Vineyards and ghost villages deserted by people driven off by wars, strict border controls and economic hardship, a medieval fortress tucked into the easternmost slopes of the Rhodope. There isn't much to see in and around Ivaylovgrad in Bulgaria's southeast. Just across the border, Greece is even less impressive: a patchwork of fields and tiny villages.
But where the Rhodope slowly slides into the plain there is an amazing archaeological site. It's a reminder that long before the birth of modern Bulgaria and Greece, this region was rich and densely populated. It was the home of the Thracians, who around 44-46 AD, after millennia of independence, were incorporated into the Roman Empire.
Villa Armira's pool
Not long after, at the slopes of the Eastern Rhodope, a man, whose name and identity we will probably never know, built himself a spacious villa rustica, or a countryside mansion. The house offered an agreeable way of life and was headquarters for the exploitation of Rhodope rock quarries and the local lands. And the lands were rich. Nurtured by the Thracian sun and the waters of the Arda River and its tributaries, grain, vines, vegetables and fruit grew easily in the mild climate in the plain and the low slopes of the mountain. Timber was abundant, and nearby quarries produced top-quality stone and marble. These were brought to the market of the nearby city of Uskudama (later Hadrianopolis, today Edirne, in Turkey) and were shipped farther away on the then navigable Maritsa River.
The man who owned all this built his spacious villa rustica on the bank of the Armira River, one of Arda's tributaries. He did it after the finest Roman fashion.
Villas in Antiquity were not like the holiday homes of today. They were huge estates fully involved in farming and industries such as brick and pottery production. The people living in these villas were counted in the dozens. Most of them were slaves and workers who inhabited the industrial parts of the estate. The owners had their own quarters, where they enjoyed the countryside life serviced by small armies of servants.
The museum from the outside
The owner of the Villa Armira spared no expense on his villa. It spread over 3,600 sq m, had two stories, 22 mosaic-decorated rooms for the owners and their guests, and a sauna bathhouse. In the middle of the open yard there was a fresco-decorated pool with marble low reliefs of dolphins and tendrils, and hermae, or pillars adorned with a Hermes head.
Later generations made the villa even more beautiful. One successor, for example, commissioned a mosaic floor with his own portrait on it. The features of this thoughtful, bearded man suggest that his family was from the Middle East, the descendants of settlers who had moved to Thrace. Another evidence is the fact that most of the finest works in the villa were wrought by masters from Aphrodisias,a city in Asia Minor, now in Turkey, known for its school for architectural decorations.
In the mosaics, next to the sombre, long-nosed face of the owner, the artist depicted also his children – a boy and a girl. The children's naked bodies show clear signs of dysmorphia. Some researchers explain the bowed legs to be the sign of rickets, but others believe in a simpler explanation: The artist lacked the skill needed to depict human bodies authentically enough. Indeed, the portrait mosaics are not that technically perfect as the geometrical and floral ones which adorn the other parts of the villa.
The villa and its inhabitants fared well for centuries until the mansion was destroyed and abandoned during the Goth war of 378, in which Emperor Valens was killed in the battle of Hadrianopolis. The remains of the estate lay forgotten for centuries, occasionally disturbed by treasure hunters. This continued until 1964, when the construction of a reservoir in the upper course of the Armira led to its discovery.
It was an amazing find. The Villa Armira is one of the earliest and largest buildings of its kind in the Balkans. It shed light on the region's economic history, and the remains of its mosaics and marble decoration are considered among the finest ever discovered in Bulgaria.
The villa is registered as a monument of national importance, but was nearly lost in 1991. The tumultuous beginning of the transition to democracy and the soaring unemployment forced many Bulgarians to turn to treasure hunting, and an underground network for artefact smuggling was born. The state was helpless. In these times of governmental incapacity, museums were robbed, tombs were scavenged and ancient sites were bulldozed. The finds were sold to rich collectors in Bulgaria and abroad.
Villa Armira was one of the victims. In the course of several months in 1991, most of its marble decorations and some of its mosaics were stolen. Some of them appeared years later at auctions in the West.
What remained of the villa was left to decay until the first decades of the 21st
Century, when renovations began. Proper conservation was started and many of the stolen pieces of decoration were restored to where they belong.
Discoveries continued too.
In 2001 treasure hunters targeted a large burial mound by the village of Svirachi, near the Villa Armira. They were prevented by archaeologists, who began urgent excavations and discovered that the 60-metre-in-diameter mound was encircled by a high-benched wall of stone. On the top there was a monument. Several people were buried in it, along with chariots and golden wreaths.
Villa Armira pool decoration
The mound most probably belonged to the owners of Villa Armira.
A reconstruction of the marble decoration of the Svirachi Tomb can be seen in the Kardzhali History Museum.
Soon afterwards a similar mound (with no wall) was excavated near Zoni, a Greek village some 20 km east of Armira. There were five graves in it and five well-preserved chariots. Did this mound belong, too, to the inhabitants of Villa Armira? It appears likely.