How Greek settlers created a Black Sea metropolis that endured half a millennium: Sozopol’s proud maritime history, By James Brewer
Seven civilisations left their mark on the picturesque Bulgarian town of Sozopol, some 35km south of the industrial city and port of Burgas on the Black Sea coast.
In particular, the rule of Hellenic, Slavic, Ottoman and Bulgarian empires over the strategic spot have left rich layers of maritime, ecclesiastical and domestic history that continue to yield remarkable secrets.
Most obvious legacy from past settlements in Sozopol is the pattern of 19th century cobbled streets with their stone and wooden houses which have inspired generations of artists.
Intriguingly, the story of Sozopol’s half a millennium as a thriving outpost of the Greek world is gradually unfolding – a Hellenic triumph that is little appreciated in Western Europe, and one that deserves much more attention. That is changing, thanks to the diligence and devotion of historians and archaeologists, among them the hard-working team at the Sozopol Foundation.
For the last dozen years, endeavours to protect and promote the historical pride of the rocky promontory have owed much to the dynamism of the Sozopol Foundation, an organisation set up by businessman Kiril Arnautski and others. Although based in Sofia and active throughout Bulgaria in pursuing projects that enhance historic sites, Mr Arnautski has a special fondness for Sozopol and its maritime connections.
Exactly 40 years ago, the entire town, one of the oldest on the coast, was declared by the Bulgarian state to be an archaeological reserve. That is as it should be – history is the very stuff of the meandering streets, at surface and underground levels as structural remains continue to be excavated, as a ‘living’ complement to the intriguing amphorae, anchors, pottery and jewellery encased in museum displays.
Bozhidar Dimitrov, director of the National Museum of History, says that Bulgaria, because of its location at a crossroads between Europe and Asia, has seen seven great civilisations: prehistoric, Thracian, Greek, Roman, medieval Byzantine, medieval Bulgarian, and Islamic.
Snugly sited on its peninsula, and over the last half century supplemented on land overlooking adjacent bays by numerous but fortunately low-rise hotels and apartments, the old town has a winter population of just 800 (about the same as the original number of Greek settlers!) who go quietly about their business. The town can be eerily quiet in winter, but it bursts into life in summer with bars, restaurants, art galleries and souvenir shops selling wares ranging from superb locally-caught fish to individually-crafted textiles and ceramics.
Sozopol has what is said to be the best natural harbour throughout the Black Sea stretch from the Danube to the Bosporus. It was an obvious clearing point for maritime trade, before its topography changed and before Burgas, Varna and other ports completed man-made improvements more suitable for modern large commercial ships.
An enormous lake flooded in the 8th millennium BC to create the Black Sea, and around its shores lived people who were perhaps the original citizens of Europe – long before the Greeks were to covet the territory.
The first settlement at Sozopol dates from the Bronze Age, and there is evidence of trade involving the ancient Greeks who were beginning to capitalise on new techniques for manufacturing, agriculture and seafaring. Many anchors from the second and first millennium BC have been discovered in the waters of the port and beyond, together with remains of dwellings and pottery, and tools of stone and bone. Shipping and trade links were sustaining advances in society.
Sozopol – in those days an island – welcomed ships carrying olive oil, and sent them out with grain to what is now Greece. A visit to two of Sozopol’s excellent museums, the archaeological centre and the Sozopol Foundation museum within the restored South Fortress Wall and Tower, is essential to set the scene for an understanding of the wealth of economic and cultural activity that spread out from the port.
Emblematic of huge volumes of trade over the years, one can see In the Foundation museum examples of the shipping containers of yore. These include a fragment of a Thracian amphora from the 4th century BC, another from Lesbos, one from Chios, and with no real change in design, a medieval amphora from the 10th century AD.
At the end of the 2nd and the beginning of the 1st millennium BC, Thracians settled along the west coast of the Black Sea, with the Skyrmianoi tribe selecting territory close to what is today Sozopol. The start of what might be seen as Sozopol’s golden age was 611BC, when envoys from the Hellenic city-state of Miletus in Asia Minor negotiated a trade agreement with the Skyrmianoi under which land was to be ceded to about 1, 000 settlers.
It represented a bold venture by these Greek pioneers, for Hellas had tended to shun the often chill and stormy Black Sea – after all, the warmer waters of the Aegean were far more congenial – and there were fears that the sea might harbour monsters. Thrace had its attractions though, including its extensive wheat cultivation and productive mines.
In all, over-populated Miletus was said to have spawned 80 poleis (the plural of polis, a large urban community), some of which were to have modern successor metropolises, ranging from Massalia, present-day Marseilles, to Olbia, close to Odessa which is now a key naval base, seaport and shipbuilding centre and the third largest city of Ukraine.
Early settlers landing at Sozopol are said to have included Anaximander (born in Miletus about 610, died 546 BC), a philosopher and astronomer who drew what is considered to be the first and now-lost geographical map, was possibly the first Greek to produce a written account of nature, and the first to claim the earth floated in space.
The Hellenes apparently liked the site because it was separated from the mainland by a narrow strait, affording them protection from attack if Thracian tribes living nearby turned hostile. They named their autonomous city state Apollonia in honour of the god Apollo. Prof Dimitrov relates in his brilliant 320-page history of Sozopol that the mother polis would provide the ships for the migration voyage, and ensure that the settlers were a balanced group, consisting of specialities such as potters, shipwrights, blacksmiths, sailors, fishermen and agriculturalists. By the end of the 6th century BC the population probably grew from natural causes to almost 5, 000, with thousands more living nearby.
To distinguish it from other Greek poleis with the same name, the precursor of Sozopol was known as Apollionia Pontica (Black Sea). Overcoming their earlier apprehensiveness about the Black Sea, the Greeks now termed its waters Euxinos, meaning hospitable.
Apollo, described by the historian WK Guthrie as “the very embodiment of the Hellenic spirit, ” was among his other attributes considered the protector of colonies.
According to displays in Sozopol’s archaeological museum, the Greek geographer Strabo wrote that the city spread along the Black Sea coast from what is shown on modern maps as Pomorie to Cape Igneada: the main points were Anchialos (Pomorie), Poros (Burgos), Anthe (Atia), Ourdousa (Kiten), Auleuteichos (Ahtopol), and Thynias (Igneada).
Booming demand for wine, salt, pottery and minerals meant that the town developed robust relations with the leading cities of Ancient Greece – Miletus, Athens, Corinth, Heraclea Pontica (the site of the Black Sea Turkish city of Karadeniz Ereğli) and the islands of Rhodes, Chios, and Lesbos.
At Apollonia Pontica, male citizens aged 18 and over (and some Thracians, but not women, nor slaves) were eligible to participate in the Council of Archons (a supreme body of magistrates) which was elected annually. The city state had its own army and navy, and minted silver and copper coins embossed with an anchor.
A temple dedicated to Apollo housed a colossal bronze statue of the god, crafted by the Greek sculptor Kalamis and visible to passing ships. At 13.2 m high, the statue was second in size only to the 30 m Colossus of Rhodes, for which it is said to have been a prototype.
Archaeologists working on the small island of St Kirik – a military base in the modern era until 2005, and which has since 1927 been connected to the Old Town by a narrow causeway – are exploring what could be the remains of the temple.
Dr Krastina Panayotova of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, who is leading the team, has said that inscriptions mention that the temple of Apollo was situated on an island, although untiil recently there was no archaeological evidence suggesting where the temple was situated.
The Bulgarian government has declared the island of St Kirik a cultural heritage site and the intention is to convert abandoned military buildings into a Museum of the Marine Civilizations once the dig is completed.
When the Romans marched on Apollonia in 72BC to lay waste to much of the city, they carried off the statue as a war trophy to the Capitoline Hill in Rome, where it remained for several centuries until destroyed as a pagan monument by Christians.
The statue of Apollo is depicted on the reverse of some coins minted in Apollonia, and in the museum of the Sozopol Foundation a replica of the large statue based on images from those coins stands proudly. The imposing new statue, with Apollo holding a staff of laurel leaves and his bow and arrows, is even visible from outside through a grille when the building is closed. This artwork was completed three years ago by sculptor Boris Borisov, and is pictured in much of the promotional material for the town.
It is doubtful whether the Apollonians were especially pious, but underlining the wealth of the place, vessels in the archaeological museum demonstrate that they certainly worshipped Dionysus as god of wine and hedonism. Visitors to the region today likewise pay considerable homage to the output of vineyards in the region.
By 490BC, Miletus had been weakened by wars between the Greeks and Persians, but Apollonia was able to trade happily with the Athenian Naval Alliance of 200 poleis, supplying to Athens wheat grown in Thrace, metals, timber, and salt.
Apollonia Pontica survived the campaigns of Phillip II of Macedon (342-339 BC) and Alexander the Great (335 BC) and enjoyed relative peace, save for irritations such as piratical raids by the Thracians on ships that put in to nearby bays to shelter from bad weather.
The citizens’ good fortune ran out in the 1st century BC, when Roman legions led by Marcus Terentius Lucullus (who had helped defeat the slaves’ revolt led by Spartacus in Greece) rampaged through Thrace to reach the Black Sea, overcoming the resistance of the Pontic king Mithridates VI.
Although the Romans devastated the town, it was almost immediately rebuilt by a rich Thracian named Metok, and remained a significant port under the name Apollonia Magna. The benefactor reconstructed the fortress walls, which lasted until the 14th century when the Ottoman invasion wiped out all such fortifications in Bulgaria.
By the first century AD, the name Sozopolis began to appear in written records, and in 330AD the city, one of several in the Hellenic world bearing the name Apollonia, was give its current name, a Christian designation meaning the town of salvation. Soon it was back on the road to being an administrative, economic and religious centre.
Despite many new upheavals, Sozopol became one of the largest Bulgarian ports trading with the Byzantine Empire, Genoa and Venice. Today the remains of the medieval Christian complex are clearly to be seen, although the most prominent, St John the Precursor Monastery, was situated on an island north of the town.
Ottoman Turks brought Sozopol under their sway in 1453, and referred to it as Sizebolu, Sizeboli and Sizebolou; shipbuilding, commerce and fishing thrived, and only in the mid-19th century did it give way to Burgas as the nation’s main port.
During the Crimean War the British and French fleets used Sozopol as a base, and after the Russo-Turkish war of 1878 the population fled, fearing reprisals; it was some time before the town was resettled. Almost all of its Greek population was exchanged with Bulgarians from Eastern Thrace after the Balkan Wars, although the town is conscious of its strong Greek roots, as many of its street names attest.
Today, more than 180 houses built in the 18th and 19th centuries impart a romantic atmosphere, and the neighbouring architectural-historic complex “South Fortress Wall and Tower” is a striking reminder of much earlier history.
Prof Dimitrov, a native of Sozopol , has written in addition to some 50 publications and television scripts his magnificently illustrated and thoroughly-researched volume on the town. He lauds the Sozopol Foundation and other private foundations for helping the state preserve for future generations thousands of world-class monuments in Bulgaria.
There is another Sozopol, thousands of kilometres away. Sozopol Gap in Antarctica is named after the Bulgarian town and is an icy pass in the Tangra Mountains, South Shetland Islands.