Breast cross-shaped reliquaries and a seal discovered in the Medieval necropolis that existed in the Bishop’s Basilica location in the 10th-12th centuries
HISTORY IN MOSAICS
The Bishop’s Basilica of Philippopolis, the predecessor of today’s Plovdiv, is the largest Early Christian temple in this country. A coin dating back to the times of Emperor Licinius (308-324) discovered during the excavations of the Bishop’s Basilica, has spawned the hypothesis that the basilica was among the first to be erected in the Roman Empire after Christianity was legalized, in 313. Its dimensions, its decoration and its central location near the ancient city’s forum indicate the existence of a sizable and influential Christian community in Philippopolis.
The basilica was 36 meters wide and over 90 meters long. Its architecture was remarkable. It included a central and two side naves, an apse, a narthex (anteroom), and a colonnaded atrium (inner court). A marble-decorated presbyterium (a platform for the bishop and the clergy) rose in the central nave.
Its interior was adorned by columns with Christian symbols on their capitals, by murals and lavish mosaic floors. The mosaics are the best-preserved elements of the building. They were executed in three stages, form two layers and have a total area of 2,000 square meters.
The church was at the heart of the city’s Christian life in the 4th- 6th centuries until it was demolished and abandoned, probably as a result of an earthquake.
However, the story of its location is a lot more complex and spans at least 12 centuries.
The basilica was erected over the ruins of an ancient building probably dating back to the 1st century AD. After it was abandoned in the 10th-12th centuries, its location was taken up by a large Christian necropolis which had a cemetery church decorated with fine murals.
The Bishop’s Basilica of ancient Philippopolis has a central location in modern Plovdiv as well. It is near the central square and the St. Ludwig Catholic Cathedral, providing an everlasting example for the continuity of spiritual ideas that the various generations have handed down through the centuries.
A donation inscription in the first layer of mosaics in the southern nave of the Bishop’s Basilica
The basilica in 2015
A LONG RETURN FROM OBLIVION
In the 4th- 6th centuries, the Bishop’s Basilica was at the heart of life in Philippopolis of Late Antiquity. The laity streamed into it. Both adults and children got baptized in its dark yet richly decorated interiors. Perhaps the Arian bishops held in it their so-called counter-council in it to oppose the council in Serdica that had billed their faith as heresy.
However, the moment arrived when the Bishop’s Basilica was abandoned. Its remains were overgrown and time obliterated the memories of it.
Oblivion went on until the 1980s when the construction of an underpass unearthed the remains of a massive building decorated with mosaics of geometrical ornaments and birds. In 1982-1986, a team of the Plovdiv Regional Archaeological Museum headed by Elena Kesyakova researched half of the basilica. Some of the mosaics were lifted and put in museum storage. The ruins were shielded with a protective cover, but the unresearched parts remained under street level.
In 1995, the basilica was declared a cultural monument of national significance. Unfortunately, in 1999, the protective cover caved in. The state of the mosaics deteriorated. Partial excavations in 2002 established that the basilica had been constructed over an earlier building dating back to Antiquity. After the digs, the mosaics were covered with a thin layer of sand for protection. During the following years, the site receded back into oblivion.
All changed owing to the initiative and funding of America for Bulgaria Foundation and the Plovdiv Municipality. In 2016-2017, the Bishop’s Basilica was comprehensively researched by a team of the Plovdiv Regional Archaeological Museum led by Zheni Tankova and a group of conservationists headed by Associate Professor Elena Kantareva-Decheva.