For lovers of Antiquity second largest Bulgarian city offers ultimate experience
Plovdiv claims 7,000 years of uninterrupted history, starting from prehistoric times, but the earliest visible traces of this long past are much younger. They date back to the times when the city was called Philippopolis and was a major centre of government and commerce in the Roman province of Thrace.
Alternating diplomacy with war, the Romans spent almost a century gaining full control of Thrace and Philippopolis. In 45-46 AD, Emperor Claudius (41-54) established the province of Thrace. Philippopolis was not its capital, but the empire invested money, people and a great deal of effort in it, and made it the seat of the League of the Thracian cities. In the 2nd century it fared even better. The economy and the city flourished, minting its own coinage. People from all corners of the vast empire mingled on its streets and the whole city expanded onto the plain, spreading far from the protective shadow of the three hills. Later, Philippopolis was not spared the Barbarian invasions, economic crises and the power struggles which ravaged the empire, but it always rose from the ashes of destruction. In the 6th century, unlike many cities which were abandoned forever, Philippopolis entered the Middle Ages, to continue its onward transformation.
Philippopolis's Eastern Gate led to the road to Constantinople and Central Europe
Back in the days of its glory, Philippopolis was the cosmopolitan home of 100,000 people, both locals and new arrivals from all corners of the empire, who enjoyed all the amenities of Roman civilisation. They had paved streets and a constant water supply, lively markets and baths, and temples to the gods they worshipped – from local Thracian deities to universally popular Greek cults to divine immigrants from Asia Minor.
Although the infrastructure of this large and important city was eventually largely destroyed through the centuries of continuous inhabitation plus wars and Barbarian raids, what has survived makes Plovdiv the place to go to if you want to immerse yourself in the atmosphere of Roman Antiquity without leaving Bulgaria.
The ancient theatre is the best preserved Roman structure of this kind in Bulgaria
The marble theatre of Philippopolis is the jewel of Roman Plovdiv. Built around 108-114, in the dip between two hills of the city acropolis, it had capacity for 5,000 people and an astonishing vista over the Thracian Plain all the way to the Rhodope mountains. Popular comedies, singing competitions and gladiator games were major attractions. Even today, the most telling example of its continuing fascination is right before your eyes: the theatre steps worn down by the feet of thousands upon thousands of spectators.
The hills around the theatre are crisscrossed with Thracian, Roman and Byzantine fortification walls. They often merge into one another and are overbuilt with the beautiful 19th century townhouses Plovdiv is famous for. The best places to see how the structures of the different eras of Philippopolis overlap in an inimitable puzzle are Nebet Tepe, the Hisar Kapiya gate, with its round tower a few metres away, and Atanas Krastev Square.
The visible remains of the Roman stadium impress even today
The 2nd century economic boom produced another majestic public building in Philippopolis, the stadium. With a capacity of 30,000, it was a silent witness to the fierce competition of the city games, and to the devastation wrought by the Goths in 251. The stadium survived to the 11th century, but was later built over and forgotten until its rediscovery in 1923. Today, the semi-circular end can be seen at Antichen Square, next to the 15th century Cuma Mosque.
The length of the stadium is still below ground, with a section on view at the basement level of a shopping centre. It is easy to follow it in your imagination. The pedestrianised shopping street follows the ancient track for more than 200 metres.
The Regional Museum of Archaeology is a trove of ancient inscriptions that provide information about the life of Roman Plovdiv. Most of them were written in Greek
The forum of Roman Plovdiv, as in any ancient city worth its denarius, was a huge open area where trade was conducted, the inhabitants congregated, and the official emperor's cult received the obligatory veneration. In its heyday, the forum in Plovdiv spread over 10 hectares. Today, a small portion can be seen near the central post office. Best preserved are the partially restored remains of the Odeon, a small semi-circular building where the city council used to meet.
The remains of some marvellous mosaics from the houses of wealthy Philippopolis families are now in the Plovdiv Archaeological Museum, along with a collection of tombstones and sculptures. In the Arheologicheski Underpass, however, a more genuine experience awaits. There, on the premises of an art gallery, part of a well-to-do local family's house from the 3rd-6th centuries is exhibited in situ. Its centrepiece is a beautiful mosaic of Eirene, the Greek goddess of peace.
A mosaic depicting a menorah discovered at the ancient synagogue in Philippopolis
In the first century of Roman rule, Philippopolis was far from tumultuous borders, so the houses and the buildings on the plain were undefended. During the rule of Marcus Aurelius (161-180), however, Barbarian invasion threatened. A mighty wall was built to protect the city, and the remains of the most important gate in that fortress wall, the Eastern one, which led to Constantinople, are still preserved on Aleksandar Malinov Square.
Roman Philippopolis was home to many temples and deities, with local and imported cults attracting thousands of believers. The main temple, devoted to Apollo Kendrisos and later to the emperor, stood outside the city walls, on top of the hill now known as Dzhendem Tepe. In Philippopolis there was even a synagogue, the largest and oldest building of this type in the Balkans. In the first centuries after Christianity became the official religion many beautiful churches were built.
The baptistry of the Small Basilica had a marble baptismal pool and floor mosaics with rich symbolism
Sadly, most of these are now gone. A pool was built over the remains of the temple of Apollo. The synagogue was destroyed to make room for an apartment block.
Near the synagogue, in the early centuries of Christianity in Philippopolis, two churches were built: the grand Bishop's Basilica and the more intimate Small Basilica. Both feature astonishing mosaics and were researched and turned into modern museums in the 2010s, with funding from the America for Bulgaria Foundation.
The Bishop's Basilica exhibits ancient and medieval history, artefacts and art in a modern building using latest technology such as virtual reality
The Small Basilica is down Marie Louise Boulevard. It was discovered in the 1980s and impressed archaeologists with its mosaics, which are exquisite in appearance and rich in early-Christian symbolism. The church operated in the 5th-6th centuries, and was abandoned along with everything else on the plain when the citizens realised it was too dangerous to live there and withdrew to the three hills.
The Small Basilica was listed as a monument of culture, the mosaics were removed and put into storage, and the building was left to the weeds. About 20 years passed, until the America for Bulgaria Foundation began the long process of bringing the Small Basilica back to life – and to tourists. The church foundations were cleared and restored, and the mosaics, after extensive conservation, were brought back. The Small Basilica was turned into an exhibition space which showcases the past of Roman Plovdiv.
A majestic peacock is the centrepiece of the Bishop's Basilica mosaics
The Bishop's Basilica is a lot more spectacular. Erected in the 4th century in what was then the centre of the city, it is 90 metres long and 36 metres wide, the grandest Late Antiquity basilica discovered so far in Bulgaria. What makes it so special is not just the size, but the two layers of floor mosaics that cover a total of 2,000 square metres. The lower layer represents an intricate web of geometrical ornaments and symbols in various colours, creating a near 3D effect. The upper layer depicts over 100 birds, symbolising the souls of the faithful that longed for God.
The birds from the second layer of mosaics at the Bishop's Basilica symbolised the garden of Eden
The Bishop's Basilica of Philippopolis is also a good example of spiritual continuity. It was erected over the remnants of an earlier building, probably a pagan temple dedicated to the cult of a deified Roman emperor. After the 6th century, when the basilica was abandoned, some houses appeared on the site. In the 10th-13th centuries the area was a large Christian necropolis with a richly decorated church. Then, in the mid-19th century, next to the long-forgotten site, St Ludwig's Roman Catholic Cathedral was erected, and is still there.
The official opening of the Bishop's Basilica was the biggest cultural event in Bulgaria in 2021
The remains of the Bishop's Basilica were discovered and partially surveyed in the 1980s, but were then once more forgotten and abandoned. Archaeologists and mosaic restorers returned to the site in the late 2010s. A team of international experts created a modern visitor's centre that opened to the public in 2021. The Bishop's Basilica project was also sponsored by the America for Bulgarian Foundation.
A strange structure, erected under the Romans, can be visited near Plovdiv. The 23-metre tall pillar hidden inside a massive mound by the village of Manole was believed to be the tomb of a Roman emperor. Archaeological research established it had another purpose. It was probably the foundation of a large statue, possibly dedicated to some military victory, which used to stand atop the mound. The statue has been long gone
Vibrant Communities: Spotlight on Bulgaria's Living Heritage is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners