It’s been a busy last few weeks for the Bishop’s Basilica of Philippopolis.
The largest early Christian church in Bulgaria is about to get a new lease on life as construction of its visitor center nears completion. After it opens its doors to the public in 2020, the center will be a state-of-the-art cultural space welcoming individuals of all ages and creeds. More than 20,000 square feet of ancient mosaics in two levels, interactive exhibits, a VR reconstruction of the church’s interior, remnants of an earlier pagan temple, and fun activities will help visitors explore the site’s exciting two-millennia-long history.
Getting the Basilica ready to tell its story involves a complex choreography of effort involving 48 subcontractors and vendors, and construction work continued apace even as the site received its first high-profile visitors last month.
Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov and members of his cabinet visited the Basilica on Monday, September 23. The prime minister even managed to “tour” the original basilica with the help of VR technology. “This is really unique,” he said.
The Bulgarian government and Plovdiv municipality are partners in the Basilica project and have pledged their support to help advance the site’s listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Bishop’s Basilica was the first stop in a three-day foreign press tour of Plovdiv in late August. Twenty-four journalists from Austria, Belgium, the United States, China, Croatia, Greece, German, the UK, Russia, Hungary, and Slovenia walked around the site, marveling at the ancient mosaics and the state-of-the-art visitor center being built to house them. The journalists also visited the Small Basilica, another masterpiece of ancient mosaic artistry restored through the joint efforts of ABF, the Bulgarian culture ministry, and Plovdiv municipality.
In the meantime, volunteers helped shovel out the last of the protective sand covering the first-floor mosaics, revealing beautiful geometric patterns and intricate compositions with a 3-D feel. Sand was used to protect the mosaics during the visitor center’s construction.
The Bishop’s Basilica mosaics were discovered during road construction in the early 1980s, but it was only in the 2010s that they were fully uncovered and studied. The mosaics were laid in two layers likely because the earlier, first layer collapsed as a result of an earthquake in the fifth century. The second mosaic layer was removed from the site for restoration and can be seen on the visitor center’s second level—where it was laid by a team of restorers led by Elena Kantareva-Decheva in time for the Basilica’s soft launch on September 26.
Among the more than 200 attendees at the preview opening were Plovdiv Mayor Ivan Totev and Plovdiv Municipality officials, ABF board and team members, guests from the US Embassy and the US Agency for International Development, foreign ambassadors, archaeologists, mosaic restorers, architects, donors, journalists, and partners.
As final preparations for the Basilica’s opening in the spring are being made, Plovdiv businesses and many private individuals are rallying around the project to ensure that this treasure is preserved for future generations. Speedflow, Milara International, Ataro Klima, Intercomplex, Kamo Build Group, Respect Consult, Gizdakov, ANDI-L, Hotel Imperial Plovdiv, Petar Spasov, Slavik and Vasilka Tabakov, and members of the ABF board already adopted birds to help support the Basilica’s activities.
Scarlet-neck, Catbird, Dapple-belly, and Imp-fowl are still awaiting their adopters. Will you be one of them?