Pliska - 100 years of archaeological excavations
R. Rashev, Ya. Dimitrov

III. The legacy of Pliska

    2. Architectural monuments

The Palace centre. Panoramic view
SVaklinov, p.48

The earliest construction works at Pliska were undertaken at the seat of the ruler. The first buildings were wooden. We know little about their layout. Over most of them there were later laid the foundations of the stone buildings and the pavements around them, the wooden remains have only partially been preserved or not studied yet.

Remains of a jurt-like wooden building
Reconstruction of the wooden jurt of the ruler in the centre of Pliska (after R. Rashev and V. Docheva)
SStanilov, p. 51

So far we have the layout of only one wooden building. It has the form of a double or triple circle, with an elongated rectangular construction added to the south. It has been reconstructed as a jurt-type building, raised above the ground. One central and two side staircases or platforms led to it. A special small staircase on its northern side probably points out to its representative function. It was a dwelling or a palace of the VIIIth c. khans, to which period it has been tentatively dated. The remains of similar wooden constructions have been found under the foundation of several later stone buildings in the Palace centre and aside of it. It seems that the initial khan’s residence was built entirely of wood and that it occupied roughly the same area as the later stone buildings. There took place a kind of monumentalization process of the “wooden” resindence. This was assumed as early as by Kr. Mitjaev after the discovery of the Krum’s Palace. It cannot be ruled out that, similarly to the residence of Attila, some of the earliest stone baths in the Palace centre were already in existence next to the wooden palace.

The monuments of the stone architecture have been studied in much greater detail. Two groups of stone buildings can be distinguished on the basis of the building technique and materials – constructions of large ashlars bound by mortar, and constructions of broken stones bound by mud. The first group has been not entirely properly named ‘monumental architecture’. The foundations of the buildings of this type are, with no exceptions, laid on a mortar layer put on top of driven into the ground wooden poles of quadrangular or circular cross-section. The poles served to increase the density of the loess layer under the foundations and to block slumps or deformations in the walls. The most significant buildings of Pliska fall into this group.

The earliest monumental stone building of the first group was the Krum’s Palace. Only the underlying mortar layer and an insignificant part of the stone construction have survived. The stone blocks have been removed and reused elsewhere. Their place was taken by building refuse, part of it was mixed with ash and charcoals and shows signs of burns. This allows the palace to be linked to the big fire at Pliska in 811 AD (V.K.: i.e. to the capture of Pliska by the Byzantine emperor Nichephorus I) and to khan Krum. The foundations outline a layout composed of 63 rectangular sells. The layout has been interpreted in various ways. Most popular is the vision of a raised courtyard, surrounded by premises. The access was by the ways of spiral staircases in four towers, protruding forward from the eastern and western façades.

Krum's palace and the Throne palace:

Aerial picture
RRashev, p. 133
Layout of khan Krum's palace and of the Throne palace of khan Omurtag built over its remains
SStanilov2, p. 52
The remains of Krum's palace
SVaklinov, p. 48

The remains of the Throne palace
SVaklinov, p. 48, 53

Reconstruction of the Throne palace (after R. Rashev)
SStanilov, p. 54
Reconstruction of the façade of the Throne palace
DOvcharov, p. 74

The Throne Palace assumed the functions of a representative building after the destruction of the Krum’s Palace. It betrays the desire for topographic continuity with its predecessor and was built over its western half. Its layout is quadrangular, with a built-in apse oriented towards the north. The northern half is the throne hall itself, while the southern half is iccupied by a spacious vestibule. The ground floors of both parts were uninhabited. Openings, some of them – vaulted, had been cut into the walls beneath the throne hall in order to lighten up the thick walls and to absorb, by the way of the vaulted arches, the load of the floor. The ground floor was filled with densely packed pebble. Initially, the visitors’ entrance was on the southern side, where a staircase was built in a narrow passage-way. Similar passage-way used, it seems, exclusively by the ruler, was situated at the opposite side of the building. Two rows of columns or built-up pillars divided the throne hall into three naves. The apse at the bottom of the wide central nave formed a semiculrular area, where the throne was situated. A special quadrangular room next to it probably contained the ruler’s insignia. The building of the Throne Palace is attributed to khan Omurtag (815-831 AD) and his building programme.

Whinin the Citadel there are several buildings linked with the life of the ruling family. They belong to different building stages. Earliest amongst them are two buildings whose walls had been subsequently dismantled to their foundations. The first of them contained an entrance room and a main, single-cell room. The layout of the other is not clear. Similar to the layout of the first one is that of another building which was later restructured and became part of the so-called Small Palace – the dwelling of the ruling family. During its final stage it contained two similar in their lay out buildings, divided by a narrow corridor which led to a narrow entrance in the northern wall of the Citadel. On the ground they had wide central halls and narrow side corridors which probably all joined together at the level of the floor to form wide halls with colonnades. Pieces of marble plates and columns, found during the excavations, speak about the richness of their interior. The walls of the eastern building still contain fragmens of fine white putty with signs of red paint.

The Citadel - the north-western corner Excavations at the eastern half of the Citadel

The Small palace - the eastern half Khan's dwelling. At the front - the family church built by prince Boris I
SStanilov2, p. 88
Detail of a dwelling
SVaklinov, p. 48

The layout of the two parts of the Small Palace is repeated in two other buildings. One of them was built over the filled-in reservoir next to the western wall of the Citadel, the other is the so-called Bolyar’s dwelling. It is situated outside of the Citadel and is traditionally assumed to had belonged to a Pliska nobleman, an associate of the ruler. Its layout and building technique make us conclude that, althought it was situated outside of the brick wall of the Citadel, it was part of the Palace complex. Could it had been used by visitors to the ruler, as a guestroom?

A stone building outside the walled complex
SVaklinov, p. 64

Three more buildings, built by the same materials and single-celled, also belong to the architectural monuments of the first group. The first (No 32) is situated not far from the eastern gate of the stone fortress. Initially it represented a spacious rectangle, with thick walls and a façade facing the gate. Later a colonnade was built in front of it and, probably, a staircase. The other two buildings are situated in the north-eastern corner of the Citadel. They hug the northern and the eastern wall. The driven into the ground wooden poles of circular cross-section at their foundations makes us assign them to the later stage of monumental stone construction. Their functions are not clear.

The pagan temples also belong to this architectural complex. Architecturally, they are of two types. The temple to the west of the Throne Palace was a massive quadrangular building surrounded at all sides by corridors which could had either formed an open colonnade with a lower roof or be entirely walled up. The orientation of the long axis of the temple is East-West. The second temple, situated next to the dwelling of the rulers (i.e. the Small Palace?, V.K.) is oriented North-South and consists of two concentrically situated volumes, divided by a skirting corridor. The corridor has small reservoirs, probably for cultic use. A stone pedestal was found in the centre of the inner room – a place for sacrifice or a base of a stone statue. These temples stood isolated, there are no additional rooms or buildings in their vicinity. It is assumed that they are connected with the cult of the Proto-Bulgarian god Tangra. (V.K.: see also B. Brentjes, On the Prototype of the Proto-Bulgarian Temples at Pliska, Preslav and Madara)

SStanilov2, p. 57
The pagan temple next to the khan's dwelling in the Citadel
SVaklinov, p. 48

The pagan temple next to the Small palace
ZAladzhov, p. 14
The pagan temple beneath the Palace church
ZAladzhov, p. 15
Pagan temple in the foundations of the Palace church
SVaklinov, p. 64

Layouts of the pagan temples with concentric quadrangles from Pliska, Madara and Veliki Preslav
ZAladzhov, p. 7
The temples in the Palace complex at Pliska (layout after P. Karasimeonov) and in Stobi, the Republic of Macedonia
NTjuleshkov, p. 45

Graphical reconstruction of the khan's dwelling
DOvcharov, p. 76
Graphical reconstruction of the Large pagan temple at the centre of Pliska
DOvcharov, p. 75
Graphical reconstruction of the Small pagan temple next to the khan's dwelling
DOvcharov, p. 76

Graphical reconstruction of the centre of Pliska. DOvcharov, p. 73

The baths are one of the most characteristic elements of the Pliska Palace. They are a real wonder in the middle of this dry plain, where the subterranean water level is nowadays at 10-12 m. depth. They were feeded by an 7 km long aqueduct. Their small size distinguishes them from the large Roman baths, but their principal lay out and the conctruction of the heating installation (hypocaust) links them with the Antique and the then Byzantine traditions. There are four baths, all within the Citadel. Earliest amongst them are the one to the south of the reservoir and the round bath which was long assumed to had represented a reservoir. Later is the massive three-cell baths built partially on top of the abandoned round baths. Latest is the baths next to the southern entrance. Their existance can be roughtly dated to within the IX c. and they are a sign of developed living standards, not yet known at the courts of other formed or in the process of formation new Eiropean states. The proximity and the contacts of Bulgaria with Byzantium facilitated the introduction of the technical and life-style innovations – all part of the prestige and of the developed needs of the Bulgarian rulers.

The churches form their own and comparatively numerous group of monuments. The two most important Christian temples – the Palace Church and the Large Basilica, were discovered as early as during the excavations of K. Schkorpil. More churches was found later and they appear even on the first archaeological map of Pliska. They belong to different types. The Palace Church is in fact the re-used older pagan temple. Initially, only its interior was restructured, with a three-sectioned altar added to it. Later the church enclosed the outer walls of the temple, which were enforced by an additional wall. A new alter with three deep semicircular apses was built.

The Palace church

The Large basilica was built over an earlier cross-like building whose condition at present leaves little clues to its function. It has been suggested the earlier building was a church, a pagan temple or a Christian sepulchre (martyry). The basilica, 99 m long together with its walled courtyard, in some aspects resembles the basilicas of Latin type. It is assumed its construction started at the time of the Rome’s church mission in Bulgaria (866-870 AD). Its main part is divided in three naves, ending in their estern side with three-walled apses. Two rectangular rooms adjoin the side naves. The southern one served as baptistery, it contains the remains of a cross-shaped water basin. The northern one contains the remains of a marble altar table. It is assumed it was part of a chapel of a important clergyman, probably Prince Boris I himself. Around the basilica there was built a large monastery, built of three distinctive parts, separated by walls. The first part contained the basilica itself, the seat of the Bulgarian archbishop, the school and the monastery necropolis. The second one included the monastic dwellings, the kitchen, the refectory, and food stores. The third one had economic functions.

The Large basilica:

Aerial view
SVaklinov, p. 144
Layouts of the Large basilica from periods I and II
SVaklinov, p. 170
The pagan temple beneath the foundations
SVaklinov, p. 171

The Large basilica and the monastery around it The Large basilica. The font
SVaklinov, p. 128

The monastery next to the Large basilica. The building hosting the literary school (after P. Georgiev)
SStanilov2, p. 90
The monastery next to the Large basilica. The palace of the archbishop of Bulgaria (after P. Georgiev)
SStanilov2, p. 94


Most of the Pliska's churches belong to the simplified and shortened type of basilicas with three-walled or round apses. They were, it seems, square temples serving the inhabitants of the Outer town. Churches with similar layouts were built in some estates (site No 31). The church next to the Small Palace is of the cross-like domed type, the only representative of this type in Pliska. The transfer of the capital to Preslav apparently precluded its further spread. There are single examples of single-nave and of three-conchal churches in Pliska.

A typical basilica in the Outer town
SVaklinov, p. 188
Basilica No 5 (layout after St. Mihailov)
NTjuleshkov, p. 52
Church No 3
SVaklinov, p. 189
Basilica No 13. The basilica at site No 31
SVaklinov, p. 190
Basilicas No 8 and 5 in the Outer town
SVaklinov, p. 233

The civic buildings are of various layouts. Two single-cell buildings of broken stone in the Outer town seem to replicate the layout of building No 32. Most widely-spread is the “chain” type of buildings, composed of a row of single-celled rooms with a common wall at their back. They sometimes form a complex around an inner yard. The longest such building is situated next to the southerm gate and probably served the needs of traders and craftsmen.

The chain building near the Southern gate

Similar in character were the chain-buildings along the road from the Citadel to the northern gate. A part of such building stood between the Throne Palace and the eastern gate. In most cases this layout was used to form rectangular closed inner yards, with churches standing at the centre of some of them. Such complexes (sites No No 31, 40 and 41) are identified as noblemen’s estates in the Outer town as well as two complexes in the Inner town. Such buildings were built, at various periods, in the north-eastern and the south-western corner of the Citadel. According to the discovered remains, the chain-buildings belong to the “post-capital” Bulgarian stage of the development of Pliska. Some of them – in the Inner town, survived until the abandonment of Pliska in the XI c. Such is the ensemble near the southern half of the western fortress wall. The largest similar estate is situated along the northern fortress wall. It was surrounded by a stone wall of length comparable to the length of the fortress wall and encompassing an area of 24 hectares. So far isolated trenches revealed only the extent/direction of the wall. Inside, the remains of dwellings, trade and crafts’ buildings are expected to be found. The appearance of such ensembles is a common feature of both capitals. They trace a trend of formation of estates belonging to high-ranking officials or rich land-owners. For Pliska it has been found out that the process of formation of such estates, accompanied probably by expropriation of the surrounding lands, was connected with a partial depopulation of the Outer town. The displaced population settled within the boundaries of the by then accessible to them Inner town.