Archaeologists to Resume Excavations of Half-Sunken Ancient Black Sea City Byzone near Bulgaria’s Kaliakra Cape after 10-Year Break

A view of the tall cliff that is today Cape Chirakman ("Ognen Nos" - "Fiery Cape") where ancient Byzone and medieval Karnava were located. Historical sources and archaeological research indicate that the front part of the cape collapsed into the Black Sea because of an earthquake in the 1st century BC, and then again in the 2nd century AD. Photo: Kavarna Municipality

A view of the tall cliff that is today Cape Chirakman (“Ognen Nos” – “Fiery Cape”) where ancient Byzone and medieval Karnava were located. Historical sources and archaeological research indicate that the front part of the cape collapsed into the Black Sea because of an earthquake in the 1st century BC, and then again in the 2nd century AD. Photo: Kavarna Municipality

Bulgarian archaeologists are going to resume, after a ten-year pause, the excavations of the ancient and medieval Black Sea city Byzone, the predecessor of today’s town of Kavarna, also known as Karnava in the Middle Ages, part of which collapsed into the sea in the 1st century BC.

Byzone (Bizone) was an Ancient Thracian, Greek, Roman, and Byzantine port and fortress, later the medieval Bulgarian city of Karnava (Kavarna) located on the Black Sea Cape Chirakman, also called Ognen Nos (“Fiery Cape"), close to the Kaliakra Cape Fortress (Tirizis, Acra).

Among other things, the ancient and medieval city on Cape Chirakman in Bulgaria’s Kavarna is notable because in the second half of the 1st century BC, a major earthquake caused the front part of the cape to “break off" and collapse into the Black Sea, bringing down much of Byzone, including what may have been the city’s richest quarter.

What is more, judging from finds from the Roman period, underwater archaeology researchers have found evidence that the city may have “collapsed further" into the Black Sea a second time, in the 2nd century AD.

Learn more about the history of Byzone / Karnava / Kavarna in the Background Infonotes below!

The archaeological site on Cape Chirakman where earlier digs exposed a very well preserved Late Antiquity Roman fortress wall are to be resumed in August-September 2016, Darina Mircheva, Director of the Kavarna Museum of History, has told BTA.

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A view of the ruins of the ancient and medieval city Byzone / Karnava on top of the Black Sea Cape Chirakman near Bulgaria's Kavarna. Photo: Sveti Mesta ("Holy Sites")

An aerial view of the ruins of the ancient and medieval city Byzone / Karnava on top of the Black Sea Cape Chirakman near Bulgaria’s Kavarna. Photo: Sveti Mesta (“Holy Sites”)

Mircheva has also announced that the 2016 archaeological excavations in the nearby Kaliakra Cape Fortress have started on July 7.

While the digs there are usually carried out in August, they have now begun earlier precisely because of the projected excavations in Byzone / Karnava on Cape Chirakman.

The 2016 excavations on the picturesque Cape Kaliakra have been funded with BGN 30,000 (app. EUR 15,000) by Kavarna Municipality plus additional funding by Bulgaria’s Ministry of Culture.

They are focusing on the exploration of a necropolis outside the first wall (out of a total of three lines of walls) of the Kaliakra Fortress, an Antiquity building, which could later be conserved and restored, as well as other structures.

For a second year in a row, the excavations of the Kaliakra Cape Fortress are being led by archaeologist Elena Vasileva from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia.

It is reminded that in 2015, the archaeologists found there a metal book clasp, gold earring loops, silver Ottoman coins, and pottery.

The most famous artifact discovered in the Kaliakra Fortress in recent years has been a 14th century “killer ring" with a secret cavity for keeping poison, which was found in 2013.

In the second half of the 14th century, the entire region was part of the so called Dobrudzha Despotate (the Principality of Karvuna), a feudal state which seceded from the Second Bulgarian Empire and survived for several decades before it was conquered by the invading Ottoman Turks.

Other finds include a preserved cross, which is an engolpion (encolpion), i.e. a (religious) item, for example in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, worn upon the bosom, for keeping holy relics and featuring an image of the Holy Mother of God (Virgin Mary), as well as adornments and coins.

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A view of the excavated ruins of the 4th century Early Christian basilica in Bizone on Cape Chirakman during the 1970s. Photo: Sveti Mesta ("Holy Sites")

A view of the excavated ruins of the 4th century Early Christian basilica in Bizone on Cape Chirakman during the 1970s. Photo: Sveti Mesta (“Holy Sites”)

Background Infonotes:

The Ancient Thracian, Greek, Roman, and Byzantine port and fortress of Byzone (Bizone), later the medieval Bulgarian settlement and fortress of Karnava and Kavarna, is located on the Black Sea Cape Chirakman, also called Ognen Nos (“Fiery Cape"). It is the predecessor of today’s Bulgarian Black Sea town of Kavarna.

The coast of today’s Kavarna was first settled as early as the 3rd millennium BC. The settlement at the location of Byzone was first started in the 7th-6th century BC by Ancient Thracians from the tribes of the Getae (Gets) in the 7th-6th century BC. In the 5th century BC, the settlement at the location of Byzone existed parallel to a settlement on the nearby Cape Kaliakra known as Tirizis (named after the tribe of Terizi, a subgroup of the Getae).

Both Byzone (on Cape Chirakman) and Tirizis (later the Kaliakra Cape Fortress) were part of the Ancient Thracian Odrysian Kingdom in the 5th century BC.

Later, in the 5th century BC, the location of Byzone was settled by Ancient Greek colonists from the Black Sea polis of Messembria (today’s Nessebar). In the second half of the 4th century BC, both Byzone and Tirizis were affected by the expansion of the Macedon Empire of Alexander the Great (r. 336-323 BC). After the Alexander’s death, the region of today’s Northeast Bulgaria was a base for Lysimachus (r. 306-281 BC), one of Alexander I the Great’s generals, and one of his diadochi (successors) who became King of Macedon, Thrace, and Asia Minor. According to Ancient Greek geographer Strabo, Lysimachus even hid part of his treasures in the citadel of Tirizis.

In the 3rd-2nd century BC, the site of Byzone possibly experienced an invasion of Celts and was temporarily settled by Scythians. Evidence of the Scythian presences has to do with the discovery of their rulers’ coins in the area as well as rock-hewn tombs in what is today the Yailata Archaeological Preserve to the north of Byzone and Cape Kaliakra.

In its early centuries, Byzone became a commercial port for trade between the locals and distant ports in Ancient Greece, Egypt, and others in the Eastern Mediterranean. While what is today’s Bulgarian Northern Black Sea coast is not convenient for building ports because of its high and rocky shores, the fertile soil of the region still helped the locals in the Antiquity produce and sell high-quality wheat.

In the second half of the 1st century BC, a major earthquake caused the front part of what is today Cape Chirakman to “break off" and collapse into the Black Sea, bringing down much of the ancient city of Byzone, including what may have been the city’s richest quarter.

Yet, the city was rebuilt and revived, again with the name Byzone, in the period of the Roman Empire when Byzone’s region was at first part of the Lower Moesia Province. The territory of today’s Northern Bulgaria between the Danube and the Balkan Mountains was conquered by Rome in 15-29 AD (all of Ancient Thrace south of the Danube was conquered in 46 AD).

However, in the 2nd century AD, the city may have “collapsed further" or “a second time" into the Black Sea, judging from the discoveries of archaeological structures from the Roman period made in 2005 by underwater archaeology researchers led by archaeologist Asen Salkin.

In the 4th century AD, a solid fortress wall was built to defend the Black Sea port, part of which has been excavated and partly restored as an archaeological attraction for tourists. An Early Christian basilica has also been discovered in Byzone which seems to have been one of the best fortified cities on the Western Black Sea coast in the Late Antiquity.

In the 6th century, the nearby fortress on Cape Kaliakra (the former Tirizis called in some historical sources Acra) emerged as a very important city, and a main stronghold in the 513 AD rebellion against Byzantine Emperor Anastasius (r. 491-518 AD) launched by Byzantine general Vitalian (d. 520), a native of the inland city of Zaldapa, which grew into a 5-year civil war.

Byzone flourished as a port during the Early Byzantine period (5th-6th century), up until the 7th century AD when it was destroyed by the invading Slavs and Avars.

After them, the Ancient Bulgars, who shifted the center of their empire (the First Bulgarian Empire, 632/680-1018) south of the Danube in the second half of the 7th century, established in Byzone’s ruins on Cape Chirakman the medieval settlement of Karnava, later called Kavarna (not to be confused with the medieval city of Karvuna, a major fortress in today’s Black Sea town Balchik which is located 15 km to the west!).

After it was depopulated for reasons that remain unknown, the city was resettled ca. 1000, at about the time the First Bulgarian Empire was conquered by Byzantium (and remained part of it for over 160 years).

Karnava grew to greater importance during the time of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396/1422), when it emerged as an important center of crafts. The archaeological excavations have revealed the ruins of several churches from this period.

In the second half of the 14th century, the city became part of the Dobrudzha Despotate (Principality of Karvuna), a feudal state that seceded from the Second Bulgarian Empire, and survived for about four decades before Bulgaria’s conquest by the invading Ottoman Turks at the end of the 14th century. The Despotate’s consecutive rulers, Balik, Dobrotitsa, and Ivanko, had a small navy, warred with the Italian city-state of Genoa, and were allied for a time with Genoa’s rival Venice.

The Dobridzha Despotate was forced to become a vassal of the Ottoman Empire in 1387. After the Battle of Rovine in 1395, in which Wallachian voivode Mircea the Elder won a victory over the Ottomans, the territories of the Despotate came briefly under his control, only to be ultimately conquered by Ottoman Turks ca. 1411.

The region of Karnava may have been considered briefly liberated from the Ottomans in 1444, during the Second Crusade of the King of Poland and Hungary Vladislav (Wladyslaw) III Jagello, also known as Varnenchik (Warnenczyk), which, however, ended with an Ottoman victory in the 1444 Battle of Varna.

After the Ottoman conquest, which almost completely destroyed the city that used to be ancient Byzone and medieval Karnava, a new settlement was built on the Black Sea coast, at the foot of the hill that is Cape Chirakman (Ognen Nos, “the Fiery Cape"). The present-day name of the city, Kavarna, is found for the first time in historical sources from the early 15th century. By the 17th century, Kavarna was already a town with Bulgarian Christian population.

Later, during the Russian-Turkish War of 1828-1829, Kavarna and its region were massively depopulated when thousands of local Bulgarians fled Ottoman atrocities by migrating to the Bessarabia region in the Russian Empire. The Bulgarian population of Kavarna was brutally slaughtered by Ottoman Turkish irregulars and regular troops in 1877, during the Russian Turkish War of 1877-1878, which brought about Bulgaria’s National Liberation (the defense of the local Bulgarian population is known as the Kavarna Uprising).

According to Czech-Bulgarian archaeologist Karel Skorpil, one of the fathers of modern-day Bulgarian archaeology, who explored the archaeological site on Cape Chirakman in the late 19th and early 20th century, over the ages, the ancient and medieval city of Byzone near today’s Kavarna had three lines of fortifications fencing off its peninsula from the mainland – a structure very similar to the fortifications of the Kaliakra Fortress (Tirizis, Acra) on Cape Kaliakra (located 12 km to the east).

The outermost (and third) fortification line consisting of a moat and a rampart was located 1185 meters to the west of the tip of Cape Chirakman, and was 160 meters long. However, it was built only in the Early Middle Ages, at the time of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018).

The second fortification line was located 750 meters west of the tip of the cape, and 435 east of the outermost rampart mentioned above. It consisted of a stone wall, which was about 40 meters long, sealing off the peninsula. However, nothing remains of it have been preserved, and its location is visible only from aerial shots.

According to the existing archaeological research, the earliest fortification of Byzone and the Chirakman Cape and Peninsula was built in the Late Roman and Early Byzantine period, probably in the late 4th century AD. Its fortress wall fenced off the easternmost section of the cape with a territory of 25 decares (app. 6 acres), and there was no wall to the southwest, i.e. from the side of the sea. This early fortress wall was 1.8 meters wide, and was made of stones and red mortar. It had one rectangular fortress tower guarding the access from the south, and three smaller towers along the wall. In the western end of the northern fortress, the archaeologists have unearthed a massive building sticking out which was 19 meters long, and had walls which were 2.4-3.2 meters wide. At first thought to have been barracks, it was later decided this was a later modification of the Early Byzantine fortress wall, possibly a keep which was typical for the Middle Ages but also existed in Late Roman and Early Byzantine modifications. Later this earliest fortress was expanded to the northeast with walls that were 2.25 meters wide, with U-shaped fortress towers which were 6 meters wide. The expansion also had a gate.

Over 70 different types of coins have been found on Cape Chirakman, whereas an Ancient Thracian gold treasure made in Byzone in the 4th century BC, and consisting of a golden wreath, a golden vessel with three-horse chariot images, and a golden statuette of a lion, has been found on a nearby hill. It probably belonged to Getae (Ancient Thracian) aristocrats.

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The Kaliakra Fortress is located on Cape Kaliakra on the Black Sea coast in Northeast Bulgaria (the region known as Dobrudzha). Cape Kaliakra is a 2 km long narrow headland towering about 70 meters above the sea level. The Kaliakra Fortress is part of the Kaliakra Archaeological Preserve, whereas the cape, the coast, and their hinterland are a nature preserve, home to rare birds and fish. It is located in Kavarna Municipality, near the towns of Kavarna, Balgarevo, and Sveti Nikola (St. Nicholas).

The earliest traces of human settlement on the territory of Cape Kaliakra and the Kaliakra Fortress date back to the 4th century BC when the region was inhabited by the Ancient Thracian tribe Tirizi or Tirici, a subgroup of the Getae (Gets); respectively, the earliest known name of the settlement was Tirizis (Tirissa in Latin). The name “Kaliakra" is believed to come from the Byzantine period and is translated from Greek as meaning “beautiful headland" (or “beautiful fortress").

Ancient Greek geographer Strabo (64 BC – ca. 24 AD) wrote that Kaliakra was the capital of Lysimachus (r. 306-281 BC), one of Alexander I the Great’s generals, and one of his diadochi (successors) who became King of Macedon, Thrace, and Asia Minor, and used the caves of Cape Kaliakra to hide treasures that he amassed during the campaigns against Persia.

The first fortifications on Cape Kaliakra were built by the Ancient Thracians, with a second fortress wall added during the Hellenistic Period (3rd-1st century BC). Another expansion of the Kaliakra Fortress was made during the Roman Period. By the middle of the 4th century AD, the fortress already had an inner and outer city, with round fortress towers built in 341-342 AD. A third and stiller outer fortress wall was built in the second half of the 4th century AD. It was 10 meters tall about almost 3 meters wide.

According to 6th century AD Byzantine geographer Hierocles (author of the Synecdemus), in the 5th-6th century, the Kaliakra Fortress was a major stronghold of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire against the barbarian peoples invading from the north.

In 513 AD, Kaliakra was the site of a battle between the forces of Byzantine general Vitalian (d. 520), a native of the city of Zaldapa (in today’s Krushari Municipality in Northeast Bulgaria) and Byzantine Emperor Anastasius I Dicorus (r. 491-518 AD). Vitalian’s rebellion grew into a 5-year civil war.

At the end of the 7th century, the region of the Kaliakra Fortress was conquered by the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD). Sources from the 10th century mention the fortress with the Slavic name Tetrasida.

The earliest Western European source to mention the Kaliakra Fortress is a map by Italian cartographer Petrus Visconte from 1318 AD. The city of the Kaliakra Fortress saw its height in the second half of the 14th century, the same period that saw the demise of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396)

Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Alexander (r. 1331-1371 AD) lost his two eldest sons (Ivan in 1349 AD and Mihail in 1355 AD) in battles with the Ottoman Turks, failed to prevent a number of Bulgarian feudal lords from seceding, and on top of that divided the remainder of the Second Bulgarian Empire between his two surviving sons.

His third son Ivan Sratsimir (r. 1371-1396) received the smaller so called Vidin Tsardom, with the Danube city of Bdin (Vidin) as its capital, and his fourth son Ivan Shishman (r. 1371-1395) received the rest, the so called Tarnovo Tsardom, with the capital proper of Tarnovgrad (today’s Veliko Tarnovo).

Bulgarian boyar Balik (r. ca. 1337-1366 AD), a powerful feudal lord, acquired independence from the Bulgarian Tsars setting up the so called Dobrudzha Despotate, also known as the Principality of Karvuna, in the region of Dobrudzha, today’s Northeast Bulgaria and Southeast Romania, which included the city and fortress of Kaliakra. He was succeeded by his co-ruler and brother, Despot Dobrotitsa (r. 1347-1385 AD).

The Dobrudzha Despotate itself was destroyed by the Ottoman Turks in 1388 AD. The name of the region of Dobrudzha is believed to have stemmed from the Turkish pronunciation of the name of Despot Debrotitsa.

The Despots of the Principality of Karvuna were the first Bulgarian rulers to build a major (Black Sea) navy.

Wallachian Voivode Mircea the Elder, whose documents were written in Bulgarian, in the Bulgaric (Cyrillic) alphabet, was first an ally of the Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Shishman, with whose aid he even came to control briefly parts of the Dobrudzha Despotate, styling himself “master of Silistra and the lands of Despot Dobrotitsa" in 1390-1391. He regained the region around Kaliakra in 1402 but lost it again to the Ottoman Turks in 1403.

In 1444, the crusaders of Vladislav (Wladyslaw) III Jagello, also known as Varnenchik, King of Poland and Hungary, camped near the Kaliakra Fortress during his second campaigns against the Ottoman Empire (a few decades after it had conquered the Second Bulgarian Empire), shortly before the Battle of Varna.

The Kaliakra Fortress and Cape Kaliakra are also known as the site of the largest naval battle to ever take place in the Black Sea – the Battle of Cape Kaliakra in the summer of 1791. It was the last naval battle of the Russian-Turkish War of 1787-1792, in which the Russian Navy under Admiral Fyodor Ushakov won a victory against the Ottoman Navy led by Hussein Pasha.

During the period of the Ottoman Empire, a place at the Kaliakra Cape connected with the legend of St. Nicholas (see below) is believed to have been the site of a dervish monastery keeping the relics of Muslim Bektashi Saint Sari Saltik.

The first modern lighthouse on Cape Kaliakra was built in 1866 by the Compagnie des Phares de l’Empire Ottomane; the present lighthouse was erected in 1901, during the period of the Third Bulgarian Tsardom (1878-1946).

Cape Kaliakra and the fortress are connected with a lot of legends. The most famous is the one about the 40 Bulgarian maidens who tied their hair together, and committed suicide by jumping into the Black Sea off the 70-meter-tall cliffs in order to avoid being captured and raped by the Ottomans. An obelisk called “The Gate of the Forty Maidens" has been erected at the entrance of the cape in dedication of this legend.

According to another major legend, Cape Kaliakra was created by God in order to rescue St. Nicholas from the Ottomans by extending the ground under his feet while he was running from them. He was eventually caught, and a chapel exists today on the alleged spot of his capture.

A third major legend about Kaliakra has it that Lysimachus perished there with his entire fleet, having escaped there with the treasure of Alexander the Great.

The archaeological excavations on Cape Kaliakra have also revealed ancient and Early Christian necropolises.

The Late Antiquity fortress on Cape Kaliakra had a territory of about 250 decares (app. 62 acres). The third and outermost fortress wall is 1.25 km away from the end of the cape, and is 422 meters long; it had 5 fortress towers. The middle fortress wall is located 400 meters away, and is 162 meters long, and also had a moat. The innermost fortress wall is located 325 meters away from the middle wall, and is 30 meters long.