Scandal Erupts as Roman Mosaics Get Trampled On in Villa Armira Mansion near Bulgaria’s Ivaylovgrad

Scandal Erupts as Roman Mosaics Get Trampled On in Villa Armira Mansion near Bulgaria’s Ivaylovgrad

Wedding guests are seen here threading and standing on top of the restored Ancient Roman mosaics from the 1st century AD during a ceremony officiated by the local mayor. Photo: TV grab from bTV

A wedding ceremony involving guests trampling upon invaluable and protected Ancient Roman floor mosaics in Villa Armira, a famous 1st century AD mansion of a Thracian – Roman aristocratic family, near Ivaylovgrad in Southern Bulgaria, has caused a public outrage.

Villa Armira is a suburban Ancient Roman (or Thracian – Roman) villa estate from the second half of the 1st century AD located near the town of Ivaylovgrad, Haskovo District, in the Eastern Rhodope Mountains in Southern Bulgaria, about 400 kilometers southeast from Bulgaria’s capital Sofia.

It dates back to the period after 46 AD when the Roman Empire conquered all of Ancient Thrace south of the Danube; at the time Villa Armira was located at the Roman province of Thracia (“Thrace").

Villa Armira is probably the most famous, best preserved, and best restored Ancient Roman villa mansion to have been discovered in Bulgaria. It is also one of the earliest known and best researched Ancient Roman provincial villa mansions, and arguably among the four best preserved Roman villas found on the entire territory of the former Roman Empire.

Villa Armira has been described as the private palace of an aristocratic family from the Thracian – Roman period (i.e. 1st – 4th century AD). It is attributed to a rich Thracian aristocratic family. After Ancient Thrace’s conquest by the Roman Empire, the Thracian aristocracy became well integrated into Roman life.

The nearly 2,000-year-old Ancient Roman mosaics found in Villa Armira include portraits of the mansion’s owner in the 2nd century AD and his two sons as well as a famous depiction of the Gorgon Medusa, a hellish creature well-known from Ancient Thracian, Greek, and Roman mythology.

Villa Armira was discovered by accident back in 1964 during the construction of a water reservoir, and was restored with EU funding in 2011-2013 to become a famous cultural tourism venue.

Learn more about the Ancient Thracian – Roman mansion of Villa Armira in the Background Infonotes below!

Wedding guests are seen here threading and standing on top of the restored Ancient Roman mosaics from the 1st century AD during a ceremony officiated by the local mayor. Photo: TV grab from bTV

Wedding guests are seen here threading and standing on top of the restored Ancient Roman mosaics from the 1st century AD during a ceremony officiated by the local mayor. Photo: TV grab from bTV

A reporter showing the glass cover walkway provided for standing above the Roman mosaics in Villa Armira. Photo: TV grab from bTV

A warning sign from Villa Armira banning the threading on the Roman mosaics. Photo: former website of Villa Armira

The story about the trampling on the protected Roman Era floor mosaics at Villa Armira near Ivaylovgrad has made news headlines in mainstream Bulgarian media after a Bulgarian family raised alarm over the issue.

The family in question visited the archaeological and historical landmark located 4 kilometers outside of the town of Ivaylovgrad in the Eastern Rhodope Mountains on Saturday, October 31, 2020, only to witness a wedding held there during which the wedding guests, including women on high heels, were stepping unrestricted all over the mosaics from the 1st – 2nd century AD.

Ivaylovgrad Municipality has clarified later that the holding of a wedding ceremony at Villa Armira costs a fee of only BGN 50.00 (EUR 25.00).

“The wedding guests started to appear, and it made an impression on me that they absolutely did not care for the fact that they were walking on top of the mosaics. All the ladies in the wedding were in formal dresses, on high heels, and were trampling on the mosaics, that is, they were trampling on the museum artifacts," Dimitar Ivanov who informed the media about the violation has told the bTV channel.

Instead of stepping on the glass platforms raised above the mosaics and designed for walking, some of the wedding guests instead decide to walk on top of the mosaics in what used to be the feasting space of the Ancient Thracian aristocratic family from the Roman Era.

To top it all off, it has turned out that the wedding ceremony was performed personally by the Mayor of Ivaylovgrad Municipality, Diana Ovcharova.

Ovcharova, a representative of Bulgaria’s ruling center-right party GERB, has been Ivaylovgrad’s Mayor since 2011, and is presently in her third term. During her first term, she oversaw the restoration of Villa Armira as a cultural tourism site with BGN 1.8 million (EUR 900,000) in EU money.

Ivanov says that as his family and he witnessed the violation, he reproached Ovcharova who was officiating but she reacted negatively.

“Mrs. Ovcharova said it was not none of my business how the rules were being observed. She then explained to the guests that the [Roman] mosaics were strong and could be trampled upon," Ivanov reveals.

As Ivaylovgrad’s Mayor Ovcharova was sought out for comments by the media on Monday, the local administration has said she was on a sick leave.

In her stead, her deputy Svetla Mollova has admitted on TV that the municipal administration had “made a mistake".

“Ivaylovgrad Municipality is noting its mistake in allowing people to crowd on top of the mosaic. We suppose that this must have happened because of the need to keep social distancing for quarantine requirements, i.e. the need to stay 1.5 meters away from each other," the deputy mayor says.

The large-scale floor mosaics from the Villa Armira mansion from the 1st century AD. Photo: TV grab from bTV

The large-scale floor mosaics from the Villa Armira mansion from the 1st century AD. Photo: TV grab from bTV

The large-scale floor mosaics from the Villa Armira mansion from the 1st century AD. Photo: TV grab from bTV

Bulgaria’s Ministry of Culture has vowed to inspect whether the archaeological monument has sustained any damages as a result of the trampling by the wedding guests.

“This is definitely a violation of the Cultural Heritage Act. Ivaylovgrad Municipality, which is responsible for managing the site, is supposed to protect it from damages, and this certainly does not include [allowing people] to walk on top of the mosaics," says Slavi Slavov, a regional inspector from the Cultural Heritage Protection Inspectorate from the Ministry of Culture.

The Ancient Thracian – Roman mansion known today as Villa Armira, after a local river, is dubbed “the jewel of the Eastern Rhodope Mountains" because of its impressive value as a historical, archaeological, and cultural monument.

Many of the archaeological artifacts and monuments from Villa Armira were stolen by treasure hunters and smuggled abroad by traffickers in the 1990s, to destinations such as Germany and the USA.

Subsequently, some artifacts such as a herma were returned to Bulgaria and today can be seen display in Villa Armira – a case reviewed in greater detail in the book Plunder Paradise: How Brutal Treasure Hunters Are Obliterating World History and Archaeology in Post-Communist Bulgaria by Ivan Dikov, the founder of ArchaeologyinBulgaria.com (in Chapter 5 of the book, in the subsection on “Sotheby’s and Villa Armira").

A depiction of the Gorgon Medusa from ancient mythology as part of the floor mosaics at Villa Armira. Photo: TV grab from bTV

The portraits of the owner of the Villa Armira mansion, a Thracian aristocrat, and his two children, from the 2nd century AD, depicted in the floor mosaics. (Learn more in the Background Infonotes below.) Photo: TV grab from bTV

The partly restored colonnade in the inner yard of Villa Armira. Photo: TV grab from bTV

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Ivan Dikov, the founder of ArchaeologyinBulgaria.com, is the author of the book 6 Million Abortions: How Communism Utilized Mass-Scale Abortion Exterminating Europe’s Fastest Growing Nation, among other books.

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Background Infonotes:

Villa Armira is a suburban Ancient Roman (or Thracian – Roman) villa estate from the 1st century AD located near the town of Ivaylovgrad, Haskovo District, in the Eastern Rhodope Mountains in Southern Bulgaria, about 400 kilometers southeast from Bulgaria’s capital Sofia.

It dates back to the period after 46 AD when the Roman Empire conquered all of Ancient Thrace south of the Danube; at the time Villa Armira was located at the Roman province of Thracia (“Thrace").

Villa Armira is probably the most famous, best preserved, and best restored Ancient Roman villa mansion to have been discovered in Bulgaria. It is also one of the earliest known and best researched Ancient Roman provincial villa mansions. Some accounts put it among the four best preserve Roman villas from the entire territory of the Roman Empire.

Villa Armira has been described as the private palace of an aristocratic family from the Thracian – Roman period (i.e. 1st – 4th century AD). It is attributed to a rich Thracian aristocratic family. After Ancient Thrace’s conquest by the Roman Empire, the Thracian aristocracy became well integrated into Roman life.

The modern-day name of the Ancient Thracian – Roman villa estate near Ivaylovgrad is derived from the villa’s location on the bank of the small river Armira, which is a tributary of the larger Arda River.

The ruins of the Ancient Thracian – Roman Villa Armira was discovered back in 1964 during the construction of the Ivaylovgrad Water Reservoir, one of the largest water reservoirs in Bulgaria (and the country’s longest water reservoir at 30 kilometers of length). The Bulgarian government government declared Villa Armira an architectural monument in 1968.

The Ancient Roman mansion known today as Villa Armira was a massive facility of residential and household buildings covering a territory of 2,200 square meters. Its residential space had an all-out area of 978 square meters. It featured a large inner yard with a pool and a colonnade.

Residential space rooms, including a living room, a dining room, a kitchen, a sleeping room, a bath, among others, were located around the inner yard. Only the first floor of the villa featured a total of 22 rooms. Villa Armira was heated with a hypocaust, i.e. underfloor heating typical of the rich Ancient Roman estates.

The archaeological excavations of the Ancient Thracian – Roman mansion known today as Villa Armira yilded a wide range of impressive and rather well preserved finds such as mosaics with figures and geometric motifs, capitals and other pillar fragments, marble plasters, friezes, herms (hermas), pottery vessels, adornments, and household tools and artifacts.

The luxury Roman Era mansion Villa Armira boasted rich decoration, including colorful plasters, and was the most lavish known Roman villa on the territory of the Roman province of Thracia. Marble plasters of the type found in Villa Armira were relatively rare throughout the provinces of the Roman Empire.

More than 3,000 marble fragments from the villa’s lavish decoration have been discovered during its archaeological excavations. Villa Armira is believed to have had an atelier for the artistic processing of marble already in the first half of the 2nd century AD. The original villa buildings were expanded in the 3rd century AD.

Bulgaria’s Roman legacy boasts a wide range of rather well-preserved and impressive Ancient Roman mosaics but Villa Armira features the greatest scope and variety of Roman mosaics out of all archaeological monuments in the country.

An impressive mosaic from the aristocratic bedroom features a portrait of Villa Armira’s owner in the first half of the 2nd century AD together with his two children. These are the only Ancient Roman mosaic portraits discovered in Bulgaria.

Another impressive mosaic dates to the beginning of the 3rd century AD, and features a depiction of the Gorgon Medusa, a monstrous winged female creature, with a hair made up of venomous snakes, from Ancient Thracian, Greek, and Roman mythology. The Gorgon Medusa motif is also found in other parts of the decoration of Villa Armira.

The high degree of preservation of the Roman villa’s decoration has provided for the almost complete restoration of its original interior.

Unlike the residential part, the household and agricultural buildings of Villa Armira were not very well preserved.

The Thracian – Roman aristocratic mansion known today as Villa Armira was inhabited until the third quarter of the 4th century AD.

It may have been destroyed in 378 AD as part of the large-scale destruction in the region of Adrianople (known as Odrin in Bulgarian, today’s city of Edirne in European Turkey), which is very close to today’s Ivaylovgrad, caused by the barbarian invasion of the Goths.

In the Battle of Adrianople of 378 AD, the Goths routed the Roman forces. Then Roman Emperor Valens (r. 364 – 378 AD) was either killed in action or severely wounded in the battle, according to the different accounts about his death.

That made Valens’s death the second case of a Roman Emperor to killed in battle after Roman Emperor Trajan Decius (r. 249-251 AD) and his co-emperor and son Herennius Etruscus (r. 251 AD) were killed in the Battle of Abritus (today near Razgrad in Northeast Bulgaria) in 251 AD during the previous major barbarian invasion of the Roman Empire by the Goths.

There have been hypotheses that Villa Armira might have been the place where the wounded Roman Emperor Valens might have been taken by his soldiers, and, respectively, the place where he might have been killed by the Goths in the aftermath of the Battle of Adrianople in 378 AD.

Close to Villa Armira, near the nearby town of Svirachi, there is an ancient burial mound built on top of a stone foundation in which large stone blocks were pieced together using iron and lead links. The mound in question is about 16 meters tall. It is believed to have been used as a family necropolis by the aristocratic owners of the Thracian – Roman villa mansion.

Artifacts and architectural fragments discovered in the Ancient Thracian and Roman Villa Armira near Ivaylovgrad are part of the collections of the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia, National Museum of History in Sofia, Kardzhali Regional Museum of History, and Haskovo Regional Museum of History.

In 2011-2013, Villa Armira was partially restored with BGN 1.8 million in EU funding as part of a large-scale projected overseen by Assoc. Prof. Gergana Kabakchieva, an expert in Roman archaeology from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia. Ivaylovgrad Municipality prepared another EU-funded restoration and promotion project for Villa Armira in 2019-2020.

Many of the archaeological artifacts and monuments from Villa Armira were stolen by treasure hunters and smuggled abroad by traffickers in the 1990s, to destinations such as Germany and the USA.

Subsequently, some artifacts such as a herma were returned to Bulgaria and today can be seen display in Villa Armira – a case reviewed in greater detail in the book Plunder Paradise: How Brutal Treasure Hunters Are Obliterating World History and Archaeology in Post-Communist Bulgaria by Ivan Dikov, the founder of ArchaeologyinBulgaria.com (in Chapter 5 of the book, in the subsection on “Sotheby’s and Villa Armira").

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