Bishop's Basilica and Late-Antique Mosaics of Philippopolis

Photo by Els Slots.

Bishop's Basilica and Late-Antique Mosaics of Philippopolis, Roman Province of Thrace is part of the Tentative list of Bulgaria in order to qualify for inclusion in the World Heritage List.

The Bishop's Basilica and Late-Antique Mosaics of Philippopolis comprise three former Roman structures in Plovdiv. The Bishop's Basilica, Small Basilica and Irene Building were built and functioned during the 4th-6th centuries in the strategically located Roman city of Philippopolis. All three have well-preserved mosaic floors.

Map of Bishop's Basilica and Late-Antique Mosaics of Philippopolis

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The coordinates shown for all tentative sites were produced as a community effort. They are not official and may change on inscription.

Community Reviews

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Malta - 27-Feb-24 -

Bishop's Basilica and Late-Antique Mosaics of Philippopolis (T) by Clyde

I visited this tWHS in 2023. It is made up of 3 fine locations quite close to each other, each with its own modern museum setting, information panels and ongoing research labs attached: the Domus Eirene, the Small Basilica and the Bishop's Basilica of Philippopolis (modern Plovdiv).

Situated on three hills by the Maritsa River, Philippopolis had already existed for millenia when the Romans included it into their empire in 45 AD. Under the Romans, the city quickly transformed itself. Settlers, imperial administrators and investments flocked into it. Its population reach up to 100,000 people, including Thracians, Greeks, Jews, Roman army veterans, craftsmen from Asia Minor and merchants from the Middle East. In the 4th century, when Christianity became the official religion, Philippopolis turned into a major religious centre, with its own bishop. New churches were built to cater for the increasing number of Christians. However, these churches, along with the rest of the city in the flatlands, were abandoned by the end of the 6th century, when different incursions forced the citizens of Philippopolis to seek safety and security on the three hills.

The House of Eirene is an ancient Roman peristyle house with lavish mosaic floors, built in the middle of the 3rd century AD in the provincial capital of Thracia. It got its name after the image of the Greek goddess Eirene depicted in the central mosaic. The excavated area of the residential complex is 668 m2, of which 160 m2 are colourful mosaics. The remains of the residence are located in the archaeological underpass of Tsar Boris III Boulevard, in which the paved Roman street is also situated, and forms part of the Trakart Cultural Center. Currently, there is a huge project underway whereby most basements of the old city centre of Plovdiv from the Small Basilica to the area around the Djumaya mosque and Roman stadium , are being surveyed, dug up, restored wherever finds are excavated and made accessible to the public. It really is an enjoyable experience to find a bit of Roman archaeology at cafeterias or at shopping outlets such as H&M :)

The Small Basilica was in the eastern part of the city, close to one of the towers in the fortification wall. A busy street ran by the church (and still does almost thousand years after!). The houses of well-to-do citizens, the metropolitan church and the local Jewish community synagogue were located close by. The sumptuous mosaics covering the floors of the small basilica were made of different materials including marble, pebbles, ceramics and glass. Geometrical combinations of rhombuses, circles and rosettes were often used to cover large spaces as they could repeat themselves themselvesa endlessly and form an immense number of patterns. In Philippopolis, there was a local mosaic workshop. Its craftsmen decorated the floors of big public buildings and the homes of wealthy citizens. Knowing the language of the mosaics will open up completely new symbols and meanings to add value to what you see. The dove symbolizes the Holy Spirit that appeared at the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan river. The stag (just next to the cross-shaped baptismal font) represents the Christian soul seeking faith and truth. The Solomon Knot is an old symbol with many meanings, and can be interpreted as a depiction of eternity and faith. The vase represents the vessel where heavenly myrrh was collected, and the swastika is an ancient cosmic symbol, while the meander is interpreted as a simplified labyrinth. The rosetta predates Christianity, but to Christians it symbolized the blood of Jesus. Another highlight in the Small Basilica's mosaics is the surviving line of the inscription of Basiliscus.

The Bishop's Basilica had an ancient predecessor in the 2nd-4th century. It was a pagan temple combining elements of Classical Greek and Roman architecture in central Philippopolis. Researchers believe it was dedicated to the official religion of the Roman Empire, the imperial cult. Christians reused the inscriptions, columns, capitals, and other construction elements from the temple to build the Bishop's Basilica. The great dimensions, the central location, and the sumptuous decoration of the Bishop's Basilica told the citizens of Philippopolis that Christianity had become an indelible part of their lives. Churchgoers would first enter a spacious open-air courtyard with porticos and a water fountain. Then they would walk through a narthex and into the three-nave basilica decorated with mosaics. The liturgy would be conducted from an elevated platform, and the altar and the pulpit were made of marble. At the end of the 6th or the beginning of the 7th century, the times were uncertain with Barbarian incursions, a weak economy and wars. Though the basilica fell into disrepair, a quarter of modest medieval houses appeared over the ruins. Remains of foundations of a medieval house erected over the ancient mosaics of the basilica are still visible nowadays. The mosaics covering the floors of the basilica create a remarkable picture of ornaments, geometrical compositions, symbols and most impressive of all are the multitude of birds. The peacock is the most impressive of them and occupies a central place in the narthex mosaics (the museum's symbol) and in the Spring of Life scene.

Both basilicas can be visited by buying a combined ticket. Photography without flash is allowed and they have special machines installed heating a layer of plastic to your shoes at the entrance to keep the glasses clean. The whole experience is similar but much better than the one to be had at Aquileia's WHS. If this tWHS is combined to the other one of Ancient Plovdiv to create a possible Cultural Landscape of Ancient Plovdiv from pre-Roman to Ottoman times, I think that it would have the potential to be inscribed, even though there are quite a lot of Roman/Ottoman WHS already on the list.

Els Slots

The Netherlands - 02-Jul-21 -

Bishop's Basilica and Late-Antique Mosaics of Philippopolis (T) by Els Slots

The Mosaics of Philippopolis comprise three former Roman and early Christian structures with well-preserved mosaic floors in Bulgaria’s second city, Plovdiv. I had a pleasant two-night stay in modern Plovdiv; it has a more oriental and less Sovietesque feel than other Bulgarian towns. Because I travelled with a rental car I stayed overnight in a hotel in the outskirts, at the other end of the ‘regatta’ – an artificial rowing canal. I decided to walk all the way to the city center, over 5km, so I saw quite a lot of Plovdiv. Most of the city’s monuments (from Roman, Ottoman and 19th century periods) are covered by the city’s other TWHS. I’ll focus on the mosaics here.

The three structures - Bishop's (or Great) Basilica, Small Basilica and Irene Building -  are located a few hundred meters from each other in the south of the city center, where the core of the Roman city was. They only have been accidentally rediscovered since the mid-1980’s during construction works. Slowly they have been excavated and made presentable to the general public.

The remains of the Great Basilica are covered by a large hall. I wondered why the previous reviewer (Argo) did overlook this, but later I found out that this structure is brand new. It has only opened in April 2021! In 2018 it was still an archaeological site.

And what an excellent museum it has become. Think of a floor space the size of a substantial cathedral. About 70% of the floor is covered by mosaics. There are walkways across it made out of glass – at the entrance they make you wear plastic shoe coverings to keep it clean. Each block of mosaics is accompanied by a description in Bulgarian and English, written in an educational but not boring way. For sure this museum will be a school groups’ favourite for years to come. It was already fairly busy now with Bulgarian day trippers and one class of school children.

Two layers of mosaics can be seen, on top of each other. The first ones are mostly geometric patterns. The second ones show early-Christian symbols. These are polychrome, the most impressive are the images of over 100 birds. But there are also swastika's, Hercules and Solomon's knots, flowers and the Spring of Life.

The Little Basilica lies somewhat further along the same street. The floor mosaics are less impressive here, but a baptismal font has been preserved, surrounded by bright mosaics of birds and a deer. Finally, the remains of the Irene Residence are located in an underpass. They are protected in a museum setting. It was closed when I walked by early in the morning, on my return it had opened up but then I was already on my mosaics tax after having seen the Great and the Small Basilica.

We do already have a connection for 65 WHS with Mosaic Art, so it is hard to argue that we need another site focused on this. From the ones that are still out in the open, I remember Volubilis and Villa Romana del Casale as outstanding. Aquileia is quite similar to the Great Basilica of Plovdiv, both in setting and the fact that they are from the early Christian period and not so much a product of Roman decadence. The Mosaics of Philippopolis may never make it unto the List, but the new museum is yet another attraction in this already fine city.

Read more from Els Slots here.


France - 27-Aug-18 -

Bishop's Basilica and Late-Antique Mosaics of Philippopolis (T) by Argo

This TWHS is made of three different components, more precisely three mosaics which were covering the floor of three different buildings: two churches (basilicas) and a house. While nothing is left from the buildings, these mosaics are still showing great artistic value. All were designed at the end of the Roman period, when the Empire had already adopted Christian faith.

Our visit started at the so called “Small Basilica”. Mosaics at this place were discovered at the end of 20th century, but only recently a modern building was set to protect them and allow visits (2013). Although the building is modern (and bright red), its external shape was designed as the basilica may have looked like. Inside, glass floors, walkways and an overlooking platform allow a close look at the different parts of the mosaic. Most famous ones are located around the small baptistery, added around 100 years after the basilica was built: they show doves, symbol of Holy Spirit, and stags, symbol of Christ for the early Christians. Small basilica is open daily, and although easily reachable by foot from the city centre and main attractions of Plovdiv, it is just off the beaten tracks. This may explain why we were the only visitors in that week day of August.

Few hundred meters further, we stopped at the site of the “Great Basilica”, which is supposed to be the main component of this TWHS. This place is still under archaeological investigation. Parts of the mosaics were known for years, but only recently the complete surface of the Basilica is being cared, after removal of some stretch of road which were overlapping part of the remains. The best place I think is to stand in front of the St Louis church. From there, you can easily realise how huge was this monument, and spot some pieces of the mosaics. Most of the mosaic however is covered by bag, earth, etc for preservation reasons, as the complete area is still an open air field. According to displays on the fences around the site, it will be managed in the same way as the Small Basilica: a building will cover the whole area and it will become a museum as well. The question is: when will this be achieved? On the city map of Plovdiv I was given at the tourist information centre, a small note indicates “opening in 2017”. One year later, a lot is still to be done, and I would say one or two more years are still needed to complete this work. Anyway, we were happy to see archaeologists at work, although we could only see parts of the whole mosaic.

Finally we visited the third component of this TWHS: another mosaic, same period, but from a house. It was found when works were performed under the main road that goes through Plovdiv old town hill. A small, privately owned museum (named “Trakart”) was set in the pedestrian underpass (under the road), quite an unusual location. Part of a roman street is still there, too. This is the smallest of the three components, but the mosaic is very nice and can be seen from very close. It is sometimes referred as “Irene mosaic”, after the name of the lady in the middle of the mosaic. Irene was then seen as a personification of Peace. There is a small fee to visit the place.

For years, “Plovdiv old town” has been on Bulgaria tentative list. Indeed the old city is very pleasant, with many remains from Roman (theatre, circus, forum), Ottoman (mosque), 18th and 19th century (old houses) periods, and those are must see if you go to Plovdiv. Many streets are dedicated to pedestrians, traffic is limited is some other streets, and the whole area really looks good. However, there are elsewhere better preserved roman theatre, bigger ottoman mosque, etc. Our understanding is that Plovdiv will now push forward this nomination focused on early Christians mosaics for better chances to finally get the Unesco stamp. These three places were easy to find, and close to each other, so easily reached by foot.


Full Name
Bishop's Basilica and Late-Antique Mosaics of Philippopolis, Roman Province of Thrace
Religious structure - Christian
2018 Added to Tentative List

The site has 3 locations

Bishop's Basilica and Late-Antique Mosaics of Philippopolis: Bishop's Basilica (T)
Bishop's Basilica and Late-Antique Mosaics of Philippopolis: Small Basilica (T)
Bishop's Basilica and Late-Antique Mosaics of Philippopolis: Late-Antique Irene Building (T)
WHS 1997-2024