Archaeologists Find 4th Century Early Christian Monastery on Top of Thracian Horseman Shrine near Bulgaria’s Dragoynovo

The floor of the chapel at the newly discovered Early Christian monastery near Bulgaria’s Dragoynovo is decorated with crosses, which is a rarity since the holy symbol was not to be stepped on in the Early Christian times. Photo: archaeologist Ivo Topalilov

One of the oldest known Early Christian monasteries in the region of the Rhodope Mountains in Southern Bulgaria has been discovered by archaeologists on top of an Ancient Thracian deity’s shrine near the town of Dragoynovo, Plovdiv District.

The archaeological site at the foot of Mount Dragoyna in the northern part of the Rhodope Mountains, in Parvomay Municipality, existed from the mid-3rd century AD until the end of the 6th century AD.

At first, it was a shrine dedicated to the Thracian Horseman (or Thracian Rider), the supreme deity of the Ancient Thracians, the archaeologists have found.

The area of Mount Dragoyna and the town of Dragoynovo in Bulgaria’s Rhodope Mountains is known for its rich archaeological heritage, with an Ancient Thracian fortress with a necropolis excavated on the mount, and a Late Antiquity and medieval fortress known as Hisar also located nearby.

The Early Christian Monastery on top of the Thracian shrine has been discovered by an archaeological team from Shumen University “Bishop Konstantin Preslavski" (“Constantine of Preslav") led by Assoc. Prof. Ivo Topalilov, reports the Monitor daily.

The team including a total of 12 archaeology students from Shumen University as volunteers has exposed a three-nave basilica with a chapel, and a building adjacent to them, part of what is believed to have been one of the first Early Christian monastery complexes in the Rhodopes and the regime of Thrace (the Roman province of Thracia).

The chapel is especially notable because the tiles that pave its floor are decorated with crosses. That is said to be very rare because stepping on holy symbols was not acceptable at the time of the Early Christians.

“This is an archaeological site whose existence began in the middle of the 3rd century and continued until the very end of the Late Antiquity, i.e. the end of the 6th century. During that period, at first here existed a pagan shrine dedicated to the Thracian Horseman, on top of which an Early Christian monastery was built at the end of the 4th century AD," Topalilov explains.

“At the end of the 6th century, the entire complex was destroyed during one of the invasions of the Slavs and Avars, and subsequently only the church was rebuilt," he adds.

“As time went by, the church collapsed, but in the Middle Ages the site was also partly in use because in the 11th – 12th century a different monastery existed on the nearby hill," the archaeologist elaborates.

The site of the newly identified Early Christian monastery near Mount Dragoyna in Bulgaria’s Rhodope Mountains was at first a pagan shrine dedicated to the Thracian Horseman. Photos: archaeologist Ivo Topalilov

In the 1920s, renowned Bulgarian archaeologist Ivan Velkov explored the area of Mount Dragoyna in Bulgaria’s Parvomay Municipality, and documented the ruins of a large Ancient Thracian settlement.

Even though Topalilov’s team set out in search for the settlement in question, they failed to find it at the research spot. Instead, they came across the ruins of the Early Christian monastery from the Late Roman / Early Byzantine period.

“In [the region of] Thrace, there are several Early Christian monasteries, and ours [could be] the earliest of them… In the first decades of the 5th century AD, Paulinus of Nola (ca. 354 – 431 AD) wrote that the monasteries in the Rhodope Mountains were located at the foot of the mountain. It is possible that the monastery uncovered near the town of Dragoynovo was one of them," the lead archaeologist hypothesizes.

“Every single find [artifact] is valuable for us, all the more so since at the end of the 6th century, when the barbarians came, the [local] people fled, the population hid in the fortress on the nearby hill, and now [we] the archaeologists are finding what the refugees left behind, and the treasure hunters didn’t find before us," Topalilov elaborates.

“Discovering a three-nave basilica with a chapel which is especially rarer given the fact that its floor tiles are decorated with crosses – that is the most satisfying thing to me," the archaeologist concludes.

The July 2018 excavations at the foot of Mount Dragoyna carried out by his team have been funded by Bulgaria’s Parvomay Municipality, with additional logistical support by Mayor Angel Papazov.

The area of Mount Dragoyna in Southern Bulgaria boasts a rich archaeological heritage including one of the largest known Thracian fortresses. Photo: archaeologist Ivo Topalilov

The Thracian fortress on Mount Dragoyna is one of the largest Ancient Thracian fortresses ever discovered.

Mount Dragoyna itself is not very tall – it towers at a height of 813 meters; however, because it is located in the middle of the Upper Thracian Plain, it has a diameter of visibility reaching over 100 km – from the city of Plovdiv to the west to the city of Haskovo in the east, and from the town of Chirpan to the north to the Rhodope Mountains in the south.

The Ancient Thracian fortress on Mount Dragoyna was inhabited from ca. 1,600 BC until ca. 300 BC. It represents the earlier periods of Thracian history when the Thracians interacted actively with Ancient Greece and the peoples of Ancient Anatolia.

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