Sofia

The capital of Bulgaria is Sofia with 1,2 million people of total Bulgarian population of 8 million. Sofia is one of the most ancient cities in Europe, established from the old-antiquity Serbian town of Serdica, the ethnic land of the Serbs which was succeeded by the Serbian Medieval settlement of Sredec -Sredetz. During the construction of the second stage of the Sofia Metro Line, eight ancient streets, an ancient Christian basilica, six large buildings, mine drainage and the remains of the ancient city of Serdika were unearthed at an underground level of about 9,000 square meters. The town of present day Sofia was set up and grew on the strategic crossroads, where the Roman road Via Militaris, connecting Western and Central Europe with the Middle East and Asia, intersected with another important thoroughfare, linking the North and the South—from the Baltic to the Aegean Sea. These were military roads taken by Roman legions, Crusaders and warrior troops, but also sacred roads leading pilgrims of various religions to Mount Athos, Jerusalem and Mecca. These were moreover trade roads used by gold and precious stone traders and merchants selling amber and silk, rare spices and exotic goods, but also travel roads guiding explorers of every kind to the four cardinal points and described in their travelogues. These Balkan cultural routes where the Eastern and Western civilization meet and which today merge with trans-European corridors provide Sofia with an extremely favorable position in the global tourism realm.

The Sofia vast and fertile plain was part of the most ancient European civilization dated back to the 7th–6th millennium BC. An early agrarian Neolithic settlement located in the eastern parts of the present day city, brings evidence that of all European capitals Sofia has the deepest roots in the past and they stem from the earliest European civilization. In the last millennium BC, the Thracian tribe Serdi set up a town there and called it Serdonpolis—or Serdica. The ancient city of Serdica was located at what is the heart of Sofia today, close to the abundant healing thermal springs. Archaeological finds show that Serdonpolis had a regular grid of streets and blocks—downtown Sofia today—while the chieftain fortification was built at the highest place of the valley. In the 1st century BC the Roman legions conquered the area, and renamed the settlement Ulpia Serdica, while during the reign of Emperor Trajan /98-107/ the town of Serdica gained a status of municipium – center of an administrative region. In the course of three centuries Serdica turned into a beautiful, well-planned and rich city with numerous public structures and amenities. When Emperor Diocletian divided the province of Dacia into Dacia Ripensis (on the banks of the Danube) and Dacia Mediterranea, Serdica became the capital of Dacia Mediterranea. The city subsequently expanded for a century and a half, which caused Emperor Constantine the Great to call it “my Rome”. Archaeological excavations in Sofia have uncovered parts of main and back streets and authentic sections of ancient lanes can be seen even nowadays. For example, in the underpass between the buildings of the Presidency and the Council of Ministers one can walk on the original surface of the 6th century busiest town arteries—the main street stretching from the Eastern City Gate to the center of Serdica. The road was further divided by a natural high terrace along the presently existing Knyaz Dondukov and Tsar Osvoboditel boulevards. Serdica streets left a deep trace in Sofia urban planning and determined the shape of its infrastructure network. The street orientation is kept in many contemporary lanes and boulevards. Serdica had a water supply and sewerage system. The Serdica thermae were famous throughout the empire. The forum, at the heart of the city, was enclosed to the east by a portico. Public buildings formed the nearby town-scape. Remnants of the city hall, the buleuterion, were found under what is today the Balkan Sofia Sheraton Hotel. Remains of the praetorium, whose vast halls were heated by hypocastum, were found to the south of the forum, under today’s Sveta Nedelya Square. Remnants of the building of the gerusia were found in the basement of what is now the building of the Ministry of Culture and these of a civil basilica were excavated under the Law Court building. A temple dedicated to the gods of health and medicine Asclepius and Hygia was built in the area of the city thermae, located to the west and southwest of Sofia Mineral Baths. Valuable information about the gods worshiped in Serdica, their temples and statues, is discovered on the coins minted under the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180).

Serdica was one of the earliest fortified towns on the Balkan peninsula: the construction of the first fortress was completed between 176 and 180. The outlines of the Serdica fortress have been identified rather precisely. The northeastern round tower has been preserved, as well as the northern wall with a triangular tower. Of the main gates of Serdica facing the four cardinal points, there are only remains from the eastern and the western gate. Inscriptions on the four gates of Serdica are known to have read: „Good luck! The greatest and divine emperors Caesars Marcus Aurelius Antonius Augustus Germanic Sarmatic, father of the Fatherland, Pontifex Maximus, and Licius Aurelius Commodus Augustus Germanic Sarmatic, gave the fortress walls to Serdonpolis when Governor of Thrace was Aselius Aemilius, Emperor’s delegate as strategus, pointed as future consul”.

A new, even stronger fortress with more towers was built over the groundwork of the first fortress in the end of the 3rd century and the beginning of the 4th century. Considerable areas of lands, also enclosed by a fortress, were added too. The last fortification of the city, before it was included in the borders of the First Bulgarian Kingdom, was made under the reign of Emperor Justinian I (527-565). A second wall glued to the existing one was added, along with new peaked towers. An outer protective belt was added at a distance of 20 m from the main fortress.

In Roman times Serdica used to be one of the pillars of urbanization in the Balkans. In Tabula Peutingeriana, a guidebook about the Roman Empire in the 2nd c. and the beginning of the 3rd century, Serdica (Sertica) was described as a big and significant town which fortress had two towers. The town was particularly famous in the period between the 4th century and the 6th century, due to the spreading and strengthening of Christianity. Emperor Constantine the Great spent 13 years in Serdica and he used allegedly to exclaim „Sedica is my Rome!”. The name Serdica is mentioned in Christian writings as the venue of one of the first Ecumenical councils (in 343), which history and religion remember as the Council of Serdica. The Council, which made important decisions about the fate of Christianity relating to Arianism, was believed to have taken place in the Saint Sophia Church, named after the God’s Great Wisdom, now one of the most important symbols of Sofia. The term “Sveta Sofia”, id the God’s Wisdom” designates one of the early name for the young Jesus Christ. In the 14th century the name of this church was so frequently used in the area of Serdica, that had created the new one – which named the town and lasts to the present day for the capital of Bulgaria. During the period of Roman colonization (2nd –7th century) the town was known as Ulpia Serdika, being center of the Roman province “Inner Dacia” and was a flourishing town. After the collapse of the Roman empire, the town was destroyed by the Goths and Huns. It was restored during the Byzantine period and during the reign of the Emperor Justinian I it regained its impressive scale. The best preserved and restored monument from that period is the Saint Sophia basilica /6th century/, built within the large necropolis of Serdika, over the ruins of three earlier churches. During the Medieval Bulgarian state, under the name Sredets /Center/, the town was a military and administrative center of West Bulgaria, reaching material and spiritual prosperity. A number of small but richly decorated churches were built. During the two centuries of the Byzantine rule, the town acquired once more a new name, Triaditsa or Tralitsa, relating to the Holy Trinity. There is ample evidence of the city amazing vitality, it was never abandoned, it has risen from the ashes many times, to become one of the eternal European cities. The famous Church of Saint George – Rotunda is the oldest preserved structure which still serves its original purpose in the Sofia city, nowadays a museum protected by UNESCO. The Saint George Rotunda in Sofia was built in the 4th century according to a fairly complex plan: a vast, circular central chamber, surmounted by a dome and surrounded by four semi-circular apses. The temple has been significantly changed since then. First it was destroyed by the Huns, rebuilt as church, then turned into a mosque by the Ottomans. The Roman Rotunda of Sofia has been recently restored, and is worth visiting due to its simple, but still exquisite architecture, remarkable remnants of frescoes and the entire complex of ruins behind the altar. The Saint George Rotunda church in Sofia stands several meters under the contemporary ground level. The temple is a part of an entire architectural complex of archaeological monuments, consisting of the base remains from a large basilica, on the floor of which there are evidences for a special heating system – the so called hypocaust, as well as the stone pavement of one of the main streets in ancient Serdica, supplied with skillfully constructed drainage. This archeological complex of the church and the mentioned remains was on the territory of the Constantine’s quarter in the antiquity city. The residence of Emperor Constantine I the Great itself was found under the present neighboring Hotel Rila. Today the Saint George church is the oldest Eastern European Orthodox church, as well as it is the second oldest building in the entire city with really dramatic history.

It was most probably its central location in the middle of the Balkan Peninsula that gave to the city its new name, Sredets /central part/ after Bulgarian Khan Kroum conquered it in 809. Sredets kept the relics of Saint Ivan of Rila, transferred there, in a solemn ceremony in 946 and their presence was believed to have blessed the town. After including the town within the boundaries of the Ottoman empire, Sredets was the main town in Roumelia province and developed as busy Muslim centre with typical Oriental outlook. From that historical period are preserved the Bujuk mosque and Bania Bashi mosque, as well as the Orthodox church of Sveta Petka Samardjiiska, built over the remains of more ancient Byzantine and Roman structures.

At the end of the 19th century the architectural image of Sofia was substantially changed – right after the Liberation, when Sofia was declared capital of the Bulgarian principality. The first large-scale urban activities were carried out and a number of residential and public buildings were built (the King’s Palace, the Military Club, the National Assembly etc.) – these buildings were executed by European architects following the main architectural ideas and trends at that time. During the 20th c. the image of Sofia continued to be developed under the European influence by large number of Bulgarian architects who graduated the prestigious European schools. Most outstanding examples are the Central Market Hall, Sofia Mineral Baths, the Court, Sofia University, the National Theater, the National Library, the National Bank, etc. A number of churches were built as well – the cathedral St. Alexander Nevsky, the Russian church, the Church Sveta of Nedelia and one of the biggest synagogues in Europe. Residential construction developed also rapidly – along with family houses was built a number of multi-store residential blocks of flats, forming the present urban structure. The socialist period (1944-1989) left its imprint with the construction of the new administrative center of the Bulgarian capital and the numerous panel housing estates and industrial zones on the wide newly developed territories of the Sofia field.

The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is the site of the Bulgarian Patriarch, and the national monument of culture and also the most beautiful and majestic symbol of the Bulgarian capital. The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is symbol of Sofia, named after the Russian prince as a sing of gratitude to Russia for liberating Bulgaria from Ottoman rule in 1878. The Alexander Nevsky Church is one of few churches that had survived the communist regime. Believers visiting Sofia, as well as the locals themselves do not miss also calling on the Temple of St Nikolay the Thaumaturge – known as the Russian Church, to bow to the tomb of Archbishop Seraphim and leave a message of prayer, hoping that he will help them in their recovery.

Today, the territory of ancient Serdica and medieval Sredets enjoys the status of a Historical and archaeological reserve with four protected zones. The historical layers of Sofia are extremely rich. The extraordinary and universal value of this heritage is further advanced by the proliferation of exceptional monuments of culture from the Antiquity, the Middle Ages, the time following the Liberation and the 20th century. The new General Urban Plan of Sofia contains a motion to include Sofia’s historical center in the World Heritage List.

Sofia is situated in a high-mountainous field with geothermal waters, which due to its favorable natural-geographic conditions has been inhabited for millenniums. Traces, discovered 9-10 meters below the present level of the town, prove the existence of settlement during the Bronze Age. The town came into being close to the strategic crossroad of the traditional roads connecting Europe with Asia and the Mediterranean. During its centuries-old existence the town of Sofia develops continuously, each period leaving its imprint on town’s image. A synthesis of that is the motto of the Bulgarian capital: “Ever growing – never old“. Sofia contains more than 250 architectural, archaeological or historical sites. Ranked among the top attractions of Sofia, The National Archaeological Museum is a must-see. Ancient and medieval artifacts, treasures, arms and stonework of Sofia are simply exposed and explained in their beauty and purpose – the history as it is. Sofia has many hotels for tourists and residents alike. Many local excursions and tours are available from Sofia. Some of the amazing tours include a tour of the UNESCO sites, a monastery tour, a seaside and cultural heritage tour. Visitors to Bulgaria encounter a vast world of history and art and experience unique food and cultural variety as well as gorgeous scenery and fascinating wildlife.

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