Tulcea County: Palaeo-Christian Monument at Niculitel

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Being quite unique in Europe and one of the oldest monuments of its kind in Romania, the Palaeo-Christian Monument at Niculitel lies at the foot of the Piatra Rosie hill in Tulcea County (eastern Romania), in the north-eastern part of Niculitel, 30 km west of the city of Tulcea.

The monument dates back to the end of the 4th century and was discovered in spring 1971 after some torrential rains, which made a portion of the cupola of the crypt appear.

It is made up of a palaeo-Christian basilica, built over some martyr graves and is the oldest Christian religious abode with a narthex that has been known so far.

The narthex is an architectural element quite uncommon in the Balkan-Pontic area, open to a patio resembling the atrium. The semicircular apse of the basilica looks to the north-east.

The basilica is a rectangular edifice of remarkable size, about 36/14 metres, with an outstanding martyr character. It was built in the 4th century during the reign of Emperor Valens and was built again at the time of Theodosius II over a palaeo-Christian martyrium crypt.

In the central part of the monument, under the pavement of the altar, there is a cubic martyrium crypt, which is covered by a hemispheric cupola supported by pendentives. In it there are two martyr graves one above the other. In the lower part here are the remnants of two unknown martyrs and in the upper part, in a collective coffin, there are the remnants of four martyrs, Zotikos, Attalos, Kamasis and Philippos, whose names are written in red on the walls of the room. Being archaeologically known and attested by hagiographic sources, they were martyred north of the Danube.

One could not establish exactly the year of the martyrdom, but it is assumed that it might have taken place either during the persecution by Diocletian, in 303-304, or during the reign of Emperor Licinius, in 319-324, or during the religious persecutions carried out by the Visigoth chieftains in 369-372. Even if they do not know exactly the year of the martyrdom, researchers say that it might have occurred on a day of June 4 so that the four martyrs were canonized and are mentioned in the Orthodox Christian calendar at this date.

The orientation of the crypt and the apse of the basilica to the north-east, not to the east, as it was provided in the apostolic constitutions, was made imperative by a certain situation: the orientation to this direction of the old martyr grave on whose axis they built the crypt and the apse of the basilica and which was included in the area of the presbytery.

The basilica and the crypt are covered by a hemispheric cupola supported by pendentives.

Inside the complex there is also a permanent exhibition of palaeo-Christian artifacts, photographs and slides that fill the museum of the entire palaeo-Christian ensemble.

The Palaeo-Christian Monument at Niculitel was arranged as a museum in 1998 and at present it undergoes an extensive reorganization process. It is one of the most important sightseeing spots in the Danube Delta and an attraction for pilgrims from Romania an abroad.

 

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