Archaeologists Find Holy Well of Early Christian Monastery on Top of 2,500-Year-Old Apollo Temple on Bulgaria’s St. Ivan Island
Archaeologists have discovered the 1,500-year-old holy well, or ayazmo, of the Early Christian monastery on the St. Ivan Island off the coast of Bulgaria’s Black Sea town of Sozopol, which was built on top of an Ancient Greek temple of Apollo, and where 10 years ago the same team discovered holy relics of St. John the Baptist.
The archaeologists have exposed the holy well (a spring of holy water), also known as an “ayazmo”, on the St. Ivan (St. John) Island reaching a depth of almost 5 meters.
The St. Ivan Island, tiny as it is, is also the largest of Bulgaria’s islands in the Black Sea, and also the tallest of them, with its highest point towering at 33 meters above sea level.
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 the remarkable archaeological discovery made by the team led by Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov, an expert in Christian archaeology from Veliko Tarnovo University “St. Cyril and St. Methodius”. 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.
Unfortunately, in 2012 in Sliven, a theft of a particle from the St. John the Baptist was committed, and 8 years later the case has remained unresolved, with Popkonstantinov reiterating his original conviction that the stealing of the relics had been an inside job.
During the 2020 archaeological excavations of the Early Christian monastery named after St. John the Baptist on St. Ivan Island off the coast of Bulgaria’s Sozopol, Popkonstantinov’s team has found further evidence of civilized life on the Island as early as the 6th century BC – which is the period when Ancient Greek settlers founded Apollonia Pontica, the predecessor of today’s Sozopol, on today’s Bulgarian Black Sea coast.
“My excitement is always great when I arrive here because of the discovery that we made [10 years ago of the St. John the Baptist relics],” Popkonstantinov has told bTV in a report on the 2020 digs on the island.
“What we have [unearthed] before us here is the monastery ayazmo constructed 1,500 years ago, and built on top of the foundations of the holy spring of the temple of the deity Apollo [which preceded it,” the lead archaeologist explains.
He points out that his team has reached the “respectable” depth of 4.7 meters, but still has not reached the beginning of the holy well, or ayazmo.
Popkonstantinov points out that, in addition to digging down the holy well of what once was an Ancient Greek temple of the sun god Apollo and then became an Early Christian monastery in the 4th century AD to harbor holy relics of St. John the Baptist, his team has also excavated both the western and the eastern facades of the ayazmo.
“This sacred spring was closely connected with the deity Apollo. We now have plentiful archaeological facts showing that this place had [civilized human] life 2,600 years ago,” the archaeologist says in a video report by Darik Burgas.
The nearby St. Cyricus Island, which is now technically a peninsula linked to the Bulgarian mainland, but was also part of ancient Apollonia Pontica, as it is part of today’s town of Sozopol, is known to also have had a temple of Apollo, and to have also been the site of the Colossus of Apollonia Pontica, a large, 13-meter-tall bronze statue of Ancient Greek god Apollo towering in the harbor of the Greek colony for four centuries before it was seized by the Romans and taken to Rome.
The Colossus of Apollonia Pontica has been likened to the taller and far more famous Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, with an initiative in recent years to rebuild the Colossus of Apollonia Pontica and instill him back on the St. Cyricus Island based on images from Apollonia Pontica’s coins.
Speaking about his 2020 excavations, Popkonstantinov reminds that back in 2018 at the site where now the holy well on the St. Ivan Island has just been unearthed, his team discovered a 3rd century BC decree of the assembly of Apollonia Pontica testifying to the cordial ties the city had with Heraclea Pontica, another Ancient Greek colony but located in today’s Turkey,
“This year [the excavations] have been dedicated to clarifying the construction and functional history, so to say, of a very important structure of the [Early Christian] monastery, the ayazmo, i.e. the structure that contained its water,” explains Assoc. Prof. Rosina Kostova, who is deputy head of the archaeological team and chief of the Archaeology Department at Veliko Tarnovo University “St. Cyril and St. Methodius”.
“The [structure] was likely connected with the idea of the holy water which heals and protects. Many monasteries in the history of Orthodox [Christianity] here in the Balkans are connected with such water springs calls ayazmos. This one here is truly impressive in terms of architecture,” she adds.
Kostova has described the Early Christian monastery on the St. Ivan Island off Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast as “truly special” not only because it contained relics of St. John the Baptist but also because of its longevity as it was in use for more than 12 centuries.
“This monastery is truly special because it was a living convent without interruption from the end of the 4th century AD until the first quarter of the 17th century, and it has a very rich documented history, which is also rare for monasteries in Bulgaria,” the archaeologist explains.
Previously, lead archaeologist Kazimir Popkonstantinov has said that the structure of the holy well, or ayazmo, of the Early Christian monastery on St. Ivan Island is nearly 7 meters wide, and 7.8 meters long. Its walls are about 1.1 meters wide, and are made of stones with brick arcs.
This video from Darik Burgas from September 2020 shows this years excavations on the St. Ivan Island.
Unfortunately, the Bulgarian government has not provided sufficient funding for the conservation and restoration of the partially surviving buildings of the Early Christian monastery on St. Ivan Island in the Black Sea near Sozopol.
Some of the archaeological structures have survived up to a height of 4 meters. The lack of funding has led the archaeologists to try to save them with whatever they can, including by using wooden scaffolds and tiles.
Popkonstantinov himself is warning that many of the surviving ancient walls might collapse at any given moment, which would be “dreadful” if any visitors happen to be around at that time. He has called upon the Bulgarian authorities to provide the badly needed funding to conserve the site, which is going to warrant many years of future archaeological exploration for its secrets to be revealed.
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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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.
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