack on Greece in 1940, and the need for German troops to go through Bulgaria to aid the Italians). Again bowing to Nazi pressure, even before it joined the Tripartite Pact, in Janunary 1941, Bulgaria introduced anti-Semitic legislation in the notorious Nation Defense Act.
As an ally of Nazi Germany, it was expected to hand over its Jewish population for deportation to the Nazi death camps. As some of the Bulgarian Jews began to be rounded up by the authorities under the influence of German pressure and pro-Nazi factors in the government, in early March 1943, parts of the Bulgarian civil society rose up in their defense.
A protest movement against the deportation of the Bulgarian Jews to the Nazi death camps within the Bulgarian government was led by Deputy Parliament Speaker Dimitar Peshev (1894-1973), with a total of 43 MPs from the ruling pro-fascist majority joining his initiative. Dimitar Peshev Plaza in the US capital Washtington, D.C., is named after him. Sofia Metropolitan Stefan (later Exarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church) (1878-1957) and Plovdiv Metropolitan Kiril (later Patriarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church) (1901-1971) were other public figures instrumental in the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews. At the end of the day, however, the greatest role is attributed to Bulgaria’s monarch, Tsar Boris III (r. 1918-1943) who resisted Hitler’s pressure for the deportation of the Jews. Taking advantage of Nazi Germany’s worsening war situation, that is, its seeming inability to dedicate resources to taking the Bulgarian Jews by force, he argued he needed them in Bulgaria to provide labor for road and railroad construction projects. Thus, almost 49,000 Bulgarian Jews were rescued.
Unfortunately, even before the events of early March 1943 leading up to the rescue of the Jews who were Bulgarian citizens, the Bulgarian authorities participated in the deportation of Jews from the regions of Vardar Macedonia, the Western Outlands (parts of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia), and Aegean Thrace (part of Greece). These territories who had historically belonged to the Bulgarian national territory and had Bulgarian population were handed over to Sofia for their administration after Nazi Germany defeated and occupied Yugoslavia and Greece. They were not made part of Bulgaria (unlike the region of Southern Dobrudzha returned by Romania back to Bulgaria in 1940), and Bulgarian citizenship in them was extended only to ethnic Bulgarians but not to the local Jews and other minorities. A total of 11,343 Jews from the regions of Macedonia and Thrace had been deported to the Nazi death camps as of early 1943, and only about 300 of them survived the war. It appears that the rumors about the deportation of the Jews from the regions of Macedonia and Thrace led the Bulgarian civil society in Sofia, Plovdiv, Kyustendil and other cities to rise up to prevent the deportation of the Jews from Bulgaria proper.
The story of the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews from the Holocaust in the Nazi death camps is probably best told by Bulgarian-Israeli author Michael Bar-Zohar in his book “Beyond Hitler’s Grasp. The Heroic Rescue of Bulgaria’s Jews” and a documentary (watch it on YouTube) based on it. (Watch here a discussion of the book by its author broadcast on C-SPAN.)
After World War II, in 1948, the overwhelming majority of the Bulgarian Jews immigrated to the newly established State of Israel but they and their descendants have largely preserved their connection, emotional or otherwise, to Bulgaria.
The Small Basilica of ancient Philipopolis, which is located in the downtown of today’s southern Bulgarian city of Plovdiv, was built in the 5th century in honor of then military commander of the province of Thrace, Flavius Basiliscus.
Basiliscus became Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, i.e. Byzantium (r. 475-476 AD) but was deposed by his predecessor, Byzantine Emperor Zeno (r. 474-475 and 476-491 AD) who ordered the destruction of any traces left by Basiliscus. This led to the deletion of several lines from a donation inscription in the Small Basilica in Philipopolis.
The basilica itself It is a three-nave Early Christian church with a length of 20 meters, including the apse, and a width of 13 meters. It is located on the eastern outskirts of the ancient city of Philipopolis close to the inside of the eastern section of the fortress wall near a fortress tower dating back to the 2nd-4th century. It was discovered by accident in 1988 during construction works for a residential building, and has been granted the status of a national culture monument.
It was restored between 2010 and 2014 under a project of the Bulgarian Culture Ministry, Plovdiv Municipality, and the America for Bulgaria Foundation, which provided a USD 1 million grant for its excavation and restoration.
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 Turkish word for “hill”), one of the seven historic hills where Plovdiv was founded and developed in prehistoric and ancient times.
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 period Eumolpia / 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.