4th Century Bishop’s Basilica with Marvelous Early Christian Bird Mosaics Opened for Visitors Bulgaria’s Plovdiv in Big Restoration Project with US Funding
The partly restored ruins of the 4th century Bishop’s Basilica, or Great Basilica, of the Ancient Thracian and Roman city of Philipopolis, with its almost fully restored fabulous Early Christian flood mosaics with birds and other motifs, has been opened for visitors in the city of Plovdiv in Southern Bulgaria as the successful completion of a seven-year restoration project with US funding.
The exhibition space, with many of the ruins and mosaics of the impressive Early Christian church exhibited in situ, was opened on Sunday, April 18, 2021, by Plovdiv Mayor Zdravko Dimitrov, US Ambassador to Bulgaria Hero Mustafa, and Nancy Schiller, President of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, a Sofia-based nonprofit which has provided millions of US dollars in funding for the cultural tourism landmark.
April 18 has been selected as the opening day for the Early Christian Bishop’s Basilica, also known as the Great Basilica, of Philipopolis, has been selected by the event’s organizers because it is the World Heritage Day as per the calendar of UNESCO, the UN education, science, and culture organization.
The Bishop’s Basilica of ancient Philipopolis was discovered in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv during rescue archaeological excavations back in 1982 – 1986. Almost half of the large Early Christian, Late Roman and Early Byzantine building had been researched by 2002.
Further archaeological excavations in which new layers of marvelous Early Christian floor mosaics were unearthed in further digs since 2015-2016 but already as part of the cultural tourism restoration project funded by the America for Bulgaria Foundation.
The Bishop’s Basilica of ancient Philipopolis in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv dates back to the middle of the 4th century AD. It was subsequently developed further in the 5th century, the early period of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire, including with new floor mosaic layers.
The basilica was a massive Early Christian temple, with a total length of 83 meters, and a width of 36 meters. This size makes it the largest Early Christian church building in today’s Bulgaria from the 4th – 6th century AD, and one of the largest such temples in all of Southeast Europe.
For comparison, the St. Sofia Basilica in Bulgaria’s capital Sofia, which is still in operation today, which gave the city its name, and along with the St. George Rotunda also in Sofia has been described as the oldest functioning church in Europe, is about twice smaller, with a length of 47 meters and a width of 20 meters.
The 9th century AD Great Basilica in Pliska, then the capital of the First Bulgarian Empire, which was modeled after the Old St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and which has claimed the title of the largest, or at least the longest church in medieval Europe, was only somewhat larger than the Bishop’s Basilica (Great Basilica) in Plovdiv – it had a length of 100 meters and a width of 30 meters.
The Bishop’s Basilica in Plovdiv, which has now been partly restored and opened for visitors, had an impressive architecture. It had one central nave, two side naves, an apse, a narthex (lobby area), and a colonnade atrium. Its presbyterium, a platform for the clergymen and the bishop, was decorated with marble.
The Bishop’s Basilica had a total of five entrances – three in the main nave, and one for each of the side naves. Besides the Early Christian mosaic floors, its interior also had columns and capitals decorated with Early Christian symbols and murals.
In his speech for the inauguration of the newly restored 4th century Bishop’s Basilica, Plovdiv Mayor Zdravko Dimitrov emphasized the role of the expert team from the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology for the success of the restoration project, Radio Plovdiv reports.
The excavations and research have been led by archaeologists Elena Kesyakova and Zheni Tankova, and the restoration has been been led by Elena Kantareva.
The Mayor also thanked epigraphist Nikolay Sharankov from Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski” whose reading of ancient inscriptions has revealed that the Great Basilica was the seat of the Early Christian bishop of Philipopolis as early as the 4th century AD.
He further thanked the America for Bulgaria Foundation which collaborated with Plovdiv Municipality for the restoration project.
“We must not forget the contribution of hundreds of volunteers who have helped for the excavation and preservation of these marvelous mosaics. We are also grateful to the business sector and the citizens who came together to form the “Friends of the Basilica – Plovdiv” Foundation,” Dimitrov has said.
In her speech, US Ambassador to Bulgaria Hero Mustafa has emphasized the great cultural and archaeological significance of the Bishop’s Basilica of Ancient Philipopolis.
“We are all aware of what an important achievement the basilica’s opening is, and how many economic benefits it is going to bring Plovdiv,” the Ambassador has stated.
America for Bulgaria Foundation President Nancy Schiller has in turn pointed out that out of a total of 50 firms that have taken part in the restoration project, 49 are Bulgarian.
Schiller has recalled her first visit to the archaeological site of the Great Basilica of Philipopolis in which she was captivated by the wonderful Early Christian floor mosaics.
“At first, I was not impressed. But at one point archaeologist Elena Kantareva grabbed a sweep and showed me the image of the beautiful bird that I had seen. That’s how this idea became a cause of mine,” the head of the America for Bulgaria Foundation has stated.
Over the past 6 years, the America for Bulgaria Foundation and Plovdiv Municipality combined have provided a total of over BGN 16 million (EUR 8 million) in funding for the further excavation, restoration, and exhibition of the Bishop’s Basilica of ancient Philipopolis, including over 2,000 square meters of Early Christian floor mosaics.
In 2018, the 4th century AD Bishop’s Basilica of Philipopolis in Plovdiv was included in UNESCO’s Tentative World Heritage Site List for Bulgaria.
Back in 2014, Plovdiv Municipality and the America for Bulgaria Foundation completed the similar but smaller-scale project for the restoration of the Small Basilica of ancient Philipopolis.
Learn more about the Bishop’s Basilica (Great Basilica) of Philipopolis in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv, and about the ancient history of Plovdiv in the Background Infonotes below!
Also check out our other stories from the excavations of the Early Christian Bishop’s or Great Basilica in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv:
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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 Early Christian Great Basilica (or Bishop’s Basilica) is located in the center of the ancient city of Philipopolis, which is itself in the downtown of today’s Plovdiv in Southern Bulgaria. It was discovered in 1982 by a team of archaeologists led by Elena Kisyakova. The excavated remains of the Great Basilica were fenced off as part of conservation efforts but have not been excavated further ever since.
Back in 2002, Plovdiv Municipality sold the property to a private firm even though it contained a formally recognized monument of culture. As a result, once the scandalous deal unraveled, it took the municipality and the central government seven years of court trials to regain the ownership of the Great Basilica site. The Philipopolis Bishop’s Basilica is impressive in size – its length totals 86.3 meters (the combined length of its naos with the apse is 56.5 meters), and its width is estimated to be 38.5 meters.
The entire floor of the three-nave basilica is paved with unique Early Christian mosaics covering a total area of 700 square meters. The mosaic floors were created in two construction stages. The color mosaics feature primarily geometric motifs and images of birds typical of the second quarter of the 5th century. About 70 different species of birds have been identified, some of which appear to be unknown to contemporary ornithology. Based on the mosaics, the Early Christian Bishop’s Basilica in the ancient city of Philipopolis is dated back to the first half of the 5th century BC, the Late Roman – Early Byzantine period. It was destroyed in the middle of the 6th century, possibly during a barbarian invasions. It was built on the foundations of an earlier building of similar size and potentially with similar functions.
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). Recent excavations, however, have disputed that title.
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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