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 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 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 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 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.