Spread on the easternmost slopes of the Rhodope, Ivaylovgrad is still largely defined by its past as a border outpost. In the Middle Ages, Bulgarians and Byzantines disputed control over the nearby Lyutitsa fortress. Under Communism, the town was deep in the border zone. Entering it without a permit was impossible, as NATO members Greece and Turkey were a stone's throw away. In the 2010s, the border here was frequently crossed by refugees.
Probably because it has been perceived as somewhat off-the-beaten-track, Ivaylovgrad remains largely unknown to outsiders. There is a one site, however, that does attract visitors: the remains of an ancient Roman villa. Spacious and richly decorated with mosaics and sculptures, it is one of the best examples of a well preserved and exhibited archaeological site in Bulgaria.
The villa was built sometime after 44-46 AD, when the Romans conquered the Thracians.
At that time, the so-called Villa rustica, or country residences, were not like the holiday homes of today. They were huge estates involved in farming or industries such as brick and pottery production.
A portrait of one of the villa's owners. Historians still disagree the children's body dysmorphia
The inhabitants of these villas were counted in the dozens. Most of them were slaves and workers who lived in the working parts of the estate. The owners had their own quarters, where they enjoyed the pleasures of civilised life thanks to a small armies of servants.
The location where Villa Armira was built, on the Armira River, a tributary of the Arda, was ideal for such a venture. The Thracian sun and the waters of the Arda and its tributaries provided favourable conditions for growing grain, vines, vegetables and fruit. Timber was abundant, and nearby quarries produced top-quality stone and marble. These were sold in the nearby city of Uskudama (later Hadrianopolis, today Edirne, in Turkey) and were shipped farther away on the then navigable Maritsa River.
Villa Armira spread over 3,600sq.m. It had two stories, 22 mosaic-decorated rooms for the owners and their guests, and a bathhouse. In the middle of the open courtyard there was a pool with marble reliefs, pillars and sculptures.
Generations of the same family inhabited the Villa Armira over the centuries, but most of them remain anonymous to us. One of the villa's owners, however, has left a valuable trace of his existence: he commissioned a mosaic portrait of himself on the floor of one of the rooms. Some archaeologists believe that the features of this thoughtful, bearded man betray a Middle Eastern ancestry. Intriguingly, most of the finest artworks in the villa were made in Aphrodisias, a city in Asia Minor, now Turkey, known for its school of architectural decoration.
But that mosaic has more curious details, as next to the owner a boy and a girl are depicted, both naked and both with legs showing clear signs of dysmorphia. Some researchers explain the bowed legs as a sign of rickets. Others suggest a simpler explanation; that the artist lacked the skill needed to depict human bodies authentically. The portrait mosaics, which were made at a later date, are not as technically perfect as the geometrical and floral ones which adorn other parts of the villa.
The villa and its inhabitants fared well until the estate was destroyed and abandoned during the Goth war of 378. The decisive battle of the conflict took place in nearby Hadrianopolis, and cost the life of Emperor Valens, the first Roman emperor to be killed by the Barbarians.
The remains of Villa Armira lay forgotten for centuries, occasionally disturbed by treasure hunters. This continued until 1964, when the construction of a reservoir on the upper course of the Armira River led to its rediscovery.
It was an amazing find, as the villa is one of the earliest and largest buildings of its kind in the Balkans. It sheds light on the region's economic history, and the remains of its mosaics and marble decoration are considered among the finest in Bulgaria.
The inhabitants of Villa Armira enjoyed luxury living
These were nearly lost in 1991, as the tumultuous beginning of the transition to democracy and soaring unemployment forced many Bulgarians to turn to treasure hunting. An underground network for smuggling was born. The state was helpless. In these times of governmental incapacity, museums were robbed, tombs were scavenged, ancient sites were bulldozed. Finds were sold to rich collectors in Bulgaria and abroad.
Villa Armira was a victim, too. Over the span 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.
What remained of the villa was left to decay until the 2000s, when the site was renovated and conserved, and many of the stolen pieces of decoration were returned.
Discoveries continued, too.
In 2001, treasure hunters targeted a nearby burial mound by Svirachi village, but archaeologists intervened in time, and then began excavations. This was how they discovered a mound spanning 60 metres. It was encircled by a wall of stone and topped with a monument. Several people were buried in it, along with chariots and golden wreaths.
The mound most probably belonged to the owners of Villa Armira.
Soon afterwards a similar mound (with no wall) was excavated near Zoni, a Greek village some 20 km east of Villa Armira. There were five graves in it and five well-preserved chariots. Did this mound belong, too, to the inhabitants of Villa Armira? It appears likely.
High 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.