Early Christian Bishop’s Residence, Reliquary Cross with Crucified Jesus Christ Found in Bulgaria’s Rock City Perperikon

Early Christian Bishop’s Residence, Reliquary Cross with Crucified Jesus Christ Found in Bulgaria’s Rock City Perperikon

The newly discovered medieval bronze relquary cross from Bulgaria’s Perperikon depicts the crucified Jesus Christ and the faces of the Four Evangelists – Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. Photo: BGNES

An Early Christian bishop’s residence from the 5th century AD and a bronze engolpion cross depicting the crucified Jesus Christ have been discovered, among numerous other finds, by the archaeologists excavating the ancient rock city of Perperikon in Bulgaria’s Eastern Rhodope Mountains.

A total of 130 artifacts have been found in the 2018 archaeological excavations in the southern parts of Perperikon, also known as Perperik or Perperek, which began on June 25, lead archaeologist Assoc. Prof. Nikolay Ovcharov has announced.

As an archaeological site, Perperikon is an 8,000-year-old prehistoric megalithic shrine of an advanced unnamed prehistoric civilization, which was later built upon by the Thracians, the Romans, the Byzantines, and the medieval Bulgarian Empire, and was destroyed as a city and fortress by the invading Ottoman Turks in the 14th century.

Two years ago, back in 2016, Ovcharov announced the discovery in the rock city of Perperikon of what might have been the largest Early Christian temple in Bulgaria’s Eastern Rhodope Mountains, and the subsequent discovery of a senior clergyman’s tomb.

His team has unearthed the well-preserved ruins of a 22-meter-long basilica with two floors which the archaeologist says was no doubt a bishop’s residence.

“We think this is one of the first [Early Christian] bishop’s residences [in the region] dating to the beginning of the 5th century AD,” Ovcharov has said at a news conference in Sofia, as cited by BGNES.

“The better part of [Perperikon’s] administrative and religious activities at the time were [likely] carried out there. Perperkon has demonstrated once again that it is an encyclopedia on the development of Early Christianity,” the archaeologist elaborates.

In his words, the beginning of the 5th century AD was the time when part of the population of the local Ancient Thracian tribes in the Eastern Rhodopes was converted to Christianity in what then was early Byzantium, i.e. the Eastern Roman Empire.

An aerial view of the ruins of the prehistoric, ancient, and medieval rock city of Perperikon in Southern Bulgaria. Photo: BNT

The newly discovered Early Christian bishop’s residence in Perperikon is located near what is believed to have been the earliest church in the Eastern Rhodope Mountains.

“This is one of the earliest ensembles [of religious Christian buildings] in all of Early Christian Europe,” Ovcharov argues.

“The conclusion that [these buildings] date to the early decades of the 5th century AD [means] that the church was connected with the mission to Christianize the Thracians from the Rhodope Mountains described by a great Christian cleric at the time, Paulinus of Nola (ca. 354 – 431 AD),” the archaeologist adds.

The mission to convert the Rhodope Thracians to Christianity has also been connected with another recent discovery in Bulgaria, that of a 4th – 5th century AD Early Christian monastery near Mount Dragoyna and the town of Dragoynovo, Plovdiv District, on the northern edges of the Rhodope Mountains.

According to Ovcharov, the discovery of the 5th century bishop’s residence in the rock city of Perperikon in Southern Bulgaria is also significant because so far only two other bishop’s residences from the same time period have been discovered, and both of those are located in Northern Bulgaria, in two Danube cities established in the Roman Era, Novae, today’s Svishtov, and Durostorum, today’s Silistra. Both of those, however, actually date to the second half of the 5th century AD.

“A testimony the Perperikon basilica [was built] in an earlier period is the fact that the buildings here are not so luxurious, and subsequently, because of the administrative needs [they were also used for], they were expanded,” the archaeologist elaborates.

The newly discovered reliquary cross alongside other ancient and medieval artifacts found in Perperikon in the ongoing digs. Photo: BGNES

He has revealed that a total of over 130 artifacts have been found by his team during the 2018 archaeological excavations in the rock city of Perperikon so far.

The most impressive and intriguing of these finds is a bronze engolpion, i.e. reliquary cross whose front depicts the crucified Jesus Christ as well as the faces of the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Engolpions (or encolpions) are religious artifacts, usually in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, worn upon the bosom with inside containers for keeping holy relics. A large number of engolpion crosses was discovered in 2017 in the Trapesitsa Hill Fortress in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo.

The bronze engolpion cross featuring the crucified Jesus Christ and the evangelists is dated to the High Middle Ages, the 10th – 12th century AD.

“No doubt the masterpiece, the best thing that we have found so far [this year] is this wonderful reliquary cross,” Ovcharov says.

“It was worn for more than one hundred years. Inside it were kept relics from a saint who remains unknown for the time being. Christ and the four evangelists are depicted in its center. You can see for yourselves how their faces were worn off because the cross was worn for a long time,” the archaeologist explains.

His team has found only the front half of the medieval bronze reliquary cross, however.

“There was also a back half but it was probably lost some time at the end of the 12th or the beginning of the 13th century,” he adds.

“These [reliquary or engolpion] crosses appeared in the 9th – 10th century. They are also called “Palestinian” [crosses] because of the relics kept inside them. In the 19 years of archaeological excavations in Perperikon so far, we have discovered over 40 such reliquary crosses, most of them are made of bronze or silver. That is definitive evidence that Christianity was well rooted in this place,” Ovcharov points out.

Other artifacts discovered in the current excavations of the southern quarter of Perperikon include dozens of Byzantine coins from the 10th – 11th century, a fibula from the 4th century AD, and children’s glass bracelets from the 13th – 14th century.

Archaeologist Nikolay Ovcharov shows the medieval reliquary cross and blueprints of the discovered Early Christian buildings. Photos: BGNES

Archaeologist Nikolay Ovcharov has also revealed that the discoveries in the rock city near Bulgaria’s Kardzhali that have been made since regular excavations began back in 2000 will be presented volume 1 of a book entitled “The Acropolis of Perperikon”.

“In the book, we are going to present a comprehensive view of Perperikon’s acropolis from the 2nd – 3rd century AD until the 14th century when the city fell under the attacks of the Ottoman conquerors following a severe siege,” the archaeologist reveals.

The 2018 archaeological excavations in the rock city in the Eastern Rhodope Mountains are set to continue until the end of September.

Background Infonotes:

Perperikon (also called Perperek or Perperik) is an ancient rock city located in the Rhodope Mountains in Southern Bulgaria, 15 km away from the city of Kardzhali.

It is a large-scale archaeological complex including historical monuments from different ages. Those include a megalithic shrine dating back to the Neolithic Age, the 6th millennium BC, a Bronze Age settlement, and a holy rock city established by the Ancient Thracians later taken over by the Romans, Goths, and Byzantines, respectively.

In the Middle Ages, especially during the time of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD), it was the site of a strong fortress and a royal palace that Bulgaria and Byzantium fought over numerous times.

Perperikon has been excavated since 2000 by Bulgarian archaeologist Nikolay Ovcharov who has found evidence that the mythical ancient Temple of Dionysius was located there. The rock city and fortress at Perperikon, not unlike the vast majority of the medieval Bulgarian fortresses, were destroyed by the invading Ottoman Turks in the 14th century.


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