About an easy 10-minute walk from Plovdiv's Central Post Office, the Small Basilica was virtually unknown to the wider public until 2013.
Built in the 470s beside the then eastern fortification wall of Philippopolis, the Small Basilica was situated in the city's richest area. The lavishly decorated mansions of the wealthiest citizens surrounded grand public buildings like the oldest synagogue in Bulgaria and the Bishop's Basilica.
This part of the city was abandoned at the end of the 6th Century, and during the following centuries was plundered as a source of building materials. By the 1980s, when large-scale construction of apartment blocks started in the area, the remains of this once prosperous neighbourhood were completely covered by earth and developments.
Some houses and public buildings came to light under the spades of archaeologists, but only a handful of them were deemed important enough to merit preservation.
Plovdiv's Small Basilica is covered in intricate mosaics
One of these was the Small Basilica. Discovered in 1988, it had a mosaics floor and an elaborately decorated baptistry, which were too precious to lose. Some of the mosaics were removed and put into storage, and the baptistry was covered with a protective shroud of concrete. In 1995 the Small Basilica was registered as a cultural monument.
But as happens to so many other archaeological sites, chronic negligence reduced the basilica to little more than wasteland.
It was in 2010 when things changed. The America for Bulgaria Foundation began a project to restore the mosaics and bring them back to the church, with the site becoming a museum of archaeology. In the following four years 1.53 million leva was spent on the revival of the basilica and its mosaics, which were cleared, reinforced, conserved and taken back to their original places at the church's carefully restored ruins and the nearby mansion, street, fortification wall and tower.
The mosaics are visually arresting, but their historical value exceeds their ocular splendour. They have given a new lease of life to one of the most thrilling footnotes in the history of late Antiquity.
Mosaic of a deer from the Small Basilica baptisterium, or baptismal pool
In front of the altar a partially destroyed inscription mentions "a victor and a patrician." This was Basiliscus, a military commander of the Roman province of Thrace in the mid-5th Century and brother-in-law of Emperor Leo I. In 471, when the Goths in Thrace revolted, Basiliscus saved Philippopolis from sacking and destruction.
The grateful citizens made him a statue by the Eastern Gate and built the Small Basilica to commemorate their salvation.
So far so good, but why then is the name of Basiliscus missing from basilica's inscription? The answer lies in events which unfolded soon after it was finished. In 474 Leo I died, and his son-in-law, Zeno, ascended the throne. Unhappy with the development, Basiliscus overthrew Zeno the next year. But barely a year had passed and Basiliscus lost the support both of the populace and the patricians – Zeno returned to Constantinople to rule as emperor for the next 15 years.
Zeno punished his rival according to the standards of the day. Basiliscus was left to die of thirst and hunger, and his name was erased from historical records, statues and official inscriptions. It was removed, too, from the floor of the Small Basilica. Several years later the Small Basilica was destroyed in a fire. The damage was too severe, and the citizens of Philippopolis chose to rebuild the church from scratch. The floor of the new basilica was covered with bricks, but the building acquired another landmark – the baptistry.
It was built by the northeast corner of the Small Basilica to accommodate the large number of people converting to Christianity. The room had a deep cross-shaped baptismal pool of marble with running water. Above it, four marble pillars supported a marble cover. The floor was decorated with mosaics showing pigeons and grazing stags.
Only two of the four mosaics from the baptistry have been preserved, but even today, after all the centuries, they astonish with their vivacity and bright colours.