Unknown 14th Century Church Containing Hoard of Bronze Engolpion Crosses Discovered in Trapesitsa Fortress in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo
A previously unknown church from the 14th century containing a hidden hoard of bronze engolpion crosses and other Christian artifacts have been discovered during archaeological excavations in the Trapesitsa Hill Fortress, one of the citadels of medieval Tarnovgrad, today’s Veliko Tarnovo in Central North Bulgaria, which was the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396/1422).
Engolpions (or encolpions) are religious artifacts, usually in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, worn upon the bosom with inside containers for keeping holy relics.
Togehter with the neighboring Tsarevets Hill Fortress, the party recently restored Trapesitsa Hill Fortress was one of the two main citadels of the medieval city of Tarnovgrad, the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396/1422) for 208 years (until 1393 when it was conquered by the invading Ottoman Turks).
Of the two citadels of Tarvnograd, the Tsarevets Fortress has been researched more, was restored partly between 1930 and 1980, and presently ranks number one among Bulgaria’s cultural tourism landmarks.
Most of the Trapesitsa Fortress, on the other hand, is yet to be researched by the archaeologists, and the archaeological restorations there have been small compared with those on the neighboring Tsarevets Hill.
The latest archaeological excavations in the southern section of the Trapesitsa Hill Fortress have resumed previous research in the same sector led by Assoc. Prof. Deyan Rabovyanov from the Veliko Tarnovo Office of Bulgaria’s National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia.
The archaeological team have excavated in full a total area of 130 square meters (app. 1,400 square feet) in the northwestern section of the residential quarter located there which dates back to the second half of the 14th century.
The digs have resulted in the unearthing of a 20-meter (appr. 60 feet) long section from a medieval street and a medieval building with an area of 70 square meters (app. 750 square feet) which had a total of two rooms.
Underneath the said building, the archaeologists have found earlier medieval pits, a dugout and ruins from other buildings from earlier periods of the Second Bulgarian Empire (12th – 14th century), and ruins from the Early Iron Age.
The major discovery of the 2017 excavations in the Trapesitsa Fortress of Bulgaria’s late medieval capital Tarnovgrad, however, has been the finding of a previously unknown church from the 14th century.
The church is located to the north of the newly excavated street. It was 12 meters (appr. 40 feet) long, and 6.2 meters (appr. 20 feet) wide. It is a one-nave, one-apse church with an architectural design that was typical of Bulgarian and Byzantine (Easter Orthodox) churches of the period.
The newly discovered 14th century church from the Trapesitsa Fortress in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo was decorated with murals on the inside, whereas on the outside it had a decoration of ceramic bowls.
The archaeologists have found that during its existence in the 14th century century, the church was restructured once.
Underneath the church, the archaeological team has identified a number of medieval graves. The researchers believe that more graves are to be found in what were church yards situated to north and east of the building.
The most interesting find inside the late medieval church in the Trapesitsa Hill in Veliko Tarnovo, however, has been a hoard of Christian art artifacts, including nine fully or partly preserved bronze engolpion crosses, i.e. crosses with containers for holy relics.
The bronze crosses have been hidden behind the preserved base of what was the altar table of the 14th century church.
According to the archaeological team, these “monuments of Christian art [were] laid [there] in their capacity of relics generating holiness”.
The altar table of newly discovered 14th century church in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo was supported by a base that was 1 meters (3.3 feet) long and 0.9 (3 feet) wide made of clay and was covered with plaster.
“The practice of using masonry columns for altar tables, decorated with murals and covered with slightly wider stone table tops is known from church building in the Balkans and the Byzantine Empire in the 12th – 14th century,” the archaeologists say.
“The base of the altar table touching the apse arch formed small room where a whole number of Christian artifacts were discovered buried,” they add.
In addition to the nine fully or partly preserved bronze engolpion crosses, the archaeologists have also found behind the church’s altar table parts of one bronze procession cross and one iron procession cross, part of a lead “eulogy” icon, decorated copper casing, and an icon of Archangel Gabriel made of soapstone (steatite) which still bears traces of its original decoration with gold gilding and red paint.
The bronze engolpion crosses, the soapstone icon, and the lead “eulogy” icon discovered in the latest excavations in the Trapesitsa Fortress from the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire Tarnovgrad have been showcased for the first time in the 2017 Bulgarian Archaeology exhibition in Sofia.
“[These artifacts] reflect the significance that this parish temple had for the inhabitants of the residential quarters in the southern part of the Trapesitsa [Fortress],” the archaeologists say with respect
“They also give [us] an idea of the religious wealth kept in the temples of the capital [of the Second Bulgarian Empire] Tarnovgrad,” they explain.
In 2015, a 3D model of a late medieval residential quarter from the Trapesitsa Fortress was produced based on the research of archaeologist Deyan Rabovyanov.
A 3D model showing what the neighboring other citadel of Tarnovgrad, the Tsarevets Fortress, looked like, was produced in 2016.
The Trapesitsa Hill is one of two main fortified historic hills in the medieval city of Tarnovgrad, today’s Veliko Tarnovo, in Central Northern Bulgaria, the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire between 1185 and 1396 AD. Together with the Tsarevets Hill, Trapesitsa was one of the two fortresses of the inner city acropolis of Tarnovgrad (Veliko Tarnovo). The Trapesitsa Hill is a natural fortress on the right bank of the Yantra River, and is surrounded by it on three sides. It is located northwest of the Tsarevets Hill. The Trapesitsa Fortress had four gates, the main one being its southern gate, which was also connected with the Tsarevets Fortress with a bridge across the Yantra River. There are two hypotheses about Trapesitsa’s name. The first one is that it comes from the Bulgarian word “trapeza” meaning a “table” or “repast”, possibly referring to the receptions of the medieval Bulgarian Tsars; the second hypothesis is that the word comes from “trapezium” because the hill is in fact is a trapezoidal plateau.
The first archaeological excavations on the Trapesitsa Hill Fortress in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo between 1884 and 1900 revealed the foundations of 17 medieval Bulgarian churches with fragments of rich murals, colorful mosaics, and beautiful floor tiles. The documented artifacts discovered there include crosses, necklaces, coins, rings, earrings, vessels. The churches on Trapesitsa were richly decorated with various architectural forms such as pilasters, niches, blind arches, colored slabs, among others.
The largest preserved church on the Trapesitsa Hill known as “Church No. 8″ is named after the 10th century AD Bulgarian saint, St. Ivan Rilski (St. John of Rila) (876-946 AD); it was surrounded with other buildings which are believed to have been part of a monastery complex. It is known that in 1195 AD, Bulgaria’s Tsar Asen I (r. 1189-1196 AD) transported the relics of St. Ivan Rilski from the city of Sredets (today’s Sofia) to Tarnovgrad (today’s Veliko Tarnovo), and had them placed in the specially constructed church on the Trapesitsa Hill. The Bulgarian archaeologists believe that a room in the southern part of Church No. 8 was the reliquary for St. Ivan Rilski’s relics. The relics of St. Ivan Rilski (St. John of Rila), who is Bulgaria’s patron saint, were kept in Veliko Tarnovo until 1469 AD when they were transported to the Rila Monastery where they are kept to this day in what became a major event for the Bulgarians during the early period of the Ottoman Yoke (1396-1878/1912), as the Second Bulgarian Empire had been conquered by the invading Ottoman Turks in 1396 AD.
The numerous and richly decorated small churches indicate that the Trapesitsa Hill harbored the homes of the medieval Bulgarian nobility, the boyars, and the supreme clergy. More recent excavations, however, also indicate that the imperial palace of the early Bulgarian Tsars from the House of Asen (the Asen Dynasty, r. 1185-1257 AD) was in fact located on the Trapesitsa Hill, and the imperial seat was possibly moved to the nearby Tsarevets Hill only later, during the reign of Tsar Ivan Asen II (r. 1218-1241 AD). In the recent years, the Trapesitsa Hill has been excavated by Prof. Konstantin Totev from the Veliko Tarnovo Branch of the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, and by Prof. Hitko Vatchev from the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History.
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