8 Years after Theft of St. John the Baptist Relics in Bulgaria’s Sliven, Finder Laments Unresolved Case

8 Years after Theft of St. John the Baptist Relics in Bulgaria’s Sliven, Finder Laments Unresolved Case

Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov is seen here in August 2010 on St. Ivan Island during the discovery of the relics of St. John the Baptist. Photo: Sozopol Municipality

The case of the theft of a particle from the holy relics of St. John the Baptist committed in the city of Sliven back in 2012, less than 2 years after the relics’ discovery on a Black Sea island, has remained unresolved and the crime, likely an inside job, has gone unpunished, relics finder, archaeologist Kazamir Popkonstantinov, has lamented.

In August 2020, the Black Sea town of Sozopol, of which the St. Ivan (St. John) Island is a part, marked the 10th anniversary since Popkonstantinov’s remarkable archaeological discovery. The 5th annivesary was celebrated with more events 5 years ago.

Back in August 2010, during excavations of an ancient monastery on the Bulgarian Black Sea island of St. Ivan (St. John) near Sozopol, Bulgarian archaeologist Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov discovered a reliquary containing relics of St. John the Baptist.

The relics consist of of small bone particles from a skull, a jaw bone, an arm bone, and a tooth. They are presently kept at the St. Cyril and St. Methodius Church in Sozopol.

The discovery of the St. John the Baptist relics in the Early Christian monastery on the Black Sea island off the coast of Bulgaria’s Sozopol made global headlines and has generated huge international interest.

The relics of St. John the Baptist were discovered in the St. Ivan (St. John) Island on the Black Sea coast near Sozopol back in the summer of 2010 by Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov in the ruins of an Early Christian monastery from the end of the 4th and the beginning of the 5th century AD, around the time of the division of the Roman Empire.

The relics were inside a marble reliquary which was 18 centimeters long and 14 centimeters wide.

Popkonstantinov has been categorical that the relics belonged to St. John the Baptist judging from an inscription in Greek on the reliquary mentioning “Yoan" (John), and reading, “God, help your slave Thomas who carried on June 24…." – June 24 being the birth date of St. John the Baptist.

Scholars from Oxford University tested the relics and concluded and found evidence that they could have indeed belonged to St. John the Baptist. Radiocarbon and genetic testing revealed that the human remains in question did belong to a Middle Eastern man who lived at the time of Jesus Christ.)

Back in April 2012, during a worship stint in a church in the city of Sliven in Southeast Bulgaria, a particle from the St. John the Baptist relics was stolen.

The Sliven Bishopric of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church went 9 days without reporting the relic theft to the police, and two months later the investigation was terminated, with archaeologist Kazimir Popkonstantinov declared back then his confidence that the theft had been an inside job.

“A relic particle was stolen when the relics were in Sliven’s cathedral in April 2012. I was stunned. They had stolen the particle which contained the largest amount of collagen," the archaeologists has told the 24 Chasa daily in an interview 10 years after his discovery of the St. John the Baptist relics, and more than 8 years after the theft.

“I don’t want to bring upon myself another sin but there is no way, inside the church, with so many people next to the spot where the relics were on display, for some [outside] just to break the seal, tear it up, lift up the lid [of the box], and take whatever they wanted," Popkonstantinov says, reiterating his understanding since back in 2012 that the relic theft had been committed by an insider.

He also reveals he learned the news about the stolen relic particle from a TV anchor who had learned about the missing relic particle.

“I immediately called [Sliven’s] Bishop Yoanikiy and the secretary of the bishopric, and they started to whine. Then I told them directly: This could only be an inside person. It doesn’t matter whether it was a clergyman or a secular person," the archaeologist recalls.

“They [law enforcement] started investigating the leads but then they stopped. The theft has remained unresolved," Popkonstantinov emphasizes.

He also stresses that 10 years after his discovery of the St. John the Baptist relics on St. Ivan Island in the Black Sea off Bulgaria’s Sozopol global interest in the relics is not subsiding.

So far top international broadcasters who have filmed documentaries about the discovery include the National Geographic Channel, the History Channel, German TV ZDF, and a crew from a leading Brazilian TV station.

“Three years ago Assoc. Prof. Rosina Kostova and I were invited to the largest [European] pilgrimage center, Santiago de Compostela, to participate in an international conference, together with experts in Christian archaeology from 13 different countries. And one of the organizers asked me if he could touch my right hand. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Because you probably used that one to extract the reliquary. I will be able to tell my brother that I’ve touched the hand of the finder of St. John the Baptist’s relics," Popkonstantinov narrates.

“Our colleagues from Oxford and Copenhagen who took the DNA samples from the relics were also there," he recalls.

The archaeologist also complains that there has been little funding to continue the archaeological excavations on St. Ivan Island near Sozopol where he found the holy relics.

“Luckily, the two temples [from the Early Christian monastery] are preserved to a certain height. The basilica from the end of the 4th and beginning of 5th century has survived up to 4 meters in height but it is collapsing slowly," Popkonstantinov says.

“Back then, the late Prof. Bozhidar Dimitrov was insisting [on more government money] for funding. For more than 12 years, and especially after the finding of the relics, we have been touting [the need for funding]. There were members of parliament who came there, ambassadors, the then finance minister Simeon Djankov. All of them promised [funding], and nothing [followed]. We are now calling up a commission to come [to the island]. We have a project for conservation and restoration. After four years of being rejected [for government funding], this year we’ve resumed the excavations thanks to two foundations," the archaeologist explains, saying more structures from 1,500 years ago have been discovered.

Learn more about the history and archaeology of the Black Sea town of Sozopol in Southeast Bulgaria in the Background Infonotes below!

Also check out these other stories about the St. John the Baptist relics and the St. Ivan Island in the Black Sea:

St. John the Baptist Relics Ended Up in Bulgaria’s Sozopol to Counterbalance Huge Ancient Apollo Statue and Temple, Archaeologist Hypothesizes

Skeletons Found in Early Christian Tomb on St. Ivan Island off Bulgaria’s Sozopol Belonged to Syrian Monks Who Brought St. John the Baptist’s Relics

Archaeologist Finds Two Human Skeletons, One Ram Skeleton in Early Christian Tomb on St. Ivan Island in Black Sea Off Bulgaria’s Sozopol

Bulgaria’s Sozopol Granted Access to Ecumenical Patriarchate’s Archives over St. Ivan Island in Black Sea

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Ivan Dikov, the founder of ArchaeologyinBulgaria.com, is the author of the book Ugly Bargain: How the European Union and Bulgaria’s Post-Communist Oligarchy Fit Together, among other books.

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Background Infonotes:

The history of the resort town Sozopol (Apollonia Pontica, Sozopolis) on Bulgaria’s Southern Black Sea coast started during the Early Bronze Age, in the 5th millennium BC, as testified by the discoveries of artifacts found in underwater archaeological research, such as dwellings, tools, pottery, and anchors. In the 2nd-1st millennium BC, the area was settled by the Ancient Thracian tribe Scyrmiades who were experienced miners trading with the entire Hellenic world.

An Ancient Greek colony was founded there in 620 BC by Greek colonists from Miletus on Anatolia’s Aegean coast. The colony was first called Anthea but was later renamed to Apollonia in favor of Ancient Greek god Apollo, a patron of the setters who founded the town. It became known as Apollonia Pontica (i.e. of the Black Sea). Since the Late Antiquity, the Black Sea town has also been called Sozopolis.

The Greek colony of Apollonia Pontica emerged as a major commercial and shipping center, especially after the 5th century AD when it became allied with the Odrysian Kingdom, the most powerful state of the Ancient Thracians. As of the end of the 6th century BC, Apollonia Pontica started minting its own coins, with the anchor appearing on them as the symbol of the polis.

Apollonia became engaged in a legendary rivalry with another Ancient Greek colony, Mesembria, today’s Bulgarian resort town of Nessebar, which was founded north of the Bay of Burgas in the 6th century BC by settlers from Megara, a Greek polis located in West Attica. According to some historical accounts, in order to counter Mesembria’s growth, Apollonia Pontica founded its own colony, Anchialos, today’s Pomorie (though other historical sources do not support this sequence of events), which is located right to the south of Mesembria.

Apollonia managed to preserve its independence during the military campaigns of the Ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon under Philip II (r. 359-336 BC), and his son Alexander the Great (r. 336-323 BC). Apollonia, today’s Sozopol, is known to have had a large temple of Greek god Apollo (possibly located on the Sts. Quiricus and Julietta Island, also known as the St. Cyricus Island), with a 12-meter statue of Apollo created by Calamis, a 5th century BC sculptor from Ancient Athens.

In 72 BC, Apollonia Pontica was conquered by Roman general Lucullus who took the Apollo statue to Rome and placed it on the Capitoline Hill. After the adoption of Christianity as the official religion in the Roman Empire, the statue was destroyed.

In the Late Antiquity, Apollonia, also called Sozopolis lost some of its regional center positions to Anchialos, and the nearby Roman colony Deultum (Colonia Flavia Pacis Deultensium). After the division of the Roman Empire into a Western Roman Empire and Eastern Roman Empire (today known as Byzantium) in 395 AD, Apollonia / Sozopolis became part of the latter. Its Late Antiquity fortress walls were built during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Anasthasius (r. 491-518 AD), and the city became a major fortress on the Via Pontica road along the Black Sea coast protecting the European hinterland of Constantinople.

In 812 AD, Sozopol was first conquered for Bulgaria by Khan (or Kanas) Krum, ruler of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD) in 803-814 AD. In the following centuries of medieval wars between the Bulgarian Empire and the Byzantine Empire, Sozopol changed hands numerous times. The last time it was conquered by the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) was during the reign of Bulgarian Tsar Todor (Teodor) Svetoslav Terter (r. 1300-1322 AD).

However, in 1366 AD, during the reign of Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Alexander (r. 1331-1371 AD), Sozopol was conquered by Amadeus IV, Count of Savoy from 1343 to 1383 AD, who sold it to Byzantium. During the period of the invasion of the Ottoman Turks at the end of the 14th century and the beginning of the 15th century AD, Sozopol was one of the last free cities in Southeast Europe. It was conquered by the Ottomans in the spring of 1453 AD, two months before the conquest of Constantinople despite the help of naval forces from Venice and Genoa.

In the Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, Sozopol was a major center of (Early) Christianity with a number of large monasteries such as the St. John the Baptist Monastery on St. Ivan Island off the Sozopol coast where in 2010 Bulgarian archaeologist Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov made a major discovery by finding relics of St. John the Baptist; the St. Apostles Monastery; the St. Nikolay (St. Nikolaos or St. Nicholas) the Wonderworker Monastery; the Sts. Quriaqos and Julietta Monastery on the St. Cyricus (St. Kirik) Island, the Holy Mother of God Monastery, the St. Anastasia Monastery.

During the Ottoman period Sozopol was often raided by Cossack pirates. In 1629, all Christian monasteries and churches in the city were burned down by the Ottoman Turks leading it to lose its regional role. In the Russian-Turkish War of 1828-1829, Sozopol was conquered by the navy of the Russian Empire, and was turned into a temporary military base.

After Bulgaria’s National Liberation from the Ottoman Empire in 1878, Sozopol remained a major fishing center. As a result of intergovernmental agreements for exchange of population in the 1920s between the Tsardom of Bulgaria and the Kingdom of Greece, most of the ethnic Greeks still remaining in Sozopol moved to Greece, and were replaced by ethnic Bulgarians from the Bulgarian-populated regions of Northern Greece.

The modern era archaeological excavations of Sozopol were started in 1904 by French archaeologists who later took their finds to The Louvre Museum in Paris, including ancient vases from the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC, the golden laurel wreath of an Ancient Thracian ruler, and a woman’s statue from the 3rd century BC. Important archaeological excavations of Sozopol were carried out between 1946 and 1949 by Bulgarian archaeologist Ivan Venedikov.

The most recent excavations of Sozopol’s Old Town started in 2010. In 2011-2012, Bulgarian archaeologists Tsonya Drazheva and Dimitar Nedev discovered a one-apse church, a basilica, and an Early Christian necropolis. Since 2012, the excavations of Sozopol have been carried out together with French archaeologists.

In 2010, during excavations of the ancient monastery on the St. Ivan (St. John) Island in the Black Sea, off the coast of Sozopol, Bulgarian archaeologist Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov discovered a reliquary containing relics of St. John the Baptist. In 1974, the Bulgarian government set up the Old Sozopol Archaeological and Architectural Preserve.

A 2012 National Geographic documentary featuring the discovery of the St. John the Baptist relics in Bulgaria’s Sozopol can be seen here (in English and here in Bulgarian).

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Ivan Dikov, the founder of ArchaeologyinBulgaria.com, is the author of the book Ugly Bargain: How the European Union and Bulgaria’s Post-Communist Oligarchy Fit Together, among other books.

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