Explore Sofia, Bulgaria: an emperor’s home from Rome

Positioned at a strategic crossroads in the Balkans, Sofia has been coveted by Macedonians, Romans, Bulgars and Turks. Paul Bloomfield strolls through 28 centuries in the Bulgarian capital

Sveti Georgi (St George) a Roman-era church is Sofia's oldest preserved building

Sofia’s is a history of many layers,its strata showing through in individual gems that stud the city. For a spin through its story, start at the western end of Nezavisimost Square, focal point of the Bulgarian capital. From here you’ll glimpse Roman remains, an Ottoman mosque, Communist monoliths and, atop a lofty column, Sofia herself – bronze symbol of 21st-century Bulgaria.

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The earliest known settlers, around the eighth century BC, were the Thracian Serdi tribe. Admire gilt Thracian masks at the Archaeological Museum in the nine-domed former Buyuk Djami (Grand Mosque) where collections also include Macedonian treasures – Philip II, father of Alexander the Great, occupied the area in the fourth century BC – and relics of Roman occupation, from around the turn of the first millennium AD.

Remains of the Roman town, named Ulpia Serdica, were unearthed during construction of Serdika metro station at Nezavisimost and restored as an open-air museum. The city flourished under the Romans; in the early fourth century Constantine the Great lovingly dubbed it “My Rome” and considered it for his imperial capital. Hidden in a courtyard is a relic from that era: the Rotunda of Sveti Georgi (St George), a Roman basilica still adorned with medieval frescos.

More significant is the church of Sveti Sofia, a little to the east. Though the current red-brick basilica is a plain reconstruction based on a sixth-century edifice, the first church on the site hosted a great bishop’s council in 343. Beneath lies a fascinating necropolis from early Roman days, now a small but immersive museum. In 1376 the city itself was renamed Sofia in honour of this church of ‘holy wisdom’.

In the intervening ten centuries it was destroyed by the Huns in 447, later rebuilt by Byzantine emperor Justinian and renamed again as Triaditsa (‘between the mountains’). It remained a Byzantine possession intermittently for over 350 more years; there’s a nod to that era’s style in the neo-Byzantine Halite, the early-20th-century central market hall, beneath which excavations suggest evidence of a millennia-old market place. It’s a great place to pick up tomatoes, cucumbers and sirene cheese for shopska salad, Bulgaria’s ubiquitous national dish.

Khan Krum incorporated the city into his First Bulgar Empire in 809, renaming it Sredets and fortifying it heavily – which didn’t stop it from being re-snatched by the Byzantines. In the 12th century the Bulgars retook and held it for two centuries until the Ottomans swept through in 1385. Only one working mosque survives from the Ottoman era: Banya Bashi, built in 1576 by renowned architect Kodja Mimar Sinan (author of Istanbul’s vast Süleymaniye Mosque). The gardens behind the mosque lead to the Turkish Mineral Baths, built in 1913 and now home to Sofia’s new history museum.

The colossal Alexandr Nevski Memorial Church is topped with gilt and turquoise domes

After years of surging nationalism, in 1878 the Ottomans were driven from Bulgaria by Russian troops; the following year, Sofia was named capital of the newly independent country. As a thank-you to the liberators – 200,000 of whom died in the fighting – the magnificent Alexandr Nevski Memorial Church was built between 1882 and 1912. Topped with gilt and verdigris-turquoise domes, the interior of the colossal Eastern Orthodox cathedral is sombre with icons, more of which can be admired in the crypt.

Skirt the adjacent square – where sprout stalls laden with painted icons and Soviet-era souvenirs – to reach the monstrous Monument to the Soviet Army. This propagandist edifice commemorates the city’s ‘liberation’ by the Red Army in 1944, after Bulgaria sided with Axis powers. Its cast-iron figures of soldiers and workers have frequently been daubed by political artists since the fall of communism.

Finally, return to Nezavisimost, where a trio of deliberately intimidating Socialist Classical buildings known as the Largo – Party House, President’s Office and TSUM state department store, icons of half a century of communist rule – loom over the remains of Constantine’s beloved Ulpia Serdica.

Sofia in nine sites

1: Archaeological Museum – Beautiful Thracian and Roman artefacts in the former Great Mosque of 1496 

2: Rotunda of Sveti Georgi – Church dating from the fourth century

3: Church of Sveti Sofia – Sixth-century Roman basilica over older necropolis, after which city was renamed 

4: Halite – Neo-Byzantine central market 

5: Banya Bashi Mosque – Most significant relic of five centuries of Ottoman rule, dating from 1576

6: Sofia History Museum – In 1913 Turkish Mineral Baths

7: Alexandr Nevski Memorial Church – Glorious domed orthodox cathedral with mesmerising icons within and beneath

8: Monument to the Soviet Army – Typically chest-thumping memorial to 1944 ‘liberation’ by the Soviets

9: Largo – Trio of Socialist Classical monoliths: Communist Party House, President’s Office and TSUM (state department store)

Paul Bloomfield is a travel and heitage writer, co-author of Where to Go When (Lonely Planet, 2016)

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This article was taken from issue 5 of BBC World Histories magazine, first published in August 2017