FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Six sights from Roman Plovdiv

Posted in Bulgaria, Plovdiv by folkestonejack on September 24, 2017

The roman city of Philippopolis, now Plovdiv, was an important urban centre in the province of Thracia and prospered for three centuries until the barbarians arrived.

A surprisingly rich array of Roman sights remains to this day, despite the repeated sacking of the city. A half day wander through the city is easily sufficient to cover most of these, though there are a few sites a little farther out (such as the aqueduct) that would take a little more time. You can follow an easy trail marked from the ‘On the roman path‘ leaflet provided by the local Tourist board.

1. The Bishop’s Basilica

The most fascinating of the Roman sites is the least accessible at present. The remains of the fifth century Bishop’s basilica, adjacent to the present day Catholic Cathedral of St Ludwig, were first discovered in the mid-1980s during work to construct an underpass but further exploration of the site only concluded a month or two back. The scale of the buiding can’t be overemphasised – this is the largest early Christian Basilica in Bulgaria and one of the largest in the entire Balkan region.

The mosaic floor at the Bishop’s Basilica

The ten month long archaeological dig to explore the northern apse came to a close this summer but during our visit it was possible to look down upon the site from the boundary fencing whilst the final clean-up and recording was taking place. You don’t often get to see such wondrous sites at this stage of their development so I relished the opportunity to observe.

The quality of the 2,000 square metres of mosaics was evident from a distance, including a stunning peacock medallion, whilst other discoveries included a fifth century stone baptismal vessel.

It is intended that a museum will be constructed over the site with the mosaics displayed in situ under a protective glass floor, presumably in a similar set-up to the nearby small basilica. I have seen reference to opening dates of 2018 and 2019 suggested in different articles. Once it is open I have no doubt that this will be a major attraction in the city.

2. The Small Basilica

In 1988 the foundations and mosaic floor of an early Christian church from the fifth century were discovered during work to build an apartment block. The finds were stunning, including mosaics of a stag and doves (or pigeons if you believe one of the labels) in the baptistery. Around half of the mosaics were put into storage but later returned to the site in 2013 after the construction of an archaeological museum over the site. Some of the mosaics are now visible under a glass floor and the rest are on open display behind barriers.

The Small Basilica

It’s probably easiest to approach the small basilica from the direction of the Post Office in the town centre rather than taking the back street route we followed from the Eastern Gate as the museum is entirely fenced in from this side (it took us a while to find a cut through onto the main road). We were the only visitors on the Sunday morning that we stopped by. Admission was relatively inexpensive at 5 lev.

A small note of caution – you might want to avoid the video presentation offered on the religious sites of Plovdiv if you are planning to visit these later and don’t want too many spoilers!

3. The Eirene Residence

The Eirene Residence, a roman villa with some marvelous mosaics, was discovered in 1983 during work to construct an underpass. The small museum, referred to on maps and signposts as ‘Trakart Mosaics’, presents 160 square metres of ancient Roman mosaic preserved in situ.

The mosaic floor at the Eirene Residence

The site takes its name from the centerpiece of the mosaic floor – a portrait of Eirene, goddess and daughter of Zeus. We came across this mosaic marvel twice – first at the Eirene Residence and later at the archaeological museum in Plovdiv (presumably the latter is the original?).

The museum is accessed from a pedestrian underpass that is interesting in its own right as it uses the exposed roman road as its floor. Admission was 5 lev.

4. Ancient theatre

The ancient Roman theatre (dating to around 108-117 AD) looks so impressive today that it is hard to imagine that this site was entirely hidden until its accidental discovery during construction work in 1968. Archaeological exploration was followed by reconstruction of the stage building (scaenae frons) from the elements that survived on site and it was re-opened to the public in 1981.

The Roman Theatre in Plovdiv from the 1st century AD

Our visit co-incided with a series of evening concerts at the venue giving us a different perspective of the site, not least the trickiness of clambering down the heavily worn steps (it’s a lovely opportunity to follow in the footsteps of the ancient citizens of Philippopolis but a health and safety nightmare too!). It’s an impressive venue for live music and the acoustics are all the more remarkable when you realise that a major road runs underneath this hill, entering a tunnel just before the site.

5. Eastern Gate of Philippopolis

The Eastern Gate was discovered in the 1970s and the foundations now lay exposed in the open, making it easy to get a good view over the entire complex. It’s one of those sites that has changed significantly over time, evolving from a triumphal arch into something a little more ordinary and then ending up a source of building material for the local population.

The road running through the Eastern Gate of Philippopolis

The Eastern Gate is easily reached from the old town and its close proximity to the delightful church of St Nedelya means that it can easily be incorporated into a walking tour of the city.

6. The Forum and Odeon of Philippopolis

The Forum and Odeon are two sites in close proximity to the modern day Post Office that give a glimpse into the heart of city life, including public buildings such as the hall in which the city council met. The pedestrian walkway here presents an easy view of the two open air sites, though it has to be said that the forum looked a rather sad sight when we visited.

The Odeon of Philippopolis

Other sights in the city centre include a section of the roman stadium and a stretch of aqueduct sandwiched between two busy roads.

In addition to all of this, you can visit a much older site at the hilltop of Nebet Tepe which has been fortified and re-fortified many times over the centuries, including during the Roman era. It is surprisingly easy to reach, just a short walk up from the heart of the old town and well worth visiting for the panoramic view as much as for the ruins themselves. It’s not hard to see why it is such a popular spot at sunset.

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