Nesebar is an attractive tourist destination situated on the Bulgarian Black Sea Coast. Its rich archaeology and history are well presented in the local archaeological museum which hosts fascinating collections from prehistory to the Middle Ages. The picturesque old town that has many well-preserved mediaeval churches with frescoes and 19th century houses was built over the remains of ancient Mesambria, which was one of the most important Greek colonies in the region. The Greek colony was situated on a small peninsula, about 40 hectares in size, with two harbors on its northern and southern shores. About one third of ancient Mesambria is currently submerged. Regular archaeological excavations have been carried out in the town from 1960 onwards.
The peninsula was inhabited by the Thracians during the late 2nd and first half of the 1st millennium BC, several centuries before the first Greek colonists arrived in the region and founded the earliest colonies on the Thracian littoral of the Black Sea. In the 8th century BC the Thracian town was already fortified with a stone fortification wall, part of which was discovered during archaeological excavations. The Thracian name of the settlement was Melsembria, which means “The town of Melsas”. Melsas was a mythical Thracian king and founder of the city. The name of Melsembria was inherited by the Greeks as Mesambria.
The Greek colony Mesambria was founded at the end of the 6th century BC, supposedly around 510 BC, by settlers from the Doric Greek colonies situated on the Bosporus, Byzantion and Chalkedon. Thus, the foundation of Mesambria was related to Megara, which was one of the main Greek cities that participated in Greek colonization throughout the Mediterranean. In the following decades, Mesambria rapidly grew and became a typical Greek polis. It was ruled by a magistrate, called Basileus (king), a collegium of six Strategoi (strategists), Boule (city council) and Demos (assembly). At the end of the 5th and the beginning of the 4th century BC, a fortification wall was constructed, and nowadays part of it is visible in the western part of the town. The Greek fortification wall remained almost intact during the Roman period, and it was reinforced and reconstructed during the Early Byzantine period in the middle of the 5th century AD. The Greek town was built on terraces supported by stone walls and there was an acropolis in its eastern highest part. The streets of Mesambria were arranged according to the orthogonal system, and there was an agora in the center of the polis. The houses were constructed with a peristyle. According to some Greek inscriptions, temples of Apollo, Dionysus, Zeus and Hera, as well as a gymnasium and a theater, existed in the town. The temple of Apollo was the main one, and the state archive of Mesambria was kept there. A temple of Zeus Hyperdexios was discovered during archaeological excavations.
Mesambria was one of the most important Geek colonies on the Western Black Sea Coast, and it maintained active trade relations with numerous centers in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. In addition, it founded several smaller colonies and emporia on the Western Black Sea Coast and maintained active bilateral political and economic relations with the surrounding Thracian tribes. From the middle of the 5th century BC onwards, Mesambria minted its own gold, silver and bronze coins. In 425 – 424 BC, during the Peloponnesian War, the town joined the Delian League under the leadership of Athens. According to an inscription, during the 2nd century BC, Mesambria was at war with Apollonia Pontica, another major Greek colony on the Western Black Sea Coast. During the Third Mithridatic War and the Roman military operations in Thrace in 72 and 71 BC, the town was conquered by the Roman legions, but it was not destroyed and was occupied by the Romans only for a short period.
In the beginning of the 1st century AD Mesambria was included in the Roman Province of Moesia, while in the 2nd century AD it was transferred to the Province of Thracia. During the Roman period, Mesembria kept its position as an important town and trade center located on Via Pontica, or the Pontic road, which runs along the Western Black Sea Coast. From Emperor Hadrian to Emperor Philip I, or from AD 117 to AD 249, Mesambria minted its own colonial bronze coins. The pre-Roman fortification walls and public buildings were almost intact and continued to exist throughout the Roman Imperial period. Temples of Asclepius, Aphrodite, Serapis, Isis and Anubis were also built in that time. In the middle of the 5th century AD the Greek fortification walls were renovated and reconstructed, and the entire peninsula was surrounded with a fortification wall with semicircular and circular towers. The new wall was 3.80 m wide and about 10 m high. During the Middle Ages the fortification was reconstructed and reinforced on several occasions. Nowadays, the well-preserved western gate of the Early Byzantine fortification, protected by two pentagonal towers, is one of the main archaeological monuments visible in the new town.
During the Early Byzantine period, the town was already called Mesemvria and many churches were built. The main church was St. Sophia, and it was a three-nave basilica, also known as the Old Bishopric. It was built at the end of the 5th and beginning of the 6th century AD on the site of the ancient Greek agora. St. Sophia Basilica was part of the residence of the Bishop of Mesemvria. It was reconstructed in the beginning of the 9th century AD and functioned until the 18th century.
The Church of St. John Aliturgetos is another fascinating monument situated on the southern coast of Mesemvria. It was built in the 14th century and was called Aliturgetos because it was not consecrated. The church is cross-dome, built with ashlars and bricks, with richly decorated façades. The church is being restored with a major grant provided by The U.S. Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation.
During the reign of Emperor Justinian the Great in AD 527 – 565, public baths were built in Mesemvria and parts of them were excavated. The public baths were built in opus mixtum and had a hypocaust. They were used until the end of the 8th century AD, and according to the historical records, in AD 680 Emperor Constantine IV the Bearded bathed and was treated there. In AD 812 Mesemvria was conquered by the Bulgars led by Khan Krum, and during the following centuries the town was possessed either by the Bulgarian Kingdom or by the Byzantine Empire, before it was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1453 at the time of the fall of Constantinople.
Nikola Theodossiev, Sofia University