Apollonia Pontica – the city in the spiral of eternity

Apollonia Pontica is the oldest city in Bulgaria, founded by settlers from Miletus around 610 BC. It is named “Apollonia” in honor of the ancient Greek god Apollo – patron of the sun, light and the arts. The ancient chroniclers point as the founder of the city the famous Hellenic natural philosopher and prose writer Anaximander.

From the very first centuries of its existence, the polis (city-state) marked a remarkable flourishing – cutting its own coins and controlling vast territory along the coast from Anhialo – (present day Pomorie) at north to Tiniada (present day Ineada – Turkey) at south. On the Apollonian coins from the end of 5th – 2nd century BC permanent symbol is the anchor –  legitimizing Apollonia Pontica in the ancient world.

Apollonia has established itself as a prime intermediary in the trade between Ancient Thrace and Hellas. The main source of its wealth are the Strandja ore deposits, the naturally protected ports and the Anhialo salterns. In the period 6th – 4th century BC Apolonia is a classically well-developed urban center with monumental public buildings, protected by solid fortification walls. Here are raised temples of Zeus, Dionysus, Poseidon, Gaia Htonia, Aphrodite of Syria, Hecate and others. The ancient chroniclers mention the temple of the patron saint of the city – Apollo The Healer, decorated with a colossal 13 m high bronze statue worth 500 talents of gold, made by the famous Hellenic sculptor Kalamis. This unique work of art that, impressed the ancients greatly, is unparalleled in the outskirts of Ancient Hellas. Since the end of the period, the city has been known as Apollonia Magna (The Great) – a recognition of its splendor, power and wealth.

During the Hellenistic period, the city resisted the Macedonian invasion during the time of Philip II, Alexander the Great and Lizimach, while maintaining its independence. At the end of 3rd – beginning of 2nd century BC Apollonia is lead a successful war for the Anchialo salterns with its eternal rival – the Dorian Messembria (now Nessebar). In this war, despite the initial failure, the Apollonians conquered with the help of the union fleet of Histria (an ancient city at the mouth of the river Danube, nowadays Romania).

The end of the political and economic rise of the city was marked by the Roman expansion in Thrace. In 72 BC Apollonia is conquered, plundered and burned by the legions of Marcus Lucullus. The victors take the famous statue of the god Apollo to Rome and, as the most valuable military trophy, place it on Capitol Hill. After the proclamation of Thrace as a Roman province in 45 AD, Apollonia continued to exist as an important port center, but never reached its former glory and wealth.

The proximity of the city to the Eastern Roman provinces favors the early spread of Christian ideas related to the evangelistic mission of St. Andrew the Apostle on the shores of the Western Black Sea. In 170 AD, the church historian Eusebius referred to Aubl Publius Elius as the bishop of Apollonia and Deultum (now Debelt), which testifies to the presence and high degree of organization of a local Christian community. After the advent of Christianity as the official religion in the Roman Empire in the 4th century, the city was called Sozopolis – the city of salvation.

Sozopolis – the city of salvation

During the second half of the 4th – 5th centuries the town acquired the appearance of an important administrative and episcopal center. Many new Christian temples have been built. The foundations of the monastery of St. John Island are laid, in which the relics of St. John the Baptist are placed.

To protect against barbarian invasions in the 5th and 6th century AD Sozopol was fortified with a complex system of fortifications (two-level fortress walls and towers). Their foundations, preserved in ruins, can now be seen in the southern and southeastern part of the Sozopol peninsula. The fortress is of strategic importance for the shipping on the Western Black Sea and protecting the approaches to the capital of the Byzantine Empire.

In 513 AD, Sozopol is mention in connection with the rebellion of Vitalian – the military ruler of Thrace against Emperor Anastasius I, who ended in failure.

After the foundation of the Bulgarian state in 681 AD, the Black Sea cities, including Sozopol, remained within the borders of the Byzantine Empire. In 812 AD the city was conquered by the troops of Khan Krum and for the first time included within the territory of medieval Bulgaria. Located on the border between the two great empires, Bulgaria and Byzantium, in the following centuries Sozopol periodically switched from Bulgarian to Byzantine rule.

In the 11th – 14th century AD the importance of the city as a commercial, religious and cultural center increased. The Byzantine chroniclers mention Sozopol as “…a rich and densely populated city”. Many churches and monasteries were built, among which the most famous are the monasteries “St. John Prodromos”, “St. St. Kirik and Julita” located at the islands of the same name, the city monasteries of the “Holy Virgin”, “St. Athanasius”, “St. Nicholas the Wonderworker” and the “Holy Apostles”.

In 1352 and 1366 AD Sozopol was conquered and plundered by the Genoese and knights of Amadeus, Count of Savoy. Medieval Sozopol marked a cultural and economic upswing during the reign of the Bulgarian rulers Todor Svetoslav (1300-1322 AD) and Ivan Alexander (1331-1371 AD).

After the conquest of medieval Bulgaria by the Ottoman Turks (1393 – 1396 AD), the Black Sea cities, including Sozopol, fell under the rule of Islam in 1453 AD. A period of five centuries of Turkish slavery has come, marked by the brutal religious, economic and cultural discrimination of the Christian population. The magnificent churches and public buildings are destroyed. There is an economic downturn and a demographic collapse. Sozopol become a small fishing village.

During the Russo-Turkish War of 1828 – 1829 Sozopol was briefly liberated and made the base of the Russian Navy. The population under the leadership of Valchan Voivode and Stoyan Mavrodinov form a militia and make an unsuccessful attempt to rebel against the Turks in Strandja. Following the Treaty of Edirne and the withdrawal of the Russian army, much of the Christian population in the city and region emigrated to Moldova, Bessarabia and the Kerch Peninsula. The end of the Ottoman rule for Bulgaria and the Bulgarians came with the Russo-Turkish War of Liberation from 1877 to 1878. On January 10, 1878, a squadron under the command of General Lermontov (a relative of the great Russian poet) proclaimed freedom to the Sozopol.

After the 1879 Berlin Congress, the struggle for Strandja’s liberation continued. The population of Sozopol actively participated in the Ilinden–Preobrazhenie Uprising of 1903, with the voivode Yani Popov playing an important role in the fight for freedom.

A modern tourist town, Sozopol fascinates with a unique combination of natural landmarks, ancient history and old architecture. The charm of the millennial city and the romance of the South sea create a unique artistic atmosphere. Sozopol jealously preserves and develops its millennia-old cultural traditions, designed to remain forever the “Eternal City of Bulgaria”.