The Saint Sophia Church


The Saint Sophia Church has been on top of the hill next to ancient Serdica, and nowadays it is located in the north-western area of St. Alexander Nevski Square. Its name is a symbol of the Holy Wisdom of God – Άγια Σοφία, one of the manifestations of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The basilica was built towards the end of the 5th century – early 6th century, in the centre of the largest Serdica necropolis – the Eastern one, and its foundations have preserved numerous tombs and the remains of several smaller and earlier churches which can now be seen in the exposition below the floor level.

The layout of the church features three naves with a wide central section (naos) and a cross nave (transept) as wide as the central one. The apsis of the altar is three-sided outside and semicircular inside. The natural illumination reaches the interior through two rows of tall and narrow arched windows. On the northern and southern sides of the entrance (narthex) there are supplementary oval rooms with service functions. The existence of pre-aspe space results in a longer middle nave, forming a Latin cross characterized by a very long central part, crossed by a clearly defined short shoulder. The dome towers a the crossing. The full-brick structure of the walls and the absence of a cylindrical part which usually serves as foundation of the dome (dome drum) are two other specific characteristics which form the church’s appearance. Most scholars relate the layout of St. Sophia to the Asia Minor early Christian church architecture from the 4th to 6th  centuries, and consider that it is a bridge to the Roman West European architecture which had appeared later, in the 9th to 10th centuries.

When Serdica was annexed to the territory of the First Bulgarian Kingdom, the basilica was in a poor condition. In the 10th to 11th centuries, during the Byzantine rule, it was restored, and in the 12th century it acquired the status of a Bulgarian Metropolitan Church. After Sofia was conquered by the Ottomans, the church was partially destroyed, and was used for a long time as storage for war trophies. At the end of the 16th century the building was reconstructed to an operating mosque named Siaush Pasha, but it suffered heavy damages by two earthquakes (in 1818 and in 1858).

In 1900, the church was inscribed as one of the symbols on Sofia’s municipal coast of arms. Also in 1900, a chapel was set in the southern nave, and as late as in 1911, when a Law on Historical Monuments was passed, measures for preservation and restoration of the church were taken. The church was reopened for church-goers in 1998.

Burial facilities in the eastern necropolis of ancient Serdica and the remains of three earlier churches were exposed beneath the temple. The tombs and graves date  from the 3rd to early 5th centuries: stone sarcophagi, boulder burials, brick masonry vaults, arched and covered by flat stone slabs. Though in rare cases, some of the arched masonry vaults feature frescoes.

Archaeological investigation

The excavations beneath and around the Saint Sophia Church were started in 1893 by Václav Dobruský, and continued until 2004 with various interruptions. Dobruský was investigating the church’s apsis  when he found the Paradise mosaic there.

The systematic excavations within the limits of the eastern necropolis were performed by Bogdan Filov, who found more than 50 tombs and graves in the period 1910-1911. As a result of his investigations, two mosaics situated one above the other were discovered, as well as stone walls of structures preceding the Saint Sophia Church, numerous graves and various small finds. 

In 1930, the removal of some architectural elements pertaining to the time when the Saint Sophia Church functioned as a mosque revealed another mosaic fragment in the central section of the first church. Following sporadic investigations which lasted for more than a century, more than 100 burials were unearthed.

In 1980, in relation to the raising of the Unknown Soldier monument, excavations were performed at the southern side of the church, which unearthed another 20 burial facilities.

In 1990, a large-scale program was launched, including conservation, restoration and exposition of the interior and the sub-floor space of the Saint Sophia Church. The objective of the archaeological investigation was to definitely resolve the issue of the burial facilities and churches preceding the basilica, which were found beneath it in a preserved state.

From 1991 to 2002, excavations were carried out, with some interruptions, by a team of the Sofia History Museum, led by Konstantin Shalganov. This resulted in the investigation of some 400 square metres in the sub-floor space of the church and 2.50 m below its contemporary floor. A total of 52 burial facilities  were unearthed. They date from the third quarter of the 2nd century to the end of the 5th century.

In 2002, the last planned archaeological campaign under the church took place. Excavations were carried out beneath the southern nave. Observations continued in the following years in connection with the project for socialization and exposure of the site.

Activities under the project

In the past century, as well as in the current century, excavations were performed for decades at 3 to 6 m below the shrine’s floor in connection with the archaeological studies of the terrain. Prior to these investigations, the  brick walls and columns were strutted at the floor level. The strutting was later removed; therefore the support strength of the structure was seriously affected.

The project provides for two pilot systems to the north and the south of the church, which will recover the stability of the structure at floor level. The structural strengthening by the two pilot systems will improve the seismic stability of the building. Besides, hydro-insulation will be applied to the exterior sides of subterranean stone masonry, along with anti-seismic strengthening.