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    Rotonda Church St George and the remains of a three-nave basilica in the inner courtyard of the Presidency.

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    The Lapidarium in fron of the Museum of Archeology.

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    Sveta Nedelya Square

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    East gate of Serdica's antique city walls - the underpass next to the Presidency.

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    The amphitheatre of Serdica

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    The amphitheatre of Serdica

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    St Sophia Church

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    The Lapidarium in the Doctor's Garden, next to the University.

A Walk by the Ancient Churches and Archeological Remains of Roman Serdica

If you have free time to spend while you are in the city center of Sofia, we suggest you to make a pleasant and relaxed walk, exploring the archeological monuments left to remind us about the glorious past of the Bulgarian capital a proud successor of the large and important antique Thracian and Roman city of Serdica.

The earliest known inhabitants of the Sofia's plain are the Thracian people of Serdi. These Thracians, who according to Herodotus lived near the springs of the Strimon River (nowadays Struma River, which has its springs in Vitosha Mountain), took part in the famous campaign of the Persian king Xerxes in Ellada (Greece) during the 80s of the 5th century BC. One of the main settlements of the Serdi was located at the northern slopes of Vitosha Mountain, around the warm mineral springs in the centre of present-day Sofia. Many archeologists and historians believe that at this time or during the Hellenistic period (4th-1st centuries BC) on the latest this settlement grew into a city, landscaped following the architectural standards of the ancient Greek polis. But this statement can not be supported by direct archeological evidences or written historic sources yet.

Anyway, it is an indisputable fact that after the Roman conquest in the present-day Bulgarian lands and the foundation of the Roman province of Thrace around 45 AD, Serdica was already an important urban center. It was officially confirmed as such during the time of Emperor Marcus Ulpius Nerva Traianus (98 117 AD), when it received the official city rights of Ulpia - a guarantee for relatively independent self-government. In the second half of the 2nd century AD Ulpia Serdica was strongly fortified with monumental city walls for defence against the impendent barbarian menace, coming from the lands north of the Danube River. The heyday of the ancient city came in the end of the 3d century AD, when it was chosen for the administrative center of the Province of Dacia Mediterranea, organized after the withdrawal of the Roman legions from the lands north of the River Danube. During the reign of Emperor Constantine I the Great (306 -337 AD) Serdica was already as important administrative center of the empire, that the emperor himself often resided in the city and governed from here the enormous Roman Empire, spreading from Mesopotamia (in present-day Iraq) to the Atlantic Ocean and the British Islands. Constantine I the Great who was born in the nearby city of Naissus (the present day city of Nis in Serbia) was heard often to say "Serdica - this is my Rome".

After the adoption of Christianity for a sole official religion in the vast empire, made under the government of the same emperor - Constantine I the Great, Serdica was chosen for a host city of the the Oecumenical Council which was held in 343-344 AD. Here came the high-level clergy from all provinces of the Roman Empire to discuss the unification of the rites of the new state religion. The event was written in the historic books as the Council of Serdica. In its honor one of the small but very central streets in Sofia is named Saborna Street, which means the "Council's Street" in Bulgarian.

You can start your walk from the National Archeological Institute with Museum on 2 Saborna Str, right opposite of the central entrance of the Presidency with the guards. In front of the museum you will see an interesting lapidarium - an open air exposition of stone monuments from ancient Serdica, found in different parts of the nowadays city. It includes various architectural details (parts of columns, capitals and friezes etc.), votive inscriptions, bases of statues, stone benches, sarcophagi and many others.

After you see the lapidarium in front of the Archeological Museum, cross the covered by yellow pavement Lege Street to the Presidency and enter into its inner courtyard through the main entrance next to the guards. Here you will found the best exhibited compact group of architectural monuments and ruins from the time of ancient Serdica. They are part of the so called Constantine's quarter, where was probably located the emperor's palace itself. It is supposed that the remains under the nearby Hotel Rila are from this palace. In the Presidency's courtyard you will see the oldest entirely preserved building in Sofia. This is the Church of St George or the so called Rotonda (Rotunda). It was probably built in the 3d century AD as a pagan temple. In the first half of the 4th century, when Christianity was a already the official religion in the empire, this pagan temple was reconstructed into a church. It has a very interesting architectural design, consisting of a central round body covered by a dome, which stands over a rectangular base. During the Middle Ages in this church were kept for a certain period of time the relics of the most honored Bulgarian saint - St. Ivan Rilski, brought here by Tsar Samuel of Bulagria. Several layers of wall paintings are preserved. The earliest are from the 4th century AD. The most beautiful are from the 10th century, painted in the during the reign of Tsar Simeon the Great and his son - Tsar Peter I.

Next to the Rotonda you will notice the base of a large, probably public building with architectural form of a three-nave basilica. It was kept warm by a typical Roman central floor and wall heating system hypocaust, which small rectangular supporting columns are well preserved on the ground. Next to it you will see the remains of one of the main streets in the ancient city, completed with special street drainage on its sides.

After you have seen everything in the courtyard of the Presidency, go out through the other exit to the Saborna Str. and walk right along the latter. In less than 50 meters you will reach the square around Sveta Nedelya Church and Sheraton Hotel Balkan. Under it are the ruins of the central part of the Roman city of Serdica (the forum, the main public buildings and temples), which unfortunately can not be seen today. During the construction works of Sheraton Hotel were excavated the remains from the building of the local parliament(boule) - the Bouleuterion (in Ancient Greek and "Odeon" in Latin). At the opposite side of Vitosha Blvd, in the basements of the large bank central are kept fragments from more than 40 statues of the ancient gods Dionysus, Apollo, Aphrodite, Tyche and Athens, who were worshiped in a temple or probably temples on the site.

From Sveta Nedelya Square walk along Maria Luisa Blvd in direction to the Central Railway Station (north). Soon you will reach the Centralni Hali (on the left, after the intersection with Pirotska Str.) - still operating covered market from the beginning of the 20th century. Restored remains of the north-west sector of Serdica's city walls are exposed in its underground floor. They were built from slightly tooled or raw river stones, leveled by rows of red Roman bricks, welded by strong mortar. The walls were strengthened by round, triangular and pentagonal towers on the corners, the flanks of the gates and at a certain distance along the walls. The stronghold was additionally strengthened in the 6th century AD by an extra external belt, made only by bricks and having a width of 1.8 m. It is believed that the city walls were as tall as 12 m, which was making Serdica one of the best fortified cities in the empire. Exactly under the intersection of Maria Luisa Blvd and Iskar Str (in front of the Centralni Hali) are the remains from the North-West Gate, flanked by two round towers, but unfortunately they are under the ground and can not be seen.

From the front entrance of the Centralni Hali Market on Maria Luisa Blvd, cross to the opposite side and walk along Iskar Str. in eastern direction to Serdica Str. On your right you will pass by the mosque, the Baths and the mineral springs. Here were located the Roman Thermae and a temple devoted to the gods of medicine - Asclepius, Hygeia and Apollo the Healer. On the site was found an interesting statue of the latter god with a snake-wrapped stick - an attribute considered a personification of his healing power.

At the place where Iskar Str. reaches Serdica Str., you will see the excavated base parts of the north-east corner of the city walls. Here they were strengthened by a round tower.

After you have seen the north-east corner of the city walls, walk to the right along Serdica Str and in a few minutes you will be on Dondukov Blvd. Turn right along the latter and only in a minute or two you will reach the underpass between the Council of Ministers and the Presidency. Go downstairs and you will see the remains from the East Gate of Serdica. Here you will walk on original Roman street, covered by large stone plates. According to the archeologists the street was lastly repaired in the 6th century. The gate was defended by two triangular towers - one at each of its sides. From here one of the most important Roman roads - Via Diagonalis or Via Militaris continued south-eastwards to the city of Philippopolis (present-day Plovdiv). In the underpass you should see the plan of Roman Serdica, hanging on the wall against the remains of the gate. From it you can receive a better orientation what you have seen from the ancient city and what is remaining to see.

Go out from the underpass via the opposite staircase and you will found yourself in front of the front door of the Presidency, next to the Museum of Archeology and its lapidarium - the place from where you started your tour. Walk east along Tsar Osvoboditel Blv in direction to the University and Orlov Most (Eagles' Bridge). Right before the Royal Palace with the National Art Gallery, turn left along Knyaz Alexander I Str. Behind the palace turn right along Moscovska Str. At the first intersection walk left along Budapeshta Str. and you will immediately see the new building of the 5 star Hotel Arena di Serdica. In its ground floor (with free access) are exhibited the remains of Serdica's Amphitheater. It was excavated in 2004. A 1/6 part of this antique arena (everything that is under the hotel) has been explored and preserved in the condition it was discovered. The remaining part of the amphitheater is under the neighboring buildings and it has been never excavated. For the existence of the arena was known decades of years ago for it was found an ancient stone relief, depicting scenes from games and spectacles which were going to be held - fights between beasts, beasts and humans. The amphitheater was built in the end of 3rd century - the beginning of the 4th century AD over the ruins of an even earlier theater of ancient Greek type, dating back to the mid-2nd century. The later amphitheater has an elliptical shape with an oval sand stage (arena) in the center. Around the latter there are plantigrade stone benches for the spectators. The structure was located outside the city walls of Serdica, but it appears that, in spite of this, it took a central role in the social and cultural life of the antique city. Besides the gladiator fights, the arena was used for various theatrical plays, concerts, recitals of poets and speeches of orators. The stage of the Serdica's Arena is between the largest of all 77 similar monuments discovered around the world.

Walk back to Moscovska Str. and continue in direction to the Cathedral Church of St. Alexander Nevsky. After crossing Rakovska Str. on your left you will see the red brick building of St. Sophia Church. This is one of the oldest preserved early Christian temples in Europe. It was built over the ruins of two or three even more ancient churches. It has a plan of three-nave basilica with three-sided apse to the east and narthex to the west. There are many well preserved early Christian tombs with unique frescoes and mosaics under the church's floors. On the area to the south-east from St Sophia, as far as the National Library, the University and the Parliament was located the necropolis of ancient Serdica.

From the Church of St Sophia cross the Alexander Nevsky Square and walk along Oborishte Str. Soon you will reach the Doctor's Garden, right behind the National Library. This garden is the last point in your tour of Roman Serdica. Here are exhibited architectural fragments form the Temple of Zeus-Serapis, which was discovered under the present-day Garibaldi Square, that is outside the city walls. In the park's lapidarium are shown various stone monuments from the medieval successor of Serdica - the city of Sredets too.