Bulgaria’s Cabinet Poised to Grant Black Sea Town Sozopol Ownership over St. Ivan Island Famous for St. John the Baptist’s Relics
Bulgaria’s Cabinet is prepared to transfer ownership of the Black Sea island “St. Ivan (St. John)”, known for its Early Christian and Early Byzantine monastery where relics of St. John the Baptist were discovered back in 2010, to the local authorities in the town of Sozopol, the modern-day successor of ancient Apollonia Pontica (Sozopolis).
As early as 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.
While the Cabinet has not formally granted ownership and/or management rights over the island to Sozopol Municipality yet, Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boyko Borisov has promised that it will do so during a brief exchange with Sozopol Mayor Panayot Reyzi in the Black Sea town of Chernomorets, reports the Standart daily.
Borisov reportedly urged Reyzi to submit all the necessary paperwork for the transfer of rights, and the Sozopol Mayor said his administration had compiled the needed documents, and was about to do so.
Bulgaria owns several tiny islands (up to eight, depending on the “island” criteria) in the Balck Sea. The St. Ivan Island off the coast of Sozopol is the largest of them, with a total area of 0.66 square km (660 decares, or 163 acres).
All of them are part of Bulgaria’s national territory. However, in 2010, the Bulgarian government created a precedent by granting Burgas Municipality management rights over the St. Anastasia Island (known as the Bolshevik Island between 1945 and 1990, i.e. during Bulgaria’s communist period). It has a total area of 0.01 square km (10 decares or 2.5 acres), and is located 6.5 km southeast of the city of Burgas.
The St. Anastasia Island had a medieval monastery with the same name known from 16th century sources) and was used to jail political prisoners by the authorities of the Tsardom of Bulgaria after the leftist September Uprising of 1923, and then by the authorities of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria. Today it is the only populated Bulgarian island in the Black Sea.
Ever since it gained the management rights in 2010, Burgas Municipality has taken up the development of the St. Anastasia Island as a popular destination for cultural tourism with regular sea transport.
Now Sozopol Municipality says it plans to do the same with the St. Ivan Island whose Early Christian and Early Byzantine monastery is still being excavated by archaeologists.
The island 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.
Presently, about 85 decares of the St. Ivan Island near Sozopol are owned by Bulgaria’s Ministry of Defense, while the rest are owned by the Ministry of Culture. Sozopol Municipality claims the section owned by the Culture Ministry.
Sozopol Mayor Reyzi has also come up with the idea for establishing a joint tourism sea route with the city of Burgas by setting up a Black Sea cruise between Sozopol and Burgas including visits to both the St. Anastasia Island and the St. Ivan Island.
Reyzi believes the combined sea route will bring even more tourists to these top cultural tourism spots.
Sozopol Municipality plans to seek EU funding for the development of St. Ivan as a cultural tourism destination. Its claim over the island has also been supported by Bulgaria’s Minister of Tourism Nikolina Angelkova.
The local authorities have recruited several experts to draft the future project, including archaeologist Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov, the finder of St. John the Baptist’s relics.
Bulgaria’s Cabinet is expected to vote in the upcoming weeks the transfer of ownership/management rights to Sozopol Municipality.
At present, the St. Ivan Island is accessible for visitors on organized trips or private boat trips, with thousands visiting the ruins of the Early Christian monastery there every summer, including during the archaeological excavations which first started in 1985. However, the island has no tourist infrastructure, no electricity, fresh water supply, or sewerage.
In addition to the St. Anastasia Island and the St. Ivan Island, the other Bulgarian islands in the Black Sea include:
the St. Peter Island (near Sozopol and right next to the St. Ivan Island), with a total territory of 0.015 square km (15 decares, or almost 4 acres);
the St. Cyricus (St. Kirik) Island (also known as the Sts. Quriaqos and Julietta Island), with an area of 0.08 square km (80 decares or 32 acres) which is today a peninsula connected with a breakwater and a road to Sozopol and the mainland;
the St. Thomas Island off the coast of Primorsko (also known as the Snake Island, not to be confused with the Ukrainian Snake Island in the Northern Black Sea), with a total territory of 0.012 square km (12 decares, or 3 acres);
the Bird Island off the coast of Tsarevo, with a total area of 0.0075 square km (7.5 decares or less than 2 acres);
the Rusalka Island near Cape Kaliakra, with a total area of 0.0025 square km (2.5 decares or 0.6 acres);
the Old Town of Nessebar (ancient Messembria) might also have been an island in the past; today it is connected to the mainland with a narrow sand isthmus.
Bulgaria’s Sozopol has recently reminded of its plan to restore a huge statue of ancient god Apollo which guarded the harbor of the Ancient Greek colony of Apollonia Pontica in the Antiquity period.
Archaeologist Kazimir Konstantinov has recently hypothesized that the Early Christian monastery with the relics of St. John the Baptist on the St. Ivan Island might have been established precisely to counterbalance the existence of the pagan god’s statue in Apollonia Pontica.
Learn more from our other recent stories about the excavations of the St. John the Baptist Monastery on St. Ivan (St. John) Island in the Black Sea of the coast of Bulgaria’s Sozopol and the Apollo Colossus of Apollonia Pontica:
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.