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Early Christian Necropolis of Pécs (2000)

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The World Heritage Committee justified its inscription of the 4th century early Christian cemetery from the Roman era town of Sopianae - the present day Pécs - on the list of historio-cultural treasures by stating that the excavated building ensemble embodies an extraordinarily varied and complex example of early Christian funerary art and architecture in the northern and western roman provinces. The underground burial chambers and memorial chapels testify to the perseverance and faith of the Christian community living in Europe during the late Roman era, as well as illustrating the roots of a culture and civilization that is alive and active to this day.

krisztogramThe Romans founded Sopianae at the beginning of the 2nd century A.D. By the 4th century it had become a flourishing provincial seat and a significant center of Christianity - and it has remained a Christian place of worship, as Pécs has been the site of an Episcopal seat since 1009. Numerous sepulchral structures, burial chambers, crypts, chapels and mausoleums have survived from the ancient town's early Christian community. In most cases a chapel was erected above an underground burial chamber, and therefore the ensuing two-story structure was endowed with a dual task; at the same time, they provided a burial place as well as a site for ceremonies. However, despite the fact that they built below the surface there were never any catacombs constructed - the structures were erected for the most part in the 4th century, when Christians were no longer persecuted by the Roman Empire.

Sporadic sources already mention Roman era finds in the area from the beginning of the 18th century, but scholarly excavation only began with the discovery of the Peter and Paul crypt in 1782. The most recent excavation, of an unusual octagonal burial chamber, began in 2000. During the course of the intervening period of over two centuries, altogether 16 burial chambers and several hundred graves have been excavated from the area within the Medieval town wall, and several thousand late roman finds have come to light. The early Christian funerary building ensemble, which encompassed a relatively small area, is the largest and most important necropolis outside Italy, and its wall murals can only be compared with the paintings from the catacombs under the city of Rome. The iconography of the frescos, which have survived in very good shape, reflects the era's universal ideals and at the same time contains unique local elements as well.

At first the excavating archeologists identified the burial chambers with roman numerals, however they were soon christened by the public according to the murals found within them. Crypt number I became known as the Peter and Paul crypt, number II as the Pitcher crypt.



In 1975, during the reconstruction of Szent István Square an early Christian mausoleum from the end of the 4th century was unearthed that consisted of a large, aisleless chapel oriented eastwards. Below this was found a smaller burial chamber that was built at the same time, but that was structurally independent. The ensemble was presumably erected to venerate an important individual, whose 3rd century white marble sarcophagus lies on the south side of the burial chamber. The rest of the chamber's walls are covered in murals - frescos of biblical subjects and floral ornamentation.

The number I - Peter and Paul - Crypt is perhaps the most renowned Pannonian early Christian structure, because its existence has been known of since 1782. It received its name from the depiction on the main wall facing the entrance of the apostles Peter and Paul, who are pointing to the monogram of Christ, which symbolizes the presence of Jesus. All of the walls in this barrel-vaulted chamber are decorated with frescos portraying biblical scenes, as well as rich floral and animal ornamentation. 

 
The number II, Pitcher Crypt, was excavated in 1939, despite the fact that it had already been discovered accidentally during the construction of a cellar at the turn of the 19th century. The two-story structure, on a north-south axis, is again made up of a burial chamber below with a chapel placed above. The chapel was where ceremonies were held, including at least the honoring of the deceased on the anniversary of their death. A small niche was fashioned in the northern half of the burial chamber, where the depiction of a pitcher and cup is visible on the wall, from whence the crypt received its name.


The Crypt on Apáca Street differs from the previous structures. Its peculiarity is provided by the fact that they did not construct a separate burial chamber level; the four graves are found in cavities below the level of the floor. The building is closed by an apse to the north, where in circa 390 A.D. a semicircular bench was fashioned and where a stone altar was placed. These furnishings were most likely used for the holding of banquets on the anniversary of the deaths of those interred.



Besides these, the Cella Trichora and the Cella Septichora also deserve mentioning. The Cella Trichora, or the funerary chapel with three apses, was a characteristic early Christian sepulchral building; apses were constructed on the east, west and north sides opening from the rectangular central area, and to the south was a vestibule. The funerary building with seven alcoves (Cella Septichora) is a unique construction; alcoves grouped around the structure's main east-west axis surround an elongated octagonal central area.

The 1,600-year old early Christian cemetery in Pécs wonderfully displays the late Roman funerary practices and cult of the dead. Outside of Rome, Pécs contains the largest and best quality surviving early Christian ensemble of this type. Its value is enhanced by the fact that these 4th century cultic structures have remained in the same state that they existed in during the time of the Great Migrations.