BASARABI – THE CAVE CHURCHES COMPLEX
Description of the archaeological site
and of the carved images
Dr. Constantin Chera
The complex of cave monuments in Basarabi was discovered in 1957 during the limestone quarry activities. The complex used from the second half of the 9th cent to the half of the 11th cent. consists of a number of galleries, dwellings, crypts, tombs, six chapels and a quarry from the same epoch, where limestone was cut out. All the composing elements of the architectural complex are dug into the chalky limestone hill at different levels, into the vertical walls of the ancient quarry.
The main conclusions regarding the location, the role and the significance of the cave monuments were already drawn, though studies about them are not yet finished.
As known, Dobruja was under Byzantine Empire rule during those centuries, rule again established at the mouth of the Danube after a short period of its political and military decline from the beginning of the 7th cent. It was proven archaeologically that during the last decades of the 10th cent. and at the beginning of the 11th the quarry in Basarabi was used to build the trans-Dobrujan “stone wall” (one of three “Traian’s” walls between Constanta and Cernavoda) with help from the local, Romanian population. In the area next to Basarabi this wall had a limestone blocks upper structure.
A representative elements series of this archaeological complex is specific for the Dobrujan Romanian population. The limestone deposit exploiting system in open-air scales and terraces, used since ancient times in Roman quarries (including Dobruja) was unknown to migrant populations. Many of the excavated tombs were built according to older, Roman traditions. Two types represent ceramics: the local, Dridu type and the imported Byzantine one, inheriting older, Greek and Roman traditions. Regarding building conceptions, religious frameworks, with apses, central and side naves, though little, keep exactly the plan of Roman-Byzantine basilicas (including those in Dobruja) from the 4th-6th cent. A.D. The entire ensemble, with its rich figurative and symbolic decoration, represents an especially important document for our history, until now unique in eastern parts of Europe.
Decoration consists of human figures, orants, riders, animals, birds, laic and religious symbols etc. A large interest group is represented by fantastic figures like monsters and dragons. These ones, together with also on the walls represented halberds are of northern, Viking origin, a fact also confirmed by anthropological analysis of two skeletons. The same northern origin, accepted by all scientists, is proven by the image of a Viking ship. Beside other elements excavated from the 10th-11th cent. in Dinogetia (Tulcea county), specific also to Vikings, these discoveries were linked to the trade route between Scandinavian areas and Constantinople, known under the name “the route from the Varegs (= Vikings) to the Greek”.
A special attention must be given to the large number of inscriptions carved into the walls, using the Greek, proto-Glagolitic, Glagolitic alphabet and Runic signs. It is proven, that Greek, proto-Glagolitic and Glagolitic alphabets were used by a Romanic population. Recently even a number of Romanian language inscriptions were deciphered, containing specific religious idioms.
Linguists consider deciphering Runic texts in Basarabi as an extremely difficult task because of their fragmentary preservation and the absence of many elements. It is not even known if they were written from left to right or vice versa. So Runic texts remain for the time being unsolved.
Considering Latin language writer Walafrid Strabo`s information about some 4th cent. Christian Goths descendants` on nowadays Dobrujan territory – especially in Tomis - existence, who held mess in Gothic language, a number of scientists ascribe Runes from Basarabi to these people. This tradition could also be linked to related northern elements` presence – the Vikings. Others assign part of these Runes to Pechenegs. Only some of Bulgarian scientists try to assign Runic inscriptions, as well as the entire complex, to Bulgarians, an opinion not accepted by the scientists` community.
The monuments in Basarabi confirm Byzantine writers Cedren and Attaleiates` information about Romanians` existence at the Lower Danube, as well as other populations`, much less numerous especially during Byzantine Empire rule in Dobruja.
After the cave complex was discovered, between 1957 and 1962 first protection measures were taken, with a wooden structure covering and protecting it against rain and wind, but this didn`t much lower temperature differences.
Between 1971 and 1974 final preservation and conservation works took place, especially in the area of the cave churches and galleries. But only three protection-building segments of seven were completed, covering a surface of 924 m˛. In 1975 these works were stopped as a result of financial difficulties.
In 1981 local authorities and an architecture institute elaborated a project to protect segments 4 to 7 of the complex. The main functional elements were to be covered by a building to assure its protection and museum functionality, with platforms for visitors and exhibition spaces, consolidation of the chalky limestone slope, reconstitution of original elements in special rooms and inside the galleries.
After a series of other negotiations regarding technical aspects and funding, only small steps were made forward, so there is an urgent need to study all possibilities for an intricate restoration and preservation process.
As the cultural importance of this monument is exceptionally high, not only for Dobruja, but also for the pan-European archaeological heritage, modern methods of investigation and restoration with the on site laboratory would have to solve some of the following items:
- Humidity tracking and methods of isolation
- Vibrations influence and ways of consolidation (a sometimes very crowded motorway passes the complex only a very short distance away)
- Non-destructive resistance studies of the natural limestone layers would improve our knowledge about an efficient protection building
- Temperature differences are very large, so modern thermo vision applications would help find the best solutions for the preservation of the entire site.