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    East facade

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    View from north-east

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    View from south-east

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    View from north-west

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    North facade

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    Interiors - iconostasis

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    Frescoes - painting of an angel under the dome (10th century)

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    Interiors - frescoes

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    View of Rotonda St George in the end of the 19th century.

Location map - click it to enlarge:

The Church of St George the Victorious / Rotonda, Sofia

The church dedicated to Saint George the Victorious, mostly known as the Rotonda because of the round shape of its central and largest part, is located in the heart of Sofia, Bulgaria. It stands in the inner courtyard of the Presidency, several meters under the contemporary ground level. The church is part of an entire architectural complex of archaeological monuments, consisting of the base remains from a large basilica (probably with public functions), on the floor of which there are evidences for a special heating system - the so called hypocaust, as well as the stone pavement of one of the main streets in ancient Serdica, supplied with skillfully constructed drainage. This archeological complex of the church and the above mentioned remains was on the territory of the Constantine's quarter" in the antique city. The residence of Emperor Constantine I the Great itself is identified with the ruins under the neighboring Hotel Rila.

This is no uniform opinion about the date and the origin of the Rotonda St George. According to some scholars it was initially built as a pagan temple in the 3rd century AD. They point that the Roman temples with round shape were very popular in all provinces of the empire and the most famous between them is the Pantheon in Rome. After the Edict of Milan 313 AD and the adoption of Christianity for equal in rights and official religion, the temple was reconstructed into a baptisterium, in which many citizens of Serdica were baptized in the new faith. Other scholars believe that the Rotonda was built in the beginning of the 4th century as a martyrium - a small church-chapel, where the relics of a saint or saints died as martyrs for the Christian faith are kept.

No matter which of the above two theories is true, it is a fact that the St George Church in Sofia is among the earliest Christian temples in the world, which is fortunately entirely preserved until present day. Its building coincides with the heyday of the ancient city of Serdica - from the end of the 3rd - until the last quarter of the 4th century, when it became an administrative centre of the province of Dacia Mediterranea and one of the favorite cities of Emperor Constantine I the Great. He often resided in Serdica and governed the vast empire from there. According to the historic books the emeperor even said "Serdica this is my Rome".

Serdica became prominent as one of the most important religious centers of the Roman Empire. Here in 343-344 AD the Oecumenical Council of Serdica was held with the participation of high-level clergy from all lands of the empire. Probably the Church of St George played a major role during this important event.

The relics of the most honored Bulgarian saint - St Ivan Rilski, were brought in Sofia (medieval Sredets) in the 10th century. It was probably made in the end of the century, in the time of Tsar Samuel of Bulgaria, when the Bulgarian patriarch Damyan resided for a certain period of time in Sredets. The relics of the saint were most probably laid down in the Church of St George. They were kept there until 1183 when were taken as military loot by the Hungarians and brought to their medieval capital city of Esztergom.

In the 15th century the relics of the Serbian Saint King Stephan Urosh II were kept in the Rotonda too but they were soon moved to the neighboring medieval Church of Sveti Kral (Saint King) - a predecessor of the nowadays Cathedral Sveta Nedelya.

During the time of the Ottoman government and more exactly in the 16th century the St George Church was turned into a mosque as many other Christian temples. After several damages by earthquakes it was left by the Turks in the 19th century. After the reestablishment of the independent Bulgarian state the church was restored and began again to function as an orthodox temple.

The Rotonda has a complicated but symmetric architectural plan. It was built of specially prepared for the purpose red bricks in different shapes, welded by quality mortar. It has a central round premises covered by a dome, which stands on a rectangular base. To each of the four corners of the base a semicircular niche was added. The dome of the church is almost 14 m tall.

The preserved fragments of at least five layers of frescoes in the interiors of the church are very interesting. The earliest of them depicts floral and decorative motifs and dates back to the 4th century AD. It is covered by a second one from the 10th century, which is represented only by a representation of an angel right under the dome. Its exceptionally spiritual human features make some scholars to believe this painting surpasses the much later frescoes from the nearby Boyana Church (13th century) and can be even compared with the works from the Italian Proto-Renaissance. This small fragment of 10th-century frescoes is among the few ones survived from the time of the so called Golden Age of the Bulgarian First Empire and gives us an idea about the high skills of the icon-painters at the time. The second layer is followed by frescoes from 11-12th centuries, 14th century and ornamental decoration from the period when the church was turned into a mosque.

An early Christian church similar to St George in Sofia is the Rotonda in Thessaloniki, North Greece. It has almost the same architectural plan, but a considerably larger size, built with the same construction techniques and named after the same saint.