Bulgaria’s Sozopol Granted Access to Ecumenical Patriarchate’s Archives over St. Ivan Island in Black Sea

Part of the ruins of the St. John the Baptist Monastery on St. Ivan (St. John) Island in the Black Sea off the coast of Bulgaria's Sozopol. Photo: Archaeologist Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov

Part of the ruins of the St. John the Baptist Monastery on St. Ivan (St. John) Island in the Black Sea off the coast of Bulgaria’s Sozopol. Photo: Archaeologist Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov

Bulgaria’s Black Sea resort of Sozopol has been granted access to the archives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople in Istanbul, Turkey, in order to research the history of the St. Ivan (St. John) Island known for its Early Christian and Early Byzantine monastery where relics of St. John the Baptist were discovered back in 2010.

Sozopol Municipality has thus sent a researcher to the archives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate who as of August 15, 2016, has started working on finding out more about the St. Ivan Island, reports local news site Darik News Burgas.

Sozopol Mayor Panayot Reyzi announced as early as May 2016 that he had requested that a researcher from his administration be allowed into the Eastern Orthodox Christian library in Istanbul which keeps a large number of historical documents.

“I expect that we will find there something grandiose [regarding the history of St. Ivan Island]," Reyzi said back then, as quoted by local news site BurgasInfo.

Also in May 2016, Sozopol’s Town Council decided to ask the Bulgarian government to grant it management rights for St. Ivan Island in order to develop the island as a cultural tourism attraction.

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The St. John the Baptist relics – five bone particles and a tooth – at the time of the opening of the 4th century reliquary (on August 1, 2010) they were found in dug up from an Early Christian basilica on the St. Ivan Isalnd near Bulgaria’s Sozopol. Photo: Archaeologist Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov

The St. John the Baptist relics – five bone particles and a tooth – at the time of the opening of the 4th century reliquary (on August 1, 2010) they were found in dug up from an Early Christian basilica on the St. Ivan Isalnd near Bulgaria’s Sozopol. Photo: Archaeologist Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov

The Early Christian and later medieval monastery on St. Ivan Island in the Black Sea off Sozopol’s coast is said to have been an important literary center for Bulgaria up until 1629 (even though the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396/1422) was conquered by the invading Ottoman Turks at the end of the 14th century), says Bozhidar Dimitrov, Director of Bulgaria’s National Museum of History in Sofia who is also a Sozopol native.

In his words, in 1629, the St. John the Baptist Monastery on the island was destroyed by the Ottomans but monks were allowed to leave unharmed taking with them their library and archives, religious vessels, and icons.

Dimitrov also emphasizes the importance of the monastery by adding that throughout history a total of five of its monks rose to the rank of Ecumenical Patriarch, and that Sozopol used to be the seat of an archbishopric.

St. Ivan Island in the Black Sea is best known for the discovery of the relics of St. John the Baptist in 2010 by Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov. However, the excavations there keep yielding new finds such as the 2015 discovery of a tomb possibly containing the bones of the monastery founder, a Syrian monk who brought the relics.

The St. Ivan Island is located about 900 meters away from the closest point on the Bulgarian mainland, the Stolets Peninsula (Cape Stolets, or Scamnia) in the town of Sozopol.

St. Ivan (St. John) Island in the Black Sea off the coast of Bulgaria's Sozopol. Photo: Lead archaeologist Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov

St. Ivan (St. John) Island in the Black Sea off the coast of Bulgaria’s Sozopol. Photo: Archaeologist Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov

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Background Infonotes:

The history of the resort town of Sozopol (Apollonia Pontica, Sozopolis) on Bulgaria’s Southern Black Sea coast started during the Early Bronze Age, in the 5th millennium BC, as testified by the discoveries of artifacts found in underwater archaeological research, such as dwellings, tools, pottery, and anchors. In the 2nd-1st millennium BC, the area was settled by the Ancient Thracian tribe Scyrmiades who were experienced miners trading with the entire Hellenic world. An Ancient Greek colony was founded there in 620 BC by Greek colonists from Miletus on Anatolia’s Aegean coast. The colony was first called Anthea but was later renamed to Apollonia in favor of Ancient Greek god Apollo, a patron of the setters who founded the town. It became known as Apollonia Pontica (i.e. of the Black Sea). Since the Late Antiquity, the Black Sea town has also been called Sozopolis.

The Greek colony of Apollonia Pontica emerged as a major commercial and shipping center, especially after the 5th century AD when it became allied with the Odrysian Kingdom, the most powerful state of the Ancient Thracians. As of the end of the 6th century BC, Apollonia Pontica started minting its own coins, with the anchor appearing on them as the symbol of the polis. Apollonia became engaged in a legendary rivalry with another Ancient Greek colony, Mesembria, today’s Bulgarian resort town of Nessebar, which was founded north of the Bay of Burgas in the 6th century BC by settlers from Megara, a Greek polis located in West Attica. According to some historical accounts, in order to counter Mesembria’s growth, Apollonia Pontica founded its own colony, Anchialos, today’s Pomorie (though other historical sources do not support this sequence of events), which is located right to the south of Mesembria. Apollonia managed to preserve its independence during the military campaigns of the Ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon under Philip II (r. 359-336 BC), and his son Alexander the Great (r. 336-323 BC). Apollonia, today’s Sozopol, is known to have had a large temple of Greek god Apollo (possibly located on the Sts. Quiricus and Julietta Island, also known as the St. Cyricus Island), with a 12-meter statue of Apollo created by Calamis, a 5th century BC sculptor from Ancient Athens. In 72 BC, Apollonia Pontica was conquered by Roman general Lucullus who took the Apollo statue to Rome and placed it on the Capitoline Hill. After the adoption of Christianity as the official religion in the Roman Empire, the statue was destroyed.

In the Late Antiquity, Apollonia, also called Sozopolis lost some of its regional center positions to Anchialos, and the nearby Roman colony Deultum (Colonia Flavia Pacis Deultensium). After the division of the Roman Empire into a Western Roman Empire and Eastern Roman Empire (today known as Byzantium) in 395 AD, Apollonia / Sozopolis became part of the latter. Its Late Antiquity fortress walls were built during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Anasthasius (r. 491-518 AD), and the city became a major fortress on the Via Pontica road along the Black Sea coast protecting the European hinterland of Constantinople.

In 812 AD, Sozopol was first conquered for Bulgaria by Khan (or Kanas) Krum, ruler of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD) in 803-814 AD. In the following centuries of medieval wars between the Bulgarian Empire and the Byzantine Empire, Sozopol changed hands numerous times. The last time it was conquered by the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) was during the reign of Bulgarian Tsar Todor (Teodor) Svetoslav Terter (r. 1300-1322 AD). However, in 1366 AD, during the reign of Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Alexander (r. 1331-1371 AD), Sozopol was conquered by Amadeus IV, Count of Savoy from 1343 to 1383 AD, who sold it to Byzantium. During the period of the invasion of the Ottoman Turks at the end of the 14th century and the beginning of the 15th century AD, Sozopol was one of the last free cities in Southeast Europe. It was conquered by the Ottomans in the spring of 1453 AD, two months before the conquest of Constantinople despite the help of naval forces from Venice and Genoa.

In the Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, Sozopol was a major center of (Early) Christianity with a number of large monasteries such as the St. John the Baptist Monastery on St. Ivan Island off the Sozopol coast where in 2010 Bulgarian archaeologist Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov made a major discovery by finding relics of St. John the Baptist; the St. Apostles Monastery; the St. Nikolay (St. Nikolaos or St. Nicholas) the Wonderworker Monastery; the Sts. Quriaqos and Julietta Monastery on the St. Cyricus (St. Kirik) Island, the Holy Mother of God Monastery, the St. Anastasia Monastery.

During the Ottoman period Sozopol was often raided by Cossack pirates. In 1629, all Christian monasteries and churches in the city were burned down by the Ottoman Turks leading it to lose its regional role. In the Russian-Turkish War of 1828-1829, Sozopol was conquered by the navy of the Russian Empire, and was turned into a temporary military base. After Bulgaria’s National Liberation from the Ottoman Empire in 1878, Sozopol remained a major fishing center. As a result of intergovernmental agreements for exchange of population in the 1920s between the Tsardom of Bulgaria and the Kingdom of Greece, most of the ethnic Greeks still remaining in Sozopol moved to Greece, and were replaced by ethnic Bulgarians from the Bulgarian-populated regions of Northern Greece.

The modern era archaeological excavations of Sozopol were started in 1904 by French archaeologists who later took their finds to The Louvre Museum in Paris, including ancient vases from the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC, the golden laurel wreath of an Ancient Thracian ruler, and a woman’s statue from the 3rd century BC. Important archaeological excavations of Sozopol were carried out between 1946 and 1949 by Bulgarian archaeologist Ivan Venedikov. The most recent excavations of Sozopol’s Old Town started in 2010. In 2011-2012, Bulgarian archaeologists Tsonya Drazheva and Dimitar Nedev discovered a one-apse church, a basilica, and an Early Christian necropolis. Since 2012, the excavations of Sozopol have been carried out together with French archaeologists. In 2010, during excavations of the ancient monastery on the St. Ivan (St. John) Island in the Black Sea, off the coast of Sozopol, Bulgarian archaeologist Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov discovered a reliquary containing relics of St. John the Baptist. In 1974, the Bulgarian government set up the Old Sozopol Archaeological and Architectural Preserve.

A 2012 National Geographic documentary featuring the discovery of the St. John the Baptist relics in Bulgaria’s Sozopol can be seen here (in English and here in Bulgarian).

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