Archaeologist Discovers Large Early Christian Basilica with Unusually Tall Synthronon in Palmatis Fortress in Northeast Bulgaria

The newly discovered ruins of the 1,500-year-old large basilica in the Palmatis Fortress in Northeast Bulgaria with the surviving steps of its synthronon. Photo: Darik Dobrich

The newly discovered ruins of the 1,500-year-old large basilica in the Palmatis Fortress in Northeast Bulgaria with the surviving steps of its synthronon. Photo: Darik Dobrich

A 5th century AD Early Christian basilica has been discovered during the first ever archaeological excavations of the Late Antiquity and medieval fortress Palmatis near the town of Onogur, Tervel Municipality, in Northeast Bulgaria.

The discovery is said to be remarkable not just because of the considerable size of the Early Byzantine basilica, which was 55 meters long and 30 meters wide, but also because it seems to have had an exceptionally tall synthronon – the bishop’s throne and clergy stalls where meetings of clergymen were held.

The discovery has been presented to the media by lead archaeologist Kazimir Popkonstantinov, reports local news site Darik Dobrich.

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), there was a rock monastery 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).

The first ever archaeological excavations of Palmatis are being 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 digs near the town of Onogur have been initiated and organized jointly by Tervel Municipality and the Dobrich Regional Museum of History.

Three of the steps of the synthronon in the newly discovered 1,500-year-old basilica in Palmatis have been preserved.

“For the first time in Bulgaria, and possibly even in the Balkan region, in Christian archaeology there is a discovery of a synthronon which towered at a great height – most probably 2.7-3 meters,” lead archaeologist Popkonstantinov is quoted as saying.

“[The synthronon] is in the central part of the temple where the bishop would serve during liturgies, and would sit on his throne. This is where bishops’ meetings and councils were held. This temple must have played a big role in [today’s] territories of Northeast Bulgaria,” he adds.

The surviving steps of the synthronon of the basilica in Palmatis. Photo: Darik Dobrich

The surviving steps of the synthronon of the basilica in Palmatis. Photo: Darik Dobrich

Lead archaeologist Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov demonstrates the actual height (of about 3 meters) that the synthronon towered at. Photo: Darik Dobrich

Lead archaeologist Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov demonstrates the actual height (of about 3 meters) that the synthronon towered at. Photo: Darik Dobrich

The Early Christian basilica in the Palmatis Fortress was built during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565 AD), and had an “interesting” interior design, according to the researchers.

Close to the synthronon, they have unearthed a pedestal and preserved fragments from a marble altar table. Above the altar table, there was an ornately decorated baldachin.

The entire basilica must have been richly decorated based on the discovered sophisticated column capitals which, according to Popkonstantinov, might have been produced in marble workshops in Asia Minor.

The archaeological team hopes to be able to find the baptistery of the large Early Byzantine basilica in the upcoming days.

It is noted that “not a single coin has been found on the site in the three weeks of excavations so far because of the raids of treasure hunters” who must have repeatedly looted the place.

The Late Antiquity and medieval fortress of Palmatis in Bulgaria’s Tervel Municipality had a territory of about 225 decares (app. 56 acres), and the local authorities hope that it will become a site for cultural tourism, possibly in combination with the Zaldapa Fortress, another great Late Antiquity city whose ruins are located in the nearby Krushari Municipality.

Reports point out that a team of French and Canadian archaeologists who are helping out their Bulgarian colleagues with the digs in Zaldapa have visited the Palmatis site, and have been “impressed” with the discovery of the Early Christian basilica.

Archaeologist Kazimir Popkonstantinov and the Director of the Dobrich Regional Museum of History Kostadin Kostadinov have thanked Tervel Municipality for deciding to fund the first ever excavations in Palmatis with a total of BGN 30,000 (app. EUR 15,000).

According to Kostadinov, Palmatis might have been thought of as a small Roman road station in the past but the new discovery provides further evidence that it was a major Late Antiquity and medieval city.

“This year we’ve had the first archaeological summer with excavations in the Palmatis Fortress. Our plans are to expand the activity of the municipal historical museum, and to exhibit what we see in the fortress so that Tervel Municipality can start attracting people interested in such sites and this field,” Tervel Deputy Mayor Diyana Ilieva is quoted as saying.

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The large Early Byzantine basilica in Palmatis was richly decorated. Photo: Darik Dobrich

The large Early Byzantine basilica in Palmatis was richly decorated. Photo: Darik Dobrich

The decorative ornaments discovered in the basilica ruins have led the archaeologists to hypothesize that the architectural fragments originated in Asia Minor. Photo: Darik Dobrich

The decorative ornaments discovered in the basilica ruins have led the archaeologists to hypothesize that the architectural fragments originated in Asia Minor. Photo: Darik Dobrich

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.

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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