Episcopal complex with basilica – Sandanski

The location of the Episcopal complex with the Basilica is in the center of Sandanski or in the northeastern part of the ancient city of Particopolis. To the east of the Episcopal Basilica is the Basilica of Bishop Johan, and to the southeast is the Episcopal residence. The complex, with its unique architecture, including many rooms and various artistic decorations – stone sculpture, wall paintings, mosaics, etc., ranks first in representativeness and importance in the city during the late antiquity. These features make it one of the largest and most interesting archaeological sites In Southeastern Bulgaria.

The Episcopal Basilica was discovered during archaeological activities in 1989 by the director of the Archaeological Museum of Sandanski, Vladimir Petkov. A through study of the complex began in 1990, and by 1995 the plan, size and method of construction of the basilica were already studied. In 1998, archaeologists discovered that the basilica was part of an entire episcopal complex, which included a church, atrium and other buildings. One of the discoveries made during the 22nd archaeological season in 2012 was the martyrium with a holy spring – a room where holy relics were stored or an important saint was buried. For this reason, the complex enters the role of one of the holiest places.

In addition to constant research and excavations, the Episcopal complex has been partially restored, preserved and socialized. This happened through the project “The Struma Road from the Neolithic to Early Christianity” in 2007. The project was mainly carried out by the Archaeological Museum in Sandanski, Sandanski Municipality and the museum in the Greek Municipality of Kavala.

Archaeological discoveries show the three phases in the construction of the complex, the most important are the first (IV century) and the second (V century). The third covers the middle of the 6th century, when the interior of the basilica was completed. An interesting fact from the history of the complex is the founders inscription discovered during excavations. This inscription consists 12 separate parts, which joined form two pages of an open book. The pages have their own fields with indented lines.

These two pages described the important deeds of Antim for the benefit of the city, the position of this man is not found, but he was probably another bishop who helped to build and decorate the basilica. For now, there is no evidence for the number of pages, but the hope of finding more never dies. It can be said that from this building, where the bishop was the ruler, the social and economic management of the city was carried out.  The remains of fires in the archaeological complex confirm the versions that the basilica and the complex were destroyed in a massive fire, possibly related to barbarian invasions in the second half of the 6th century.

An option for promoting and recruiting partners for donations to the complex could be Virtual Reality. It is an alternative way to observe the complex in the form of an already restored object in perfect condition. In this way, advertising ideas will be multiplied and modernized. The interest of a new and younger group of people will be attracted due to the innovative way of touring the site.

Early Christian complex – Sandanski

The early Christian complex is located next to the building of the Archaeological Museum in Sandanski, in the center. It is an architectural monument of culture from antiquity of national importance. Its opening took place in 1967 by Professor Alexandra Milcheva. 

On the territory of the complex are located the three-nave basilica with stoa, antrium and well. In the western part of the complex is the view of the ancient main street of the city – Cardo Maximus. It was covered with beautiful granite blocks and typical of Particopolis had drainage channels. Impressive columns connected by arches rose around the street, and one of them still reads an inscription from the time of Emperor Caracalla.

Bolyarska House – Melnik

Bolyarska House is a monument from the first half of the 13th century and represents one of the greatest examples of Bulgarian residential architecture of the medieval period. It is also the oldest preserved building from the Byzantine era in the Balkans. The building is located in the eastern part of Melnik, not far from the city center.

The building was built under the principality of Alexius Slav and Melnik was the capital, it was originally built as a residence of the ruler. The Bolyarsky House was born as a residence inside a fortress, typical of the medieval period, due to its strategic defensive position the house played the role of nucleus for subsequent settlements.

The building was rebuilt several times in the following centuries. in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance the house was the most richly furnished in all of Melnik and its surroundings. Marble slabs in the courtyards, fountains with marble statues, mosaic floors in the interior rooms, rich murals and stained glass on the windows are just some of the luxurious furnishings.

Unfortunately, only the ruins of ancient luxury remain to this day. Have survived to us: The internal and front transverse walls, the facade walls of the tower hall and an impressive cellar. The medieval Bulgarian ornamental style of architecture is represented in the decorative brick figures on the walls of the tower room and the main building of the house. To make the most of the building, an important restoration work is required to make the monument usable and attractive to the public again.

Church of St. Nichola – Melnik

The Church of St. Nicholas is a medieval Orthodox church, dating from the late 12th century, partially preserved in the town of Melnik. It stands on the ruins of an ancient Thracian sanctuary and a 5th century basilica. In the Middle Ages the church served as the cathedral of the bishop of Melnik. The interior of the church features frescoes of rarely depicted scenes, as well as a 13th-century inscription. Its bell tower housed one of the oldest existing bells in Europe, discovered by archaeologists in the 2000s.

The Church of St. Nicholas is located at the top of the homonymous hill of Sveti Nikola (“St. Nicholas”) just south of the town of Melnik. The church occupies a place that housed other sacred buildings in antiquity. A Thracian sanctuary dedicated to the goddess Bendis, the Thracian variant of Artemis, stood in the place before a Christian basilica was built in the 5th century. However, the older church did not survive for long, as it fell into disrepair at the end of the 6th century.

The Church of St. Nicholas is generally dated to the end of the 12th century, a time when Melnik was ruled by both Byzantium and the Second Bulgarian Empire. A second construction phase followed in the first half of the 13th century, when the Church of San Nicola was elevated to the status of a bishopric. In order for the church to better fulfill this purpose, an fence and other buildings were built around it.The church served as the town’s cathedral until the construction of the church of the same name of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker in the 18th century. Although the medieval church of San Nicola was in use until the 19th century as a monastic church, today it is only partially preserved, with the entire eastern part entirely in ruins. After the Balkan Wars (1912-1913), Melnik was abandoned by a large part of its population and the lack of maintenance caused the rapid structural decay of the church.

Architecturally it is a basilica church with three naves; the naves were formed by two rows of columns that ran along the entire length of the cell (or naos). It has three entrances, all from the west, and three apses in the easternmost part. The side apses are smaller than the central, which features an elaborate three-part window and additional decoration. The narthex and four-step brick synthronon (seating for the clergy) were added during the second construction period in the 13th century. The synthronon fits inside the central apse and includes a throne in the middle.

The church had an adjacent bell tower dating from 1210, which was a separate rectangular structure that was located southwest of the church. Its walls were 4-4.5 meters (13-15 feet) long and about 1 meter (3.3 feet) the estimated height was between 15 and 16 meters (49-52 feet). A bronze bell with a medieval Greek text in relief, considered by Bulgarian researchers to be among the oldest existing bells in Europe, was discovered in Melnik in the 2000s. The inscription prompted researchers to associate the bell with the Church of St. Nicholas. It reads: “ Copper-smelted church bell, a gift by Alexius, who is the pious Slav, to Saint Nicholas of Myra”. The text is thought to refer to Alessio Slav, so it is dated to his government and the construction of the bell tower. A very similar bell, also found in Melnik, bears an inscription mentioning the Byzantine emperor Michael VIII (r. 1259–1282) and the year 1270 in particular. However, this second bell may not belong to the church of St. Nicholas, but rather to another church in Melnik.

The frescoes in the church were painted in the 12th-13th century by three artists. The surviving paintings include rare depictions of the ordination of the apostle James the Greater as bishop of Jerusalem by the Church Fathers and the vision of Peter of Alexandria. The life of the patron Saint Nicholas is also painted on the walls of the church. Some frescoes have been removed from the walls and exhibited at the National Archaeological Museum of Sofia.To stand out this very important monument, would be appropriate to protect the surviving ruins and the musealization of the site, trying, if possible, to bring back the frescoes transferred to Sofia. Moreover, the fantastic setting of the landscape of the “Melnik’s pyramids” suggests the creation of naturalistic and cultural journey connected to the site.