Bulgarian Authorities Mull Turning Archaeology-Rich ‘Varna Hole’ into Open-Air Museum of Ancient Odessos

The notorious "Varna Hole" has been used as a privately-owned parking lot even though it contains remains of two of Varna's ancient fortress walls. The Varna Largo, the pedestrian zone, is visible in the background. Photo by Intrigi.bg

The notorious “Varna Hole” has been used as a privately-owned parking lot even though it contains remains of two of Varna’s ancient fortress walls. The Varna Largo, the pedestrian zone, is visible in the background. Photo: Intrigi.bg

Bulgaria’s Culture Ministry and Varna Municipality are trying to figure out how to create an open-air museum of ouf the notorious “Varna Hole” – a Communist Era construction site in the downtown of the Black Sea city of Varna which contains ruins of two of the fortress walls of the Ancient Thracian, Greek, and Roman city of Odessos (Odessus).

The “Varna Hole” originated in the 1980s when the communist regime tore down several homes with the status of cultural monuments in order to build a large department store in downtown Varna. However, as the construction revealed important archaeological objects, the project got bogged down.

Since the collapse of Bulgaria’s communist regime in 1989, the Varna Hole has been partly used as a privately owned parking lot, and has been widely perceived as a symbol of urban mismanagement and, possibly, corruption. The important archaeological monuments in it remain unexhibited.

Now, Varna Municipality has announced that it has initiated talks with the Culture Ministry in order to exhibit the fortress walls of ancient Odessos (known in Roman times as Odessus) whose ruins are found in the Varna Hole.

[Culture Minister] Vezhdi Rashidov and I had a conversation. I hope that we will find a solution so that this wound in the heart of the city is removed. The condition of the Hole is awful. We must find a way to turn it into a place that corresponds to the [Varna] Largo,” Varna Mayor Ivan Portnih is quoted as saying. He adds that talks with the Ministries of Finance and Economy have also been involved in the talks.

The Mayor’s team wants to turn the archaeological site inside the Varna Hole into a modern open-air museum with restored fortress wall, greenery, and lighting as part of its current rehabilitation of the downtown.

“The open-air museum will attract the holidaymakers from the [Black Sea] resorts around Varna, says the Mayor of Varna.

The Varna Hole has a total area of 3,775 square meters bordering the Varna Largo, the pedestrian zone along the Knyaz Boris I Boulevard. After Bulgaria’s communist regime tore down several cultural monument homes there to build a department store, the construction was stopped because the discovery of archaeological layers from ancient Odessos.

Those include part of a fortress wall and a fortress tower of Odessos dating back to the 4th century BC; this is the oldest fortress wall of ancient Odessos known to Bulgarian archaeologists.

The Varna Hole also features ruins from Late Antiquity buildings from the 4th-5th century as well as two drainage canals and three clay pipelines from the same period.

The Bulgarian archaeologists have also found remains of the Second Fortress Fortress Wall. They say that having two fortress walls from different times period in the downtown of a contemporary city is a very rare occurrence. All the more so because the archaeologists from the Varna Museum of Archaeology have recently discovered a third fortress wall of ancient Odessus during the rescue excavations of the Varna Largo.

Back in 1989, Bulgaria’s National Institute for Cultural Monuments declared that the archaeological remains in the Varna Hole are unique for Varna and for Bulgaria, and recommended that they be exhibited in situ in an open-air museum.

Ever since then the opening in the heart of Varna’s downtown has been known as the Varna Hole. The parking lot inside the “Hole” has been bought by Plovdiv oligarch Georgi Gergov who several years ago announced plans to build a shopping mall there, which have failed to materialize so far.

Parts of the third fortress wall of ancient Odessos (Odessus) – the Late Antiquity wall found during the rescue excavations in the Varna Largo in March 2015 – will also be exhibited in situ for the tourists.

Another view of part of the Varna Hole (the parking lot on the left) with the Varna Largo (the pedestrian zone on the right). The Hole is not directly visible from the Largo because there are pavillions lined along it. The pavillions have been mentioned as a source of corruption because of the murky ways in which they are rented. Photo: Cherno More Information Agency

Another view of part of the Varna Hole (the parking lot on the left) with the Varna Largo (the pedestrian zone on the right). The Hole is not directly visible from the Largo because there are pavillions lined along it. The pavillions have been mentioned as a source of corruption because of the murky ways in which they are rented. Photo: Cherno More Information Agency

Check out the other stories about the March 2015 rescue excavations of the Ancient Thracian, Greek, and Roman city of Odessos in Bulgaria’s Varna SO FAR (in reverse chronological order):

Archaeologists in Bulgaria’s Varna Find 2 Late Antiquity Buildings in Ancient Odessos before Wrapping Up Rescue Digs – April 2, 2015

Flooding Ruins Newly Found Late Antiquity Fortress Wall of Ancient Odessos in Bulgaria’s Varna – March 30, 2015

Water Utility in Bulgaria’s Varna Cracks 5th Century Earth Jar, Submerges Ancient Odessos ‘Like Atlantis’ – March 28, 2015

‘Giant’ Man’s Skeleton Found under Odessos Fortress Wall in Bulgaria’s Varna Turns Out to Be ‘Only’ 165 cm Tall – March 28, 2015

Archaeologists in Bulgaria’s Varna Unearth 3 More Skeletons, Identify Necropolis under Fortress Wall of Ancient Odessos – March 28, 2015

Giant’ Skeleton Found under Odessos Fortress Wall in Bulgaria’s Varna Not Fully Dug Up, Measured Yet, Archaeologists Inform – March 26, 2015

Archaeologists Dig Up Ancient Skeleton from under Odessos Fortress Wall in Bulgaria’s Varna – March 17, 2015

Bulgarian Archaeologists Uncover Ancient Hand Mill, Odessos Fortress Wall in Varna – March 13, 2015

Workers Stumble Upon 1500-Year-Old Earthen Jar in Odessos Archaeology Preserve in Bulgaria’s Varna – January 22, 2015

Background Infonotes:

The dawn of Varnas history dates back to the dawn of human civilization, the Eneolithic Varna Necropolis being especially well known with the discovery of the world’s oldest find of gold artifacts dating back to the 5th millenium BC.

Ancient Odessos is considered the precursor of the Bulgarian Black Sea city of Varna. It was founded by Miletian Greek colonists at the end of 7th century BC, the earliest Greek archaeological material dating back to 600-575 BC. However, the Greek colony was established within an earlier Ancient Thracian settlement, and the name Odessos had existed before the arrival of the Miletian Greeks and might have been of Carian origin. Odessos as the Roman city of Odessus became part of the Roman Empire in 15 AD when it was incorporated in the Roman province Moesia. Roman Odessos is especially known today for its well preserved public baths, or thermae, the largest Roman single structure remains in Bulgaria, and the fourth largest Roman public baths known in Europe.

The First Bulgarian Empire (680-1018 AD) conquered Odessos (Varna) from Romes successor, the Eastern Roman Empire, or Byzantium, in the late 7th century. It is even believed that the peace treaty in which the Byzantine Empire recognized the ceding of its northern territories along the Danube to Bulgaria was signed in Odessos. The v(val) that the first ruler of Danube Bulgaria, Khan (or kanas) Asparuh built at the time as a defense against future Byzantine incursions is still standing. Numerous Ancient Bulgar settlements around Varna have been excavated, and the First Bulgarian Empire had its first two capitals Pliska (681-893 AD) and Veliki (Great) Preslav (893-970 AD) just 70-80 km to the west of Varna. It is suggested that the name of Varna itself is of Bulgar origin. In the Middle Ages, as a coastal city, Varna changed hands between Bulgaria and Byzantium several times. It was reconquered for the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) by Tsar Kaloyan (r. 1197-1207 AD) in 1201 AD.

The Varna Hole is a pit dug up for the construction of a department store in 1984 but abandoned after the collapse of Bulgaria’s communist regime in 1989. It is presently used as a paid parking lot. It is intriguing because it features remains of the Ancient Roman fortress wall of Odessos / Odessus dating back to the 1st century AD as well as preserved walls of the Ancient Greek colony of Odessos dating back to the 5th century BC.

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