Western Gate of Ancient Serdica in Bulgaria’s Capital Sofia under Restoration, to Become Archaeological Park, Mayor Says

Archaeological structures from the Western Gate of Ancient Serdica in downtown Sofia under restoration, with the Catholic Cathedral St. Joseph visible in the background. Photo: Sofia Mayor Facebook Page

Archaeological structures from the Western Gate of Ancient Serdica in downtown Sofia under restoration, with the Catholic Cathedral St. Joseph visible in the background. Photo: Sofia Mayor Facebook Page

The archaeological site of the Western Gate of the Ancient Roman city of Serdica, the predecessor of today’s Bulgarian capital Sofia, is presently under restoration in order to become an archaeological park.

The restoration, which started in July, has been inspected by Sofia Mayor Yordanka Fandakova who has released recent photos of the construction works on her Facebook page.

The present restoration began after earlier the recent preparatory excavations of Serdica’s Western Gate in May-June 2016 led to the discovery of a preserved wooden structure from a moat bridge from the the 2nd-4th century AD.

The restoration project funded by the Norway Grants and EEA Grants with nearly BGN 947,000 (app. EUR 500,000), and is supposed to be complete this fall.

Fandakova has announced that currently the restoration is focused on the conservation of the original stone walls and terracing in the northern section of the archaeological site, and the reinforcement of another stone wall in the southeastern section.

Once restored, Serdica’s Western Gate is to become part of the Serdica – Sredets Archaeological and Historical Preserve in the downtown of today’s Sofia, including the widely criticized restoration of the Roman ruins at the Sofia Largo.

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The northern section of the archaeological site of Serdica's Western Gate. Photo: Sofia Mayor Facebook Page

The northern section of the archaeological site of Serdica’s Western Gate. Photo: Sofia Mayor Facebook Page

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

The archaeological excavations were resumed in 2011-2013 after in 2011, the site was cleaned up over several weekends by hundreds of volunteers, an initiative organized by the Potomtsi (“Ancestors”) NGO, and funded by the America for Bulgaria Foundation.

The ensuing excavations led 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 floor mosaics with geometric motifs from the first half of the 4th century inside a building which is believed to have been a basilica.

The Western Gate of Ancient Serdica is believed to have been important because of a building across from it outside of the fortress wall which probably housed the custom office of the Roman city. The Western Gate dates back to the middle of the 1st century AD. It was reinforced during the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-180 AD), and then again up until the 4th century AD.

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 archaeological excavations in the area of Serdica’s Western Gate are to be continued in the western, southern, and northeastern direction, i.e. outside of the ancient city’s fortress walls.

The southeastern section of the archaeological site of Serdica's Western Gate, with the building of UniCredit Bulbank (right) and the collapsing George Washington Street (left) visible in the background. Photo: Sofia Mayor Facebook Page

The southeastern section of the archaeological site of Serdica’s Western Gate, with the building of UniCredit Bulbank (right) and the collapsing George Washington Street (left) visible in the background. Photo: Sofia Mayor Facebook Page

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 archaeological park to be called “The Western Gate of Serdica” is to be connected via an underground passage with the other Roman ruins at the Sofia Largo.

Sofia Municipality has 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.

Chobanov has revealed that the future underground passage between the Roman ruins at the Sofia Largo and the Western Gate Archaeological Park will probably go right through the ruins of the basilica with its floor mosaics.

The restoration of the Western Gate of Serdica might end up as the Sofia Largo project because it has started without a clear plan, cautions Bulgarian news site

Media reports have cautioned that the restoration of the Western Gate of Serdica might end up as the Sofia Largo project because the firm which won the tender for the restoration, Infra Roads, is owned by Bulgarian gambling oligarch Vasil Bozhkov, and the company official in charge of the restoration is not formally registered as a certified restorer as per Bulgaria’s Cultural Heritage Act.

Furthermore, the original restoration project drafted by an architectural consultant in 2013 provides for the destruction of a surviving reinforcing wall of the gate and part of the fortress wall, and the rebuilding of the main section of the fortress wall. This design has been criticized by lead archaeologist Assist. Prof. Iliyana Borisova-Katsarova who has been in charge of the recent rescue excavations.

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Sofia Mayor Yordanka Fandakova (right) and Deputy Mayor and archaeologist Todor Chobanov (middle) inspecting the restoration of the Western Gate of Ancient Serdica. Photo: Sofia Mayor Facebook Page

Sofia Mayor Yordanka Fandakova (right) and Deputy Mayor and archaeologist Todor Chobanov (middle) inspecting the restoration of the Western Gate of Ancient Serdica, with the George Washington Street in the background. Photo: Sofia Mayor Facebook Page

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, i.e. the reign of Roman Emperor Constantine I the Great (r. 306-337 AD), 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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