Archaeologists Unearth Large Early Christian Basilica with Roman Grave Right Outside of Bulgaria’s Capital Sofia
One of the largest Early Christian basilicas in Bulgaria, which is located in the Buhovo Monastery “St. Mary Magdalene” near the town of Buhovo in Sofia Municipality, to the northeast of Sofia’s main urban area, has been completely unearthed, with the archaeologists also discovering a grave of a Roman citizen from the 4th century AD.
The ruins of the Early Christian basilica in Buhovo are situated about 27 km away from the Sofia downtown, the location of the archaeological structures of the Ancient Thracian and Roman city of Serdica, which are still being excavated today.
The basilica has now been fully explored and researched, after three years of archaeological excavations led by archaeologist Snezhana Goryanova from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, Sofia Mayor Yordanka Fandakova has announced on her Facebook page.
The Early Christian basilica in the Buhovo Monastery dates back to the 4th-6th century AD, i.e. the Late Roman and Early Byzantine period, and is of impressive size – it is 41 meters long, and 27 meters wide at its widest section.
According to archaeologist Snezhana Goryanova, the Late Roman and Early Byzantine basilica in Buhovo was a one-apse, three-nave basilica with a narthex, two accessory rooms, and a funeral room in its southeast corner where the archaeologists have found the grave of a Roman citizen who appears to have been important for the local Early Christian community.
In the Roman man’s grave, the archaeologists have found a coin, the so called obol for Charon, the ferryman of Hades who, according to Ancient Thracian, Greek, and Roman mythology, carries the souls of the newly deceased across the rivers Styx and Acheron in the underworld.
“Under one of his heals, we have found a coin of Emperor Constantius Gallus (r. 351-354 AD as Caesar of the Eastern Roman Empire under Emperor Constantius II – editor’s note), which indicates the time when he was buried. According to the custom, he was supposed to pay with the coin for his passage into the underworld,” Goryanova has told the Novinar daily.
Other artifacts found in the 4th century AD Roman grave by the archaeologists include bracelets and crosses as well as fragments indicating that the basilica was covered with glazed tiles on the outside, and had murals on the inside.
During the Late Middle Ages, several centuries after the Early Christian basilica had been destroyed, its ruins became the site of the necropolis of a nearby Bulgarian settlement.
The artifacts such as decorations and coins found among the inventory in some of the graves show that the necropolis was in use between the 14th and the 17th century AD (at the end of the 14th century AD, the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) was destroyed and conquered by the invading Ottoman Turks).
After the 17th century, the site had been completely abandoned and forgotten. However, the Early Christian basilica in the monastery in Bulgaria’s Buhovo has been known since the end of the 19th century when it was found by locals searching for the ruins of a big church known from local legends.
In 1881, on top of the Early Christian basilica site, the locals built the small church St. Mary Magdalene which is still in operation today but is in dire need of repairs and rehabilitation.
Sofia Mayor Fandakova has pointed out that the her administration is working on a project for exhibiting in situ the ruins of the ancient temple as one of the sites in the Sofia (Mala) Sveta Gora, or Holy Mount of Sofia (named after the Holy Mount of Athos in today’s Greece) a group of more than 50 monasteries and churches, most of which emerged around the city of Sofia, then named Sredets, during the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD).
The Holy Mount of Sofia, also known as the Small Holy Mount (Mala Sveta Gora), has been developed as a destination for cultural tourism by Sofia Municipality in the past few years, encouraging tourists to visit the numerous monasteries in the mountains around the Bulgarian capital.
“I expect the project for the exhibition of the newly discovered finds and the rehabilitation of the temple to be completed in 2 months. It is funded by the Culture Program of Sofia Municipality. The St. Mary Magdalene Monastery is part of the Sofia Small Holy Mount for which we are developing tourist routes. Our goal is to combine culture tourism, pilgrimage trips, and environmental tourism,” Fandakova says.
Archaeologist Snezhana Goryanova notes that part of the basilica walls will be erected by about 0.5 meters with bricks and stones in order to recreate the feeling for the space of the Early Christian temple.
“The building will not be fully restored because it is not be authentic, and this will mean an alternation of history,” she states.
The 19th century church will also be rehabilitated as part of the cultural tourism project, which also provides for restoring the once famous orchard of the Buhovo Monastery. The project will be completed with the construction of a modern building for meetings, discussions, and performances.
Deputy Sofia Mayor Todor Chobanov, who is also an archaeologist, has announced that in 2016 Sofia Municipality plans to fund the excavations of a medieval Bulgarian monastery dating back to the 13th-14th century, i.e. the period of the Second Bulgarian Empire.
The monastery in question is located in the Novi Iskar Region of Sofia Municipality, and has never been excavated.
Also check out other recent stories about ongoing archaeological excavation and restoration projects in Bulgaria’s capital Sofia:
And check out our recent stories about other Early Christian basilicas in Bulgaria:
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.