Bulgaria shows John the Baptist relics, hopes for tourist boom

sofia 2 (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.

sofia 1 (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.

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