The Bulgarian government recruits an unlikely ally
FLAUNTING an old tooth and a few bones is an unusual way to attract tourists and distract voters. Not in Bulgaria, where a recently excavated box of ancient bone fragments is said to contain partial remains of St John the Baptist.
On July 28th Kazimir Popconstantinov, an archaeologist, found the box while digging under the altar of an early Christian church on a Black Sea islet off the coast of Sozopol, a small, fading resort town in the east of the country. The box bore an inscription with John’s name and presumed date of birth.
One newspaper called Sozopol the new Jerusalem; another called the finding a miracle and endowed the bones with supernatural powers. Bulgaria’s leaders, meanwhile, hope the discovery will lead to a miracle in the polls. Economic hardship and unpopular pension and health reforms are breeding discontent with a government elected a year ago on a promise to clean up corruption and boost Bulgaria’s competitiveness.
Salvation may lie in tourism. In recent years revenues have been sapped by the economic crisis and the difficulty of attracting rich visitors. The otherwise austerity-prone finance minister, Simeon Djankov, has funded the excavations near Sozopol with a large chunk of money, in the hope of new discoveries.
If the relics win acceptance, they should draw pilgrims. The reputed head of John the Baptist is the holiest object in the Umayyad mosque in Damascus, venerated by Christians and Muslims alike. And in 2006 the temporary return to Russia from Montenegro of the saint’s reputed hand (spirited away from Russia in 1917) drew vast crowds.
Overshadowing the optimism is a very public row between Bulgaria’s diaspora minister, Bozhidar Dimitrov (a history professor), and the country’s archaeologists. Mr Dimitrov, who was born in Sozopol, has been loudly proclaiming the authenticity of the discovery. In a television interview he described archaeologists of a more sceptical bent as “fucking colleagues” who were simply jealous. He went on to complain that Bulgarians were full of doubt and malice.
The Catholic church says the bones should be studied before their authenticity can be verified. The Bulgarian Orthodox church, however, argues that “heavenly secrets should not be revealed by the means of man.” On August 5th the bones were solemnly transported to a Sozopol church and sealed in a silver reliquary donated by the prime minister. There are no plans for tests.