“St. John the Baptist” Monastery on “St. Ivan” Island, Sozopol

The medieval monastery “St. John the Baptist” is located in the southern part of the eponymous island, in the water area of the Gulf of Sozopol. The first archaeological excavations were carried out in the period 1985 – 1994 under the guidance of Prof. Bozhidar Dimitrov and Prof. Violeta Dimova. In 2008, they were renewed under the leadership of Prof. D.Sc. Kazimir Popkonstantinov and Tsonya Drazheva.

Islands “St. Ivan” and “St. Peter”

The earliest archaeological artifacts discovered during the excavation of the monastery date from the 5th century BC. At the end of 4th – 3rd century BC this part of the island is enclosed by a wall, around which are found the foundations of buildings, that are still unexplored. As a result of recent archeological discoveries, the hypothesis that a pagan temple existed at the site of the monastery was formulated. The assumption is based on the general orientation of the ancient walls, a fragment of a decree, 3rd century BC, and a small architectural detail with the decoration of the “Ionian cima”. During the Roman era, the island retained its importance as an essential element of the port system of Apollonia. It is believed that a lighthouse was built here, the image of which is preserved on an autonomous bronze coin of Faustina The Elder from the 2nd century AD. The lighthouse was important for navigation and shipping along the West Coast of Ponta.

The following centuries of the island’s history are connected with Christianity. At the end of the 4th – 5th century AD the first Christian temple was built – a three-nave, one-apse basilica. An altar part and the outer wall of the northern nave are preserved.

Catholicon of the monastery

In 2010 under the altar of the church a marble reliquary was discovered with the relics of the patron saint of the monastery, the high priest of the Christian church. In the immediate context of the reliquary, a smaller box made of sandstone was found, engraved with a Greek inscription describing the event of carrying the relics by Toma, who praying to God to help him in his mission. The inscription also mentions the date of June 24th – “The Birth of St. John the Baptist”, when the relics were laid and the temple was consecrated.

Opening and consecration of the relics of St. John the Baptist

In the 6th century AD, the early Christian basilica was completely rebuilt and replaced with a larger and more representative three-nave, three-apse basilica, whose ruins are preserved to this day. The church underwent reconstruction in the 10th -11th century AD. A large monastery complex develops around temple, on an area of 0,5 hectares, thanks to a specially built water source (Ayazmo). In the 13th – 17th century AD the basilica was turned into a tomb church – monastery martyrium. The walls of the northern nave have partially preserved traces of several mural layers.

Murals, detail

In 1262 the monastery was completely renovated by the Byzantine commander Michael Tarchaneiotes Glabas. To the north of the early Christian basilica, a new triconchchurch was built, which became a catholicon, the main temple of the monastery. In the 13th – 14th century AD the monastery marked its second flourishing. During this period, the monastery probably became stauropegic (received an independence from local ecclesiastical and secular authorities) and royal and patriarchal status. The Holy Monastery becomes a place of solitude preferred by the Patriarchs of Constantinople. In 1303 the Ecumenical Patriarch John XII Kosmas (1294 – 1303), himself a native of Sozopol, retired here. |He was chosen by the Bulgarian emperor (tsar) Svetoslav Terter as a diplomatic mediator in concluding the Bulgarian-Byzantium peace contract, after the Battle of Skafida (1304), in which the Bulgarian army defeated the army of Andronikos II Palaiologos. The peace was fused with an inter-dynastic marriage between the Bulgarian tsar and the Byzantine princess Theodora Paleologina, the emperor’s granddaughter.

Two imperial certificates (dating from 1363 and 1437) and ten patriarchal certificates (drawn up between 1482 and 1626) confirm the privileges of the island monastery of St. John The Prodromos as a royal and patriarchal monastery and present it as one of the richest and most influential Black Sea monasteries. Surviving the destruction of the Ottoman invasion and conquering the Bulgarian lands, the monastery continued in existence until 1629, when it was destroyed by the Ottoman Turks as it served as a shelter for Cossack pirates. The monks moved to Heybeliada Island, Constantinople, keeping a significant portion of the monastery’s library and church supplies. To date, 60 manuscripts, dating from the 12th – middle of the 15th century AD have been preserved, some of which are stored in the Ecumenical Patriarchal Library, the Vatican and the Royal Library of Sweden. They present the monastery as one of the most important medieval intellectual and religious centers on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast.

Since the last period of the monastery’s existence, the remains of monastic cells have been preserved, restricting the courtyard of the north and east, the abbess’s house, the kitchen and the scriptorium.