by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

A glimpse of Roman splendour at the edge of Bulgaria

villa armira 2.jpg

Vineyards and ghost villages deserted by those who left because of wars, strict border controls and economic hardship, plus a medieval fortress tucked into the easternmost slopes of the Rhodope: there is not that much to see in and around Ivaylovgrad. Greece, which is just across the border, is even less impressive; a patchwork of fields and tiny villages.

Where the Rhodope slowly dissolve into the plain, however, there is an amazing archaeological site. It reminds you 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, in 45AD, after millennia of independence, were annexed by the Roman Empire.

The Thracians largely continued living as they had done before, but the fate of one of them was completely changed by the new political reality. His name is not known, but historians are certain that he was the king of a local Thracian tribe. In the Roman Empire there were no kings, but the man in question was left to live undisturbed, with most of his wealth intact. He was even given Roman citizenship, a privilege that was hard to obtain if one had been born in the new provinces.

The deposed Thracian king did not waste his time lamenting the past. He grabbed the opportunity given and turned into an entrepreneur. His lands were suitable for this. Grain, vines, vegetables and fruit grew easily in the mild climate of the plain and the low slopes of the mountain, nurtured by the Thracian sun and the waters of the Arda river and its tributaries. Timber was abundant, and several quarries produced top quality stone and marble. These were brought to the market of the nearby city of Uskadama (later Adrianople, today Edirne, in Turkey) and were shipped farther away on the then navigable Maritsa River.

Wealth started to accumulate and prestige was never lost, so soon after 45 AD the former king was confident enough to take another step. He built himself a spacious villa rustica on the bank of the Armira, one of the Arda's tributaries, and he did it in the finest Roman fashion.

A mosaic portrait of the owner and his childrenA mosaic portrait of the owner and his children

Villas in Antiquity were not the holiday homes of today. Back then, these were huge estates fully involved in farming and industries such as brick and pottery production. The inhabitants of the Roman 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 life in the countryside, pampered by small armies of servants.

The former Thracian king did not spare any expense for his villa. It spread over 3,600 sq.m. The two-store mansion had 22 rooms for the owners and their guests, a bathhouse cum sauna, and a swimming pool covered with mosaics and decorated with fine marble sculptures and columns. Later generations improved the villa even more. One of them, for example, commissioned a mosaic floor with his own portrait on it. Next to the sombre, long-nosed face of the owner, the artisan depicted his children, too – a boy and a girl with legs bowed by rickets.

The villa and its inhabitants fared well for centuries until it was destroyed and abandoned during the Goth war of 378, when Emperor Valens himself was killed at the battle of Adrianople. The remains of the estate lay forgotten for centuries, occasionally disturbed by treasure hunters until 1964, when the construction of a reservoir upstream on the Armira led to its discovery.

Renovations continue in 2013Renovations continue in 2013

It was an amazing find. The Villa Armira is the earliest of its kind in the Balkans, and one of the largest. It shed light on the economic history of the region, and the remains of its mosaics and marble decoration are among the finest ever discovered in Bulgaria.

The villa was proclaimed a monument of national importance. In 1991, however, it was almost lost. The tumultuous beginning of the Transitional period and the soaring unemployment forced many to turn to treasure-hunting, and an underground network for artefact smuggling was born. The state was helpless. In this interregnum, museums were robbed, tombs were scavenged and ancient sites were bulldozed, with the finds sold to rich collectors in Bulgaria and abroad.

Armira was not spared. 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.

A personification of one of the Four Winds, which was spared by lootersA personification of one of the Four Winds, which was spared by looters

What remained of the villa was left to decay until 2006, when the Ivaylovgrad Municipality, backed by a Greek partner and the EU started bringing the pieces back together. The restoration was led by archaeologist Gergana Kabakchieva, who had previously researched the Villa Armira. A new protective cover was built, the villa got a website, and some of the stolen fragments were brought back home or sensitively reconstructed. In 2013, restoration continues.

Discoveries continue, too.

In 2001, treasure hunters targeted a huge Thracian burial mound by the village of Svirachi, near the remains of Villa Armira. They did not finish their "job", as Kabakchieva began urgent excavations, which lasted for two years, with astonishing results. About 60 metres in diameter, the mound at Svirachi was encircled with a high benched wall of stone. On the top of the mound there was a monument. Several people were buried in the mound, along with chariots and golden wreaths, in accordance with ancient Thracian burial rites.

According to Kabakchieva, the mound belonged to the owners of Villa Armira.

Soon afterwards, a similar mound – minus the benched wall – was excavated beside Zoni, a Greek village some 20 kms east of Armira. There were five graves in it, and five well-preserved chariots. Did this mound belong to the inhabitants of Villa Armira, too? According to Kabakchieva, the answer is yes.

Swastikas, an ancient symbol of the sun, are a common feature on VIlla Armira's mosaicsSwastikas, an ancient symbol of the sun, are a common feature on VIlla Armira's mosaics

In the two millennia which have passed since the building of Villa Armira, the lands around it have been some of the most contested in the Balkans. An array of people have fought over them, including, but not limited to, the Romans, the Goths, the Byzantines, the Bulgarians and the Ottomans. Yet, the discovery of the villa and the burial mounds of its owners is an opportunity to change this trend – Bulgaria and Greece are now aiming to turn Armira, Svirachi and Zoni into a trans-border tourist attraction.

America for Bulgaria FoundationHigh Beam is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.


    Commenting on

    Vagabond Media Ltd requires you to submit a valid email to comment on to secure that you are not a bot or a spammer. Learn more on how the company manages your personal information on our Privacy Policy. By filling the comment form you declare that you will not use for the purpose of violating the laws of the Republic of Bulgaria. When commenting on please observe some simple rules. You must avoid sexually explicit language and racist, vulgar, religiously intolerant or obscene comments aiming to insult Vagabond Media Ltd, other companies, countries, nationalities, confessions or authors of postings and/or other comments. Do not post spam. Write in English. Unsolicited commercial messages, obscene postings and personal attacks will be removed without notice. The comments will be moderated and may take some time to appear on

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.

Discover More

Her father's daughter who imposed her own mediocrity on Bulgaria's culture? Or a forbearing politician who revived interest in Bulgaria's past and placed the country on the world map? Or a quirky mystic? Or a benefactor to the arts?

In 1199, Pope Innocent III wrote a letter to Bulgarian King Kaloyan to offer an union.

The Rhodope mountains have an aura of an enchanted place no matter whether you visit in summer, autumn or winter. But in springtime there is something in the Bulgarian south that makes you feel more relaxed, almost above the ground.

There are many ways to categorise and promote Bulgaria's heritage: traditional towns and villages, Thracian rock sanctuaries, nature, sun and fun on the seaside, and so on and so forth.

Karlovo is one of those places where size does not equal importance.

Pavlikeni, a town in north-central Bulgaria, is hardly famous for its attractions, and yet this small, quiet place is the home of one of the most interesting ancient Roman sites in Bulgaria: a villa rustica, or a rural villa, with an incredibly well-preserv

How to celebrate like locals without getting lost in complex traditions

Small-town Bulgaria is a diverse place. Some of the towns are well known to tourists while others are largely neglected by outsiders.

Of the many villages in Bulgaria that can be labeled "a hidden treasure," few can compete with Matochina. Its old houses are scattered on the rolling hills of Bulgaria's southeast, overlooked by a mediaeval fortress.

Poet who lost an eye in the Great War, changed Bulgarian literature - and was assassinated for his beliefs

In previous times, when information signs of who had built what were yet to appear on buildings of interest, people liberally filled the gaps with their imagination.

If anything defines the modern Bulgarian landscape, it is the abundance of recent ruins left from the time when Communism collapsed and the free market filled the void left by planned economy.