Bulgaria's seaside capital
Modern Varna is built on the site of Thracian, Greek and Roman heritage
22 July, 2017
The Varna Gold Treasure.
Fifth-century mosaics of the Early Christian period.
Asclepius and Hygeia.
The ruins of the so-called Small Thermae.
Varna, Bulgaria's third largest city, is often referred to as the country's 'seaside capital' and is famous worldwide for its splendid sand beaches and hot geothermal waters. Perhaps a lesser known fact is that the city was built on the site of the ancient Greek colony Odessos, which in turn had emerged from the ruins of an even older Thracian settlement.
The earliest traces of human habitation in this region date back to the Paleolithic Age, 100,000 years ago. In 1972, the Varna Chalcolithic necropolis was unearthed, dated 4400 BC. Europe's oldest collection of processed gold, as well as artefacts of silver, copper, bronze, stone and earthenware were found in it. The treasure, which is on display at the local archaeological museum, is composed of over 1,800 gold items with a total weight of over 2kg.
In the 6th century BC, Greek colonists from the ancient Ionian city of Miletus cast anchor in the Bay of Varna to build Odessos, which translates as “town upon water”. It soon evolved into a self-governing classical polis to become an important port and trade hub of the Black Sea that traded both with the mother polis and many other Greek poleis too. Odessos minted bronze, silver and even gold coins in its own right. The Thracian god Darzalas was frequently depicted on Odessos coins, lying down and holding the cornucopia or an amphora turned upside down.
In the 1st century AD, Odessos was annexed by the Roman Empire. Aware of its importance, the Romans granted the city administrative privileges and trade freedom. Odessos was fortified and urbanised; a number of temples were built along with a theatre, gymnasium, central water-conduit system, etc.
The rise of the city is best demonstrated by the majestic thermae, built in the late 2nd century on an area of 7,000m2. Apart from being the best preserved ancient archaeological site in Odessos, the thermae are the biggest ancient public building ever discovered in Bulgaria, the largest Roman bath on the Balkan Peninsula and the world’s fourth largest Roman thermae. The complex was built in the vicinity of geothermal waters still used to this day.
Apart from the vast space they cover, the thermae are notable for their height: in places the vaults over the pools reached as high as 20m. The facility had a unique heating system of its own, in which special cavities led the air, warmed up by the hot mineral water, to the top of the rooms. This way, visitors were welcomed into rooms that boasted natural buffers against the cold air outside.
Functioning at least until the late 3rd century, the thermae played an important social role in the ancient city, serving as a gathering place for the men of Odessos to discuss major social issues. Shrines of Asclepius and Hygeia, deities of medicine and health, were built in the northwest end of the baths. Elements connected to the cult to Heracles, the patron of springs, were also found there.