Unknown Late Antiquity Tomb with Murals Found by Accident in Downtown of Bulgaria’s Capital Sofia

Murals seen inside the newly discovered Late Antiquity tomb in Bulgaria’s capital Sofia. Photo: Sofia Mayor’s Facebook Page

An unknown Late Antiquity tomb has been discovered by accident during repair works on the Moskovska Street in the downtown of Bulgaria’s capital Sofia, not far from the 4th century AD St. Sofia Basilica from the Ancient Roman city of Serdica.

The discovery of the tomb which is decorated with murals has been announced by Sofia Mayor Yordanka Fandakova as she visited the last day of the 2018 archaeological excavations at another downtown location, the ruins of ancient Serdica (as Sofia was known in the Antiquity) on the St. Nedelya (Holy Sunday) Cathedral Square before the Sofia Hotel Balkan (formerly the Sofia Sheraton).

The newly found tomb from the Late Roman / Early Byzantine period was stumbled upon late on the evening of August 2, 2018, by construction workers.

“A wonderful Antiquity tomb with murals was discovered during the reconstruction of the pavement of the Moskovska Street last night," Fandakova wrote on her Facebook page.

“I’ve assigned the reinforcement of the spot, and the immediate excavations and research of the tomb. [Sofia’s] Chief Architect has been tasked with drafting a project for its exhibition in situ," she elaborates.

The inside of the newly found Late Antiquity tomb located near the St. Sofia Basilica in Bulgaria’s capital Sofia. Photo: Sofia Mayor’s Facebook Page

The area of the St. Sofia Basilica, the oldest functioning church in Europe, whose present building was built in the 6th century AD, on top of an earlier church from the 4th century AD, is known for being located on top of the necropolis of ancient Serdica.

Thus, a number of Late Antiquity tombs with murals have already been discovered there and some have even been exhibited in situ.

In 2013, Sofia Municipality opened what has become known as 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 welcomes dozens of thousands of visitors per year.

Assist. Prof. Veselka Katsarova, who has been the lead archaeologist in the excavations on the St. Nedelya Cathedral Square, was one of the members of the expert committee called to inspect the newly discovered tomb with murals on the Moskovska Street.

“This is a tomb connected with the necropolis around the St. Sofia church, it is well known, and has been researched for a long time," Katsarova has told BNT.

“There are also other tombs with murals discovered around the church and underneath it, and exhibited in situ but this is a new [unknown] one, with frescoes, and, of course, it is a significant discovery," she adds.

One of the Late Antiquity Christian tombs with frescoes already exhibited in situ in 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 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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