History in mosaics

The Bishop's Basilica of Philippopolis is the largest early-Christian church discovered in Bulgaria

The basilica in the process of restoration.

One more archaeological gem was opened for visitors in Plovdiv, the Bulgarian city which was a European Capital of Culture in 2019. The site in question is the Great Basilica located almost in the very centre of the city. Although the church was discovered long ago, its restoration and exposition to the public became possible only during the last year.

The basilica is 36 metres wide and over 90 metres long. Its architecture is remarkable: it has one central and two side naves, one apse, a narthex (antrum) and an atrium (open yard) with a colonnade. In the central nave there was a presbytery (a platform for the bishop and clergy) decorated with marble. According to experts, the church was built shortly after the legalisation of Christianity in the Roman Empire in 313.

The interior of the basilica was decorated with columns, Christian symbols adorned their capitals, the walls were frescoed and the floors covered with opulent mosaic work. The mosaics are also the best preserved part of the building. They were made in three stages, form two layers and cover an area of over 1,000 square metres. The mosaics reveal different colours and shapes and feature an astonishing array of birds. There is visible difference between the mosaics in the southern and central naves as regards composition and motifs, which gives grounds to assume that they were most probably made by different craftsmen.

Built over the ruins of an antique building from the 1st century AD, the church was the centre of Christian life in the antique Philippopolis between the 4th and 6th centuries. Worshipers from far and wide thronged to it, as old and young took baptism there. Probably exactly in this basilica in 343-344 the so-called anti-council of the Arian bishops was held in opposition to the Council of Serdica which condemned the Arian doctrine as heresy.

The church was seriously damaged during the barbarian invasions in the 6th-7th centuries and was gradually abandoned. In the 10th-12th centuries a big Christian necropolis with a graveyard church emerged at its place, while the Bishop's Basilica became forgotten as years passed and its remnants were buried under rubble.

The basilica was in desolation until as late as the 1980s when during the construction of an underpass the builders unearthed the remains of a large building decorated with mosaics depicting birds and geometrical ornaments. In 1982-1986 half of the basilica was studied and part of the mosaics were moved to the regional museum of archaeology. A protective cover was built over the ruins while the unstudied part was left under the street. In 1995, the basilica was declared a national monument of culture.

After another 20 years of desolation and neglect, in 2016-2017 the basilica was again revived to be thoroughly studied and restored. As of the autumn of 2019, there is a special protective roofing over it, the mosaics are restored in situ and the site is open for visitors.

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