St. Athanasius Cape Fortress – Byala, Varna District, Bulgaria

The Late Antiquity and Early Byzantine fortress on the Cape of St. Athanasius near the Bulgarian Black Sea town of Byala, District of Varna, has been rediscovered by Bulgarian archaeologists in recent years. The fortress is located on a plot of about 40 decares (app. 10 acres), and is dated back to the 5th-6th century AD while the precise area of an ancient settlement located on the same site remains unknown. The Early Byzantine fortress has been dated more precisely to the reigns of Byzantine Emperors Anastasius I (r. 491-518 AD), and Justinian I (r. 527-565 AD).

Before the excavations in recent years, the fortress on the Cape of St. Athanasius had only been known from a 1892 note by Czech-Bulgarian archaeologists Karel and Hermann Skorpil known as the founders of contemporary Bulgarian archaeology, and from a brief expedition in the 1970s. The major reason the fortress had not been excavated earlier is that a military base of the Bulgarian Army and Navy was located nearby because the location gives good command of a large section of the Bulgarian Black sea coast. The military base was closed down a few years ago, allowing the local authorities to approach archaeologists for the excavations of the site.

In his writings, Ancient Greek geographer Strabo (64 BC – ca. 24 AD) mentions a fortress called Larissa, which is located south of the Greek colony of Odessos (today’s Bulgarian city of Varna) and north of the Greek colony of Naulochos (today’s Bulgarian town of Obzor). Even though no defining evidence has been found that the fortress on the Cape of St. Athanasius is in fact the fortress Larissa described by Strabo, the Bulgarian archaeologists excavating the site have discovered traces not only from ancient, but also from earlier times. The earliest finds are from the Chalcolithic (also known as Eneolithic or Copper Age) and the Bronze Age, and an Ancient Thracian religious site from the 6th-5th century BC. An Ancient Roman settlement from the 2nd-3rd century AD has also been discovered.

Some of the finds uncovered on the Cape of St. Athanasius include an anti-landing rampart designed to prevent a sea invasion dating back to the Late Antiquity; a fortification consisting of a fortress wall and a moat cutting off the cape from its hinterland; an Early Christian one-apse basilica, two baptisteries, the residence of the head priest, two ceramic ovens, mural fragments and inscriptions; an ancient winery; a 6th century bronze table lamp, also known as a candelarium, found in a rich ancient residential building that collapsed in a fire around 614 AD; a stone plate for grinding powers, herbs, and cosmetic substances taken as a proof that the ancient residents of the St. Athanasius Cape practiced medicine; part of a Byzantine road; a golden ring with a model of the Rotunda of Anastasis in Jerusalem; a marble alter table produced in an imperial workshop on the Island of Paros in the Southern Aegean. The latest coins found in the fortress on the Cape of St. Athanasius as well as other traces have led Bulgarian archaeologist Prof. Dr. Valeri Yotov from the Varna Museum of Archaeology, who excavated the site, to hypothesize that the fortress near Byala was destroyed during the Avar and Slav invasion in 614 AD, during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Heraclius (r. 610-641 AD). The head of the Byala archaeological complex Deyan Yanchev has described the one-time ancient fortress as a “small port town with a substantial commercial potential".

Since 2010, the ancient fortress on the Cape of St. Athanasius has been restored with a total funding of BGN 5.4 million (app. EUR 2.76 million), most of which was an EU grant provided from Operational Program “Regional Development", in order to turn it into a tourist destination.

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