Bulgaria’s Tervel Showcases Finds from Newly Discovered Early Christian Basilica in Ancient Palmatis

Architectural fragments and photos from the 2016 excavations of ancient Palmatis on display in the Tervel Museum of History. Photo: Tervel Municipality

The finds from one of Bulgaria’s very intriguing archaeological discoveries in 2016, an Early Christian basilica found in the previously unexplored ancient city of Palmatis (Palmate), have been showcased in a new exhibition of the History Museum in the northeastern town of Tervel.

The Late Antiquity and medieval fortress Palmatis near the town of Onogur, Tervel Municipality, in Northeast Bulgaria, was excavated by archaeologists for the the first time ever during the 2016 summer archaeological season.

The digs were led by archaeologist Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov, an expert in Christian archaeology from the St. Cyril and St. Methodius University in Veliko Tarnovo.

The most important discovery from the first excavations of Palmatis (Palmate) has been a 5th century AD Early Christian basilica which said to be remarkable because of its considerable size (55 meters long and 30 meters wide), and because it had an exceptionally tall synthronon – the bishop’s throne and clergy stalls where meetings of clergymen were held.

The ruins of Palmatis are located on a plateau with natural defenses on the ancient road from Durostorum (Durustorum), today’s Silistra on the Danube, to Marcianopolis (Marcianople), today’s town of Devnya near the Black Sea city of Varna (ancient Odessos).

Palmatis was also a functioning fortress during the period of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018).

In the Late Antiquity (4th-6th century AD), near the Palmatis Fortress, in an area called Shan Kaya (not to be confused with the rock shrine of Shan Kaya in the Rhodope Mountains in Southern Bulgaria), there was a rock monastery which was connected with the rock monastery near the Bulgarian town of Balik, Krushari Municipality, Dobrich District (which is still known today by its derogatory and offensive Turkish name “Gaiour (Gavur) Evleri” meaning “Homes of the Infidels”, as the original name of the holy place remains unknown).

The primarily Late Antiquity finds from the first ever excavations at Palmatis (Palmate) have now been displayed in an exhibition of the Tervel Museum of History entitled “A New Life for the Temple” which is focused on discovery of the 5th century AD Early Christian basilica.

Lead archaeologist Kazimir Popkonstantinov (right) speaking at the opening of the exhibition at the Tervel Museum of History. Photo: Tervel Municipality

Tervel Municipality has pointed out in a statement that the 2016 digs were also the first archaeological excavations to have been held in the municipality in the past 30 years, after the exploration back in the mid 1980s of a medieval fortress called “Skala” (“Rock”), whose ruins are located near the town of Kladentsi.

For the excavations of Palmatis, Tervel Municipality has partnered with the Dobrich Regional Museum of History, and Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov from Veliko Tarnovo University “St. Cyril and St. Methoidus”, who is best known for his 2010 discovery of relics of St. John the Baptist in an Early Christian monastery on the St. Ivan Island in the Black Sea off the coast of Sozopol.

“The first season [of the excavations] has been extremely fruitful – the synthronon and the altar space have been fully exposed,” the Municipality says.

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Photos from the 2016 excavations of ancient Palmatis and the discovery of the 5th century AD basilica. Photos: Tervel Municipality

The Early Christian basilica in the Palmatis Fortress was built during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565 AD), and had an “interesting” interior design, according to the researchers.

Close to the synthronon, they have unearthed a pedestal and preserved fragments from a marble altar table.

The archaeological team discovered numerous architectural fragments from marble columns, including marble filigree, capitals, the altar table, clay and stone construction material,

The most interesting fragments have been showcased as part of the exhibition of the Tervel Museum together with newly discovered metal artifacts and coins as well as photos from the 2016 digs, including aerial photos from a drone, and photos from exploration with a geological radar.

Some of the architectural fragments found during the 2016 excavations of Palmatis. Photos: Tervel Municipality

The exhibition also features photos from a similar Late Antiquity basilica excavated, restored, and exhibited in situ in Greece.

The exhibition itself has been opened by Tervel’s Deputy Mayor Diyana Ilieva, and featured a performance of a church choir to symbolize the connection with the Early Christianity from the Late Antiquity, and a lecture by Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov. The event has also been attended by the Kostadin Kostadinov, Director of the Dobrich Regional Museum of History, and Dobri Dobrev, an archaeologist at the Dobrich Museum.

During the opening ceremony, the local authorities awarded Kadir Ramisov, a resident of the town of Onogur whose home is located right next to the ruins of the Palmatis Fortress. Ramisov has been collecting coins and metal artifacts (a total of 40 items) that he has bee finding around his house by accident over the years, and has now turned them in to Tervel Municipality for the museum exhibition.

Dzhemaldin Niyazi, Mayor of the town of Balik, and Nikolay Atanasov, Mayor of the town of Onogur, have also been awarded for their contribution to the archaeological excavations, with Atanasov taking care of the conserved structures for the winter period.

The local community and the researchers are said to be looking forward to the second season of archaeological research at ancient Palmatis (Palmate) in 2017.

The Late Antiquity and medieval fortress of Palmatis in Bulgaria’s Tervel Municipality had a territory of about 225 decares (app. 56 acres), and the local authorities hope that it will become a site for cultural tourism, possibly in combination with the Zaldapa Fortress, another great Late Antiquity city whose ruins are located in the nearby Krushari Municipality.

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A local church choir performing at the opening of the exhibition entitled “A New Life for the Temple” at the Tervel Museum of History. Photo: Tervel Municipality

Background Infonotes:

The Palmatis Fortress is a Late Antiquity and medieval city and fortress located near the town of Onogur, Tervel Municipality, in Northeast Bulgaria. It lies at an almost equal distance from the Danube city of Silistra (ancient Durostorum / medieval Drastar) and Dobrich – nearly 50 km from each.

It is situated on a plateau with natural defenses provided by the bed of the Suhata Reka, (i.e. the Dry River) which surrounds it from the south, east, and north. The walls of the Palmatis Fortress in the fourth directions are between 200 and 600 meters long. The fortress proper was surrounded with ramparts (embankments) with moats forming in fact an outer fortress wall.

During the Late Roman and Early Byzantine period, the Palmatis Fortress was located on the ancient road from Durostorum (Durustorum), today’s Silistra on the Danube, to Marcianopolis (or Marcianople), today’s town of Devnya near the Black Sea city of Varna (ancient Odessos). Palmatis was also a functioning fortress during the time of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018).

In the Late Antiquity (4th-6th century AD), near the Palmatis Fortress, in an area called Shan Kaya (not to be confused with the rock shrine of Shan Kaya in the Rhodope Mountains in Southern Bulgaria), there was an Early Christian rock monastery which was part of a large Early Christian monastic colony centered in the rock monastery near the Bulgarian town of Balik, Krushari Municipality, Dobrich District (which is still known today by its derogatory and offensive Turkish name “Gaiour (Gavur) Evleri” meaning “Homes of the Infidels”, as the original name of the holy place remains unknown).

The rock monastery in Shan Kaya near the Palmatis Fortress was abandoned in the Early Middle Ages, i.e. during the barbarian invasions of Avars and Slavs in the 6th-7th century, but was restored after the First Bulgarian Empire adopted Christianity in 865 AD (i.e. in the 9th-10th century). It is has been hypothesized that in the Late Middle Ages, i.e. during the Second Bulgarian Empire, the monks from Shan Kaya might have relocated to other rock monasteries in Northeast Bulgaria such as those along the Rusenski Lom River.

The main gallery of the rock monastery near Palmatis, which is 64 meters long, and connects numerous niches, has been preserved.

Few details are known about the Palmatis Fortress since before the summer of 2016, it had only been explored with geophysical surveying, without archaeological excavations.

Today the small town of Onogur is populated by descendants of Tatars from the Crimean Peninsula who were settled in Northeast Bulgaria by Ottoman Turkey after the Russian-Turkish Wars of 1806-1812, 1828-1829, and 1853-1856 (i.e. the Crimean War), while hundreds of thousands of ethnic Bulgarians were fleeing the atrocities of the regular and irregular Ottoman troops for the then southwest of the Russian Empire. (Today the descendants of these refugees form the communities of the historic Bulgarian minorities in Ukraine and Moldova known as the Bessarabia Bulgarians and the Taurica (Crimean) Bulgarians).

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