Ivo Topalilov


Institite for Balkan Studies & Center of Thracology                          DOI             
Bulgarain Academy of Sciences 20 June 2020
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Abstract: The presented archaeological site is one of the emblematic ones for the late ancient Philippopolis in its paganism-early Christianity dialogue, located extra moenia. Here was the temple of Apollo, the patron and protector of Philippopolis, later replaced by a Christian temple, which grew into a monastery complex. This article discusses the main manifestations of this process.

Key words: Christianity, Philippopolis, Late Antiquity

The remains of the Early Christian basilica located on Dzhendem Tepe, extra moenia, has been excavated by D. Tsonchev in 1936. The basilica was located on the ridge of the hill, southeast of its peak, which is the only place where the leveled area allowed the construction of a building of similar size; in the rest, steep slopes are observed on the cone-shaped hill. In this sense, if there was an earlier temple of Apollo at this place, for which we draw information from the autonomous coinage for Philippopolis,[1] its only possible place would be in this sector. It is therefore not surprisingly that in the course of the excavations were also found small finds that indicate habitation since the early Iron Age, and later Hellenism and the Roman era. The rocky terrain and the public character of the archaeological structure of the Roman and Late Antiquity determine not only the thickness of the cultural layer, reaching a maximum height of up to 1 m, with places where it is almost entirely absent, but also its character – mixed, without pronounced stratigraphic sequence.[2] This clarification is needed because it is at the heart of the discussion about the dating of the early Christian basilica.

The early Christian basilica is a three-nave, single-apse, with narthex building. Its total length reaches 35.2 m, and its width – 17.40 m. Accordingly, the outer length of the naos is 21.5 m and 27.1 m with the apse. The ratio between the central nave and the outer aisle is almost 1: 3, 9.40/3.30 m wide, respectively, and the apse is 8.20 m wide and 4.1 m deep. The narthex is one-spaced, 5.35 m wide. The construction technique consists of stones bounded with ‘red mortar’, with the usual thickness of the walls varying between 0.80/0.90 m. Only the apse wall is thicker due to the fact that it is also supportive, which led to its further strengthen. Thus, its base reaches 1.50 m. The walls are preserved at a height of between 0.20 – 0.40 m, and in some places there are spolia used in them, such as for example of a fragment of a marble altar, probably belonging to the temple of Apollo but also syenite square blocks, one of which is profiled.[3]

Archaeological excavation reveals that the basilica was not a sole building, but probably part of a complex. Thus, to the south of it, but in the immediate vicinity, a rectangular-shaped building was discovered, the interior of which was divided into smaller, almost square-shaped rooms. The floor is solid, made of gravel, soldered to a red mortar. To the north of the basilica a massive wall was attested, the thickness of which was identical to that of the outer walls and the rooms to the south – 1.40 m. They both may have played a reinforcing role[4] and may have served as retaining walls

Subsequently, the reconstruction of the southern premises was found by continuing in the west direction. This reconstruction used again broken stones, but soldered on white crumbly mortar.[5]

The results of archaeological excavation raise two major questions: when was the basilica built and was it part of a larger complex, such as a monastery for example?

The basilica is dated by its researcher in general to the fifth-sixth century. [6] This date has been accepted in general in the literature,[7] but it has recently been reconsidered, with the suggestion of an earlier date. For example, on the basis of the ‘extended naos and the construction of the basilica outside the fortified city’, M. Bospachieva expresses a similar possibility.[8] More specifically is the early date proposed by E. Kesyakova, who is inclined to refer to the construction of the building in the second half of the fourth century, making it the ‘earliest Christian church’ in Philippopolis.[9]

Dating of the basilica on the basis only of formal characteristics cannot be accepted without any doubt. The assumption that it belongs to the group with long (extended) naos, i.e. the ratio of the inner width to the length of the naos is at least 2: 3,[10] cannot be taken as a major dating argument because part of the basilicas known from Thrace referring to this group date from the end of the fourth - the first half of the fifth century. For example, the construction of one of the basilicas located near Philippopolis that belongs to this group is basilica No. 5 in Diocletianopolis, is dated to the beginning of the fifth century.[11] Similar is the case with the basilica found near the village of Buhovo whose construction is dated between the end of the fifth – the beginning of the sixth century, but also near Bisone of the middle of the fifth century, etc.[12] There are numerous examples like these, in which a constant use of early construction practices are observed. The basilica found near the village of Abrit, in ancient Zaldapa, is an example of this, using an extended naos with a polygonal apse, similar is also the case of Buhovo, etc. Therefore, the argumentation presented above cannot be accepted unreservedly,[13] moreover, with the size of the naos, the basilica under consideration in this study rather belongs to the group of the basilicas with the normal rather than long naos.[14]

The basilicas in this group are the most numerous and its distribution refers generally to the fourth – fifth century.

At least two basilicas, one of which is discovered near Plovdiv, can be cited as extremely close parallels in terms of plan and size. The earlier one is the one discovered in the village of Dolni Voden, Asenovgrad district, whose construction dates back to the second half of the fourth century,[15] while the second one is the so-called Basilica No. 1 in Serdika, whose construction dates to the end of the fourth century, i.e. after the Gothic wars of 376–378 AD[16] or the beginning of the fifth century.[17] In the case of the first basilica, it remains unclear whether it has an atrium, with the dimensions of the two basilicas being respectively: 25.60 / 17 m ( naos 21/17 m) and 31.80 / 17.45 m.

Other analogies that can be pointed also such as, for example, the basilica No. 1 (23.50/15.1) found near the train station ‘Han Krum’, Shumen district,[18] basilica No. 7 and basilica No. 8 in Diocletianopolis (modern Hisarya)[19] and basilica No. 1 in Serdica, extra muros.

The similarities between these basilicas and their peculiarities, as well as the peculiarities of the basilica located on Dzemdem Tepe, such as the large semicircular apse, which extends almost all the width to the middle nave, the simple altar, one-spaced narthex and the proportions of the axial space, including the wider outer aisles, compared to most of the other basilicas dating from the fourth century, give me reason to postpone the construction of the basilica at the earliest at end of the fourth century, and especially after the Gothic wars, i.e. in time of Teodosius I. However, if the date is earlier, it could not have been earlier than the time of Valens.

The second problem that I would like to discuss in the following lines has not been raised so far in the literature, with D. Tsonchev alone suggesting that the premises that had been found along the basilica could be used as dwellings for servants or even clergy, since the basilica was located far out of the city, while the walls can also be interpreted as fortifying in order preserve the complex from enemy attacks.[20]

The basilica under consideration here is not the only one found with a peribolos or curtain wall in Thrace.[21] Other similar ones were found in the region of the town of Pirdop, as one was discovered near the village of Kamenitsa, Pirdop district, probably built in the fifth century,[22] while the other is the famous ‘Elenska basilica’ from the end of the fifth century which is situated within a fortress with corner towers. It should be underlying that these are not the only basilicas within an enclosure known from Thrace.[23]

In the case of the basilica located on Dzhendem tepe, the thickness of the walls, which reaches places up to 1.90 m, or else 1.40 m, places the basilica in the group of the fortified basilicas. The reinforcement of a basilica situated the main urban center, such as Philippopolis, which housed the garrison, suggests that a major military threat had existed which determined the construction of the curtain walls. And such in the fourth century, which partially affected the city and rather the neighborhoods and structures, extra muros, was undoubtedly the Gothic Wars of 376–378 AD. Therefore, they may also be the terminus port quem of the construction of the basilica, since the fortress walls and the building were built at the same time.

Initially, the peribolos may have consisted mainly of two rooms located south of the basilica. However, later, probably the sixth century, dating based on the crumbly mortar, in my opinion, radically was changed the purpose of the complex. The additional construction of premises in the southern part, in continuation of the existing ones, if not actually a reconstruction of existing earlier ones, gives the impression of the presence of chain-lined premises along the walls, something that is characteristic of the monastery complexes in Thrace. Thus, the monastery complex near the village of Bratsigovo, which is closest located gives a good example of this[24] as well as the monastery complex, suburbana, discovered at 4 Alexander Pushkin St. in Plovdiv,[25] give the mechanism of construction of such a complex through its gradual expansion and additional organization. For example, in the first complex, a one-nave church with a narthex and a small chapel adjacent to it were originally built. It may be assumted at that time or slightly later three rooms were built, in a row, attached north to the narthex, one of them used as baptistry. The next room, according to the researcher, was used for residential purposes, although the dolium, iron chisel and arbor found in it were more symptomatic about its economic functions. At this time, the enclosure wall of the complex was also built, partially uncovered in the north and south directions. These initial construction initiatives date back to the middle, and probably to the third quarter of the fifth century. Subsequently, premises were built along the southern wall of the complex on the inside and outside, probably with economic functions, judging by the materials found therein. The new constructions were made by stones bounded by clay. A similar synchronal extension was found to the south of the church, with both plentiful material and pottery. These later remodels and constructions are generally dated to the sixth century[26] and most probably at the beginning. [27]

Similar is the case with the suburbian monastery complex, located on 4 Aleksandur Pushkin St. in Plovdiv. It seems that after the construction of the basilica, it expanded at least in two stages, initially by a room added in south direction, in which a tomb of a venerated Christian was discovered, and subsequently the complex expanded once again with an attachment of irregular shape. Of the latter only two rooms have been studied, on of them decorated with mosaic floor. The construction of the basilica can be dated to the late fourth – beginning of fifth century, while the initial extension can be attributed to the first half of the fifth century, and the second, when the complex itself is probably formed, to the second half of the fifth century.[28]

As can be observed, in both cases the church was first built, around which the complexes subsequently developed.[29] The case of the basilica located on Dznedem tepe seems to be identical, which is why I am inclined to assume that, at the latest in the sixth century, if not earlier, the existing complex was finally transformed into a monastery complex. Given the nature of the terrain, it was probably small in size and close to the type of monastery complexes discovered in the Pirdop region, but supplemented by several premises related to its needs.

[1] For the temple of Apollo – see Герасимов 1958; Burrell 2004.

[2] Цончев 1938, 22.

[3] Цончев 1938, 26-31.

[4] Цончев 1938, 31.

[5] Цончев 1938, 31.

[6] Цончев 1938, 32.

[7] Ботушарова & Танкова 1982, 59.

[8] Мартинова & Боспачиева 2002, 194; Bospačieva 2005, 30. In her monograph N. Chaneva-Dechevska misinterpreted the basilica discovered on Dznedem tepe with probably the basilica discovered on Dzambaz tepe – see Чанева-Дечевска 1999, 254.

[9] Кесякова 2006, 147–148.

[10] Чанева-Дечевска 1999, 59.

[11] Чанева-Дечевска 1999, 270.

[12] Чанева-Дечевска 1999, 170–171.

[13] I am not going to discuss the argument that the basilica was situated extra muros as it is irrelevant for the study proposed here.

[14] See for them Чанева-Дечевска 1999, 60.

[15] Морева 1983, 13-19.

[16] Бояджиев 2002, 163.

[17] Станчева 1964, 158–168.

[18] Чанева-Дечевска 1999, 186–188.

[19] Маджаров 1993.

[20] Цончев 1938, 31.

[21] N. Chaneva – Decehvska believes that the Basilica B found near the town of Berkovitsa should be applied to this group – see Чанева-Дечевска 1999, 222–226; 302, but this is rather unclear as in this case we may be dealing with a fortress within which a basilica was later constructed.

[22] Чанева-Дечевска 1999, 302.

[23] For the rest of them such as for instance that near the village of Krun, Kazanluk district – see Чанева-Дечевска 1999.

[24] See Джамбов 1956, 175–192.

[25] See Topalilov 2007.

[26] Джамбов 1956, 190.

[27] Чанева-Дечевска 1999, 262.

[28] Topalilov 2007.

[29] Similar is the case with the Studios monastery in Constantinople – see the discussion in Topalilov 2020.


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The Early Christian basilicae in Philippopolis and Herakleia – two pieces of work of an unknown metropolitan mosaic workshop” (in Print)



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