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Project Small Basilica

During the construction of an apartment block in Plovdiv in 1988, the ruins of an early Christian church from the middle of the 5th-the end of the 6th centuries were accidentally discovered. The floor of the church was covered with geometrical mosaics. A cross-shaped baptismal pool made of marble and decorated with fine mosaics depicting a stag and doves was discovered in the baptistery.

The fine mosaics of the Small Basilica were subject to emergency conservation soon thereafter. In 1993-1994, a National Monuments of Culture Institute team removed and put in storage about half of the mosaics, leaving and conserving the rest in situ.

In 1995, the Small Basilica and the adjacent section of the fortification wall were declared a monument of culture of national significance.

In 2000, the archaeologist Mina Bospachieva and the restorationist Elena Kantareva-Decheva, in cooperation with the Williamstown Art Conservation Center, Massachusetts, obtained funding from the New York-based Trust for Mutual Understanding to restore some of the mosaics.

In 2010, upon the initiative and with the financial support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Bulgaria and the Plovdiv Municipality, a thorough conservation and restoration of the mosaics began under the supervision of Associate Professor Elena Kantareva-Decheva.

In 2013, the removed mosaics were brought back to the Small Basilica, and the ones left in situ were cleaned and restored. The site was converted into an in situ archaeological museum.


Understanding the Small Basilica mosaics

The sumptuous floor mosaics covering the floors of the churches in the Eastern and the Western Roman Empire in the 4-6th centuries, are made of all sorts of materials: marble, pebbles, ceramics, glass. For covering of large spaces, geometrical combinations of rhombuses, circles and rosettes are preferred, as they can repeat endlessly and form immense number of patterns

In Philippopolis, there is a local mosaic atelier, which decorates the floors of the big public buildings and the homes of wealthy citizens.

For the early Christians, these mosaics have their meanings and transcend messages. The stag, for example, is not in the baptistery of the Small Basilica by accident. The stag represents the soul of the Christian, aiming at the faith and the truth. The dove symbolizes the Holy Spirit, who appears at the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan river. The vase represents the vessel where heavenly myrrh is collected. The Solomon's Knot is an old symbol with many meanings, and can be interpreted as a depiction of eternity, and of faith. The rosetta predates Christianity. For the Christians, it symbolizes the blood of Jesus. The swastika is an ancient cosmic symbol, and the meander is interpreted as a simplified labyrinth.





When: Second half of the 5th - the 6th centuries

Length: 20 meters

Width: 13 meters

Kneeling on the ground, the craftsman was in a hurry. The thick layer of mortar dried quickly, and he needed to finish the elaborate kantharos, or vessel, with branches spouting out he worked on by the end of the day. The man and the kantharos were at the most sacred part of the future church, the altar apse. The image symbolism was in tone with the importance of its position - the kantharos represented resurrection and the eternal life awaiting true believers. 

The craftsman, however, didn't think about symbolism. Laying tessera after tessera - pieces of broken ceramics, black and white stones, glass tiles - he was concentrated on following the outlines of the image carved into the wet mortar. He knew how important his job was. The mosaics should cover every square centimeter of the basilica floor, and when finished, two rows of columns, an altar and an apse screen all from marble were to be placed on top of them. Then would come the artists. They would cover the walls with plaster and then draw elaborate decorative designs on it.

Once finished, the basilica situated off the easternmost street of Philippopolis and the eastern wall of the fortifications, would be a real gem. It had an additional chapel by the southern nave and a row of extra rooms by the northern nave; and was close to the eastern necropolis of the city and the martyrium of the 37 Philippopolis martyrs on the road to Constantinople.

But the mosaics were not yet finished. Some sections of the floor were already covered with intricate designs of compositions of triangles, circles and rhombuses; of vases and garlands; of swastika meanders; of rosettes which symbolized Heaven and Christ's blood, and of Solomon's knots which symbolized the strength of true faith. The mosaics were among the best made by the local Philippopolis mosaic school, which had practiced its craft on a number of buildings, both private and public.

The most important part of the mosaic in the basilica was yet undone. It was a  six-line donor's inscription in front of the altar. The inscription hailed Basiliscus, the chief military commander of the province of Thrace. The man had a mansion in Philippopolis and gained the local people's respect in 471, when he saved the city from the rebelling Goths. The basilica was built in his honor.

We do not know which saint was chosen to protect the church and its congregation. The church was discovered in 1988-1989 during the construction of a block of flats, and archaeologist Mina Bospachieva, who surveyed it, named it the Small Basilica. In close proximity, there are two other basilicas, one of them considered to be the metropolitan church of the city.

In 475, Basiliscus became the emperor, but after only 20 months he was toppled by his predecessor, Zeno (474-491). The new-old emperor ordered every trace of his enemy to be destroyed. So, the first lines of the mosaic inscription in the Small Basilica were removed.

Soon afterwards, the basilica burnt to the ground. It is not clear when or why disaster struck. It could be the result of a Barbarian attack. The fire destroyed a lot. The wooden roof and the tiles collapsed and filled the inside of the church with rubble.

People, however, were eager to have the church back. The Small Basilica rose again, with the new foundations built over old ones. The mosaics inside the church were never restored. They were left there, covered with a new floor made of unimpressive bricks.

The renewed Small Basilica had another thing to awe visitors, its baptisterium.

Attached to its northeast corner, the small rooms was very important. At the time, Christian faith was obligatory for the empire's citizens and more and more people abandoned their old beliefs. The baptisterium of the Small Basilica was designed to be the place for baptisms not only of the newborn but also of adults. It had two entrances - one for non-Christians and one for Christians - and a cross-shaped marble pool, about a meter deep. Marble columns held an elaborate roof, and the floor outside the pool was adorned with one of the finest mosaics in this part of the empire - a couple of doves and a stag. The doves symbolized the Holy Spirit wile the deer embodied the soul striving for God.

By the end of the 6th Century, the Small Basilica was abandoned, and so were many of the buildings of the city in the plain. The barbarian invasions were too strong to resist, and many people left their homes for the more secure acropolis.

The basilica fell into disrepair and for long was used as a source of building material for local people. In the 10-11th centuries, for some reason, some of them starting digging in it, their pits creating visible scars on the basilica's mosaic floor.

Yet, the remains of the mosaics were so impressive that building on the site was terminated. In 1991, the planned block of apartments was erected away from its planned site, and the basilica with the surrounding part of a fortress wall with a tower was exhibited in situ. The mosaics in the baptisterium were conserved in situ, and those from the church were lifted, a few fragments of them conserved and put in storage.

Years passed, and the Small Basilica was left - almost forgotten, completely abandoned, hidden in overgrowth - for better days.

In 2010, the America for Bulgaria Foundation became interested in the Small Basilica. A project for the conservation and restoration of the building, its mosaics and its surroundings was initiated. The main goal was to turn the once abandoned church into a cultural and historical venue, to shed light on Roman Philippopolis's past and to the civilization which created it. The mosaics were brought back to their original place to become the centerpiece of the project.

Before that, however, the various pieces of the mosaics were to be removed from storage, cleaned, conserved and restored. In 2012, the task went into the experienced hands of a conservation artist, Elena Kantareva-Decheva. It took her and her team five months to clean more than 50 fragments of the mosaic and to reassemble them into a bigger picture. Amazingly, most of the stones and ceramic tiles stuck hard to the places where the long dead master had put them.

The process has been painstakingly long. Old conservation layers, which  protected the mosaics, were carefully removed. Missing fragments were filled with stray tessera, stone or ceramic tile fragments. Every mosaic fragment was provided with new backing made of special epoxy foam and metal reinforcement. Ready pieces were kept, isolated, in a shelter, waiting to be finally returned at their originally places.

In 2013 they were finally returned to the Small Basilica. The building is now open, for everyone to see for himself the skills of ancient mosaic masters.

You can find more information about the project on:

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