From the 4th to the 6th centuries of the new era, Europe’s population experienced a time of great natural cataclysms. “Early Byzantine Tectonic Paroxysm” is the definition geologists have given this period of time. 

by Deyan Yanchev

Indeed the historical and archaeological data of the last two decades has confirmed that in fact, during these three centuries, the Eastern Mediterranean experienced an unusual cluster of extremely destructive earthquakes and tsunamis.

We shall briefly mention the earthquake of July 21, 365 which destroyed nearly all towns in Crete. According to the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus, the mega-tsunami that followed ravaged the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. In Alexandria the anniversary of the disaster had been still commemorated annually by the end of the 6th century as the “day of horror”. The earthquake of May 19, 526 greatly damaged the city of Antioch, considered then as the “cradle of Christianity” and a rival of greatness to the imperial Constantinople.

The Black Sea coast did not also miss on major seismic activity and floods in that period. Theophanes the Confessor describes a devastating earthquake in the bay of Odessos (present-day Varna) in 544. According to A. Nikonov [1997], the sea had overflown its limits up to 6.5 km onshore and had flooded the land in the region of Odessos, as well as the city of Dionysopolis (present-day Balchik). Many people died in the seawater. Some historians believe that it was precisely because of this flood that Dionysopolis was abandoned. Its population moved to the fortress which was located about 1 km away from the Black Sea coast.

On December 14, 557, a powerful earthquake shook the Bosphorus. According to the Byzantine historian Agathias Scholasticus, Constantinople was “almost completely razed to the ground”. The subsequent devastating tsunami, following the earthquake, greatly affected our southern Black Sea coast. The sea propagated 4.5 km inland and run-up heights exceeded 2 m [Nikonov, 1997].

These natural cataclysms may have a direct relation to the third stage of reconstruction of the Early Christian Basilica at Cape St. Atanas, which took place somewhere between the middle of the 6th and the beginning of the 7th century AD.

In 2010, a marble altar table with three of its supporting leg-columns was found during the archaeological excavations at Cape St. Atanas [Yotov, 2014]. The table plate was made of extremely high quality alabaster, imported from the island of Paros in the Sea of Marmara. Although fragmented, almost all parts of it are preserved. Each of the leg-columns is made from one piece of marble with square bases and small capitals in Late Corinthian style. As a result of an event (possible earthquake), the altar table broke. Due to its great sacred significance, it was carefully buried to the base of the apse of the basilica, where it remained hidden for nearly 1500 years.

Олтарната маса, местонамиране
Altar marble table (5th c. AD), place of finding
Олтарната маса
Altar marble table (5th c. AD)

Additionally, in 2012 a new discovery was made – an inscription dedicated to Emperor Tiberius II Constantine. The inscription is written on the front of two stone blocks, in ancient Greek:

– – – ΡΙΟΥΚWC . Α̣Ν
– – – ΟΥΕΥΤΥ̣ . ΕC
– – – Κ̣ΑΙΦΙΛΟ . ΡΙC
– – – CΑΡΟCΠ̣ .
– – – ΤΗ +

A more complete reconstruction of the inscription reads:

[+ Τιβε]ρίου Κω(ν)σ[τ]α̣ν-
[τίνου τ]οῦ εὐτυ̣[χ]εσ-
[τάτου] κ̣αὶ φιλο[χ]ρίσ-
[του καί]σαρος π̣[ο]-
[λλὰ τὰ ἔ]τη. +

“To Tiberius Constantine, the happiest and most devoted Christian Caesar – unto many years!”

Посветителен надпис на Тиберий II Константин.jpg
Inscription dedicated to Emperor Tiberius II Constantine (6th c. AD)

Tiberius II Constantine (578 – 582) was an Eastern Roman Emperor from the Justinian Dynasty. Prior to his reign as Augustus, he was appointed co-emperor (Caesar) to the mentally ill Justin II (565 – 578). The title used (Caesar) and the lack of “Basileus” points to the hypothesis that the inscription dates from the time when Tiberius Constantine was not yet an independent ruler; between the end of 574 (when he became Caesar) and the autumn of 578 when he ascended to the throne.

According to V. Yotov [2014] the inscription can be defined as a “dedication” (acclamation) in honor of a forthcoming visit to Tiberius II Constantine, or in gratitude for his financial support for some construction, possibly a repair of the basilica. It is well known that in order to increase his popularity among the people and the aristocracy, Tiberius II Constantine spend a lot of money for charity and construction. Most of the numismatic finds discovered at Cape St. Atanas date back exactly from this period 527 – 578.

The size of the stone blocks implies that the place of the inscription was somewhere on the visible part of the fortress wall, or onto the main gate of the fortress [Yotov, 2014].

Today the altar table and the inscription are displayed in the building of the museum in Byala. They are silent witnesses to times of great natural cataclysms, but also to the invincibility of the human spirit.

Йотов, В., А. Минчев и др. 2014. Приноси към историята на Бяла (от древността до 1878 г.). Варна, Онгъл, 101-103, 152-153.
Nikonov, A. A. 1997. Tsunami occurrence on the coasts of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, Izv. Phys. Solid Earth, 33, 72–87.


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