The Basilica in the Ancient City of Palmatis
On the outskirts of the small village Onogur, where lays an abandoned grassy field, to the amazement of every traveler, are glittering the white stones of an old cathedral!
/ Part of the permanent exhibition of the Regional History Museum in Tervel
/ Illustration: Anna Dimitrova, Vera Dimitrova, Galina Cherniaeva, Maria Petrova
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 have left from it today, 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 tree sides with steep, almost vertical slopes, running down to the nearest river. Only form the fourth side a deface wall would be needed to make the area completely inaccessible. Truly, in the Roman maps there is a city on this spot and it is labeled PALMATIS.
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 the success was on their side. They instantly discovered the outlines of a large early-Christian basilica from the 6th century. It is located at 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 form 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!
This is still a wild place and visitors haven’t been officially invited.
Whoever chooses to come must be prepared to walk on a soil path and jump over prickly bushes and piles of stones.
The first impression of the basilica in Palmatis is of a desolation — the place looks like 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 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 unique part, which is also the best preserved. This is the Alter 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, the so called Synthronon.
The flat stones that outline The Alter area are in fact only the base of the so 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 navigate to the locations where the doors to The Altar have been.
In the center of the Alter remain the ruins of the Alter Table. It was built 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 suppose that inside the Table there was a secret compartment where were kept relics or other treasures.
The Synthronon is the most intriguing element. This is a stone bench in the shape of horseshoe where the clergy took seat during worship. Only three steps remain today but the archaeologists have calculated that once the steps were more, no less then nine! This means that the 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.
The Ruins are Speaking
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 was like to be in the basilica. With only 5% of the building preserved today, we have to rely on the imagination.
Going to the basilica must have been a joyful time for the man and women of Palmatis. An occasion, spared from the daily routine. Two intermediate areas had made the transition from the buzzing city streets to the quiet hall, or in other words, from the ordinary to the extraordinary. Those were a large courtyard framed with columns (Atrium) and a narrow passage (Vestibule). Men were entering 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. Certainly they were held breathless by the beauty of the interior, enhanced with the glorious light, seeping through the high windows. And when the sun had shined brighter, had the atmosphere changed? The gentle rays were penetrating the void and were illuminating the acanthus leaves carved on the columns. For a brief moment, the basilica may have transformed from a decorated stone box into an immense throne hall, an image from far away, somewhere in the Kingdom of Heaven.
The most remarkable part to behold must have been the Synthronon in full shape. It must have looked like a huge VIP tribune! We can only guess how the old clergymen, clad in their golden shirts, were able to climb the steps and then to freeze at the frightening height. What had their faces looked like? Solemn perhaps, lit by the dim light of candles and concealed behind the rising smoke of incense? And was it possible for anyone to escape from the bishop’s gaze when he had stood on his height throne? And his voice? Had it been soothing or had it been commanding?