Largest Early Christian Basilica in Rhodope Mountains Discovered in Rock City Perperikon in Southern Bulgaria

An aerial view of the newly discovered Early Christian basilica in the rock city of Perperikon in the Eastern Rhodope Mountains in Southern Bulgaria. Photo: Archaeological Team / Sega daily

An aerial view of the newly discovered Early Christian basilica in the rock city of Perperikon in the Eastern Rhodope Mountains in Southern Bulgaria. Photo: Archaeological Team / Sega daily

What appears to have been the largest Early Christian temple in the Rhodope Mountains in Southern Bulgaria has been discovered by archaeologists in the prehistoric, ancient, and medieval rock city of Perperikon (also known as Perperik or Perperek).

As an archaeological site, Perperikon is an 8,000-year-old prehistoric megalithic shrine, which was later built upon by the Thracians, the Romans, the Byzantines, and the medieval Bulgarian Empire, and was destroyed as a city and fortress by the invading Ottoman Turks in the 14th century.

The newly found temple is an Early Byzantine bishop’s basilica from the second half of the 5th century AD, reports the Sega daily.

Its ruins have been unearthed by the team of Prof. Nikolay Ovcharov from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia, who has been excavating Perperikon since 2000.

This is the third Christian basilica to have been discovered in Perperikon to date; it is located in its southern suburb.

So far the archaeologists have exposed the central part of the Early Christian church which is 15 meters wide and 25 meters long. They believe that when fully excavated the three-nave basilica will turn out to be 35-40 meters long.

This would make it not the just the largest Early Christian temple in the picturesque Rhodope Mountains (spanning about 15,000 square kilometers in Bulgaria and Greece) but also one of the largest in Bulgaria.

For example, it was roughly the same size as the 4th century AD St. Sofia Basilica in Sofia, the Elenska Basilica and the Belovo Basilica, and was larger than the bishop’s basilica in the Black Sea town of Nessebar (ancient Mesembria).

According to the archaeologists, the newly found 5th century church in Perperikon had a monumental stone colonnade and beautiful decorations, and was built of large rectangular stone blocks (quadrae). Some of the stone columns have survived. Its walls are over 1 meter thick. Its floor was covered with stone slabs.

It has been found that the basilica existed in its original form until the 7th century AD when it was abandoned at the time of Byzantium’s relative decline.

In the 9th century, at the time of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018), the basilica was remodeled, with only its central nave remaining in use, but was nonetheless impressive in size. At the time, its functioning section was 20 meters long.

The church was last remodeled in the 12th century when its sole surviving nave was “reduced” to a length of 13 meters.

It was in operation until the middle of the 14th century when Perperikon was conquered by the invading Ottoman Turks, and the church was abandoned. Overall, it was in use for nearly a millennium.

Around the basilica, the archaeological team has found a necropolis containing at least 25 tombs from the 13th century, i.e. the time of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396); 22 of these are intact, while three were robbed in the Late Antiquity.

“This is something truly unique. We had assumed that there might be a cathedral [in Perperikon] but it was really a surprise for that it has turned out to be of such size comparable with the largest Early Christian basilicas that have been discovered in Bulgaria and the Balkans so far,” lead archaeologist Nikolay Ovcharov has told bTV.

“Such a large Early Christian bishop’s church shows the rank of the city in this period,” says in turn Daniela Kodzhamanova, Director of the Regional Museum of History in the nearby city of Kardzhali.

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Archaeologists Nikolay Ovcharov (above) and Daniela Kodzhamanova (below) on the site of the newly discovered Early Christian basilica. Photos: bTV

Archaeologists Nikolay Ovcharov (above) and Daniela Kodzhamanova (below) on the site of the newly discovered Early Christian basilica. Photos: bTV

Early Christian Basilica Perperikon 5

For the time being, the archaeologists have been unable to establish which Early Christian bishopric was the one to have built the large basilica in the rock city of Perperikon. There is even a hypothesis that the temple might have been the seat of an archbishop and the center of an archbishopric.

“The entire architecture of the building talks about its monumentality and significance. First of all, it was built of enormous, well-matched stone blocks, without any masonry. They fit perfectly together. The walls are more than a meter wide which suggests that it had a second floor with a gallery,” Ovcharov elaborates.

He also emphasizes that the two previously known (and smaller) basilicas in Perperikon and the newly discovered one had colonnades separating their naves, whereas in most of the Early Christian temples found in Bulgaria, the naves were delineated with arches.

The archaeologist says the monumental building has been discovered largely based on stone blocks exposed by treasure hunting pits from about 16-17 years ago.

“I had had ideas about this place even though it was covered by a thick forest. In one or two spots, there had been treasure hunting pits which had come across stone blocks. I knew that there must be some kind of a monumental building there but I had no idea what it might be. We’ve been exposing it since June 20,” Ovcharov has revealed.

The archaeological excavations of the Early Christian basilica and the medieval necropolis are going to continue in 2017 even though the researchers are going to start opening the tombs now, and “are expecting interesting surprises”.

Ovcharov has noted that the newly found church in Perperikon, together with another large Early Christian basilica which has been discovered in the Palmatis Fortress in Northeast Bulgaria, are emerging as some of the country’s most important archaeological discoveries in 2016.

A couple of days ago, the archaeologists showed to the media the most interesting artifacts found in Perperikon this summer: bronze female ear tabs found in a 13th century funeral, a 3rd AD Ancient Roman ring, and a horse ammunition buckle from 4th-5th century AD.

The 2016 excavations of Perperikon are expected to complete the research of the acropolis of the rock city which has been going on for 17 years now. In July 2016, the archaeologists announced the discovery of the eastern gate of Perperikon.

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Other aerial views of the newly discovered Early Christian basilica in the rock city of Perperikon in Southern Bulgaria. Photos: bTV

Other aerial views of the newly discovered Early Christian basilica in the rock city of Perperikon in Southern Bulgaria. Photos: bTV

Early Christian Basilica Perperikon 2Also check out our stories about the other recent archaeological finds in the ancient and medieval rock city of Perperikon:

Archaeologists Find Exquisite Medieval Ring with Obsidian Gemstone in Bulgaria’s Rock City Perperikon, Complete Excavations of Its Acropolis

Bulgarian Archaeologists Discover Three Roman Pagan Temples, Nymphaeum at Ancient and Medieval Rock City Perperikon

Archaeologist Finds Clay Lamp with Eros, Other Roman Age Artifacts in Ancient and Medieval Rock City Perperikon

Archaeologist Finds 14th Century Monogram, Coins of Bulgarian Tsars at Ancient and Medieval Rock City Perperikon

Archaeologist Discovers Gold Coin of Byzantine Emperor Basil II the Bulgar-Slayer in Bulgaria’s Perperikon

Bulgarian Archaeologists Find Roman Temple, Apollo Statuette in Excavations of Ancient Rock City Perperikon

Background Infonotes:

Perperikon (also called Perperek or Perperik) is an ancient rock city located in the Rhodope Mountains in Southern Bulgaria, 15 km away from the city of Kardzhali.

It is a large-scale archaeological complex including historical monuments from different ages. Those include a megalithic shrine dating back to the Neolithic Age, the 6th millennium BC, a Bronze Age settlement, and a holy rock city established by the Ancient Thracians later taken over by the Romans, Goths, and Byzantines, respectively.

In the Middle Ages, especially during the time of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD), it was the site of a strong fortress and a royal palace that Bulgaria and Byzantium fought over numerous times.

Perperikon has been excavated since 2000 by Bulgarian archaeologist Nikolay Ovcharov who has found evidence that the mythical ancient Temple of Dionysius was located there. The rock city and fortress at Perperikon, not unlike the vast majority of the medieval Bulgarian fortresses, were destroyed by the invading Ottoman Turks in the 14th century.