Archaeologists Discover Residence of Early Christian Bishop of Ancient Roman City Pautalia in Bulgaria’s Kyustendil

The ruins of what seems to have been the residence of the Early Christian bishop of the Roman city of Pautalia have been unearthed in Bulgaria’s Kyustendil. Photo: Bulgarian National Radio

Archaeologists in the city of Kyustendil in Western Bulgaria have unearthed a Late Antiquity / Late Roman building which is believed to have been the residence of the Early Christian bishop of the large Ancient Roman city of Pautalia.

The predecessor of today’s Bulgarian city of Kyustendil, Pautalia, originally an Ancient Thracian settlement known for its mineral water springs, was an important Roman, and then Early Byzantine city.

In the Middle Ages, during the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680 – 1018) and Second Bulgarian Empire (1185 – 1396/1422), it was also a major city known as Velbazhd.

While Roman Era Pautalia had a much larger fortified area, in the Early Byzantine period, a smaller fortress was constructed on the Hisarlaka Hill towering above what is today Kyustendil (the Pautalia – Hisarlaka – Velbazhd Fortress).

Pautalia was initially part of the Roman province of Thracia (Thrace) but after the administrative reform it became part of the province of Dacia Mediterranea, and was the third largest city in it, after Serdica (today’s Bulgarian capital Sofia) and Naissus (today’s Nis in Serbia).

The large building which is believed to have been the residence of the Early Christian bishop of Pautalia has been discovered during rescue excavations near Kyustendil’s Art Gallery “Vladimir Dimitrov Maystora", the Bulgarian National Television reports.

The archaeological structure was first stumbled upon by construction workers remodeling the gallery’s park.

Its original construction is dated to the 2nd – 3rd century AD, and the building has not been exposed in full yet. However, it is estimated to have an all-out area of no less than 1 decare (0.25 acres).

“This architectural complex is really impressive with its scope, with the grandiosity of its monumental construction," says lead archaeologist Rumen Spasov from the Kyustendil Regional Museum of History.

Lead archaeologist Rumen Spasov shows the exposed Ancient Roman structures from Pautalia in Bulgaria’s Kyustendil. Photos: TV grabs from the Bulgarian National Television

In addition to the scope and parameters of the large Roman building, the hypothesis that it housed the residence of Pautalia’s Early Christian bishop is also based on the fact that it is located one block away from Pautalia’s bishop’s basilica discovered during previous excavations.

Part of the foundations and the colonnade of the bishop’s residence have survived. The archaeologists have also found a floor mosaic.

The lead researcher notes the urban planning of the Roman city – it was divided in small quarters of about 900 square meters each (nearly 10,000 square feet).

“Some of them, however, were double, i.e. app. 1,800 – 2,000 square meters (appr. 20,000 square feet). These were the plots on which buildings were erected. Of course, the largest plots were set aside for public buildings," lead archaeologist Spasov says.

“The earliest traces of [civilized human] life in this place, today’s Kyustendil, date back to ca. 4,000 BC," he adds.

The residence of the Early Christian bishop of the Roman city of Pautalia in Bulgaria’s Kyustendil has been discovered during construction works for the remodeling of the city’s art gallery park. Photos: TV grabs from the Bulgarian National Television

His team and local activists hope that the newly exposed Late Roman / Early Christian bishop’s residents and other archaeological structures discovered earlier could be exhibited in situ and built into the remodeling of the park of Kyustendil’s art gallery.

For that to be done, they will have to acquire a permission from Bulgaria’s Ministry of Culture and to raise additional funding.

This development is likely to occur sooner rather than later as the deadline for completing the park project is September 7, 2018.

Learn more about the Ancient Thracian, Roman, and Byzantine city of Pautalia and the medieval Bulgarian city of Velbazhd in the Background Infonotes below!

This file photo shows what the art gallery park square in Bulgaria’s Kyustendil looked like before the Roman building underneath was exposed. Photo: Kyustendil Municipality

Background Infonotes:

The earliest traces of civilized human life on the territory of today’s city of Kyustendil in Western Bulgaria date back to ca. 4,000 BC.

In the 5th – 4th century BC, Ancient Thracians from the tribe of the Dentheletae established a settlement there, likely because of its mineral water springs and the water’s healing qualities.

The name of the settlement, Pautalia, is believed to be of Thracian origin, and its meaning is believed to be connected with the word “springs". The name was first mentioned in ancient sources in the 2nd century AD, and last in 553 AD. It figures on Tabula Peutingeriana (“The Peutinger Map”), and was mentioned by a number of the Late Antiquity chroniclers.

In the 1st – 2nd century AD, the Roman Empire, which had conquered all of Ancient Thrace south of the Danube by 46 AD, turned Pautalia into a major fortress as well as spa resort.

Pautalia was also known as Ulpia Pautalia, after Roman Emperor Trajan (r. 98 – 117 AD) whose full name was Marcus Ulpius Traianus, who granted it a city status in 106 AD.

Pautalia, the Antiquity predecessor of today’s Bulgarian city of Kyustendil, grew as an urban center especially during the reigns of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (r. 161 – 180 AD) and Emperor Commodus (r. 177 – 192 AD). It minted its own coins from the reign of Emperor Antonius Pius (r. 138 – 161 AD) until the reign of Emperor Caracalla (r. 198 – 217 AD).

Until 270 AD, Pautalia was part of the Roman province of Thracia (Thrace), following the reform of Emperor Aurelian (r. 270-275 AD), it was part of the province of Dacia Mediterranea, and the third largest city in the province after its capital Serdica (today’s Bulgarian capital Sofia) and Naissus (today’s Nis in Serbia).

The Roman fortress wall of Pautalia was built of granite blocks and bricks. The Pautalia Fortress was peculiar because its wall consisted of a sturdy façade backed up with pillars and arches from behind.

This made the top of the fortress wall up to 2.5 meters (8 feet) wide, which allowed the deployment of small catapults there. This construction technique for expanding the area of the fortress wall top is said to have been copied by some Roman builders from the Ancient Greeks.

The Ancient Thracian – Roman city of Pautalia was known for its asclepion, a shrine dedicated to medicine god Asclepius.

The fortified area of the Roman fortress of Pautalia in the 2nd – 4th century is estimated to have been over 29 hectares (appr. 72 acres).

In the Late Antiquity (4th – 6th century AD), a second, smaller fortress was erected in Pautalia, on the Hisarlaka Hill towering above today’s city of Kyustendil. This fortress encompassed an area of 2 hectares (5 acres).

The Late Antiquity Pautalia – Hisarlaka Fortress was erected in the second half of the 4th century AD, and rebuilt after the barbarian invasions of the Huns and others in the 5th and 6th century AD, in the Early Byzantine period. The most substantial reconstruction was carried out during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527 – 565 AD).

In the Middle Ages, after the region of today’s Kyustendil became part of the First Bulgarian Empire in the 9th century, Paulalia was transformed in the medieval Bulgarian city of Velbazhd.

The city of Velbazhd was mentioned in 1019, the year after Byzantium conquered the First Bulgarian Empire in a certificate issued by Byzantine Emperor Basil II the Bulgar Slayer (r. 976 – 1025) as a center of a bishopric within the Ohrid Archibishopric, a successor to the Bulgarian Patriarchate.

The Velbazhd Fortress was also a major Bulgarian city in the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185 – 1396/1422). In the Late Middle Ages, the forces of Bulgaria’s Tsar Mihail III Shishman (r. 1323-1330) (also known as Mihail Asen III), were surprised and defeated by Serbia in the Battle of Velbazhd in 1330.

Tsar Mihail III Shishman is speculated to have been buried in the 10th – 11th century medieval church “St. George", today in Kyustendil’s Kolusha Quarter (Kolusha was formerly a small town absorbed by Kyustendil in 1939).

There are hypotheses that the city of Valbazhd renaming to Kyustendil had something to do with the name of Kostantin Dragash (also known as Konstantin Deyan), a feudal lord who ruled the Despotate of Velbazhd in the late 14th century, before it was conquered by the Ottoman Turks.

The smaller Late Antiquity fortress of Pautalia – Hisarlaka, later Velbazhd and Kyustendil, had a total of 14 rectangular, triangular, and round fortress towers, two gates, and five posterns (secondary gates).

The width of the fortress wall varies, depending on the terrain, it ranges from 1.6 (over 5 feet) to 3 meters (15 feet). The wall is believed to have towered at a height of 10 meters (32 feet), and the towers – 12 meters (39 feet).

The Late Antiquity and medieval fortress Pautalia – Hisarlaka – Velbazhd in Bulgaria’s Kyustendil has been a monument of culture of national importance, the highest status, since 1968.

In 2015, the Late Antiquity fortress was partly restored with EU funding in a project for the promotion of cultural tourism. However, the historical accuracy of the restoration has been criticized, and it has been mentioned by some critics among Bulgaria’s “botched" archaeological restorations, albeit not the most egregious of them.


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