Thursday

28th Jan 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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

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.

Analysis

The EU's vaccine strategy - the key points

As the EU Commission gets entangled in a dispute with one of the vaccine producers and gets heat for the perceived slow roll-out of the vaccines, we take a look at what the EU has done and not done.

Coronavirus

EU-AstraZeneca row flares up after vaccines shortfall

"The view that the company is not obliged to deliver because we signed a 'best effort agreement' is neither correct nor acceptable," said EU health commissioner Stella Kyriakides, after the company's CEO tried to justified delayed deliveries to the EU.

Opinion

First Covid, now McKinsey - how austerity hit EU healthcare

The marketisation of health and long-term care, the push for Public Private Partnerships (PPPs), and the public spending cuts encouraged by EU economic governance processes all contributed to the increased commercialisation, privatisation, and reduction of health and long-term care services.

Exclusive

Frontex suspends operations in Hungary

The EU's border and coast guard agency, Frontex will suspend operations in Hungary. The move follows a European Court of Justice ruling in December demanding Hungary stop pushing people back into Serbia.

Cyprus: a heavy caseload for new EU prosecutors office

The new European Public Prosecutor's office will become operational in March. It is tasked to carry out criminal fraud investigations of the EU budget. But of the 140 required European delegated prosecutors, only nine have so far set up office.

News in Brief

  1. Putin holds out olive branch to Europe
  2. US snatched Russian anti-air system from Libya warlord
  3. UK to extradite alleged trafficker to EU despite Brexit
  4. EU puts trust in Boeing 737s after post-crash ban
  5. EU animal-export trade under harsh spotlight
  6. City of London wants to set rules for EU
  7. MEPs want 2030 targets to reduce consumption footprint
  8. Coronavirus cases worldwide pass 100m

Exclusive

Frontex suspends operations in Hungary

The EU's border and coast guard agency, Frontex will suspend operations in Hungary. The move follows a European Court of Justice ruling in December demanding Hungary stop pushing people back into Serbia.

Opinion

Migrants in Bosnia: a disaster foretold on EU doorstep

Ultimately, the European Pact on Migration and Asylum, only unveiled in September, risks reinforcing bottlenecks and misery at the borders, should be thoroughly amended before final agreement.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDAEU Code of Conduct can showcase PPPs delivering healthier more sustainable society
  2. CESIKlaus Heeger and Romain Wolff re-elected Secretary General and President of independent trade unions in Europe (CESI)
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersWomen benefit in the digitalised labour market
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersReport: The prevalence of men who use internet forums characterised by misogyny
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersJoin the Nordic climate debate on 17 November!
  6. UNESDAMaking healthier diets the easy choice

Latest News

  1. Poland imposes anti-abortion law amid EU concern
  2. The EU's vaccine strategy - the key points
  3. EU-AstraZeneca row flares up after vaccines shortfall
  4. First Covid, now McKinsey - how austerity hit EU healthcare
  5. Frontex suspends operations in Hungary
  6. Cyprus: a heavy caseload for new EU prosecutors office
  7. MEPs: Portugal 'risks undermining' trust in EU prosecutor
  8. EU to control vaccine exports in row over delays

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us