Temple of birds comes to life after centuries of oblivion
If you have visited Plovdiv in the past couple of years, you might have noticed a grey, modern building in the city centre, right in front of the St Ludwig Roman Catholic Cathedral. This is The Bishop's Basilica of Philippopolis, a groundbreaking project for Bulgaria in more than one way.
The place where it stands encapsulates centuries of history spanning from Roman Antiquity to the Middle Ages. The most stunning remains are over 2,000 sq m of mosaics that depict scores of birds and intricate geometric patterns. The brand new visitor's centre uses cutting-edge technologies, such as VR and multimedia, as well as more traditional storytelling, to explain the Basilica's rich past to a wide audience of all ages, both Bulgarian and foreign.
Nancy Schiller, President and CEO of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, during the visitor centre opening on 18 April
The third factor that makes the Bishop's Basilica of Philippopolis an outstanding example for care for Bulgaria's historical and cultural heritage is that the site was researched, conserved and exhibited with the cooperative efforts of the NGO sector and some Bulgarian institutions. The main engines behind the project were the America for Bulgaria Foundation, the Plovdiv City Council and the Ministry of Culture. Together, in seven years, they managed to bring back to life an archaeological site that was largely forgotten after its incidental discovery in 1982.
A couple of years ago the project received international recognition, when the Bishop's Basilica of Philippopolis entered UNESCO's Tentative List.
On 18 April 2021, the Bishop's Basilica of Philippopolis was officially inaugurated with a short ceremony due to the restrictions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
A state-of-art staircase leads to the second floor where hundreds of square meters of mosaics are exhibited. They are complemented by a virtual reality corner and a designated kids area
"Your hard work, creativity and dedication has made the Basilica the showpiece that it is. And it will continue to be for the generations to come," said Nancy Schiller, President and CEO of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, who was instrumental for the project. "Together let's make sure that Bulgaria's treasures will be known all over the world."
"It is a monumental occasion and a crowning achievement. This place was once a centre of life in Plovdiv and will be one again," intoned the US Ambassador to Bulgaria, Hero Mustafa. The American Embassy has a long tradition in care of Bulgarian cultural heritage via the US Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Protection.
US Ambassador Hero Mustafa (top) and official guests of the 18 April opening
On 19 April, the Basilica opened for the general public. The event generated significant interest both onsite, when crowds flocked to see Plovdiv's newest attraction, and online with thousands watching the opening's broadcast live.
Through the centuries the location of the Visitor's Centre has experienced many changes and transformations. In the 2nd century AD, the citizens of Roman Philippopolis built there a temple dedicated not to an imaginary deity, but to a real one: the deified emperor. Two centuries later, when Christianity was legalised and gained influence throughout the empire, a spacious church was built over the pagan temple's remains. The Bishop's Basilica of Philippopolis is the largest early Christian church discovered in Bulgaria. It was lavishly decorated in a manner that fit its importance as a hub of Christianity, of religious and political power: splendid mosaics covered its floor, marble columns and reliefs defined its interior.
The splendid mosaic floor during the Bishop's Basilica excavations
In the 6th century the basilica was abandoned. As waves of Barbarians stormed over the region, the citizens of Philippopolis could no longer maintain such a large temple. As the Middle Ages dawned, the once splendid basilica fell into disrepair. People, ever practical, decided to settle over the ruins. After a few more centuries, the living were replaced by the dead: a large cemetery appeared where the basilica used to be.
The whole place was finally abandoned – and forgotten – at the end of the 14th century. It was discovered in the 1980s, when central Plovdiv underwent a major overhaul. The partially excavated basilica was fenced and forgotten again. In 2015, thanks to the America for Bulgaria Foundation and the Plovdiv City Council, mosaic restorers and archaeologists returned onsite and started researching the complicated history and the mesmerising art. Uniquely for Bulgaria, they were joined by experts in other fields who united their efforts to create a comprehensive picture of the past. Epigraphers deciphered the inscriptions and forensic anthropologists surveyed the medieval skeletons to reveal who these people were. Even the places where the rocks used for the mosaics were sourced from were identified.
Scores of birds of over 10 identifiable species are depicted on the Basilica's mosaic floors. Peacocks are prominent, as for the early Christians they symbolised spiritual immortality
The story of the Bishop's Basilica is as fascinating as are its early Christian mosaics. The modern Visitor's Centre brings it back to life via virtual reality, multimedia screens, videos and scaled models. Children learn about archaeology and ancient mosaics while having fun and playing games in a dedicated corner and a special outdoor playground.
This is one the project's greatest achievements. The modern Bishop's Basilica turns the past into a part of the present and the future, creating a new focal point of interest and public life in Plovdiv and Bulgaria.
Next time you visit this country's second largest city, do return to the grey, modern building by St Ludwig Cathedral and enter to see some astonishing mosaics and to learn its history in detail.
Visitor centre opening, 18 April
Soft opening: In 2019, ambassadors and diplomats from 23 countries inaugurated the Wall of Tolerance with messages for peace at the Basilica
Hundreds of volunteers, including Vagabond's team, helped with the digs
The Bishop's Basilica of Philippopolis provides an educational experience unparalleled in Bulgaria