The Basilica in the Ancient City of Palmatis

A detail form a column

On the outskirts of the small village, Onogur, lies an abandoned grassy field. To the amazement of every traveler, there are glittering the white stones of an old cathedral!

The Stronghold Palmatis

The local people are remotely aware that on their land, some 14 centuries ago stood a large and well-fortified city. Although nothing seems to be missing, every visitor who comes here instantly recognizes the strategic nature of the location and how convenient it would have been for a fortress. The location can be described as a “rocky peninsula”— a flat piece of land, about 220 acres, protected from three sides with steep, almost vertical slopes, running down to the nearest river. A defense wall would be needed only from the fourth side to make the area completely inaccessible. In the Roman maps, there is a city on this spot and it is labeled PALMATIS.

Reconstruction of the basilica in Palmatis
Graphical reconstruction of the basilica in Palmatis based on archaeological data; part of the permanent exhibition of the Regional History Museum in the town of Tervel. / Illustration: Anna Dimitrova, Vera Dimitrova, Galina Cherniaeva, Maria Petrova

In the past few years, archaeologists carried out a number of excavations in Onogur, hoping to shed more light on Palmatis, the lost city. Soon after the first days of digging, success was on their side. They instantly discovered the outlines of a large early-Christian basilica from the 6th century. It is located in the central area of the fortified perimeter and must have been one of the most imposing public buildings.

Although the basilica has become a mundane discovery (so far more than 150 ruins from this type have been excavated in Bulgaria) the one in Palmatis excited everyone by its wealth of architectural details from the ancient interior.

Let’s take a look!

Ruins, column bases
This is still a wild place and visitors haven’t been officially invited. / Photo: Petar Petrov
Decoration on some of the ruins
Whoever chooses to come must be prepared to walk on a soil path and jump over prickly bushes and stone piles. / Photo: Petar Petrov

The Ruins

The first impression of the basilica in Palmatis is of desolation — the place looks as if it has been demolished by a ruthless natural force. The walls are completely destroyed and the ground is covered with the derbies of shapeless limestone fragments.

After a careful inspection, it becomes clear that these fragments have belonged to old architectural structures which have once held the great roof of the basilica. Those were grandiose columns arranged in two rows, which were dividing the nave in three isles. The central isle was wider and higher with windows at the upper part. The side isles were narrower and lower and apparently they have had a second floor. What is left today from these columns are only their bases, which except one are still in the original spots. Everything else is either missing or scattered around, broken.

In the Eastern side of the basilica lies the most intriguing part, which is also the best preserved. This is the Altar area. It is clearly outlined by a row of flat stones and the floor there is slightly higher than the rest. Inside are the ruins of The Alter Table and the seats for the clergy, which form a structure called Synthronon.

The Altar area of the basilica in Palmatis
The flat stones that outline The Altar area are in fact only the base of structure called Alter Barrier. What is missing is the upper part made of stone slabs decorated with carved geometrical ornaments. They had been placed on top of the flat stones forming a low parapet, approximately one meter high. The Alter Barrier marked the Alter but did not hide it like in nowadays churches. Fragments of the stone slabs have been preserved and can be seen in the History Museum in the nearby town of Tervel. However, on the site the keen visitor will notice the narrow cuts on the top part of the stones where the slabs were placed and to find the locations where the doors to The Altar once have been. / Photo: Petar Petrov
The Altar Table
In the center of the Altar remain the ruins of the Alter Table. It had been built out of Roman square bricks, but only the lower layers are preserved. The Table had been approachable only from the West side and one step still is there where the priest had stood. On the four corners are located four larger stones. They were the bases of four columns which supported a stone vault, covering the table according to the Christian tradition. Some archaeologists imagine that inside the Table there was a secret compartment! Possibly there were kept holy relics or other treasures. / Photo: Petar Petrov
The seats for the clergy in the basilica of Palmatis
The Synthronon is the most characteristic element of this basilica. This is a stone bench in the shape of a horseshoe where the clergy took seats during worship. Only three steps remain today but the archaeologists have calculated that once the steps were more, no less than nine! This means that the estimated height of the Synthronon (a.k.a. of the bishop’s throne) had been spectacular: about 2.80 m. From such height the bishop must have commanded the perfect view over the entire space. / Photo: Petar Petrov

The ‘Voice’ of the Ruins

The ruins can hint the layout of the floor plan and give a rough impression of the size of the building. But what they cannot do is to tell what it was like to be in the basilica. With only 5% of the building preserved today, we have to rely on the imagination a lot.

Going to the basilica must have been a special event for the citizens of Palmatis. An occasion which was spared from the daily routine. In order to reach the place they had to pass two intermediate areas, which had made the transition from the buzzing city streets to the quiet hall. From the ordinary to the extraordinary. Those were a large courtyard framed with columns (Atrium) and a narrow passage (Vestibule). Men were passing through the right doors, women through the left, and the central doors were opened only for the clergy.

It is easy to imagine the ancient people dazzled upon coming into the magnificent hall. They must have been held breathless by the beauty of the interior, enhanced by the gentle light, seeping through the high windows. And when the sun had shone brighter and it’s reys were penetrating the void, and were illuminating the acanthus leaves, carved on the columns, had the atmosphere changed? For a brief moment, the basilica may have transformed from a decorated stone box into an immense throne hall.

The most remarkable part to behold must have been the Synthronon in full shape and height. It must have looked like a huge VIP tribune! We can only guess how the frail clergymen, clad in their golden shirts, were able to climb the steps to reach their seats at the frightening height. What did their faces look like? Solemn perhaps, lit by the dim light of candles and concealed behind the rising smokes of incense? And was it possible for anyone to escape the bishop’s gaze when he had stood on his height throne? And his voice? Had it been soothing or had it been commanding?