Bulgaria Marks 135th Birthday of Renowned Archaeologist, Controversial Politician Bogdan Filov

Bogdan Filov was among the most important Bulgarian archaeologists of the early 20th century. Photo: Museum of Sofia History

On April 10, 2018, Bulgaria has marked the 135th anniversary since the birth of Bogdan Filov (1883 – 1945), one of the most renowned Bulgarian archaeologists from the first half of the 20th century, and a controversial politician who as Prime Minister in the early 1940s participated in Bulgaria’s allying with the Axis, and was later executed by the communist regime after the Soviet-inspired coup of September 9, 1944.

Bogdan Filov was born on April 10, 1883, in the southern Bulgarian city of Stara Zagora. He graduated from the then First Male High School in Sofia, and then went for his higher education in Germany on a scholarship of the Bulgarian government.

In Germany, Filov majored in classics in Wuerzburg and Leipzig, and then earned a Ph. D. in archaeology and Roman history in Freiburg im Breisgau, and later specialized archaeology, museology, and numismatics in Germany’s Bonn as well as in Paris and Rome.

Filov joined the team of the then National Archaeological Museum (today the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences) in 1906, and was its Director from 1910 until 1920, the first ethnic Bulgarian to hold the post.

As an archaeologist, Filov gave the start of regular archaeological excavations across Bulgaria; the first such digs were in 1909 – 1910 in the town of Hisarya in Southern Bulgaria, the successor of the Ancient Roman city of Diocletianopolis, followed by excavations in the Ancient Thracian and Roman city of Kabyle near Yambol in Southeast Bulgaria.

During the Balkan Wars of 1912 – 1913 and Bulgaria’s participation in World War I in 1915 – 1918, Filov led archaeological expeditions in the then historic Bulgarian-populated territories in the geographic regions of Macedonia and southern Thrace.

Many of his finds from there were kept in the secret fund of the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology until the 1980s when they were transferred to the National Museum of History in Sofia.

Some of his finds from the Trebnitsa (Trebnista) necropolis in Ohrid, today’s Republic of Macedonia, are exhibited today at the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia.

Between 1910 and 1920, Filov also researched the St. Sofia Basilica, the St. George Rotunda, and the pre-Renaissance Boyana Church in Sofia, the rich Ancient Thracian burial mound necropolis at Duvanli near Plovdiv between 1929 and 1931, and the Ancient Thracian tomb near Svilengrad, including the Mezek Tomb, between 1931 and 1933).

In 1920, Filov because a professor of archaeology at Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski, and in 1937, he was elected President of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, and retained the post until October 1944.

He was the founder and first Director of the Bulgarian Archaeological Institute between 1920 and 1940.

Filov also participated in all Congresses of Byzantine Studies held between 1924 (in Bucharest) and 1937 (in Rome), and organized the Byzantine Studies Congress in Sofia in 1934.

Filov became a member of the Berlin Freemasonry Lodge in 1923, and later a member of a freemasonry lodge in Sofia, up until the banning of freemasonry in Bulgaria in 1941 by the Cabinet in which he was the Prime Minister.

While his enormous contribution to the rise and development of archaeology in Bulgaria is widely recognized, Bogdan Filov’s political career is deemed controversial.

“After he had achieved almost everything in the field of science, in 1938 Filov accepted the position of Minister of People’s Enlightenment (Education) in the Cabinet of Georgi Kyoseivanov,” the Museum of Sofia History says on the occasion of the archaeologist’s 135th birthday.

In 1940, Filov was elected the Prime Minister of the then Tsardom of Bulgaria, a constitutional monarchy in which, however, the power of the monarch, Tsar Boris III, had been strengthened in the 1930s following the coup d’etat of May 19, 1934.

The Museum of Sofia History elaborates,

“Filov achieved a major success the same year by signing the Craiova Treaty with which Romania restored the region of Southern Dobrudzha to Bulgaria. In the following years, however, the government headed by Filov made some controversial political decisions: adopting the Nation Protection Act in January 1941 containing discriminatory measures against the people of Jewish origin; Bulgaria’s inclusion in World War II on the site of the Tripartite Pact (i.e. the Axis Powers of Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan) in March of the same year, and the declaration of the so called “Symbolic” War to the Atlantic allies, the USA and Great Britain, which led to massive aerial bombardments against Bulgaria in 1943 – 1944.”

At the same, Filov’s government never declared a war on the Soviet Union and never sent troops to the Eastern Front in spite of Hitler’s demands – which did not prevent the USSR from occupying Bulgaria in September 1944 and installing a brutal communist regime, and was forced by the Bulgarian civil society and Tsar Boris III to resist Nazi Germany’s demands for the deportation of Jewish Bulgarians to the Holocaust death camps, i.e. the Rescue of nearly 50,000 Bulgarian Jews.

Following the mysterious death of Tsar Boris III (r. 1918 – 1943) in 1943, Filov became a regent of the minor Tsar Simeon II (r. 1943 – 1946).

After the communist coup d’etat in Bulgaria on September 9, 1944, made possible by the advent of the Soviet Army, Filov was sentenced to death by the nearly emerging communist regime, and executed in February 1945, by the so called People’s Court used by the communists to wipe out the political, economic, and social elite of the Tsardom of Bulgaria (also known as the Third Bulgarian Tsardom) under the pretext of collaboration with fascism.

After the collapse of the communist regime in Bulgaria in 1989, in 1996, archaeologist and former Prime Minister Bogdan Filov’s death sentence was declared null and void by Bulgaria’s Supreme Court.

“What is undeniable in Bogdan Filov’s professional biography is his substantial contribution to the development of the Bulgarian archaeological science in the early decades of the 20th century,” the Museum of Sofia History says.

“The excavations he led set the start of methodological archaeological research in Bulgaria – in Hisarya (1909 – 1910), at the St. Sofia Basilica (1910 – 1911), in Kabyle (1912). Between 1912 and 1918, he made trips in the regions of Thrace, the Rhodope Mountains, and Macedonia where he documented the monuments of culture in detailed diaries,” the Museum adds.

“In Sofia, Filov’s name is connected with the research of the 4th century AD St. George Rotunda and the medieval Boyana Church but, most of all, with his excavations in the eastern necropolis of the Ancient Roman city of Serdica, in the area underneath the St. Sofia Basilica and around it,” the Museum elaborates.

“There, he exposed a total of 34 Antiquity arched tombs and masonry graves, two of them decorated with murals (today one of them has been exhibited in situ in the underground museum of the St. Sofia Basilica and is accessible for visitors),” the Museum says.

Filov found out that at least two temples existed on the spot before the St. Sofia Basilica, and documented their mosaic floors.

As a result of his excavations, in 1912, the Bulgarian authorities decided to restore the 4th century AD St. Sofia Basilica; the restoration began in 1914.

The results from Filov’s excavations of the St. Sofia Basilica – the temple that is believed to have given its name to the city of Sofia (previously known as Serdica or Sredets) in the Middle Ages – were published in 1913 in a case study, a book that is considered a valuable antique edition by modern-day collectors.

Learn more about some of the archaeological sites excavated by Bogdan Filov in the Background Infonotes below!

Background Infonotes:

The St. Sofia Basilica is located in the downtown of the Bulgarian capital Sofia, and is said to be the oldest functioning church in Europe. It is a cross basilica with three altars featuring Early Christian ornamental or flora and fauna-themed floor mosaics. It was first built in the 4th century AD on the site of several earlier places of worship, which was also the site of the necropolis of the Ancient Thracian and Roman city of Serdica, even though it was rebuilt in the 6th century into its current form.

This is believed to be the fifth structure built on the site. Its last reconstruction was during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (r. 527-565 AD), which makes it a contemporary of the Hagia Sophia Chruch in Constantinople, today’s Istanbul. The St. Sofia Basilica is also famous for hosting the Early Christian Council of Serdica, probably held in 343 AD, and attended by 316 bishops.

During the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD), it gained the status of a metropolitan church, and in the 14th century it gave its name to the city which had been known by its Slavic-Bulgarian name of Sredets. In the 16th century, after Bulgaria’s conquest by the Ottoman Turks, the St. Sofia Basilica was turned into a mosque with the destruction of the 12th century murals and the addition of minarets.

However, two earthquakes destroyed one of the minarets in the 19th century, and the mosque was abandoned. It has been restored since 1900. In 2013, the ancient necropolis and tombs underneath the St. Sofia Basilica, some of which have murals, were turned into an underground museum open for visitors. It includes the Tomb of Honorius, a citizen of Serdica buried at the end of the 5th or the beginning of the 6th century.

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The Boyana Church “St. Nikola and St. Panteleimon” (St. Pantaleon) is a medieval / Early Renaissance Bulgarian church located in today’s Boyana, a suburb of the Bulgarian capital Sofia. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979. It is a two-storey tomb church, with the lower storey designed as a crypt (tomb), and the upper storey – as a chappel for the family of the local feudal lord.

The earliest construction of the Boyana Church took place at the end of the 10th and the beginning of the 11th century AD when a small one-apse cross dome church was erected. It was expanded in the 13th century when it was turned into a two-storey family tomb church by the local feudal lord, Sebastokrator Kaloyan, ruler of Sredets (today’s Sofia, known as Serdica in the Antiquity period), and his wife, Sebastokratoritsa Desislava, as testified by a donor‘s inscription in the church from 1259 AD. (Sebastokrator (pronounced sevastokrator) was a senior court title in the late Byzantine Empire and in the Bulgarian Empire. It comes from “sebastos” (“venerable“, the Greek equivalent of the Latin “Augustus”) and “kratоr” (“ruler“). The wife of a sebastokrator was named sebastokratorissa in Greek and sevastokratitsa in Bulgarian.)

A second expansion dates back to the mid 19th century, during Bulgaria’s National Revival period, when residents of the then village of Boyana funded further construction. After Bulgaria’s National Liberation from the Ottoman Empire in 1878, local residents wanted to tear down the Boyana Church in order to build a bigger one in its place but was saved by Bulgaria’s Tsaritsa-Consort Eleonore (1860-1917), the second wife of Bulgarian Tsar Ferdinand (r. 1887-1918).

The unique murals of the Boyana Church also date back to different periods. The oldest layer is from the 11th-12th century, while the 240 most valuable mural depictions from the second layer date back to 1259 AD. There are also murals from the 14th century, the 16th-17th century, and 1882. The world famous murals from 1259 AD, which have been described by many scholars as Early Renaissnace or precursors of Renaissance Art, are the work of the unknown Boyana Master and his disciples who are believed to have been representatives of the Tarnovo Art School in the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD).

They have sometimes been described as belonging to the tradition of the so called Byzantine Palaiologos (Palaeologus or Palaeologue) Renaissence. In addition to the many biblical scenes, the murals at the Boyana Church feature depictions of Sebastokrator Kaloyan and Sebastokratoritsa Desislava as donors, as well as of Bulgarian Tsar Konstantin Asen Tih (r. 1257-1277 AD) and his wife, Tsaritrsa Irina. Two other small churches preserved in today’s Sofia are also attributed to the donorship of Sebastokrator Kaloyan. The frescoes of the Boyana Church were restored several times between 1912 and 2006. The Boyana Church was first opened for visitors as a museum in 1977.

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The Mezek Thracian Tomb is located near the Mezek (Neoutzikon) Fortress in Mezek, Bulgaria. It dates to the 4th century BC. It consists of a round burial chamber shaped as a beehive and containing a stone sarcophagus, two rectangular antechambers, and a covered 20-meter passage. With a combined length of 32 meters, it is said to be the longest tomb on the Balkan Peninsula.

The archaeologists have found traces of six burials of Ancient Thracian aristocrats in the Mezek Tomb whose inventory included gold, silver, bronze, iron, glass, and pottery artifacts that are now part of the collection of the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia. Another smaller Thracian tomb badly damaged by treasure hunters is located under Mount Sheynovets, the so called Sheynovets Tomb. The Mezek Tomb was first discovered in 1908 when a local man found a life-size sculpture of a wild board weighing 177 kg.

Today the find is kept at the Archaeology Museum in Istanbul, Turkey, since in 1908 the region of Mezek was still part of the Ottoman Empire. A replica of the Ancient Thracian boar sculpture is exhibited at the Haskovo Regional Museum of History. The Mezek Thracian Tomb itself was discovered by accident in 1931, and was excavated the same year by Bulgarian archaeologists Prof. Bogdan Filov and Prof. Ivan Velkov.

The Mezek Tomb is one of the largest Mycenae-style Thracian tombs in Bulgaria. It is covered with a burial mound measuring 15 meters in height and 90 meters in diameter. The archaeologists believe that the Mezek Tomb was used as a heroon – a shrine dedicated to a Thracian, Greek, or Roman hero, and used for his cult worship.

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The Ancient Thracian city of Kabyle is an Archaeological Preserve located 10 km away for the southeastern Bulgarian city of Yambol. The city of Kabyle was founded at the end of the 2nd millenium BC, and was one of the most important cities of Ancient Thrace. In fact, it is believed to have been one of the royal residences of the kings from the Odryssian Kingdom, the most powerful state of the Ancient Thracians. In 341 BC, Kabyle was conquered by King Philip II of Macedon. The Ancient Thracian city is mentioned by 14 ancient authors, the first of whom describes its conquest by Philip II of Macedon.

After the collapse of Alexander the Great’s empire, in the 3rd century BC, Kabyle was ruled once again by the Ancient Thracians. It was conquered by the Roman Empire in 71 BC, and was later incorporated into the Roman province of Thracia (Thrace). It was an important regional center in the Late Antiquity as well. The city of Kabyle was modeled after the Ancient Greek cities at the time. It boasts a stone acropolis with a unique rock relief of the ancient goddess of Cybele, a protector of the city. In the 4th century AD, Kabyle was conquered by the Goths, and was later destroyed for good by the Avars.

Kabyle is located on the southeastern slope of a tall hill known as Zaychi Vrah (“Rabbit’s Mount”) at a curve of the Tundzha River, with a rock acropolis shrine on the hill’s top. It stood at the crossroads of several major ancient roads, and the fact there is no modern-day settlement built on top of it makes the Ancient Thracian city a fruitful place for archaeological research and cultural tourism.

Kabyle was declared an archaeological site by the Bulgarian authorities in 1927; in 1969, it was granted the status of a monument of culture of national importance, and a national archaeological preserve, and in 1979, it was made part of a nature preserve. The Kabyle Archaeological Reserve has a territory of 650 decares (160 acres). It features ancient structures such as the agora (a central square), Roman barracks, Roman thermae, a bishop’s basilica, among others. Kabyle is excavated every year by archaeological teams from Bulgaria and abroad.

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