Late Antiquity, Medieval Fortress Palmatis in Northeast Bulgaria to Be Excavated for the First Time

A view of the niches of the Early Christian rock monastery near the Palmatis Fortress in Northeast Bulgaria. Photo: Eureka Institute

A view of the niches of the Early Christian rock monastery near the Palmatis Fortress in Northeast Bulgaria. Photo: Eureka Institute

The Late Antiquity and medieval fortress Palmatis near the town of Onogur, Tervel Municipality, in Northeast Bulgaria, which has never been seen archaeological excavations before, is to be excavated for the first time.

The ruins of Palmatis are located on a plateau with natural defenses on the ancient road from Durostorum (Durustorum), today’s Silistra on the Danube, to Marcianopolis (Marcianople), today’s town of Devnya near the Black Sea city of Varna (ancient Odessos).

Palmatis was also a functioning fortress during the period of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018).

In the Late Antiquity (4th-6th century AD), near the Palmatis Fortress, in an area called Shan Kaya (not to be confused with the rock shrine of Shan Kaya in the Rhodope Mountains in Southern Bulgaria), which was connected with the rock monastery near the Bulgarian town of Balik, Krushari Municipality, Dobrich District (which is still known today by its derogatory and offensive Turkish name “Gaiour (Gavur) Evleri" meaning “Homes of the Infidels", as the original name of the holy place remains unknown).

Palmatis is now to be excavated by the Regional Museum of History in the city of Dobrich, Museum Director Kostadin Kostadinov has announced, as cited by Dobrich TV.

The excavations will be led by archaeologist Prof. Kazamir Popkonstantinov from the St. Cyril and St. Methodius University in Veliko Tarnovo who is best known for his 2010 discovery of relics of St. John the Baptist in an Early Christian monastery on the St. Ivan Island in the Black Sea off the coast of Sozopol.

The first archaeological excavations ever at the Palmatis Fortress will be funded with a total of BGN 20,000 (app. EUR 10,000) from the budget of Tervel Municipality.

“There have been serious raids by treasure hunters in the region, so we will do our best to expose the basilica of the fortress during our first archaeological season," Kostadinov has told BTA.

In 2014, the Dobrich Regional Museum of History launched for the first time the archaeological excavations of another ancient city in the interior of Northeast BulgariaZaldapa (the largest ancient city in the interior of the Southern Dobrudhza region). The archaeologists discovered there a large Early Christian basilica in 2014, and a saint’s crypt in 2015.

The 2016 excavations of Zaldapa are to be funded with BGN 10,000 (app. EUR 5,000) by Krushari Municipality plus an unspecified sum from Bulgaria’s Ministry of Culture.

Kostadinov has announced that the 2016 digs which are to be led by Prof. Georgi Atanasov from the Silistra Regional Museum of History are going to focus on the main city square and a well preserved Ancient Roman water reservoir and pipeline, which also contained a secret entrance to the fortress.

There are plans to restore the water reservoir in question with aid from the water utility in Dobrich.

The water reservoir in Zaldapa was first found in 1951 when it was in a perfect condition but since then it has been partly destroyed by treasure hunters.

“What’s unique about this water reservoir is that it is still operational, there is still water flowing, and its red slabs have been preserved for the most part," Kostadinov says, adding that the ancient facility is more than 1,700 years old.

In addition to the excavations of the fortresses Palmatis and Zaldapa, during the 2016 archaeological season, the Dobrich Regional Museum of History is also going to work on the excavations and underwater exploration of the Caria Fortress on the Black Sea coast near the town of Shabla, and on partial restoration projects for Zaldapa and the Slavnata Kanara (“Glorious Rock") Fortress near the town of Debrene where the archaeologists found bronze appliqués from Ancient Bulgar warrior belts in 2015, and a treasure of Byzantine coins in 2014.

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The ruins of the large Ancient Roman and Early Byzantine city of Zaldapa in Northeast Bulgaria. Photo: Krushari Municipality

The ruins of the large Ancient Roman and Early Byzantine city of Zaldapa in Northeast Bulgaria. Photo: Krushari Municipality

Background Infonotes:

The Palmatis Fortress is a Late Antiquity and medieval city and fortress located near the town of Onogur, Tervel Municipality, in Northeast Bulgaria. It lies at an almost equal distance from the Danube city of Silistra (ancient Durostorum / medieval Drastar) and Dobrich – nearly 50 km from each.

It is situated on a plateau with natural defenses provided by the bed of the Suhata Reka, (i.e. the Dry River) which surrounds it from the south, east, and north. The walls of the Palmatis Fortress in the fourth directions are between 200 and 600 meters long. The fortress proper was surrounded with ramparts (embankments) with moats forming in fact an outer fortress wall.

During the Late Roman and Early Byzantine period, the Palmatis Fortress was located on the ancient road from Durostorum (Durustorum), today’s Silistra on the Danube, to Marcianopolis (or Marcianople), today’s town of Devnya near the Black Sea city of Varna (ancient Odessos). Palmatis was also a functioning fortress during the time of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018).

In the Late Antiquity (4th-6th century AD), near the Palmatis Fortress, in an area called Shan Kaya (not to be confused with the rock shrine of Shan Kaya in the Rhodope Mountains in Southern Bulgaria), there was an Early Christian rock monastery which was part of a large Early Christian monastic colony centered in the rock monastery near the Bulgarian town of Balik, Krushari Municipality, Dobrich District (which is still known today by its derogatory and offensive Turkish name “Gaiour (Gavur) Evleri" meaning “Homes of the Infidels", as the original name of the holy place remains unknown).

The rock monastery in Shan Kaya near the Palmatis Fortress was abandoned in the Early Middle Ages, i.e. during the barbarian invasions of Avars and Slavs in the 6th-7th century, but was restored after the First Bulgarian Empire adopted Christianity in 865 AD (i.e. in the 9th-10th century). It is has been hypothesized that in the Late Middle Ages, i.e. during the Second Bulgarian Empire, the monks from Shan Kaya might have relocated to other rock monasteries in Northeast Bulgaria such as those along the Rusenski Lom River.

The main gallery of the rock monastery near Palmatis, which is 64 meters long, and connects numerous niches, has been preserved.

Few details are known about the Palmatis Fortress since before the summer of 2016, it had only been explored with geophysical surveying, without archaeological excavations.

Today the small town of Onogur is populated by descendants of Tatars from the Crimean Peninsula who were settled in Northeast Bulgaria by Ottoman Turkey after the Russian-Turkish Wars of 1806-1812, 1828-1829, and 1853-1856 (i.e. the Crimean War), while hundreds of thousands of ethnic Bulgarians were fleeing the atrocities of the regular and irregular Ottoman troops for the then southwest of the Russian Empire. (Today the descendants of these refugees form the communities of the historic Bulgarian minorities in Ukraine and Moldova known as the Bessarabia Bulgarians and the Taurica (Crimean) Bulgarians).

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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.