From Beirut, we continued our summer holiday to the capital and largest city of Bulgaria, Sofia. Sofia is one of the oldest cities in Europe and over the last 2,000 years have come under Thracian, Roman, Ottoman, and Russian rule lending to the mix of architecture with Ottoman mosques sitting next to Soviet-era buildings. Recent excavation works have uncovered many Roman ruins from when Sofia was called Serdica nearly 2,000 years ago. Given all its history, the city has a very young, laid back, cosmopolitan vibe. We stayed at the Sense Hotel which is one of the newer hotels in town.
Aleksander Nevski Cathedral is the symbol of Sofia with its gold layered domes and numerous mosaics and ornaments. This Bulgarian Orthodox cathedral is one of the largest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals in the world and can hold up to 10,000 worshippers. The cathedral was built in 1882 to honour the Russian soldiers who died liberating Bulgaria from Ottoman rule during the Russo-Turkish War.
Not far from the Aleksander Nevski Cathedral is the Ancient Serdica complex which was unearthed during the metro construction in 2010. There are fragments of 8 streets, baths, and houses dating from the 4th to 6th centuries. You can wander around this museum 10 feet below street level enclosed by glass domes while modern day Sofia carries on. The biggest attraction here is Dekumanus Maximus which was the main street of the Seridca and very well preserved lending a window into life in the ancient city. Another interesting discovery was the Ampitheatre of Serdica which is believed to be the 2nd largest in the world after the Colosseum in Rome. It is situated outside the walls of Serdica and the discovery of a plaque depicting the amphitheatre’s facade and fights between gladiators and wild animals confirmed its use.
Church or Rotunda of St George is the oldest monument in Sofia and dates back to the 4th century when it began as a pagan temple. Archaeologists have discovered five layers of frescoes inside the church. The oldest being floral motifs from the 4th century, the second layer being Bulgarian medieval style angels from the 10th century, the third being scenes depicting the Ascension from the 11th and 12th centuries, the fourth being a portrait of a bishop from the 14th century and the fifth being Islamic ornamental motifs. These frescoes were painted over when the church was converted into a mosque during the Ottoman period. After it was abandoned by the Muslims in the 19th century, the church was reclaimed and was converted back into a Christian church. This tiny red-brick church survived the trials of time and now stands among the Roman ruins surrounded by the buildings of the Presidential Palace. Of particular interest on the site are the remains of a building with hypocaust which was used for heating baths and other buildings during the Roman times. You can still see the tiles and pillars that raise the building so that hot air could be circulated below the floors creating a central heating system.
In the suburbs of Sofia is the 900-year-old private chapel, Boyana Church. It was built in stages in the 11th, 13th, and 19th centuries. Its 90 murals are some of the best medieval Bulgarian artwork to be found and the church was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979. The modes of expression used in the frescoes are revolutionary during that time and some scholars believe the artist responsible here is a precursor of Renaissance art. It hosts only 10 visitors at a time for 10 minutes total. If you like history and religious art, this place must not be missed.
Boyana Church is a fine example of Eastern Orthodox churches and their religious art. Next stop is the beautiful Rila Monastery where any trip to Bulgaria would be incomplete without paying a visit there. Stay tuned for my next post!
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