Bulgaria’s Capital Sofia to Fund Search for Alleged Outer Fortress Wall of Ancient Serdica

The excavations of a large monumental Roman building on the St. Nedelya Square in downtown Sofia with the Sofia Hotel Balkan (formerly the Sofia Sheraton) in the background. Photo: Geo Kalev / Sofia Mayor Facebook Page

The excavations of a large monumental Roman building on the St. Nedelya Square in downtown Sofia with the Sofia Hotel Balkan (formerly the Sofia Sheraton) in the background. Photo: Geo Kalev / Sofia Mayor Facebook Page

The administration of Bulgaria’s capital Sofia plans to invest major funding in expanding the archaeological excavations in the city, including a search for the alleged outer fortress wall of its predecessor, the Ancient Thracian and Roman city of Serdica.

During a visit to the ongoing digs of a monumental Roman building on the square near the St. Nedelya Cathedral in Sofia’s downtown, Mayor Yordanka Fandakova has announced that in 2017 Sofia Municipality is going to finance archaeological excavations in the small park near the downtown Rila Hotel, not far from the building of the Bulgarian Presidency.

“The archaeologists expect to find there one of the locations of the fortress walls of the city [of Serdica]," Fandakova has announced on her Facebook page.

“So far there has been no clear idea as to what kind of outer fortress walls Serdica had. Only the inner urban core is known which emerged as early as the 2nd century AD with the construction of highly representative walls. But the city most probably had a second level of fortifications of which very little is still known," she has elaborated.

The Sofia Mayor has also made it clear that the second stage of the archaeological excavations on the St. Nedelya Square has been in progress, and the digs could be completed by the end of 2016.

According to Fandakova, Sofia Municipality plans to exhibit in situ the newly exposed Ancient Roman using “conservative methods" and international experts. These plans are probably motivated by the vigorous public criticism for Sofia Municipality over the recently completion of the restoration of part of the ruins of Ancient Serdica, the so called Sofia Largo project.

The excavations of the monumental Roman building on St. Nedelya Square in downtown Sofia. The building was discovered in 2015. Photos: Geo Kalev / Sofia Mayor Facebook Page

The excavations of the monumental Roman building on St. Nedelya Square in downtown Sofia. The building was discovered in 2015. Photos: Geo Kalev / Sofia Mayor Facebook Page

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In any case, the excavated section is no longer going to be park of the parking lot of the Sofia Hotel Balkan (formerly the Sofia Sheraton) but will be refashioned into a square with exhibited archaeological structures.

“We need to come up with a nice project for a square because you know that this used to be a parking lot. Our idea is to build a beautiful square where the finds can be showcased," Fandakova says, as cited by Nova TV.

Ancient Serdica was one of the most important Roman cities in the region, and it was no accident that it was picked for a [provincial] capital. All these was reflected in the material culture that we are now excavating. Such monumental palace building correspond to the senior ranks in the Roman administration, and in the Late Antiquity, starting from the middle of the 3rd century, the city was visited by a number of Roman Emperors such as Constantine the Great," Sofia Deputy Mayor Todor Chobanov, who is an archaeologist by training, has stated in turn.

He has emphasized that Sofia Municipality’s efforts to unearth and preserve the city’s archaeological heritage are going to continue with the 2017 excavations in the small park near the Rila Hotel.

“The park was deliberately preserved over the years in its present form because right next to it palace structures were unearthed which were not properly researched because they were excavated only partly during the construction of the hotel. So it is very intriguing for us what we are going to come across under the park. We expect to find one of the routes of the city fortress walls," Chobanov elaborates.

Mayor Fandakova has noted that in 2016, Sofia Municipality has allocated a total of BGN 320,000 (app. EUR 160,000) for archaeological research focusing on a total of five projects: the excavations on the St. Nedelya Square, the excavations of the Neolithic Settlement in the Slatina Quarter, the excavations of the Western Gate of Serdica (which predated its still ongoing restoration), the restoration of the mosaics of the St. Sofia Basilica, and the digs in the Mary Magdalene Monastery in the town of Buhovo.

A year ago, in September 2015, the archaeologists excavating the Roman building on the St. Nedelya Square in downtown Sofia discovered a treasure of 2,976 silver Roman coins.

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The excavations of a large monumental Roman building on the St. Nedelya Square in downtown Sofia, with the Bulgarian government buildings known as the Sofia Largo visible in the background. Photo: Geo Kalev / Sofia Mayor Facebook Page

The excavations of a large monumental Roman building on the St. Nedelya Square in downtown Sofia, with the Bulgarian government buildings known as the Sofia Largo visible in the background. Photo: Geo Kalev / Sofia Mayor Facebook Page

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Part of an Ancient Roman pipeline. Photo: Geo Kalev / Sofia Mayor Facebook Page

Part of an Ancient Roman pipeline. Photo: Geo Kalev / 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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