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    South facade

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    South facade with the Monument of the Unknown Soldier

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    The Monument of the Unknown Soldier čand the Eternal Fire

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    The lion in front of the Monument of the Unknown Soldier

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    The east facade with a three-sided apse

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    The west facade

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    View from abaove - the cross-domed plan is clearly seen

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    In the time of Liberation from Ottoman government

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    View from south - the beginning of the 20th century

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    View from east - the beginning of the 20th century

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    View from north-east - the beginning of the 20th century

Location map - click on it to enlarge:

St Sophia Church

Today shaded by the magnificent Cathedral of St Alexander Nevsky, the Church of St Sofia is often missed by the tourists and it is not very popular even among the local citizens of the Bulgarian capital. In spite of this the people who are interested in the city's past know, that the church is one of the most important sights and symbols of Sofia. It was the name of St Sophia Church which was given to the medieval city of Sredets (ancient Serdica) and it started to be called Sofia in the late Middle Ages. So it appears that besides an important historic and cultural monument, a must-see for all visitors, this church is the godfather of the capital too.

The Basilica St Sophia is dedicated to the Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia in the Greek language) and together with the round Church of St George in the courtyard of the Presidency, is one of the oldest still operating Christian temples on the territory of Bulgaria and Europe as a whole. It is an ineffaceable reminder about the glorious past of the city, when shortly after the adoption of the Christianity in the vast Roman Empire, spreading from present-day Iraq to Britain, Serdica (the ancient Thracian and Roman city which was located on the site of present-day Sofia) became an important administrative, religious and trading centre. In 343-344 AD the Oecumenical Council of Serdica was held. In the city came high-level clergy from all Roman provinces to discuss and unify the Christian rites.

The present St Sophia Church stands over the remains of two or maybe even three earlier churches, destroyed in the barbarian invasions of Goths in the 4th century and Huns in the 5th century. The first church was built in the beginning of the 4th century, right after the adoption of Christianity for an official religion with the Edict of Milan issued in 313 AD. For its position was chosen the most elevated point in the city, outside the walls and close to the amphitheatre (which ruins are exposed in the underground floor of Hotel Arena di Serdica) and the east pagan and early Christian necropolis. It is possible the chosen place to be related with any martyrdom in the time of the Anti-Christian persecutions during the previous century. This makes it sacred and explains why it was chosen for the building of a church outside the city walls and close to the necropolis (graveyard). A silver reliquary found during the excavations of the church supports this hypothesis. It appears that St Sophia was erected as a chapel on the grave of a Christian martyr / martyrs or as tomb-church.

The second church, built over the ruins of the first one, has a larger size, almost as large as this of the present-day church. It was completed in the mid-4th century. Impressive floor mosaics from it are preserved until present day. This church was also destroyed, probably by the invading Huns in the 5th century. There are underground early Christian tombs preserved from these two early temples. They are under the floors of the present church and some of them are generously decorated with interesting frescoes.

The present Basilica of St Sophia was built over the ruins of the previous ones in the time of Justinian the Great (527-565 AD). It appears that the Bulgarians were very tolerant towards the foreign religions. When led by Khan Krum they conquered Sredets (medieval name of Sofia) the church was not destroyed even the new possessors of the city were still pagans. After the adoption of Christianity in the First Bulgarian Empire by Khan Boris - Michael, St Sophia was renovated and became the cathedral church of the bishop of Sredets. It kept this important role in the late middle ages too, until Bulgaria was conquered by the Ottoman empire.

In the time of the Ottoman Empire the church was turned into a mosque. The characteristic minarets were added to the main body of the basilica. Unique frescoes from the 12th century were erased. In the late 15th century it was seriously damaged by an earthquake and then restored again as a mosque. In the 18th century several earthquakes destroyed again its minarets. The local Turks decided that they had infuriated the Christian god and stopped using it as a mosque. In the following years the church was used as a warehouse. Right in front of the church the jubilating Bulgarians met the Russian army that liberated the city from Ottoman government in 1978. In the 1930s the Basilica of St Sophia was finally restored by a team led by the professor in archaeology Bogdan Filov and the architect Alexander Rashenov. In the middle of the same century the church was proclaimed for a national monument of culture protected by law. Part of the rituals related to the selection of the Bulgarian patriarchs after 1908 are held in this ancient church.

St Sophia is built in the rare for the Bulgarian lands architectural plan of a three-nave cross-domed basilica. It has a three-sided apse, three massive altars and narthex. Its proportions were designed following the principle of the so called golden ratio - 1:2:3. It has been built of red bricks welded together by strong mortar. Some of the archeologists who explored the church believe that it was designed by Georgian architects, sent to Serdica in the time of Justinian I (6th century AD). The basilica distinguishes with its large size, which is even huge for the architectural standards of the 6th century. Its length is 47 m, width - 20 m and the central dome is 20 m high. In the 1980s it underwent restoration and preservation works again. Attached to its south facade is built the Monument of the Unknown Soldier with the Eternal Fire. The idea for the latter appeared e in the 1920s but was accomplished in 1981, when the 1300 anniversary from the foundation of the Bulgarian state south of the Danube River was celebrated. The monument consists of a sarcophagus and five urns. They keep the remains of unknown heroes, who gave their lives for the unification of Bulgarian ethnic lands (never achieved). Soil from all lands of Bulgaria was brought to be kept in the monument too.

Under a Babylon Willow in the garden south-west of the church is located the grave of the Bulgarian national writer Ivan Vazov. It is signed only by its bronze statue and a monolithic stone of Vitosha syenite, which was often used by the writer to sit down on it for a break during his walks in Vitosha Mountain.