Bulgaria shows John the Baptist relics, hopes for tourist boom
(Photo: An Orthodox priest holds up a box containing bones believed to be the relics of John the Baptist, in Sofia, November 12, 2010/Oleg Popov)
Bulgaria’s main Orthodox cathedral is displaying jaw and arm bones and a tooth said to be relics of John the Baptist, in a move state officials hope will boost tourism to the Black Sea resort where they were found. Prominent politicians and simple believers flocked to the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia to view the remains, which were found near the town of Sozopol in July and are on display in the Bulgarian capital through Sunday.
John the Baptist, a Christian saint also revered in Islam, announced the coming of Jesus and baptised him in the River Jordan. The Gospels say King Herod had John beheaded at the request of his stepdaughter Salome after she danced for him.
“About 150,000 people have visited Sozopol since the relics were found,” Minister without Portfolio Bozhidar Dimitrov, who has already predicted a tourist boom for the region, told journalists outside the cathedral. Although it was no longer the tourist season there, he said, 7-8 busloads of tourists visit the resort daily to see the relics in its Church of Saint George.
(Photo: Bulgarian patriarch Maxim (C) blesses the box containing bones believed to be the relics of John the Baptist, in the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia, November 12, 2010/Oleg Popov)
The Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, Amiens cathedral in France and a church in Rome are among the places claiming to have relics of John the Baptist. As with most ancient relics, their authenticity cannot be verified. But verified or not, relics have long played a key role in religious tourism, especially in the Middle Ages when European bishops built lofty cathedrals to display remains brought back from the Crusades.
Archeologists found the remains in an alabaster box on the Black Sea island of Sveti Ivan (Saint John), near Sozopol, and a commission of archeologists, church and state officials — including historian Dimitrov — declared them genuine relics. Kazimir Popkonstanov, the chief excavator, said a Greek inscription found on the box contained the words ‘John’ and ‘June 24′, the birthdate of John the Baptist.
Bulgaria’s Orthodox Church said there was no need for the remains to be subject to any scientific testing. “The relics possess great spiritual power,” said Metropolitan Yoanikiy of Sliven, the local diocese, at a ceremony in Sozopol in August. “The relics are great spiritual wealth therefore we must treat them with reverence.”
(Photo: Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia, 21 January 2006/Dimsfikas)
Dimitrov and Finance Minister Simeon Djankov visited Sozopol to view the relics on that occasion in August. Before joining a procession to the Church of Saint George there, Djankov announced new funds for church renovation and infrastructure investment in Sozopol.
“The finance minister emphasized that, in times of economic crisis, the funds provided are a wise investment with a guaranteed return which will boost the development of the region through cultural, historical and religious tourism,” a statement on the ministry’s website said.
Prime Minister Boiko Borisov also hailed the discovery and donated a box made of gold and silver to hold the relics (click here for a picture).
Tourism is one of Bulgaria’s few sources of foreign revenue, accounting for about eight percent of GDP. Income from tourism was stable last year despite the economic crisis.
Dimitrov has been talking up the relics ever since they were found. He said the government decision to extend additional funds for the Sozopol church renovation and more excavations despite the economic crisis should be seen as the first miracle that can be attributed to them.
(Image: Anonymous 19th century Russian icon of John’s head)
“John the Baptist … is greatly revered by the Christians around the world. Sozopol is perhaps the only place which has a unique document proving these are the relics of St. John,” he said in a television interview in August, referring to the inscription on the box.
“I hope that this will turn it into a place for pilgrimage tourism. Besides sun, sand, sea and some alcohol, Sozopol will be able to offer spiritual joy to millions of believers around the world.”