The lands of Bulgaria once were a part of the big Roman Empire. Bulgaria`s biggest towns – Sofia and Plovdiv – back then were also very important Roman towns called respectively Serdika and Trimontium. They were situated on the international ancient road – via Diagonalis – which connected Europe and Asia. Here in this article, you will find the most interesting sites in Sofia, which have survived from the Roman period and which are a must see for every tourist visiting this place.
Sofia became a Roman military base in the 1st century AD. It was called Serdika after the Thracian village which was situated there. In the beginning of the 2nd century during the rule of Emperor Ulpius Trajan, it was given self- administrative town rights and it was named Ulpius Serdika. Gradually it became an important administrative and trade center in the area. In the second half of the 2nd century, it was fortified with walls and it had 4 gates situated towards the main directions: South, East, North and West. Back then, the West gate was the biggest and most important: it was the border checkpoint of the town. The road via – Diagonalis was also crossing it from East to West and in this way it was the main central street of the town. During its peak, the town was populated by about 12 000 people.
Nowadays, the Roman heritage is situated in the perfect city center of Sofia and it can easily be seen during a tourist walk (though, some parts of it are a little bit hidden, so you need to know about their location in advance).
The remains of the Roman town
For many years, the remains of Serdika were hidden under the ground. During the communist period in the 1950-s when the state started building its new monumental buildings in the city center, some small parts of it were discovered. However, further exploration was not made in this period. Some parts of the Roman road stones (part of via – Diagonalis) were even removed when the underground passage between the presidency and the parliament was done. It was not until 2014 – 2015 when the local municipality started digging in the area for the creation of the new metro line, when a big part of the Roman heritage was uncovered and now it is left as an open museum where everyone can go around. In this area people can see the remains of many important buildings, the 2 main streets, which were crossing the town, and parts of the fortress walls and gates. The most well-preserved gate is the Eastern one which is situated in the underground passage between the presidency and the parliament.
Saint George Rotunda
Hidden in the yard of the presidency and hotel Balkan, is situated the oldest surviving church in Sofia and one of the oldest in Europe – Saint George Rotunda. It was built in the 4th century when the Christianity was recognized as an equal religion in the Empire, and it quickly became the most important church during the Roman period. The remains next to it suggest that at the same place initially there was another building with a rectangular form – most likely “thermi” (Roman baths with hot water). Behind the church, there are other remains from a big building – the historians suppose that they could be from the residence of Emperor Konstantin the Great, who often visited the town and even used to say that Serdika was his Rome. The church continued to be an important place during the medieval Bulgarian period as well. For about 2 centuries there were kept the relics of saint John of Rila – the most important Bulgarian saint. During the Ottoman period it was turned into a mosque. Despite that, there are still some layers of frescoes dating back to different centuries which could be seen in the church.
Saint Sofia Basilica
The other very important church that has survived from the Roman period, is the big Saint Sofia Basilica. It is situated in the city center across the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. In this area during the Roman period, outside of the fortress walls, was situated the necropolis of the town and in the beginning of the 4th century a small church was build next to it. It is considered that at this same place the edict of tolerance, which allowed the Christianity to become a practiced religion in the Empire, was accepted in 311. Between the 4th and the 6th century the area was often raided by different tribes and the church was several times destroyed and rebuilt. Finally, in the middle of the 6th century during the reign of Emperor Justinian, the current big church was built on the top of the remains of the previously destroyed churches and it has survived until then. The name of the church means “wisdom” so it is dedicated to the holy wisdom. During the medieval Bulgarian period, it was the tallest building in the area (and still outside of the town walls) and when the travelers were approaching the fortress from East direction, first they were seeing this church so it became the symbol of the town and this is why in the 14-th century the Bulgarian inhabitants back then decided to rename the town after it – Sofia. In the Ottoman period as most of the big and important churches, it was also turned into a mosque, so unfortunately there are no frescoes preserved inside. In the 19th century there were two earthquakes which damaged it. The Turks taught that this was a bad sign so they abandoned it and for several decades it was staying as a ghost building. After the Bulgarian liberation in 1878, a restoration work began and finally it again started acting as a church.
Not far away from the Basilica, was situated a huge amphitheater. It was built in the end of the 3rd century and it could gather 25 000 people, so it was among the biggest in the Empire! It was used for different type of cultural performances as well as competitions and gladiator fights. After the acceptance of Christianity, its importance gradually started to decrease. It was also rather damaged and destroyed during the invasions between the 4th and the 6th century so its exact location remained unknown until the 21st century. In 2004 some parts of the amphitheater were discovered by chance due to construction works for a hotel. Although these remains are a historical heritage, the building of the hotel was still allowed, and now the remains can be seen as a part of its interior, thus creating a very interesting mixture between the modern and the ancient cultures and styles.