Hellenistic Age Philipopolis Was Larger Than Known, Archaeologists Find in Eastern Gate Digs in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv

Hellenistic Age Philipopolis Was Larger Than Known, Archaeologists Find in Eastern Gate Digs in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv

Excavations in the western section of the Eastern Gate of ancient Philipopolis in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv have unexpectedly revealed Early Hellenistic Age layers pushing back the site’s history by several centuries, and revealing that Philipopolis grew as an urban center much earlier than thought. Photos: TV grabs from the Bulgarian National Television

The ancient city of Philipopolis, today’s Plovdiv in Central South Bulgaria, was larger than known back in the 4th century BC, i.e. at the start of the Hellenistic Age, archaeologists have discovered during ongoing digs at the city’s Eastern Gate.

The team led by archaeologist Maya Martinova from the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology, which has been excavating the Eastern Gate of Philipopolis, has discovered archaeological layers from the 4th century BC, the time of Philip II of Macedon and his son Alexander I the Great.

The Eastern Gate itself was built several centuries later, in the 2nd century AD, at a time when all of Ancient Thrace south of the Danube had been conquered by the Roman Empire for several decades.

The discovery of the Early Hellenistic Age layers at the site of the Eastern Gate of Philipopolis is substantial because it is the first piece of evidence so far that during that early period the city encompassed not just the so called “Three Hills”, its earliest settled territory, but had also spread already down into the plains around them.

In the Antiquity period, Plovdiv was known as Philipopolis as it was named after King Philip II of Macedon. After Ancient Thrace’s conquest by the Roman Empire in the 1st century AD, the Romans also called it Trimontium because of the three hills on which the ancient city was located.

Today’s Plovdiv is located on seven hills known as “tepeta” (from the Turkish word “tepe”, a leftover from the Ottoman period) but three of those – Nebet Tepe, Dzhambaz Tepe, and Taksim Tepe – were the site where the city first developed in the Antiquity, and going even as far back as the prehistoric periods.

Today the Three Hills are also the location of Plovdiv’s Old Town famous for its architecture from Bulgaria’s National Revival period (18th – 19th century).

The team of archaeologist Maya Martinova has come upon the unknown Hellenistic layers for the first time even though the area of the Eastern Gate of Philipopolis has been researched for some 40 years. Photos: TV grabs from the Bulgarian National Television

The discovery of the Hellenistic Age layers from the 4th century BC down in the plains around the Three Hills has in essence “rewritten” the history of Philipopolis / Plovdiv, according to the archaeologists.

“[We] have now proven categorically that the Hellenistic city developed not just up there on the Three Hills but also down in the plains, to the east of the Nebet Tepe Hill. That is a great contribution [to the study of the city’s history],” lead archaeologist Maya Martinova has told the Bulgarian National Television.

Other recent excavations from the area at the foot of the Three Hills have revealed that in the Roman period, i.e. after the 1st century AD, there were six luxury residential quarters there with a number of urban style public venues such as a temple for multiple deities, an inn with a tavern, and even a brothel resembling the Lupanar in Pompeii in Southern Italy.

These, however, developed 5 – 6 centuries after ancient Philipopolis had grown down into the plains, as indicated by the discovery of the Hellenistic archaeological layers at the site of its Eastern Gate.

They have been found in the western section of the archaeological site, and have come as a surprise since the site has been under research for some 40 years.

The Eastern Gate of Philipopolis gave the start to a major city street that was 13 meters (40 feet) wide, and was lined with sidewalks colonnades, and venues. Photos: TV grabs from the Bulgarian National Television

The Eastern Gate of Philipopolis / Trimontium was the most notable of the three entrances of the ancient city.

It was the road connection to the city of Byzantium which became the Constantinople, the new capital of the Roman Empire, later, in 330 AD.

The Eastern Gate of Philipopolis was built in the 2nd century AD as a marble triumphal arc honoring the visit to the city of Roman Emperor Hadrian (r. 117 – 138 AD).

Subsequently, its sides were protected with fortress towers. It had one large central opening for carriages, and two smaller openings for pedestrians.

Inside the fortress walls of Philipopolis, the Eastern Gate was the starting point of one the most beautiful streets discovered to date in the ancient city, which was 13 meters (appr. 40 feet) wide, and was lined with colonnades and venues.

“[The street] was equipped with sidewalks for the pedestrians. On its surface, there are preserved tracks from the carriages that passed through it – it just had so much traffic,” Martinova points out.

Even in its current state, the Eastern Gate of Philipopolis is one of the most visited sites among Plovdiv’s many archaeological and historical landmarks.

The local authorities and archaeologists have developed a project for its conservation, restoration, and exhibition in situ for which they are going to seek EU funding.

The project provides for fencing off the site of the Eastern Gate and restoring its authentic Roman Antiquity colonnade. Plovdiv Municipality has already even bought a neighboring house to use it as a tourist information center for the landmark.

The ruins of the Eastern Gate of Philipopolis are to be restored and exhibited in situ under a project of the Plovdiv archaeologists and local authorities. Photos: TV grabs from the Bulgarian National Television

Because of previous excavations on the Nebet Tepe Hill in the 1970s, Plovdiv used to claim the title of “Europe’s oldest city” (and the world’s six oldest city, according to a Daily Telegraph ranking).

However, the latest excavations of the Ancient Thracian and Roman Nebet Tepe Fortress have revealed issues with earlier archaeological research casting doubt on whether Plovdiv indeed was the oldest city in Europe, while not denying the exquisite historical, archaeological, and cultural value of the site.

Prehistoric, Antiquity, and medieval finds keep springing up across Plovdiv as the city’s vast cultural heritage is still being researched.

In just some of the 2018 archaeological excavations in Plovdiv, the archaeologists have discovered a 1st century AD Roman triumphal arc;

They have found traces from the Goth invasion of the Roman Empire in 251 AD during rescue digs at the city’s Antiquity Odeon;

A Roman tomb from the western necropolis of Philipopolis has been unearthed by accident on the campus of Plovdiv Medical University;

Near the St. Marina (Margaret of Antioch) Church in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv, an archaeological team has found an ancient inscription from 303 AD glorifying Roman Emperor Diocletian (r. 284 – 305 AD) after he introduced the so called Tetrarchy system of government in the Roman Empire;

This is also the same site where the archaeological team has found a very rare piece of lusterware pottery from medieval Egypt in a richly decorated medieval building.


Relevant Books:

Ancient Rome: A Complete History of the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chronicling the Story of the Most Important and Influential Civilization the World Has Ever Known

Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of An Empire

DK Eyewitness Travel Guide Bulgaria

Top 12 Places to Visit in Bulgaria – Top 12 Bulgaria Travel Guide (Includes Sofia, Sunny Beach, Nessebar, Plovdiv, Belogradchik & More)

Lonely Planet Romania & Bulgaria (Travel Guide)

Bulgaria History, Early Settlement and Empire: Pre-Bulgarian Civilizations, Communism, Society and Environment, Economy, Government and Politics


Background Infonotes:

According to the pre-1980 excavations, the history of the southern Bulgarian city of Plovdiv – often dubbed the oldest city in Europe – began with the human settlement on the ancient hill of Nebet Tepe (“tepe” is the Turkishword for “hill”), one of the seven historic hills where Plovdiv was founded and developed in prehistoric and ancient times.

Thanks to the prehistoric, ancient, and medieval settlement and fortress of Nebet Tepe, Plovdiv hold the title of “Europe’s oldest city” (and that of the world’s six oldest city, according to a Daily Telegraph ranking).

The hills, or “tepeta”, are still known today by their Turkish names from the Ottoman period. Out of all of them, Nebet Tepe has the earliest traces of civilized life dating back to the 6th millennium BC, which makes Plovdiv 8,000 years old, and allegedly the oldest city in Europe. Around 1200 BC, the prehistoric settlement on Nebet Tepe was transformed into the Ancient Thracian city of Eumolpia, also known as Pulpudeva, inhabited by the powerful Ancient Thracian tribe Bessi.

During the Early Antiquity period Eumolpia / Pulpudeva grew to encompass the two nearby hills (Dzhambaz Tepe and Taxim Tepe known together with Nebet Tepe as “The Three Hills”) as well, with the oldest settlement on Nebet Tepe becoming the citadel of the city acropolis.

In 342 BC, the Thracian city of Eumolpia / Pulpudeva was conquered by King Philip II of Macedon renaming the city to Philippopolis. Philippopolis developed further as a major urban center during the Hellenistic period after the collapse of Alexander the Great’s Empire.

In the 1st century AD, more precisely in 46 AD, Ancient Thrace was annexed by the Roman Empire making Philippopolis the major city in the Ancient Roman province of Thrace. This is the period when the city expanded further into the plain around The Three Hills which is why it was also known as Trimontium (“the three hills”).

Because of the large scale public construction works during the period of Ancient Rome’s Flavian Dynasty (69-96 AD, including Emperor Vespasian (r. 69-79 AD), Emperor Titus (r. 79-81 AD), Emperor Domitian (r. 81-96 AD)), Plovdiv was also known as Flavia Philippopolis.

Later emerging as a major Early Byzantine city, Plovdiv was conquered for the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680 – 1018 AD) by Khan (or Kanas) Krum (r. 803-814 AD) in 812 AD but was permanently incorporated into Bulgaria under Khan (or Kanas) Malamir (r. 831-836 AD) in 834 AD.

In Old Bulgarian (also known today as Church Slavonic), the city’s name was recorded as Papaldin, Paldin, and Pladin, and later Plavdiv from which today’s name Plovdiv originated. The Nebet Tepe fortress continued to be an important part of the city’s fortifications until the 14th century when the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) was conquered by the Ottoman Turks. During the period the Ottoman yoke (1396-1878/1912) when Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire, Plovdiv was called Filibe in Turkish.

Today the prehistoric, ancient, and medieval settlement on Nebet Tepe has been recognized as the Nebet Tepe Archaeological Preserve. Some of the unique archaeological finds from Nebet Tepe include an ancient secret tunnel which, according to legends, was used by Apostle Paul (even though it has been dated to the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565 AD)) and large scale water storage reservoirs used during sieges, one of them with an impressive volume of 300,000 liters. Still preserved today are parts of the western fortress wall with a rectangular tower from the Antiquity period.


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