Former communist and socialist countries are now turning to religious tourism to bring in believers and their money.
Bulgarian archaeologists and clerics say they have unearthed bones belonging to St. John the Baptist. The remains â€“ small fragments of a skull, bones from a jaw and an arm, and a tooth â€“ were discovered embedded in an altar in the ruins of the ancient monastery.
The remains were discovered in July 2010 during the excavation of a fourth-century monastery on St. Ivan Island off Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast. They were in a sealed reliquary buried next to a tiny urn. A Greek inscription on the stone casque contains a reference to June 24 â€“ the date on which John the Baptist is believed to have been born.
“We found the relics of St John the Baptist – exactly what the archaeologists had expected,” said Bozhidar Dimitrov, Bulgaria’s minister without portfolio and a former director of the country’s National History Museum, who was present when the stone urn was opened.
Officials of this recession-torn country think the proported relics will give a big boost to tourism, drawing believers from neighboring Orthodox Christian countries to this nearby resort town.
“I’m not religious but these relics are in the premier league,” said Simeon Djankov, Bulgaria’s finance minister and an avowed atheist. “The revenue potential for Bulgaria is clear.”
News of the find, meanwhile, is already drawing visitors. At the local church of St. George in Sozopol, where the presumed relics are now on temporary display in a silver chest donated by Bulgaria’s prime minister, hundreds of faithful line up for a chance to view the bones, saying prayers and making the sign of the cross.
The church attendance at daily Mass has rocketed from about 100 to more than 3,000. Church officials say they are now selling more votive candles in a day than they used to sell in a year, and have ordered another two tons of them to meet projected demand.
The bones now make Bulgaria a member of the club of nations that say they are home to pieces of John the Baptist, who was beheaded on the orders of King Herod. Ancient tradition has held that his severed head was entombed in Herod’s palace.
Over time, body parts believed to be his have spread across Europe, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. A church in Calcutta, India, claims to house part of a hand.
The cathedral in Aachen, Germany, says it has the cloth used to wrap John the Baptist’s head after his decapitation. The Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, Turkey, the former seat of the Ottoman emperors, also claims to hold parts of one of his arms and his head.
The presence of the relics of St. John the Baptist hasn’t translated into a tourist bonanza in any of these other resting places. Still, people in Bulgaria remain hopeful.
There are some encouraging signs. Milenna Dimitrova, who has been selling fresh berries, figs and jams for 20 years from a stall near the church, says business has been so brisk that she doesn’t have time to go hereself. “The season was awful before–this is clearly a gift from God,” she said.