Bulgaria’s Sofia Starts Seismic Retrofit of Europe’s Oldest Functioning Church, 4th Century Basilica St. Sofia

The St. Sofia Basilica in Bulgaria's capital Sofia is said to be the oldest functioning church in Europe. Photo: Geo Kalev / Sofia Mayor Facebook Page

The St. Sofia Basilica in Bulgaria’s capital Sofia is said to be the oldest functioning church in Europe. The golden domes of the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral are visible in the background. Photo: Geo Kalev, Studio Fo / Sofia Mayor Facebook Page

Sofia Municipality has started a seismic retrofit of the St. Sofia Basilica, the oldest functioning church in Europe, from which the Bulgarian capital took its modern-day name during the Late Middle Ages.

The St. Sofia Basilica, the site of the Serdica Church Council of 343 AD, was first built in the 4th century AD on the site of several earlier places of worship, which was also the site of the necropolis of the Ancient Thracian and Roman city of Serdica. It was rebuilt in its present form during the Early Byzantine period, in the late 5th – early 6th century.

Ancient Serdica was known as Sredets during the time of the medieval Bulgarian Empire (the city was conquered for Bulgaria by Khan Krum (r. 803-814 AD) in 805 AD) but by the 14th century it came to be known with the name of the St. Sofia Basilica.

The start of the seismic retrofit of the Early Christian church has been announced by Sofia Mayor Yordanka Fandakova on her Facebook Page.

The project provides for the installation of braces at a depth of 7 meters to the north and south of the temple to protect the archaeological, historical, and cultural monument from earthquakes.

The first 4 meters the digging will be done by hand, with rescue archaeological excavations to be led by archaeologists Yunian Meshekov and Polina Stoyanova from the Museum of Sofia History (Sofia Regional Museum of History).

The project for the seismic retrofit of the St. Sofia Basilica is worth BGN 430,000 provided by the Norway Grants and EEA Grants.

After the retrofit, the basilica should be able to withstand earthquakes with a magnitude of 7.0 on the Richter Scale, which are supposed to be the strongest possible earthquakes for Sofia‘s region.

A report of the liberal Bulgarian news site Dnevnik points out that the tender for the retrofit has been won in a somewhat dubious way by a firm owned by Bulgarian oligarch Vasil Bozhkov. The tender actually is for a total of three projects providing also for the restoration of the Western Gate of Ancient Serdica, and one of the triangular towers located at the Western Gate.

The project also provides for a revamp of the heating system and the square in front of the basilica. During the construction, the St. Sofia Basilica, a main landmark of Bulgaria’s capital, will not be closed for visitors.

In her Facebook post, Sofia Mayor Fandakova reminds that in 2013 Sofia Municipality opened the Underground Museum of the necropolis of the 4th century St. Sofia Basilica.

The museum features in situ remains of the ruins of three earlier churches under the surviving Late Antiquity, Early Christian temple, and over 50 graves and tombs from the 3rd-5th century AD, including the Tomb of Honorius, a citizen of Serdica buried at the end of the 5th or the beginning of the 6th century.

The Underground Museum of the necropolis at the St. Sofia Basilica gets about 40,000 visitors per year, or a total of 100,000 since its opening in 2013.

Before the start of the seismic retrofit project, Sofia Deputy Mayor Todor Chobanov, himself an archaeologist, has pointed out that the ground beneath and around the basilica probably harbors dozens of unknown tombs such as that of Honorius, and that he does not rule the possibility of similar discoveries during the rescue digs.

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The underground museum of the Ancient Roman necropolis underneath the St. Sofia Basilica in the downtown of the Bulgarian capital. Photo: Info Center Sofia

The underground museum of the Ancient Roman necropolis underneath the St. Sofia Basilica in the downtown of the Bulgarian capital. Photo: Info Center Sofia

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 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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The St. Sofia Basilica is located in the downtown of the Bulgarian capital Sofia, and is said to be the oldest functioning church in Europe. It is a cross basilica with three altars featuring Early Christian ornamental or flora and fauna-themed floor mosaics. It was first built in the 4th century AD on the site of several earlier places of worship, which was also the site of the necropolis of the Ancient Thracian and Roman city of Serdica, even though it was rebuilt in the 6th century into its current form.

This is believed to be the fifth structure built on the site. Its last reconstruction was during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (r. 527-565 AD), which makes it a contemporary of the Hagia Sophia Chruch in Constantinople, today’s Istanbul. The St. Sofia Basilica is also famous for hosting the Early Christian Council of Serdica, probably held in 343 AD, and attended by 316 bishops.

During the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD), it gained the status of a metropolitan church, and in the 14th century it gave its name to the city which had been known by its Slavic-Bulgarian name of Sredets. In the 16th century, after Bulgaria’s conquest by the Ottoman Turks, the St. Sofia Basilica was turned into a mosque with the destruction of the 12th century murals and the addition of minarets.

However, two earthquakes destroyed one of the minarets in the 19th century, and the mosque was abandoned. It has been restored since 1900. In 2013, the ancient necropolis and tombs underneath the St. Sofia Basilica, some of which have murals, were turned into an underground museum open for visitors. It includes the Tomb of Honorius, a citizen of Serdica buried at the end of the 5th or the beginning of the 6th century.

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