The opening of the Early Christian clergyman and monk’s tomb in the rock city Perperikon in Southern Bulgaria, with archaeologist Nikolay Ovcharov (left). Photo: Standart daily
The tomb of a senior monk and clergyman has been unearthed by archaeologists in the newly discoveredEarly Christian basilica in the prehistoric, ancient, and medieval rock city of Perperikon (also known as Perperik or Perperek)near Kardzhali in Southern Bulgaria.
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.
The discovery of what might be the largest Early Christian temple in Bulgaria’s Rhodope Mountains was announced earlier in August 2016 together with the discovery of a necropolis containing at least 25 tombs from the 13th century, i.e. the time of the SecondBulgarian Empire (1185-1396); 22 of these were intact, while three were robbed in the Late Antiquity. More graves have been exposed subsequently.
The Early Christian tomb in question was hewn into the rocks, and was covered with stone slabs. It was opened before reporters.
“This grave is totally different from the other 34 graves, most of them from the 12th-13th century that we have been excavating this summer around the church. It was covered with well shaped slabs, and its chamber was hewn into the rocks, and shaped very well. It even has a water draining facility," explains the archaeologist as cited by the Standart daily.
“No bones were found inside the tomb. The probable reason for that is the high acidity of the local soil which might have destroyed them. Another possibility is that the bones were removed and reburied in a bone vault or inside the basilica. [This is possible] especially, if he was a saintly man who was worshiped in his time," he adds.
Ovcharov has also revealed that the pottery discovered inside the tomb dates back to the 5th century AD, and that no precious finds such as gold crosses or other church artifacts can be expected to be found in it because the buried man was a monk.
In his words, this was probably one of the first bishops of the basilica, who were monks, and as per the Christian tradition, those were buried in cassocks only, without any additional artifacts.
“The fact that the tomb dates back to the time when the basilica was built has led us to believe that someone special was buried there. So has the fact that this was a bishop’s basilica judging by the synthronon – the bishop’s throne and clergy stalls, the pulpit, the preaching tribune. That is why we suspect that this was a bishop’s funeral," elaborates the archaeologist.
A tomb stone with a cross and an inscription in Greek from the 9th-10th century has been found in necropolis around the basilica. Photo: Nov Zhivot daily
Another of the newly discovered graves dating back to the 9th-10th century features a tomb stone with a cross and an inscription in Greek. It is yet to be cleaned up by restorers but it is presumed that the inscription contains the buried man’s name and a prayer for his soul.
“Inscriptions are relatively rare in Perperikon so whenever we find any they are very valuable," says the lead archaeologist.
Other graves, mostly from the High Middle Ages, i.e. the 12th-13th century, have yielded a number of precious finds – six ear pads, silver, bronze, and gold-coated earrings, rings, small beads, and a gold-coated appliqué, among others. The artifacts are yet to be cleaned up and examined more thoroughly.
At about the same time as the opening of the senior clergyman’s tomb, the team carrying out the excavations also found for the first time colored plaster fragments from the murals of the basilica. The murals in question also turned out to be from the Early Christian period. They date back to the 5th-6th century, i.e. the Late Antiquity.
The archaeologists have also found three massive columns, which have been preserved up to 1.92-1.96 meters in height, and are also from the Early Christian period of the basilica, as well as one of the Ionic capitals, half a meter tall, which decorated the columns. Several large tiles from the temple’s roof and parts of the brick floor have also survived.
Adornments discovered in the medieval graves around the newly found basilica in Perperikon. Photos: Standart daily
So far the Early Christian basilica in Perperikon has been found to have been 31 meters long, 14 meters wide, and was probably up to 9 meters tall. Its length will probably reach over 40 meters after the upcoming excavation of its atrium.
This makes 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 larger ones 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 stone blocks (quadras). 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.
The archaeological excavations of the Early Christian basilica and the medieval necropolis are going to continue in 2017.
An aerial view of the newly found Early Christian basilica in the rock of Perperikon in Southern Bulgaria. Photo: BNT
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.
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 archaeologistsannounced the discovery of the eastern gate of Perperikon.
Also check out our stories about the other recent archaeological finds in the ancient and medieval rock city of Perperikon:
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.