Bulgarian Capital Sofia Plans to Demolish Buildings to Expose Roman Amphitheater of Ancient Serdica

A poster showing how the Roman amphitheater of ancient Serdica, today's Bulgarian capital Sofia, supposed looked like. Photo: Sofia Municipality

A poster showing how the Roman amphitheater of ancient Serdica, today’s Bulgarian capital Sofia, supposed looked like. Photo: Sofia Municipality

The municipal authorities of the Bulgarian capital Sofia have announced plans to demolish several buildings in order to expose and made accessible the Roman amphitheater of the Ancient Thracian and Roman city of Serdica.

The plans to excavate the Roman amphitheater of Serdica has been announced by Sofia Municipality as part of proposed changes to the territorial organization plan of much of the city’s downtown, which have been presented by the Head Architect of Sofia Petar Dikov and Deputy Mayor and archaeologist Todor Chobanov.

The plan provides for the demolition of three, and possibly four buildings located on top of the Roman amphitheater of ancient Serdica.

“This is a conservative plan which aims at preserving the urban environment the way we have inherited it from our ancestors,” says the Head Architect of Sofia Petar Dikov.

“The amphitheater of Serdica was the second largest in the European part of the Roman Empire after the Colosseum in Rome, and the third largest overall, after the one in Ephesus. It had 25,000 seats, while the amphitheater in [Bulgaria’s] Plovdiv had 2,400 seats,” argues the municipal official, as cited by the Standart daily.

(Editor’s note: We are citing the statements as they have been made but are not sure what information the cited “ranking” of the Roman amphitheaters is based on!)

The amphitheater of ancient Serdica (Amphiteatrum Serdicense) was discovered in 2004 during the construction of the five star hotel Arena di Serdica. The rescue archaeological excavations which took place as a result revealed that the amphitheater was built in the 3rd-4th century AD, i.e. during the reigns of Roman Emperors Diocletian (r. 284-305 AD) and Constantine the Great (r. 306-337 AD).

However, about 5 meters underneath it, the Bulgarian archaeologists found the ruins of a Roman theater built in the 2nd-3rd century AD, i.e. about 100 years before the amphitheater.

The double discovery of the ancient architectural structures has been seen as evidence of Serdica’s thriving in the Late Antiquity.

The arena of the oval amphitheater of Ancient Serdica was 60.5 meters long and 43 meters wide; its seating capacity is estimated at 24,000-25,000.

After the discovery of the Ancient Roman ruins in 2004, part of them were built into the architecture of the Arena di Serdica hotel.

Ancient Roman ruins from structures located near the amphitheater of Serdica incorporated into the basement of the Arena di Serdica hotel in Bulgaria's Sofia. Photo: Arena di Serdica hotel

Ancient Roman ruins from structures located near the amphitheater of Serdica incorporated into the basement of the Arena di Serdica hotel in Bulgaria’s Sofia. Photo: Arena di Serdica hotel

 

If the plans of Sofia Municipality for exposing the Roman amphitheater of Serdica materialize, two buildings and a third one under construction on the Dondukov Blvd will be demolished. The fate of a fourth building, which currently houses the German Goethe Institute, and is itself a monument of culture, is to be debated. Even though it is located right in the middle of the amphitheater, it might be partly preserved and turned into a stage.

“The mistakes which have been made in the past with respect to the amphitheater are partly reparable. We hope that the government will transfer those properties to the municipality. We will explore them, develop them, and turn them into a first-class attraction,” says Deputy Sofia Mayor Todor Chobanov.

In addition to the plans for the exposure and exhibition of Serdica’s amphitheater, the measures championed by Sofia Municipality for boosting cultural tourism provide for completing the so called Sofia Largo project for exhibiting part of the ruins of Ancient Serdica in the downtown, and for archaeological excavations at the Western Gate of Serdica and the St. Nedelya Cathedral Square. The plans also provide for future excavations of the park at the Rila Hotel which is expected to yield the ruins of the southeastern tower of Serdica’s fortress wall.

A stone poster advertising gladiator fights discover during the excavations of the Roman amphitheater of the ancient city of Serdica, today's Bulgarian capital Sofia. Photo: Ploshtad Slaveykov

A stone poster advertising gladiator fights discover during the excavations of the Roman amphitheater of the ancient city of Serdica, today’s Bulgarian capital Sofia. Photo: Ploshtad Slaveykov

Background Infonotes:

The Ancient Thracian and Roman city of Serdica is the precursor of the contemporary Bulgarian capital Sofia. The oldest traces of civilized life in Sofia are from a Neolithic settlement dated back to 5000 BC located in today’s Slatina Quarter. There are also traces of life from the Charcolithic (also known as Aeneolithic or Copper Age) and the Bronze Age. After the Bronze Age the Sofia Valley was inhabited by the Ancient Thracian tribe serdi (some believe them to have been a Celtic tribe) which gave the name to the Ancient Thracian settlement called Serdica or Sardica. The city of Serdica was conquered briefly in the 4th century BC by Philip II of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great. Around 29 BC, Sofia was conquered by the Romans and renamed Ulpia Serdica. It became a municipium, the center of an administrative region, during the reign of Emperor Trajan (r. 98-117), and saw extensive development with many new buildings. It is known to have been the favorite place of Roman Emperor Constantine I the Great who used to say, “Serdica is my Rome”. In 343 AD, the Council of Serdica was held in the city, in the 4th century church that preceded the current 6th century St. Sofia Basilica. In 447 AD, the city was destroyed by the Huns. During the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (r. 527-565 AD), a new fortress wall was built whose remains have been excavated and can be seen today. This is when it was renamed Triaditsa. It became part of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680 – 1018 AD) in 809 AD when it was conquered by Bulgaria’s Khan Krum, and was known by its Slavic-Bulgarian name Sredets until the 14th century when it took the name of the St. Sofia Basilica.

The Sofia Largo is the architectural complex of government buildings in downtown Sofia erected in the 1950s, in the early years of the former communist regime. Regardless of their Communist Era architecture, today the buildings house the most important Bulgarian government institutions  and are one of the most famous parts of Sofia’s cityscape. Parts of the ancient city of Serdica, which have been excavated, can be seen in the underpasses and the Serdica Metro Station right next to the Sofia Largo.