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Sofia's Church of Saint Sofia

By Michael Coy

When the massive foundations of this extraordinary church were laid, the Roman Empire was still in existence. It has withstood almost one and a half millennia, encompassing untold wars, hostile Muslim rule and even communism. Because the Bulgarian Orthodox Church is independent, the venerable basilica has stood as a symbol of Bulgarian identity throughout the vicissitudes of the nation's long and difficult history.

Oddly enough, there never was a Saint Sofia. The church's original name derives from the Greek, "hagia sofia", which means "sacred idea". The magnificent building in not-too-distant Istanbul bears the same name, and shows us that Bulgaria was once closely linked to Byzantine culture. When Sofia's church was built, the world was a very different place. Islam had not yet been thought of. The Vikings were, as yet, unknown - it would be several centuries more before they were to burst out of Scandinavia.

There was no difference between "Roman and "Orthodox Christianity: east and west would take several hundred more years to make the decisive split. Europe's great cathedrals - Chartres, York, Notre Dame - would not appear for many generations to come. To put it in English terms, we think of King John and the Magna Carta as belonging to the misty long-ago, but Saint Sofia predates him by as much time again. Saying that another way, the same amount of time between the building of Saint Sofia and John signing the dotted line at Runnymede, as between John's era and our own.

A few statistics will give some sense of the vastness of the basilica's dimensions. The foundations are eight feet thick, and go down twenty feet into the ground. Inside, the ceiling soars 55 feet above us - impressive when you think that no effective way had yet been devised for walls to support the weight of a dome.

Before Bulgaria's capital city came to be known simply as "Sofia", in honour of its magnificent church, the town was called "Sredetz". That was back in the Middle Ages. It was in the 300's AD, shortly after Roman Emperor Constantine moved his imperial capital from Rome to Constantinople, that the people living in what is now Bulgaria adopted the fashionable new Christian religion.

They built a church on this spot - probably the site of an earlier Roman temple. Two other Christian churches followed before the present Saint Sofia was laid out, probably in the late 400's. The site has been in continual ceremonial use for well over 2,000 years, and today a tour of the church's foundations is a veritable education in ancient architecture, the various layers having been superimposed, one on another.

In 2003, Bulgarian archaeologists took the decision to strip away the bland white plaster which covered the church's interior. It was hoped that mediaeval or even Byzantine frescoes might come to light, but this proved not to be the case. The new theory is that the original brickwork of the walls, now fourteen centuries old, was left bare - just as we see it today. If the fresco-hunters were disappointed, Saint Sofia makes up for it with 80 square metres of superb floor mosaics, all original.

The large number of ancient Christian tombs suggests that the church (or the one before it) was the necropolis of Serdica - the "city of the dead", as the ancients termed their cemeteries. Serdica, by the way, is how Sofia was known in Roman times. Pagan Roman graves lie alongside the sepulchres of early Christians in peaceful co-existence. The Bulgarian authorities have mapped out the whole necropolis, and visitors are welcome to tour the site.

Sofia's remarkable Old Town is now being preserved as a living historical monument, and may soon earn the status of a UNESCO site of world cultural importance. And Saint Sofia, the splendid building at its heart, will continue to stand guard over its namesake city, well into its second millennium of life.

About The Author
Michael Coy is a qualified Barrister and teacher in English, History and French. Michael regularly contributes articles to Sunseeker Homes.

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