Bulgaria’s Sofia Starts Excavations of Western Gate of Ancient Serdica in Preparation for Restoration Project

Aerial view of a triangular fortress tower unearthed at the Western Gate of ancient Serdica in Bulgaria's capital Sofia. Photo: Museum of Sofia History (Sofia Regional Museum of History)

Aerial view of a triangular fortress tower unearthed at the Western Gate of ancient Serdica in Bulgaria’s capital Sofia. Photo: Museum of Sofia History (Sofia Regional Museum of History)

Sofia Municipality has started the preparatory archaeological excavations of the Western Gate of the Ancient Roman city of Serdica, the predecessor of today’s Bulgarian capital, as part of a project for the restoration of the gate and the structures around it.

The restoration project is entitled “Restoration, Conservation, and Exhibition of the Archaeological Park of the Western Gate of Serdica", and is supposed to be executed over the summer.

It will be funded by the Norway Grants and EEA Grants with nearly BGN 1 million (app. EUR 500,000). The preparatory excavations are expected to last for about a month, reports Dnevnik.

The excavations of the Western Gate of Serdica, which is part of the SerdicaSredets (as the city was called in the Middle Ages) Archaeological Preserve, first took place in 1974-1980, and were resumed in 2011.

The ruins of the Western Gate made news headlines in March 2016 when part of them were buried under the collapsing George Washington Street, which, however, is said to have caused no damages to the ancient structures.

The Western Gate of Ancient Serdica is said to have been especially important because of a building located across from it outside of the fortress wall of the Roman city which is believed to have housed its customs.

Today the ruins of the Western Gate and the Roman customs building are located in the downtown of the Bulgarian capital Sofia (as are all ruins of ancient Serdica), next to the St. Joseph Catholic Cathedral.

As recently as 2015, Sofia Municipality made it clear that it had big plans for the all-out excavation, conservation, and restoration of the ruins of the Western Gate of ancient Serdica as part of the entire archaeological complex together with the Roman ruins at the Sofia Largo, the St. Nedelya Square, the Amphitheater, and the underground museum in the necropolis of the 4th century St. Sofia Basilica, which is said to be the oldest functioning Christian temple in Europe, and whose name the Bulgarian capital Sofia took during the Middle Ages.

Unfortunately, the Sofia Largo Project, the large-scale restoration of Roman ruins of ancient Serdica, which was finally opened in April 2016 after years of delays, has produced highly criticized results. Its execution (and other cases of outrageously botched restorations) have cast doubts over similar future projects in Sofia and elsewhere in the country.

The archaeological remains of the Ancient Thracian and Roman city of Serdica, which is known as the favorite place of Roman Emperor Constantine I the Great (r. 306-337 AD), dot the cityscape in the downtown of contemporary Sofia.

The municipal authorities, however, have been criticized for many years for failing to properly take advantage of the city’s ancient heritage by exhibiting it in situ, a goal that they declared long ago as part of the long anticipated project for the rehabilitation of the Sofia Largo.

In 2015, Sofia’s Deputy Mayor Todor Chobanov said the area around the western gate of Ancient Serdica, which is located near today’s Catholic cathedral “St. Joseph", will be restored, and will be used for small-scale events such as concerts. To achieve this goal, the authorities plans to rebuild the ancient fortress wall.

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A maps showing the location of the Western Gate and customs of Ancient Serdica (and all of ancient Serdica against the backdrop of the downtown of today’s Bulgarian capital Sofia. Map: UlpiaSerdica.com

A maps showing the location of the Western Gate and customs of Ancient Serdica (and all of ancient Serdica against the backdrop of the downtown of today’s Bulgarian capital Sofia. Map: UlpiaSerdica.com

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 Serdi who are believed to have been a Celtic tribe (some Bulgarian scholars hypothesize that the Serdi were a Thracian tribe, or a Thracian tribe which assimilated a smaller Celtic tribe while keeping its original name).

The name of the Serdi tribe 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.

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The Western Gate of the Ancient Thracian and Roman city of Serdica (later the medieval Bulgarian city of Sredets), the predecessor of today’s Bulgarian capital Sofia.

The Western Gate of Ancient Serdica is said to have been especially important because of a building located across from it outside of the fortress wall of the Roman city which is believed to have housed its customs.

Today the ruins of the Western Gate and the Roman customs building are located in the downtown of the Bulgarian capital Sofia (as are all ruins of ancient Serdica), next to the St. Joseph Catholic Cathedral.

The Western Gate of Serdica was first discovered in 1974, and was excavated until 1980 resulting also in the unearthing of a pentagonal fortress tower, which was the northern tower of the gate, a section of the fortress wall, and a triangular tower were also unearthed.

In fact, the excavations of the Western Gate started back in 1974 because of the construction of a large building which today houses Unicredit Bulbank. Back then, the archaeological team led by Magdalina Stancheva from the Museum of Sofia History also exposed the ruins of the 11th century church St. Spas. During the 1990s, these ruins were exhibited in situ in the basement of the modern-day building.

The archaeological excavations were resumed in 2011-2013 by Sofia Municipality leading to the discovery of one of the main streets of the ancient city that led to the Western Gate. The part of Serdica adjacent to the gate was densely populated, and had water pipelines and sewerage that were repaired numerous times.

In 2012, the archaeologists unearthed seven-color floor mosaics with geometric motifs from the first half of the 4th century inside a building which is believed to have been a large basilica with a colonnade and three parade entrances.

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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.

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