If Nessebar was Pompeii
The sea rumbled along the bare shores of ancient Nessebar. Its streets were completely quiet, deserted. All the market stalls had vanished, all the shutters were closed, and all the doors were bolted. In silence, each house has obediently bent roof in the midday haze. The sun had risen high in the August sky and its countless rays, like golden spears, were dancing the dance of the conqueror—at that moment it was the solo emperor over the city!
In front of us opens a chance to see Nessebar in a unique way which we will find nowhere else, but in this dream:
Nessebar in never a place for rest. This small peninsular is ever conquered by visitors. It has become a tourist jungle: everywhere have appeared market stalls, ice cream refrigerators, silver shops. No matter when you come, there is always an intrusive roar of visual ‘noise’ that overlays the timeless voices of the old houses and the stone churches.
Yet, in this dream Nessebar is as silenced as Pompeii: it resembles a ghost ship that is lost in the sea. Its empty streets look like long-dried riverbeds. On either side the houses of the rich Black Sea merchants are standing. The stone walls of their ground floors are merging together into a one uniformed barrier. The grain barns that are behind them, as well as the dried fish, boats, oars, lanterns, and fishing nets are now useless, hidden from sight, locked. The upper floors, typically covered with wooden boards, are reaching over the streets to one another in order to hide from the cruel spears of the sun, like what a flock of sheep does at noon.
Whatever direction we choose to go, they all look the same; they have become alike, and the sound of the waves—monotonous.
In this unvaried scenery only the stone Orthodox medieval churches stand out. Usually they are overlooked, but now, when Nessebar is empty, they draw your attention with all their variety and picturesque energy.
St. Archangels Michael and Gabriel, built in 13th century
Christ Pantocrator (All-powerful), built in 13th-14th century
St. John the Baptist, built in 10th century
St. Stephan, built in 11th-13th century
They have occupied strategic locations around the city: we find them in the squares, crossroads, and coastal alleys. They are like architectural oases in a desert of heated cobblestones, gray walls, and beaten by the salt sea winds wooden boards. The churches of Nessebar look unreal, like images form a lost world. They, and perhaps an occasional fig garden, are the only landmarks to tour around.
According to one legend, there was a time when in Nessebar were standing 40 churches and 10 monasteries! This story sounds suspiciously exaggerated, however when you realize how small is the area of Nessebar and count a dozen churches that are already here, you would be compelled to acknowledge that in every legend there must be some truth.
Surely, a large number of churches has been discovered in other medieval towns. But in Nessebar the course of time has been more forgiving. Most of them have survived to the present day with standing walls, and sometimes with standing roofs!
The churches of Nessebar don’t impress by their size (they are comparable with the surrounding buildings). Nor do they impress by their shape (it is usually the simplest: a long rectangular). What distinguishes them is their vibrant outer decoration. It is like a ceremonial garment of honorable lords. It is bright, complex, polychrome, adorned with many details.
In this garment are ‘woven’ architectural elements such as: arches, blind niches, frontons, cantilevers, columns, and more. They act as a relief, as a gentle roughness where shadows are chasing each other all day. They charm us by the vivid colors of the natural materials they are made of: white stone, red brick, grey sandstone. The most distinguished patterns are stripes of glazed ceramic tulips, roses, and circles, making the convincing impression of never fading stone flowers.
This decoration gradually becomes more rich and unfolds in more complex compositions from lower to upper parts of the churches. It captures your eyes and moves your gaze upwards, eventually reaching to the sky, where the sun is awaiting. You imagination takes a deep breath of freedom:
The medieval builder has created an illusion of reality beyond the surface of the walls—all architectural elements on the facades contribute to an image of the kingdom of Heaven, they offer a stolen glance of a city, of the heavenly Jerusalem.