10th Century Byzantine Imperial Ivory Icon Discovered in Rusocastro Fortress in Southeast Bulgaria
A rare 10th century ivory icon, which is believed to have belonged to Byzantine Emperor or a member of the Byzantine imperial family, and to have been made in Constantinople, has been discovered by archaeologists excavating the early Byzantine and major medieval Bulgarian fortress of Rusocastro in today’s Southeast Bulgaria.
Just recently, the archaeologists studying the Rusocastro fortress announced the discovery of a 7th century gold coin of Early Byzantine Emperor Phocas (r. 602-610 AD).
The Rusocastro Fortress is best known for the Battle of Rusocastro in 1332 AD. It was the last big military victory of the medieval Bulgarian Empire before it was conquered by the invading Ottoman Turks at the end of the 14th century.
In it, Tsar Ivan Alexander (r. 1331-1371) of the Second Bulgarian Empire defeated Byzantine Emperor Andronicus III Palaeologus (Andronikos III Palaiologos) (r. 1328-1341 AD).
The newly discovered 10th century Byzantine ivory icon is an “extremely rare and elite find”, the Burgas Regional Museum of History has announced.
The front side of ivory icon features an image of Archangel Gabriel and St. Basil the Great (also known as Basil of Caesarea) (329 or 330 – 370 AD).
The back of the two-sided Byzantine ivory icon features images of two crosses. The images on the 10th century ivory icon are said to be part of a scene depicting the Annunciation, i.e. the announcement by Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive and give birth to Jesus, the son of God.
The ivory icon discovered at the Rusocastro Fortress is was in fact one of the wings of a triptych, a work of art with three panels hinged together that can be folded shut, which, according to the archaeologists, was used as a mobile altar.
“The find was made in the 10th century in Constantinople at the order of some of the Byzantine Emperors or some member of the imperial family,” the Burgas Museum says.
“They were the only ones who could afford to receive ivory which was extremely expensive in the Middle Ages – back then it was worth more than gold,” it adds.
The Museum also points out that not more than 15 similar finds similar to the ivory icon from Rusocastro have been discovered worldwide.
It says that only one similar item – a fragment from an ivory icon depicting the Dormition of the Virgin Mary – is kept in Bulgaria, in the northern city city of Veliko Tarnovo, which is the successor of Tarnovgrad, the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396/1422).
It was found in the early 20th century during the excavations of the Trapesitsa Fortress, one of the citadels of the medieval capital Tarnovgrad, by French archaeologist Georges Seure.
While not an icon, a 13th century cross made of ivory has also been discovered in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo.
“Finds of such elite scale are kept in the world’s largest museums such as the Louvre, the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and now – in the Burgas Regional Museum of History,” the Museum says.
“Their uniqueness is due to the fact that they were made only for the needs of the Byzantine Emperors and their closest family circle,” it adds.
“Today, similar finds are kept in some church treasuries in Western Europe where they were brought after the Fourth Crusade [which sacked Constantinople in 1204 – editor’s note]. Back then, the knights who conquered Constantinople, plundered the Byzantine imperial treasury which kept such ivory items. Subsequently, they donated those items to some of the cathedrals in the large Western European cities,” the Burgas Museum elaborates.
Another introguing 10th century Byzantine imperial find – a golden heart jewel made in Constantinople – was discovered in Bulgaria’s medieval capital Veliki Preslav last year.
The Burgas Museum says the Rusocastro Fortress had a territory of 52 decares (app. 13 acres), making it the largest medieval fortress in today’s Southern Bulgaria, and comparable in size to the key medieval fortress in today’s Northern Bulgaria such as the citadels of Tarnovgrad (today’s Veliko Tarnovo), Tsarevets and Trapesitsa, and the cities of Cherven and Kaliakra.
The walls of the Rusocastro Fortress have been preserved up to a height of 5 meters.
The fortress is being researched by a team of the Burgas Regional Museum of History led by its Director Milen Nikolov and Doroteya Gyurdzhiyska.
The 2017 excavations are focused on exposing the citadel of Rusocastro in order to allow for its conservation, restoration and exhibiting in situ after their completion.
The digs are co-funded by Kameno Municipality, Bulgaria’s Culture Ministry, and the National Museum of History in Sofia.
Learn more about the Rusocastro Fortress and the Battle of Rusocastro in the Background Infonotes below and our other articles:
The Late Antiquity (Early Byzantine) and medieval Bulgarian and Byzantine fortress of Rusocastro (Rusocastron) is located in today’s Southeast Bulgaria, close to the Black Sea city of Burgas. Rusocastro was also known as “The Red Fortress” because of the red stones it was built of.
In the 2nd millennium BC, the Ancient Thracians set up a shrine of the Sun God, the Mother Goddess, and the Thracian Horseman, also known as god Heros, near the legendary cave known today as Rusina Cave or Rusa’s Hole. Its site was settled in the period of Ancient Thrace, and was an important center in the Thracians’ Odrysian Kingdom.
The fortress itself was built in the 5th century AD on a strategically located hill. The Early Byzantine fortress was most probably destroyed in the Slavic and Avar invasions in the 7th century. The Rusocastro Fortress was rebuilt by the Bulgars in the 9th century, during the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680 – 1018 AD), at the time of the construction of the Bulgarian border rampart known as Erkesiya (in use in the 9th-11th century), and was a major stronghold in the geographic region of Thrace during the High Middle Ages.
The earliest written information about the Rusocastro Fortress comes from a 6th century epigraphic monument dedicated to Byzantine military commander Justin, who, according to some Bulgarian scholars, was the great-grandson of Byzantine Emperor Justin I (r. 518-527 AD), the uncle of Emperor Justinian I (r. 527-565 AD). The name Rusocastro was first used in the 12th century by Arab geographer El Idrisi in his work “Geography of the World”, where Rusocastro is described as a large and crowded city. The fortress was also mentioned in a number of Byzantine sources from the 14th century relevant to current events.
The Rusocastro Fortress is famous in Bulgarian history for the Rusocastro Battle in which the army of Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Alexander (r. 1331-1371 AD), ruler of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD), defeated the forces of Byzantine Emperor Andronicus III Palaeologus (Andronikos III Palaiologos) (r. 1328-1341 AD) in 1332 AD.
The Battle of Rusocastro is often referred to as the last big military victory of the medieval Bulgarian Empire before its conquest by the invading Ottoman Turks at the end of the 14th century.
Tsar Ivan Alexander’s victory at Rusocastro is considered the last major military victory of the Bulgarian Empire before its decline in the second half of the 14th century, and its conquest by the Ottoman Turks that ushered in the darkest page in Bulgaria’s history, a period known as the Ottoman Yoke (1396-1878/1912). The Rusocastro Fortress was ultimately destroyed in Ottoman campaigns in 1443.
Rusocastro has been excavated by archaeologists Milen Nikolov and Tsanya Drazheva from the Burgas Regional Museum of History. The Bulgarian archaeologists have excavated several churches there including a monastery named after St. George, which existed in the 11th-14th century. Unfortunately, a Christian necropolis in the Rusocastro Fortress was partly destroyed in the largest military drills dubbed “Shield” of the countries from the former Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact that took place in Eastern Bulgaria in 1982.