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xEurasia Odyssey

In Search of Ancient Tomis

ROMANIA | Monday, 1 November 2021 | Views [158]

Archeological Museum

Archeological Museum

In search of Ancient Tomis

 According to The ancient city of Tomis: Roman Frontier within the Cross-border Region Romania-Bulgaria by the Archeological Foundation of Romania, the Tomis Melesian colony was established as a trade center in the 6th C BCE on the western seaside of the Pontus Euxinus. No one knows for sure who founded the city, but local legend and Iodanes in his work  “Getica” say that the Getae , the tribes who lived in the region, named the city after their queen, Tomyris.  It became a polis in the Hellenic period as of the 4th C BCE when the city had alliances with other pontic cities. Perhaps the best-known early resident was the Latin poet Ovid, who was exiled here I9 CE by Caesar Augustus, who had a problem with some of Ovid’s more erotic writings and political satires. The center square of the Old Town is now named after him, and his statue graces the square looking out over the Tomis Tourist Port. Just behind him is the National Museum of Archeology, which as usual was my first stop in the quest to understand the history of the region.

The National Museum is housed in the former Communal Palace, built between 1912-1921 on Ovid Square. The building itself is showing its age and there are signs on the sides of the building to watch for falling concrete. Inside, the museum is well organized and the signage for the archeological sections are in both English and Romanian. The treasury starts on the ground floor with glassware, then flows into rich gold, silver and ceramic collections.  The displays start with artifacts from ca. 6th C BCE, the early period of the city, and there are videos in English and Romanian explaining gravesite findings coupled with a replica of a grave with goods. The permanent collection goes through the 14th-15th C. The second floor is dedicated to objects from the Roman, Byzantine to Early Middle Ages periods.  Stone reliefs with Mithras worship images as well as stone, marble and ceramic Greek and Roman gods and goddesses, including Dionysus, Apollo, Zeus, Poseidon, Aeschylus, Pontus, Tyche, Kybele, Selene, Hecate, Nemesis, Venus and Athena. Many of these Greek and Roman images were buried in the 4th C when Christianity became the official religion. The Thracian rider was another figure who was widely worshiped during the Roman era as a symbol of victory of good over evil. There are quite a few reliefs with his image on display most of which stem from the 2nd and 3rd C CE, indicating the acceptance and interaction among the various religious practices in the region. One image I had not seen before, but which I found fascinating, was a double relief of the goddess Nemesis, goddess of vengeance, on a gravestone holding an instrument to weigh the good and bad deeds of the deceased. The Egyptian influence in this is unmistakable. Rome still ruled, though, and there is a relief of the ‘Wolf with Romulus and Remus’ in the museum and a similar statue near the entrance to the pedestrian zone of the Old Town. In the museum there is also a re-erected painted tomb typical of those found throughout the Danube Delta region from the 2nd-4th C. It seems that the chamber in this tomb was repeatedly used, probably by a family. The painted designs can be interpreted as representing paradise and suggest, as do other objects in the nearby cases, a mix of Christian and Mystery religion symbols.  Mystery religions were prevalent in this region starting from about the 3rd-2nd C BCE and carried into the Christian era based on the artifacts uncovered in the surrounding ruins. The exhibits on this floor conclude with a large bust of Mircea cel Batran, the  late 14th early 15th C king who redeveloped the region after it had descended into a slump after the fall of the Roman Empire. The top floor was given over to the Communist Era and the tortures the people underwent. This section was mainly in Romanian.  For anyone interested in Greek and Roman history of the Pontic region, this museum is simply excellent as it displays the intermingling of the cultures and the religions.

 Next door is the Mosaic Museum, which shelters a large ca. 850m Roman mosaic. Originally the surface covered 2000m, but much has been lost in the intervening centuries. The brochure indicated that the building facing the port was probably constructed in the 2nd C and was used until the beginning of the 7th. The mosaics seem to stem from the 4th C. and, based on what has been uncovered, show geometric and floral designs similar to those in other Roman Empire commercial buildings.  The building was probably used as a trade hall and has rooms in the back that served as warehouses. Numerous amphoras were discovered on the site and they stem from as far away as North Africa, Syria-Palestine, Somalia and Arabia, indicating a vibrant sea trade. As interesting as the information about the site was, the actual exhibit was a bit disappointing as the mosaics are covered with dirt and are hardly visible.

 The mystic of Ancient Tomis is best found in the Archeological Museum, but there are lots of Tomisian ruins all around the peninsula. Greek and later Roman necropoli spread out across the area, and it is primarily from these sites that the displays in museum stem.  Some are in park-like settings near the water that are available for the public to walk through.

 Little is to be found from Mircea cel Batran’s era, but the Old Town does have a number of late 19th C early 20th C structures that are worth viewing.  Walking towards the main commercial port, Constanta Port, from Ovid Square, the first building of interest is the Carol I mosque.  This is the same king who stopped paying tribute to the Ottomans.  He respected his Muslim subjects, though, and built them a mosque out of reinforced concrete in Byzantine and Neo-Romanesque styles in 1910. It was built on the site of a destroyed mosque from the reign of Mehmet II in 1823. Just a few meters away on a side street, is the House with Lions, which was built by an Armenian merchant in the Venetian Baroque style in 1896-1902. It has four venetianish stone horses near the roof and must have been quite a magnificent building in its heyday.  Today, it is decaying. A little further down the street is St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, which was built from 1935-1937 in the Romanesque style.  It was built on an early Catholic church site.  What is unique about this church is the intricate red-brickwork both inside and outside the church.  Whereas other Catholic churches in the area have white-washed walls, in this one the bricks and their intertwining patterns are clearly visible. From the more sedate beauty of St. Anthony’s one comes to the opulence of the Peter and Paul Cathedral frescos. The Cathedral was built from pressed brick between 1882-1885. Frescos were painted on the walls and ceiling between 1885-1888, but the Cathedral was bombed during WWII and major repairs had to be undertaken after the war. The style of the frescos was changed by the new artist, Prof. Gheorghe Popescu, to include Romanian national decorations and motifs. The result is simply stunning. The Cathedral is an amazing sacred art gallery. It is also the seat of the Archdiocese of Tomis as of 1990, with the reactivation of the churches, and since 2002 houses a monastery.  There is also a 1932 icon of the Virgin Mary from Mt. Athos in Greece that is said to have miraculous powers. Combining new with old, there are roman ruins directly in front of the Cathedral, which looks out over the hill to the Black Sea.

There is a wide, clean, and inviting boardwalk from the commercial Constanta Port to the Tomis Tourist Port lining the rocky Black Sea shoreline. Statues of important individuals in Romanian and Constantan art and history have been placed along the walkway.  They appear to have been cast around the same time, but I cannot be sure of this as I didn’t find any information about them. There is a small sign on the side of the Genovese Lighthouse that was built in 1860-1861 and is the oldest lighthouse in the city, even if it no longer functions. It is in front of the Naval Commander’s Building. 

After having circled the tip of the peninsula, it was time to head back to Ovid Square to explore the other side of the Old Town. This section doesn’t have as many tourist highlights, but does have the Popular Folk Art museum, housed in the 1896 constructed former Town Hall/Post Office. This museum has a large collection of clothing and textiles with some ceramics on the upper floor. The ground floor is primarily dedicated to 19th C painted glass folk religious paintings. Most are in a typical icon style, but some were quite unique.  The one that really stuck out was one by Valea Sebegutul called “Jesus, life of the vine” (although I’m not sure that is a good translation).  This painting has grapevines growing out of Jesus’ body & is so incredibly reminiscent of a Jesus version of Dionysus.

Wandering around through the streets and houses of the peninsula, I stumbled upon the Greek Orthodox Church.  It has a beautiful iconostasis and vibrant frescos and seemed to be an active parish as there were a lot of people praying at the various images.

It was time to head back to the train station for the two-hour ride back to Bucharest.  On the way there was the summer residence of the Russian Tsars with a Soviet looking woman’s statue in front.  Old and new, new and old, Constanta isn’t constant; time seems cyclical in Tomis.

Tags: cities, history, museums, towns


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