‘Pillow’ Brick with Gospel of John Inscription in 13th Century Clergyman Grave, Byzantine Gold Threads Found in Medieval Bulgarian Capital Tarnovgrad
A senior medieval clergyman’s grave from the time of the Second Bulgarian Empire, possibly even one of the patriarchs of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, containing a brick with an inscription quoting the Gospel of John, has been discovered during the latest excavations at the Tsarevets Fortress, one of the citadels of the medieval capital Tarnovgrad, today’s Veliko Tarnovo.
Other intriguing finds from the same digs in Veliko Tarnovo include gold threads from graves from the Early Byzantine and Early Christian period.
The Tsarevets Hill Fortress was one of the two citadels (together with the recently restored Trapesitsa Hill Fortress) of the medieval city of Tarnovgrad (today’s Veliko Tarnovo), which was the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396/1422) for 208 years.
Nowadays, the Tsarevets Fortress is Bulgaria’s most popular cultural tourism museum landmark and the only one open for tourists 365 days a year.
The news discovered burial of a senior clergyman from the Second Bulgarian Empire has been found in the ruins of the Monastery of the Mother of God (Virgin Mary), which was built in the 13th century, and was a major monastery in the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire.
The monastery ruins, first discovered back in 2014, are located to the southeast of the Tsarevets Hill Fortress, in the so called Frenkhisar, or “Frankish Quarter”, of the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire Tarnovgrad. The ruins of an Early Christian and Early Byzantine basilica in the same quarter were discovered in 2015, changing the perception of the site from the pre-medieval period.
The latest findings from the Frenkhisar Quarter of the medieval Bulgarian capital Tarnovgrad have been presented by archaeologists Prof. Hitko Vachev and Iliyan Petrakiev from the Regional Museum of History in Veliko Tarnovo.
The remains of a senior clergyman, who was at the least the Father Superior of the monastery, or one of the Patriarchs of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church in the 13th – 14th century, have been found in grave No. 9 of the Monastery of the Mother of God (Virgin Mary).
Inside the grave, beneath the skull of the buried man, the archaeological team discovered a brick seemingly set there on purpose as a form of a “pillow” with an inscription in Old Bulgarian, the language of the medieval Bulgarian Empire.
Old Bulgarian was widespread in Eastern Europe as a literary language in the Middle Ages up until the Modern Era, and today is still the language of a number of Eastern Orthodox Churches, incorrectly referred to as “Church Slavonic”.
The brick inscription consists of seven lines and features a two-barred cross in its middle. It has been read with help from Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov, an expert in Christian archaeology most famous for the 2010 discovery of the relics of St. John the Baptist on the St. Ivan (St. John) Island near Sozopol in the Black Sea.
The inscription in Old Bulgarian has turned out to contain the first four verses from the Gospel of John from the Bible’s New Testament:
(1:1) In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
(1:2) The same was in the beginning with God.
(1:3) All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
(1:4) In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
According to the archaeological team, the discovery of the brick with the inscription quoting the Gospel of John inside the grave of the 13th century clergyman’s grave in the Frenkhisar Quarter in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo is proving invaluable for studying the life in the capital city of Tarnovgrad in the High Middle Ages.
“Such ‘underhead’ (or pillow) bricks were placed beneath the heads of members of the senior clergy in their graves,” lead archaeologist Vachev has said a news conference.
“At this point, there is no way to say with absolute certainty who the buried man was but it can be assumed that he was at least the Father Superior of the monastery,” he adds.
“There is a hypothesis that he was one of the Bulgarian Patriarchs. It is possible that he was a senior clergyman named Yoan (Ivan, John) who had requested that a quote from the Holy Gospel of John be placed beneath his head in his grave,” Vachev elaborates.
The significance of the discovery of the 13th century grave brick inscription quoting the first four verses from the Gospel of John in the Bible’s New Testament has been detailed further by Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov from Veliko Tarnovo University “St. Cyril and St. Methodius” who helped read the inscription.
Popkonstantinov has praised Vachev’s discovery back in 2014 of the ruins of the Holy Mother of God Monastery, pointing out that the monastery in question function in the 13th – 14th century, at the height of the Second Bulgarian Empire, and also during the first two centuries (out of a total of rougly five centuries) of the Ottoman occupation of Bulgaria, that is, in the 15th – 16th century.
“One peculiar artifact [from the monastery] has been a brick with an inscription of seven lines and a two-barred cross in the middle. It has been found beneath the head of the person laid in grave No. 9, which we date to the second half of the 13th century,” Popkonstantinov has told the 24 Chasa daily in an interview.
“The inscription indicates that the buried man was a senior clergyman. So far we have seen one such discovery [of an underhead brick inscription] found in the town of Parvomay [in Southeast Bulgaria] but it is bilingual – it has a brief introduction in Greek followed by a text in Old Bulgarian. Plus, the inscription from Parvomay was found accidentally during construction digs, and not in its original context,” the archaeologist elaborates.
Popkonstaniov notes that his colleague Rosina Kostova and he have found another case of a brick placed as a “pillow” beneath the head of the buried person – it is from a much earlier period of the medieval Bulgarian Empire. It has been found in a monastery in Veliko Preslav, capital of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680 – 1018 AD) between 893 and 970 AD. The brick in question, however, has no inscription.
The archaeologist also explains that the brick with the inscription quoting the first four verses of the Gospel of John from Veliko Tarnovo has been found in a grave with an impressive design, featuring arc built into the wall of the 13th century monastery church.
“Most of the graves of senior clergymen have arcs. It features verses 1-4 from the Gospel of St. Apostle John, posing a number of questions with respect the person in the grave. That may have been the death wish of the buried person because almost all interpreters believe that the Gospel of John starts with a foreword containing some main and major Christian truths… The quote indicates that the buried person was a highly erudite man,” Popkonstantinov elaborates.
He has abstained from commenting on whether the buried person in the grave with the Gospel of John verse could be one of the Patriarchs of the Second Bulgarian Empire.
“To be able to claim that, I would need more evidence, starting with the clothing and going all the way to the Patriarch’s crosier (staff). I don’t like such assumptions because they lead to unnecessary discussion. For example, with respect to Patriarch Evtimiy (Euthimius – the last Patriarch of Tarnovgrad before its conquest by the Ottoman Turks in 1393 – editor’s note), there are claims that he was buried in the Bachkovo Monastery [in Southern Bulgaria], that the monks there discovered a lead slab with an inscription last century, but that the slab has disappeared. There are claims… that he was buried in the Rhodope Mountains… During that period, Patriarchs were buried in the main monastery of the Patriarchate. In the capital that would have to be a Patriarch’s cathedral,” explains the expert in Christian archaeology.
Another grave of a senior medieval Bulgarian clergyman but from ca. 1400 was discovered on the site of the Holy Mother of God Monastery back in 2016.
Besides the 13th century senior clergyman’s grave with the verses from the Gospel of John on a “pillow” brick, the archaeologists excavating the Frenkhisar Quarter in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo have dug up a number of other intriguing finds.
Those include three graves from the time when the site had an Early Christian and Early Byzantine basilica, more specifically the 5th – 6th century AD, the early stages of the Eastern Roman Empire, more popularly known today as Byzantium.
In one of the graves they have come across remains from gold threads. The gold-woven cloth particles are believed to have been part of a veil which covered the head of a buried woman. The gold threads were made of 24-carrat gold but their width is only one-twelfth of a millimeter.
Before the discovery of the three graves one of which contains gold threads from a woman’s veil, only one grave from the 5th – 6th period had been known from the city of Veliko Tarnovo, inside the Tsarevets Fortress.
The presence of what seems to have been an Early Christian necropolis is now construed as evidence that Tarnovgrad, today’s Veliko Tarnovo, was a major urban and religious center even before the 7th century AD, when the region was targeted by the barbarian invasions of Slavs and Avars. Tarnovgrad became a capital of the medieval Bulgarian Empire only in 1185.
Yet another intriguing discovery from the latest digs in the Frenkhisar Quarter has been a grave built with stone slabs which dates from the 4th century AD, the period before the partition of the Roman Empire.
Anthropological analysis has shown that the grave contained the bones of two people, a man and a woman. The burial inventory included two bronze fibulas and a ceramic cup.
Learn more about the Tsarevets Fortress of the medieval Bulgarian capital Tarnovgrad in today’s Veliko Tarnovo in the Background Infonotes below!
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Ivan Dikov, the founder of ArchaeologyinBulgaria.com, is the author of the book Plunder Paradise: How Brutal Treasure Hunters Are Obliterating World History and Archaeology in Post-Communist Bulgaria, among other books.
The Tsarevets Hill is one of two main fortified historic hills in themedieval city of Tarnovgrad, today’s Veliko Tarnovo, in Central Northern Bulgaria, the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire between 1185 and 1396 AD. Together with the Trapesitsa Hill, Tsarevets was one of the two fortresses of the inner city acropolis of Tarnovgrad (Veliko Tarnovo). The Tsarevets Hill is a natural fortress on the left bank of the Yantra River, and is surrounded by it on all four sides with the exception of a small section to the southwest. It is located southeast of the Trapesitsa Hill. The Tsarevets Fortress had three gates, the main one being its southwestern gate. The name of Tsarevets stems from the word “tsar”, i.e. emperor.
The first settlement on the Tsarevets Hill in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo dates to the Late Chalcolithic (Aeneolithic, Copper Age), around 4,200 BC. The hill was also inhabited during the Bronze Age and Iron Age by the Ancient Thracians, and there have been hypothesis that it was the site of the legendary Ancient Thracian city Zikideva – even though a recent hypothesis claims that Zikideva was in fact located in the nearby fortress Rahovets. An Ancient Bulgar settlement was built on the Tsarevets Hill in the 9th century AD, during the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD) which later grew into a city. The Tsarevets Hill rose to prominence as the center of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) in 1187, after the successful Uprising of Asen and Petar, later Tsar Asen I (r. 1190-1195 AD) and Tsar Petar IV (r. 1185-1197), who ruled as co-emperors, against the Byzantine Empire in 1185-1186 AD.
Thus, the construction of the Tsarevets Hill Fortress began in the 12th century AD. The total length of the Tsarevets Hill fortress wall is 1,1 km, and it reaches a height of 10 meters (on top of the natural defenses of the hill’s slopes) and a width of 2.4-3.6 meters. The most vulnerable point of the Tsarevets fortification was the southeast section with its gate; however, it was protected by the so called Baldwin’s Tower because it is known that after defeating the Crusader knights from the 3rd Crusade in the Battle of Adrianople in 1205 AD, the Bulgarian Tsar Kaloyan captured the Latin Emperor of Constantinople Baldwin of Flanders, and kept him captive in the tower for several months, until Baldwin’s death. The Baldwin’s Tower was restored in 1933 by Bulgarian archaeologist and architect Alexander Rashenov; the restored Baldwin’s Tower was modeled after the surviving fortress tower in another medieval Bulgarian city, the Cherven Fortress.
The medieval church of the Bulgarian Patriarchate is located in the center of the Tsarevets Hill. It is called the Church of the Ascension of God, and was restored in 1981. The church was known as the “mother of all Bulgarian churches”, and was part of a complex with a territory of 2,400 square meters. Right next to it are the ruins of the imperial palace of the monarchs from the Second Bulgarian Empire which had a territory of almost 3,000 square meters. Both the imperial palace and the Patriarchate’s complex were surrounded by fortress walls and protected by towers. The archaeological excavations on the Tsarevets Hill have revealed the foundations of a total of 470 residences which housed the high-ranking Bulgarian aristocracy, 23 churches and 4 urban monasteries as well as a medieval inn. In the northern-most point of the Tsarevets Hill there is a high cliff cape known as the Cliff of Executions which in the 12th-14th century AD was used for executing traitors by throwing them into the canyon of the Yantra River.
For some 200 years the medieval Tarnovgrad, also known as Tsarevgrad Tarnov (i.e. the Tsar’s City), together with its fortresses Tsarevets, Trapesitsa, and Momina Krepost (“Maiden’s Fortress”), also known as Devingrad (“Virgins’ Town”), rivaled Constantinople as the most important city in this part of Europe, with some of the most glorious and famous Bulgarian Tsars – Tsar Asen (r. 1190-1195), Tsar Petar (r. 1185-1197), Tsar Kaloyan (r. 1197-1207), Tsar Ivan Asen II (r. 1218-1241), Tsar Konstantin Asen Tih (r. 1257-1277), Tsar Ivaylo (r. 1277-1280), Tsar Todor (Theodore) Svetoslav (r. 1300-1322), Tsar Ivan Alexander (r. 1331-1371), and Tsar Ivan Shishman (r. 1371-1395) – ruling their empire from Tsarevets.
Tsarevets and the rest of Tarnovgrad had a tragic fate, however, after in 1393 AD, after a three-month siege, it became the first European capital to fall prey to the invading Ottoman Turks. This was somewhat of a logical outcome after the de facto feudal disintegration of the Second Bulgarian Empire in the second half of the 14th century. After Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Alexander (r. 1331-1371 AD) lost his two eldest sons – Ivan in 1349 AD and Mihail in 1355 AD – in battles with the Ottoman Turks, he failed to prevent a number of Bulgarian feudal lords from seceding, and on top of that divided the remainder of the Bulgarian Tsardom between his two surviving sons. His third son Ivan Sratsimir (r. 1371-1396) received the smaller so called Vidin Tsardom, with the Danube city of Bdin (Vidin) as its capital, and his fourth son Ivan Shishman (r. 1371-1395) received the rest, the so called Tarnovo Tsardom, with the capital proper of Tarnovgrad (today’s Veliko Tarnovo). Just two decades later all Bulgarian lands, disunited and even warring among themselves, fell prey to the invading Ottoman Turks, ushering Bulgaria into five centuries of Ottoman Yoke (1396-1878/1912), and signifying a practically irreversible loss of its former great power status.
As the last ruler of Tarnovgrad, Tsar Ivan Shishman was not in the capital at the time it was besieged by the forces of Ottoman Sultan Bayezid I (r. 1389-1402 AD), its defense was led by the legendary Bulgarian Patriarch St. Euthymius (Evtimiy) of Tarnovo (ca. 1325-ca. 1402-1404 AD), the founder of the Tarnovo Literary School. After they conquered the Bulgarian capital on July 17, 1393, the Ottoman Turks slaughtered its population – an especially dramatic scene was the beheading of 110 captured Bulgarian aristocrats, and razed to the ground the Bulgarian imperial palace and the churches and monasteries of the Bulgarian Patriarchate. Tsarevets and Veliko Tarnovo were liberated from the Turks in the summer of 1877 in the Russian-Turkish War of 1877-1878 that restored the Bulgarian state.
The archaeological restoration of the Tsarevets Hill Fortress began in 1930 and was completed in 1981, the year that was celebrated, now somewhat questionably, as the 1300th anniversary since the founding of the Bulgarian state. Tourists visiting Tsarevets can view the so called “Sound and Light” audiovisual show, an attraction using lasers and music to tell the story of the medieval Bulgarian Empire as well as Bulgaria’s fight for freedom against the Ottoman Empire, and the story of Bulgaria’s National Liberation. It was first launched in 1985 for the 800th anniversary since the Uprising of Asen and Petar. The Tsarevets Fortress was granted a protected status by the Bulgarian government for the first time in 1927, and in 1964 it was declared a “monument of culture of national importance”.
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