Wednesday

8th Dec 2021

Roman city emerges from Sofia metro excavations

  • A whole Roman city quarter emerged as Sofia started building a new north-south metro line (Photo: Plamen Stoimenov, Trud)

The architectural heart of ancient Serdica, the Roman Empire-era predecessor of Bulgaria's capital of Sofia, is emerging amid excavations for the construction of the city metro system.

In a couple of years, the finds will become part of an underground museum where visitors will be able to walk in the footsteps of Constantine the Great (272-337 AD), the first Roman emperor to legalise Christianity and adopt it himself.

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Modern Sofia lies on several archaeological layers left by the Thracians, Romans, Byzantines, medieval Bulgarians and Ottoman Turks.

Infrastructure projects have often hit ancient city walls, public buildings and churches, which are well preserved and displayed in the downtown area.

But there still much more to dig out. The latest excavations next to the "Sveta Nedelya" square, in the very heart of the city, prove it had been inhabited and civilised for thousands of years.

The archaeologists are looking at the remains of two recently found XIV and XVI century churches and a necropolis. In one of them they came across murals, which are currently under restoration.

An Ottoman-era (XIV-XIX century) house is to be dismantled and rebuilt at a different location so that teams can explore underlying layers.

They have uncovered new stretches of Serdica's Decumanus Maximus – the traditional east-west street in Roman cities, which served predominantly administrative and defence purposes; as well as parts of the Cardo Maxima – the main north-south urban axis, which used to be home to crafts and trade.

The ancient arteries largely coincide with the modern locations of state institutions and shopping areas in Sofia.

A larger part of the Decumanus Maximus is still expected to emerge and lead to the eastern city gate, which was found years ago and is now exhibited in a subway linking the presidential and governmental headquarters.

Research shows that parts of several insulae – residential buildings where Roman lower and upper middle class lived – may be also lying beneath.

For several months now archaeologists have been working on a nobleman's mansion which they believe belonged to a local ruler.

It has a patio, arched galleries, mosaic-covered living areas and baths. Eight rooms and two VI century toilets - extremely rare from an archaeological point of view - have been found.

A 5.5 metre wide and 17 metre long section of a slate stone street leads to the mansion. Traces of arson have led researchers to believe the building was subject to a barbarian attack under Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD).

Barbarian raids made Romans fortify Serdica, evidenced by two recently found inscriptions, archaeologist Mario Ivanov said.

Sofia is among the oldest European cities. Its earliest traces of pre-historic population date back to 7,000 years ago.

The Thracians - tribes, whose civilisation flourished on the Balkans between the late Bronze Age and the VI century AD Slavic invasion – were the first recorded settlers here.

For a short spell, during the Hellenistic Period (323-146 BC), Serdica belonged to the empire of Philip II and Alexander the Great.

The Romans conquered it in the first century AD. They urbanised it by building roads, streets and plumbing.

Constantine the Great often spent summers in Serdica and even referred to it as to "my Rome."

Researchers suspect that remains of his palace might be lying under the massive Sheraton Hotel, a massive Stalinist-era ex-government building, standing s a few metres from today's excavations.

Parts of what is known as Constantine's Quarter of Serdica – the St. George Rotunda – a IV century brick Christian basilica - were found long ago and can be seen in the presidency patio with stretches of adjacent streets, plumbing and a hypocaust heating system.

Architects Slavey Galabov, Vasil Kitov and Krasen Andreev have designed a €10 million project to conserve and display the new finds and the city of Sofia hopes to source half of the funding from the EU Regional Development Programme.

The architectural design includes a 2-hectare pedestrian zone in the so-called Sofia Largo between the presidency and the government headquarters, an underground museum with a semi-transparent ceiling and a metro station under it.

A panoramic window will show-case the archaeological relics to passers-by in the pedestrian zone on the upper level. It will be covered by a glass dome of up to 65 metres. Two elevators will lead from it to the archaeological level.

A medium level will contain an exhibition site with a model of ancient Serdica, food and drink establishments, galleries, antique shops, an information centre, a stage for concerts and a street theatre

The subway train will pass 24 metres underground beneath the whole complex so that archaeologists can explore the area undisturbed and the finds be displayed at their original locations.

The project for the 80-metre long, two-platform metro station has been already altered four times to suit the ever emerging relics, Sofia Mayor Yordanka Fandakova said.

"We want to preserve as much as possible of our unique architectural heritage and let local citizens and visitors enjoy it," she said.

Despite the chronic lack of parking space, the city has scrapped an initial plan for a 680-vehicle underground parking lot to make room for the museum.

This means more than 90 percent of the archaeological riches will be exhibited in their original locations and in the way they were found.

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