Bulgaria’s National History Museum Urges Excavation, Restoration of Great Basilica in Early Medieval Capital Pliska

A model from the Pliska Museum of History showing what the Great Basilica in the then Bulgarian capital looked like after its construction in the 9th century AD. Photo by Svilen Enev, Wikipedia

A model from the Pliska Museum of History showing what the Great Basilica in the then Bulgarian capital looked like after its construction in the 9th century AD. Photo by Svilen Enev, Wikipedia

Bulgaria’s National Museum of History has issued a statement urging and promoting the further archaeological excavations and restoration of the 9th century Great Basilica in Pliska, today a small northeastern town, which was the mighty capital of the First Bulgarian Empire between 680 and 893 AD.

The Museum statement comes after over the weekend Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov promised BGN 500,000 (EUR 255,000) in government funding to kick start the renewal of the excavations and restoration of Pliska while he was attending the celebrations of the 1150th anniversary since Bulgaria’s adoption of Christianity in 865 AD.

Bozhidar Dimitrov, the Director of Bulgaria’s National Museum of History, though often criticized, is a staunch proponent of the archaeological restorations of Bulgaria’s ancient and medieval monuments, the overwhelming majority of which were destroyed by the Ottoman Turks during their invasion of the Second Bulgarian Empire at the end of the 14th century.

Dimitrov recently launched an NGO called “Pliska” to raise donations for the reconstruction of several major archaeological monuments in three of the medieval capitals of the Bulgarian Empire – Pliska, Veliki Preslav (Great Preslav), and Veliko Tarnovo, and in the Black Sea resort town of Sozopol.

“The restoration of the Great Basilica in Pliska means [national] memory, patriotism, and tourism,” reads the statement of the National Museum of History, which also explains that the BGN 500,000 of funding promised by the Bulgarian government for renewed excavations and reconstruction in Pliska will all be spent on the Great Basilica, and that BGN 7.5 million (appr. EUR 3.8 million) more will be provided in the years to come to complete the monument’s restoration.

The Museum adds that the Great Basilica in Pliska, the first capital of Bulgaria south of the Danube, used to be the largest Christian cathedral in Europe in the Middle Ages.

It was long 102.5 meters and wide 30 meters, which means it was 20 meters longer than the Hagia Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople, the titular temple of the Ecumenical Patriarchate during the period of the Byzantine Empire, and about 30 meters longer than the San Pietro in Vincoli Cathedral in Rome.

Thus, the Great Basilica in Bulgaria’s Pliska was technically the largest Christian temple in Europe until the 17th century, i.e. until the completion of the Papal Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican in 1629 AD.

The Great Basilica in Pliska was built with huge white limestone quadras from the quarries in the nearby town of Kyulevcha. Around the basilica there was a large monastery complex and the residence of the Bulgarian Archbishop (between 870 and 917 AD), and the Bulgarian Patriarch (from 917 AD onwards).

In this monastery complex, Bulgarian archaeologists have found a scriptorium for the “production” of medieval books in Old Bulgarian, also known as Church Slavonic.

“It is with these books that the monastery monks and missionaries converted [to Christianity] the peoples of modern-day countries Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Romania, Moldova, Serbia in the 9th-10th century, explains the statement of Bulgaria’s National Museum of History.

It adds that the Great Basilica in Pliska was still standing until the Late Middle Ages, and was destroyed by the Ottoman Turks after their invasion at the end of the 14th century because according to the laws of the Islamic Ottoman Empire no Christian temple could stand taller than a Muslim man mounted on a horse.

“Just as modern-day jihadists are destroying entire ancient cities in Iraq and Syria, the Great Basilica and all of Pliska were destroyed [by the Ottomans] in the 14th and 15th century. The wonderful construction material from these buildings was used for the construction of the Turkish military barracks in the city of Shumen, and [in the 19th century] for the construction of the Varna-Ruse railway under [Ottoman statesman] Midhat Pasha. Why shouldn’t we restore this monument?” asks Bulgaria’s National Museum of History.

Its statement further argues that there are at least three main reasons to reconstruct the 9th century Great Basilica in Pliska as well as other archaeological monuments from the time of the Bulgarian Empire, namely: to restore Bulgaria’s lost national memory; to promote cultural tourism; and promote the patriotic upbringing of the Bulgarians.

“The first reason is to restore our destroyed historical memory. These palaces and churches were not destroyed by accident, as some might happen to believe. Every “normal” conqueror in human history utilizes the buildings (especially the monuments) of the conquered nation for their own needs. Everybody has done that, including us Bulgarians who utilized the fortresses of the Early Byzantines. And we also turned the Turkish konak (residence) in Sofia into a royal and imperial palace [after Bulgaria’s Liberation from the Ottoman Empire in 1878],” reads the statement, while also elaborating on the different approach of the Ottoman conquerors who razed to the ground the monuments of Bulgaria’s medieval glory.

“They intended to rule us and ruled us as a “rayah” meaning a “herd”. And a “herd” needs no buildings to remind its people of their past glory and their right to freedom. That is why these buildings were destroyed, or with some rare exceptions, turned into mosques, for example, the St. Sofia Basilica in Sofia and the Holy Forty Martyr’s Church in Veliko Tarnovo. Everything else was put to the sword of Islam”.

According to Bulgaria’s National Museum of History, the second reason for the archaeological restorations is the development potential of cultural tourism, which is underdeveloped in Bulgaria but is already seeing some promising results.

“The partly restored fortresses and churches of smaller medieval cities such as Perperikon, Belchin, Peshtera, Byala, among others, are already visited by between 250,000 and 500,000 tourists per year. The Great Basilica in Pliska is a first-class monument among historical objects in Bulgaria, Europe, and the world,” it says.

The Museum also points out that the Great Basilica, and Pliska itself, is close to vital transport infrastructure such as highways, airports, sea and river ports, and no additional money will have to be spent on making it more accessible.

“The third reason, of course, is the patriotic upbringing of the Bulgarians. It cannot be achieved, as the opponents of [archaeological] restorations wish, by “three rows of surviving stone masonry covered by grass vegetation”. Not only do “three rows of stones” fail to generate patriotic sentiment, but they also cannot attract tourists. They can only cause a feeling of despondence and historical frustration,” points out the statement.

The National Museum of History has designed the plan for utilizing the promised government funding of BGN 500,000 for the Great Basilica in Pliska. According to its statement, BGN 100,000 (app. EUR 51,000) will be spent on archaeological excavations in the only unexplored section of the temple.

The excavations will be carried out by Prof. Pavel Georgiev, who has been excavating the Great Basilica in Pliska throughout his entire career, for more than 35 years.

The remaining BGN 400,000 will be spent on the partial restoration of the Great Basilica according to an architectural blueprint drafted in the 1980s by late Bulgarian architect Prof. Dr. Teofil Teofilov, which has been approved by Bulgaria’s Ministry of Culture and the National Institute for Cultural Heritage Properties.

The 9th century Great Basilica in the former Bulgarian imperial capital of Pliska has been partially restored but now a NGO has set out to rebuild it fully. Photo by Klearchos Kapoutsis, Wikipedia

The 9th century Great Basilica in the former Bulgarian imperial capital of Pliska has been partially restored but now a NGO has set out to rebuild it fully. Photo by Klearchos Kapoutsis, Wikipedia

In interviews for the Bulgarian daily Trud and website Dnevnik.bg published almost simultaneously with the Museum statement, Museum Director Bozhidar Dimitrov, who is a famous nationalist historian, says he is especially happy with Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov’s promise for funding.

“I have been trying to restore the Great Basilica in Plisca for 15 years, and two months ago I started a fundraising campaign. I have now received the support of both the government, and the [Bulgarian Orthodox] Church,” he says, explaining that his fundraising campaign has raised BGN 12,000 (app. EUR 5,200) so far.

“Few people know that Pliska’s Great Basilica was the largest basilica in Europe until the 17th century when the St. Peter Cathedral was built in the Vatican. It is larger than Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, which is 72 meters long, while the Great Basilica in Pliska is 102 meters long. The Great Basilica in Pliska is an expression of the might of medieval Bulgaria, and is evidently a state symbol designed to impress foreign delegations. It is no accident that it was not built with the typical materials used in Byzantium, crushed small stones and bricks, but with large 350 kg properly shaped blocks of marble limestone,” adds Dimitrov, elaborating,

“The Great Basilica was of enormous importance for Bulgaria, and it is no accident that it was razed to the ground by the Ottomans. The Ottomans wanted to turn the Christian population into a “rayah”, which means a “rayah”. They realized that a “rayah” must have no memory of its past glory so that it can be ruled easily. And instead of using this building as a storehouse, or turning it into a mosque, they razed it to the ground, setting up several lime pits right around it, in which they smelted both the limestone and the marble decorations of the church. The Romans called this practice “damnatio memoriae”erasing of memory. That is why I believe that the restoration of this temple is not for tourism purposes but for the purpose of restoring memory.”

Dimitrov has once again shrugged off criticism to the critics of archaeological restorations.

“[The critics] don’t know that this church has Western architecture. Its design was brought to the Court of Knyaz Boris I by Bishop Formosus (later Pope Formosus, r. 891-896 AD), an envoy of Pope Nicolas I (r. 858-867 AD). There are churches with this design all over Italy, except they are smaller in size but their proportions are the same,” he emphasizes.

The head of Bulgaria’s National Museum of History also points out that the existing small-scale partial restorations of the Great Basilica in Plisca were executed according to the architectural plan drafted by the late Prof. Teofil Teofilov in the 1980s which is now to be executed further.

He reveals that the restoration will not be all-out but partial and the funding will also be spent on building a large fence and setting up a ticket admission system because at present the ruins of the Great Basilica are lying in the open air, and are freely accessible to everybody.

The bank account of the Pliska NGO raising money for archaeological restorations in Bulgaria’s medieval capitals is:

Pliska Association
Eurobank EFG Bulgaria
Branch Sofia
IBAN: BG47 BPBI 7939 1087 7828 01

Background Infonotes:

Pliska and Veliki Preslav (Great Preslav) are two of the capitals of the First Bulgarian Empire. Pliska was the capital of the First Bulgarian Empire in 680-893 AD, and Veliki Preslav in 893-970 AD, at the height of the Bulgarian state. The state capital was moved from Pliska to Veliki Preslav, a new medieval city nearby, in 893 AD in order to seal Bulgaria’s adoption of Christianity and the Bulgarian (Slavic, Cyrillic) script (in 865 and 886 AD, respectively). The ruins of both Pliska and Veliki Preslav can be seen today in the Shumen District in Northeast Bulgaria.

Bulgaria’s adoption of Christianity as the formal and only state religion took place in 864-865 AD under the leadership of Khan / Knyaz Boris I Mihail (r. 852-889; 893 AD).

As a result of the successful reigns of Khan (or Kanas) Krum (r. 803-814 AD), Khan (Kanas) Omurtag (r. 814-831 AD), Khan (Kanas) Malamir (r. 831-836), and Khan (Kanas) Presian (r. 836-852 AD), by the middle of the 9th century the First Bulgarian Empire had become a huge empire spanning from the Black Sea in the east to the Adriatic Sea in the west, and from the Northern Carpathian Mountains in the north to the Aegean Sea in the south, including the entire or part of the territory of modern-day Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Greece, Turkey, Albania, Macedonia, Hungary, Moldova, and Ukraine. However, the major peoples inhabiting the Bulgarian Empire – the Ancient Bulgars (whose religion is known as tengriism) and the Slavs as well as the local Thracian population and others – worshipped different gods according to their own religions and mythologies. This was true even though there were entire areas in the then Bulgarian Empire which had been Christianized in earlier periods, and even though the first Khans from the House of Dulo are believed to have been Christians who were baptized by the imperial court of the Eastern Roman Empire, i.e. Byzantium: Khan (Kanas) Kubrat (r. ca. 630-ca.660) who founded the so called Old Great Bulgaria in 632 AD on the territory of much of modern-day Ukraine and Southwest Russia; Khan (Kanas) Asparuh (r. ca. 680-700) who expanded the state to the southwest technically creating modern-day Danube Bulgaria around 680 AD; and Khan (Kanas) Tervel (r. 700-718/721) who saved Europe from an Arab invasion during the siege of Constantinople in 717 AD. This led Khan Boris I to decide to unite the different ethnicities in the First Bulgarian Empire with a new common religion, and to pick Christianity (even though the adoption of Islam and Judaism were also offered to him by foreign emissaries) because Bulgaria was then the only still pagan major European power, and he wanted Bulgaria to be treated as an equal by the Byzantine Empire in the east and the successors of the Frankish Empire in the west.

While Khan Boris I initially intended to adopt the Western form of Christianity from the Pope in Rome via the Kingdom of the East Franks (East Francia in modern-day Germany) because Byzantium had been Bulgaria’s major geopolitical foe, he was forced to change his decision after an unsuccessful war with the Byzantines imposed on him the adoption of the Eastern form of Christianity as part of a peace treaty signed in 863 AD. This resulted after the First Bulgarian Empire had had to fight simultaneously Byzantium in the southeast and Great Moravia in the northwest. Thus, in 863 or 864 AD, a mission from the Patriarch of Constantinople Photios came to Pliska and converted the Bulgarian Tsar, his family and high-ranking dignitaries, who were baptized as Christians. Khan Boris I became Knyaz Boris I Mihael – taking the name of his baptist, Byzantine Emperor Michael III (r. 842-867 AD), and in 865 AD there was baptism en masse of the entire Bulgarian population. Thus, even though the subsequent years saw the first major clashes between the Pope in Rome and the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople over the “Bulgarian Question”, i.e. whose diocese the large and powerful newly baptized First Bulgarian Empire should belong to, Bulgaria remained in the camp of Eastern Orthodox Christianity subsequently helping pass it on to later emerging nations such as Serbia and Russia, and thus modifying forever the history of Europe.

Bulgaria’s adoption of Christianity, however, went far from smoothly, and not only because of the clashes between the Pope in Rome and the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople over whose diocese the newly converted Bulgarians should belong to. In 865, conservative Bulgar aristocrats from all 10 komitats (administrative regions) of the First Bulgarian Empire revolted against Boris, who now took the Christianized title of Knyaz (i.e. King) in order to restore the old religion, tengriism. Knyaz Boris I managed to suppress the revolt executing 52 Bulgarian boyars (heads of noble families). According to some sources, he also had their entire extended families executed. Until the end of his life, Knyaz Boris was haunted by guilt about the harshness of his measures and the moral price of his decision in 865. In his later correspondence with Pope Nicholas I, the Knyaz asked whether his actions had crossed the borders of Christian humility, for which the Pope offered forgiveness: “You have sinned rather because of zeal and lack of knowledge, than because of other vice. You receive forgiveness and grace and the benevolence of Christ, since penance has followed on your behalf.”

Knyaz Boris realized that the Christianization of Bulgaria gave Byzantium great influence over the domestic affairs of the Bulgarian Empire. Thus, juggling the differences of Rome and Constantinople, he eventually managed to get Byzantium’s Ecumenical Patriarchate as well as the Pope in Rome to recognize an independent (autocephalous) Bulgarian Archbishopric, which was created in 870 AD in an unprecedented development for Europe because independent churches had been only those founded by Apostles or Apostles’ disciples. For example, the Papacy in Rome had been challenging Constantinople’s claim of equality to Rome on the grounds that the Church of Constantinople had not been founded by an Apostle of Jesus Christ. Nonetheless, this development was also a success for Byzantium, and during the decade after 870 AD, Pope Adrian II and his successors kept trying desperately to convince Bulgaria’s Knyaz Boris to leave Constantinople’s religious sphere.

Knyaz Boris I Mihail sealed the success of his deed, the adoption of Christianity, in 886 AD when Bulgaria welcomed the disciples of St. Cyril and St. Methodius, St. Kliment Ohridski and St. Naum Preslavski, helping them to teach thousands of Bulgarian clergymen to serve in Bulgarian. Thus, Bulgaria adopted the Bulgarian script, also known as the Slavic script – first the Glagolithic and then the Bulgarian (Cyrillic) alphabet. This allowed Knyaz Boris, and his successor Tsar Simeon I the Great to declare Bulgarian (also known as Old Bulgarian or Church Slavonic) as the official language of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church during the Council of Preslav in 893 AD (which also moved Bulgaria’s capital from Pliska to Veliki Preslav (Great Preslav)). As all over Europe religious services were held in the “official” church languages Latin and Greek, this “nationalization” of the liturgy language by Bulgaria became another exceptional development in medieval Europe after the recognition of the independent Bulgarian church.


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