“SOFIA IS MY ROME”
“It Grows but Does not Age” –it may sound as a trite cliché, just another phrase adorning a city, country or an institution…Despite this, the focus of interest is a different one. We will talk about a city, inhabited by tribes and peoples from all over the world and a battlefield for hundreds of times for over thousands of years….Going through periods of decline and thriving it still stands there, where Thracian chieftains, Roman emperors and Ottoman sultans ruled over it. And yet, despite its numerous reincarnations it looks younger and more attractive than ever.
In order to get to ancient Sofia, we have to go at least 7 000 – 8 000 years back, during the Neolith- when primitive societies lived in the lands of the contemporary city. The oldest settlement from that period was situated under the today’s ‘Alexander Bathenberg’ Square and archaeologists continue digging out tools from the Stone, Copper and Bronze era in the city’s surroundings.
Talking about Sofia city and Bulgaria, we should mention the Thracians. About 1 thousand years BC, in the territory of today’s capital, the Serdi settled in – one of the 22 tribes in our lands. They gave the first name to the place-Serdica. During 5th -6th century BC, the town and its adjacent territory formed part of the Odrysae Kingdom, and ruins from the period of the Serdi were discovered during the construction of the Sheraton hotel and close to the mineral baths in the center of Sofia.
In 46 AC, the whole Balkan Peninsula region was taken over by the Romans and this furthered the thriving of Serdica at that time. The town even received its name Ulpia Serdica from the Roman Emperor Mark Ulpi Traian. At the time of his ruling (2nd -3rd century), the town had its own autonomous administration and coined its own money. A fortified wall was built by the order of the Emperor Mark Aurelius in 3rd century – Serdica had already become the capital of Inner Dakiya (one of the Roman Empire provinces) and the Barbarians were irresistibly attracted by it. Remains of the wall had the following dimensions: height 10-12m, thickness 2 m and nowadays it can be seen in the Tzentralni Hali shopping mall, and in the Presidency underpass, where the Eastern Door of the fortified wall was found during excavations. As a typical Roman town, Ulpia Serdica boasted beautiful streets. They all had north-south or east-west orientation and were covered with huge flag-stones. The majority of the central streets in Sofia even nowadays have the same orientation – Vitosha, Serdica, Maria Luisa, Lege and more.
Some of the distinctive Roman features were the mineral spas and pools found in the ancient Balkan town. Testimonies for this are the numerous remains of therms and public baths.
Constantine the Great left his trace in the history of Serdica, too. In 313 he let Christians to freely profess their religion and built temples. Sofia turned into one of the most important centers of the new Christian religion and in 343 the Serdica Council convened. During 4th- 5th century, the town was attacked and devastated by Huns, Goths and Westgoths and neither the solid fortress nor the efforts of the population managed to save it. Serdica was razed to the ground and it was not until 6th century that Serdica regained its reputation of a prosperous and thriving center during the rule of the Byzantine Emperor Ustinian I.
The Roman and Byzantine hegemony in Bulgarian lands slowly and gradually reached its end. In the 7th century, the Slavs arrived from northeast. Serdica was still within the borders of Byzantium but Slavonic tribes settled permanently in the territory of Bulgaria and Serdica changed its name into Sredetz.
In order to finally close the Roman chapter, Chan Krum and his warriors appeared before the doors of Sredetz in 809. Fascinated by the treasures and beauty of the town, the Chan besieged Sredetz and annexed it to the Bulgarian estate established more than a century ago. Thus, the town lived up to 1018 when Emperor Vasilii II conquered Bulgaria. Serdica went through a hard period. Pechenegi, Serbs and Hungarians ruined it. Three of the crusades at the end of the 12th century contributed to its end. A religious conflict became imminent – inscriptions in Greek dominated in churches, services were completely in Greek and a Byzantine bishop arrived….The long-awaited salvation came in 1194. After the uprising of Asen and Peter, Sredetz was again within the borders of the Bulgarian estate.
In the 14th century the Saint Sofia church became a metropolitan church and each week people from the surroundings gathered in it. They used to say: ‘We are going to Sofia’, and thus, Sredetz acquired a new name-Sofia.
Now, after having looked back at Thracian, Roman, Byzantine, Slavonic and Bulgarian times, we shall talk about the gloomiest period in our history. In 1382, the Turks invaded the town and for less than a decade they managed to change it past recognition. According to travelers and historians from that time, 40 mosques replaced the beautifully painted churches. People of various ethnic origins walked the covered in mud Roman streets. Sofia from the past had nothing to do with Sofia of the present. 16th century even saw an attempt local population to be violently converted to Mohammedanism. Nineteenth century, on its part, was the period of plagues, epidemics and earthquakes…. This gloomy part of the history continued up to the Revival, when schools and cultural clubs opened. Contemporary history started with the chilly day of January the 4th, 1878 – it was the first time for 5 centuries when the town could be considered liberated. The following year Sofia became the capital city of Bulgaria. Breaking with the image of an oriental city, it not only began to resemble European cities but it also seemed to go back through the centuries at the times when it looked beautiful, attractive and mysterious.
The Roman Emperor Constantine the Great used to say “Sofia is my Rome”.