A graphical reconstruction of the impressive Early Christian basilica of the Early Byzantine fortress Palmate in today’s Northeast Bulgaria. Photo: Archaeological Team / Tervel Municipality
The Palmate Fortress, a Late Antiquity and Early Byzantine city in today’s Northeast Bulgaria, was conquered and looted at least twice during the barbarian invasions of Avars and Slavs in the late 6th – early 7th century AD, archaeologists have revealed as they completed in full the excavations of Palmate’s huge Early Christian basilica.
The Late Antiquity and medieval fortress Palmate near the town of Onogur, Tervel Municipality, in Northeast Bulgaria, was excavated by archaeologists for the the first time ever during the 2016 summer archaeological season.
The Bulgarian researchers quickly discovered that Palmate boasted an especially impressive Early Christian basilica which was 58 meters (180 feet) long and 29 meters (90 feet) wide.
In 2018, three archaeological seasons later, the archaeological team led by Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov has completed the research of Palmate’s Early Christian basilica, Bulgaria’s Tervel Municipality has announced.
The excavations of the basilica and the adjacent archaeological structures have revealed in-depth information about the demise of the Early Byzantine city in the Late Antiquity and Early Middle Ages during the barbarian invasions of Avars and Slavs, and its partial rebirth during the time of the First Bulgarian Empire (632 – 1018).
Architectural details from the Early Christian basilica of the Palmate Fortress. Photos: Archaeological Team / Tervel Municipality
The archaeologist inform that Palmate grew at the time of Early Byzantium, after the division of the Roman Empire, on top of what originally was a settlement of the Getae (Gets), a powerful Ancient Thracian tribe that inhabited today’s Northern Bulgaria and much of Romania, which was later transformed into an Early Roman town.
The Late Antiquity city of Palmate was a large fortress with 20 towers, two gates on a road crossing the fortress, and a total fortified area of 220 decares (55 acres).
It also had residential quarters outside the fortress walls, and a fortified religious center in a nearby ridge called Shan Kaya (not to be confused with the rock shrine of Shan Kaya in the Rhodope Mountains in Southern Bulgaria), which became an Early Christian rock monastery at the time of Early Byzantium.
The two necropolises of the city of Palmate are located northwest and southeast of the fortress.
“The [city of Palmate] was an extremely important secular, religious, and administrative center located on the border between the Late Roman provinces of Moesia Secunda and Scythia Minor," the archaeological team points out, referring to the administrative reforms of Roman Emperor Diocletian (r. 284 – 305).
It notes that while most of the territory of the Early Byzantine city of Palmate was not affected by modern-day construction, part of it does fall under today’s town of Onogur, and other parts were affected by agricultural irrigation and the usage of the archaeological site as a stone quarry by the local population up until recently.
The impressive Early Christian cathedral of Palmate has been used as a quarry on and off since barbarians overran the Early Byzantine city in the 6th – 7th century AD. Photos: Archaeological Team / Tervel Municipality
The archaeological site of Palmate finally earned its deserved status with the beginning of the first full-fledged excavations there in 2016, the archaeologist say.
Even though only the foundations of the huge Early Christian basilica have been preserved, the research team has managed to recreate the way it looked.
“The archaeological research has succeeded in restoring not just the blueprint and the composition of the basilica but also important moments from the dramatic events that led to the destruction of the fortress of Palmate," the team says.
The Bulgarian archaeologists have established that Palmate was captured and pillaged at least twice, once at the end of the 6th century, and again at the beginning of the 7th century.
“That was when the Avars and the Kutrigurs (an Ancient Bulgar tribe) and Slavs dominated by them repeatedly ravaged the northern parts of the Byzantine Empire," the research team notes.
The results from the three seasons of excavations have revealed that after the first barbarian conquest of Palmate, Byzantine garrison and the surviving inhabitants divided the city in two parts, and abandoned the part that easier to attack.
“That was when the cathedral [basilica] underwent interior restructuring and was shaped into a bishop’s temple. The apse was narrowed by the nine-step synthronon," the archaeologist say.
They also emphasize the discovery of an altar table connected precisely with the said transformation of the Early Christian temple.
The Palmate Fortress in Northeast Bulgaria with its massive Early Christian temple has been officially excavated only since 2016. Photo: Archaeological Team / Tervel Municipality
“The emergency fortification changes did not rescue the [Palmate] fortress and it was once again conquered and looted by the Avars. Part of its defenders were slaughtered, and another part were exiled," the researchers explain.
“In their stead, new population of a different type settled the fortress, using the half-destroyed church as a quarry for construction material, and as a convenient place to live," they elaborate.
The newly emerged barbarian settlement in Palmate has been discovered to have been burned down shortly after that, and the Early Byzantine fortress laid abandoned for more than a century.
Life in the Early Byzantine fortress of Palmate was restarted at the time of the First Bulgarian Empire which gained today’s Northern Bulgaria after defeating Byzantium at the Ongal Battle in 680 AD.
Also check out this recent discovery story about the barbarian invasions of Avars and Slavs in the Byzantine Empire:
The Palmate Fortress (sometimes mistakenly referred to as “Palmatis") is a Late Antiquity Byzantine and medieval Bulgarian city and fortress located near the town of Onogur, Tervel Municipality, in Northeast Bulgaria. It lies at an almost equal distance from the Danube city of Silistra (ancient Durostorum / medieval Drastar) and Dobrich – nearly 50 km from each.
It is situated on a plateau with natural defenses provided by the bed of the Suhata Reka, (i.e. the Dry River) which surrounds it from the south, east, and north. The walls of the Palmate Fortress in the fourth directions are between 200 and 600 meters long. The fortress proper was surrounded with ramparts (embankments) with moats forming in fact an outer fortress wall.
During the Late Roman and Early Byzantine period, the Palmate Fortress was located on the ancient road from Durostorum (Durustorum), today’s Silistra on the Danube, to Marcianopolis (or Marcianople), today’s town of Devnya near the Black Sea city of Varna (ancient Odessos). Palmate was also a functioning fortress during the time of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018).
In the Late Antiquity (4th-6th century AD), near the Palmate Fortress, in an area called Shan Kaya (not to be confused with the rock shrine of Shan Kaya in the Rhodope Mountains in Southern Bulgaria), there was an Early Christian rock monastery which was part of a large Early Christian monastic colony centered in the rock monastery near the Bulgarian town of Balik, Krushari Municipality, Dobrich District (which is still known today by its derogatory and offensive Turkish name “Gaiour (Gavur) Evleri" meaning “Homes of the Infidels", as the original name of the holy place remains unknown).
The rock monastery in Shan Kaya near the Palmate Fortress was abandoned in the Early Middle Ages, i.e. during the barbarian invasions of Avars and Slavs in the 6th-7th century, but was restored after the First Bulgarian Empire adopted Christianity in 865 AD (i.e. in the 9th-10th century). It is has been hypothesized that in the Late Middle Ages, i.e. during the Second Bulgarian Empire, the monks from Shan Kaya might have relocated to other rock monasteries in Northeast Bulgaria such as those along the Rusenski Lom River.
The main gallery of the rock monastery near Palmate, which is 64 meters long, and connects numerous niches, has been preserved.
Few details are known about the Palmate Fortress since before the summer of 2016, it had only been explored with geophysical surveying, without archaeological excavations.
Today the small town of Onogur is populated by descendants of Tatars from the Crimean Peninsula who were settled in Northeast Bulgaria by Ottoman Turkey after the Russian-Turkish Wars of 1806-1812, 1828-1829, and 1853-1856 (i.e. the Crimean War), while hundreds of thousands of ethnic Bulgarians were fleeing the atrocities of the regular and irregular Ottoman troops for the then southwest of the Russian Empire. (Today the descendants of these refugees form the communities of the historic Bulgarian minorities in Ukraine and Moldova known as the Bessarabia Bulgarians and the Taurica (Crimean) Bulgarians).