Bulgaria’s Cabinet and Sofia Municipality have launched the last two phases of the long anticipated project for creating an open-air museum out of part of the remains of the Ancient Thracian and Roman city of Serdica located at the so called Sofia Largo in the very downtown of the Bulgarian capital.
The Sofia Largo project, as it has become known, which is supposed to exhibit in situ part of the remains of ancient Serdica uncovered in 2010-2012 in rescue excavations during the construction of the Second Line of the Sofia Metro, has been delayed for about two years over legal and political disputes.
On Wednesday, April 8, 2015, the Bulgarian authorities finally signed the contract for the restoration of Ancient Serdica at the Sofia Largo with four private companies; in the meantime, a delegation of Bulgarian government ministers including Deputy Prime Minister Tomislav Donchev, Culture Minister Vezhdi Rashidov, Regional Development Minister Lilyana Pavlova, and Sofia Mayor Yordanka Fandakova inspected the excavated ruins located around the Serdica Metro Station.
They revealed that the Serdica ruins located within the Sofia Largo (between the buildings of the Council of Ministers, the Presidency, and the National Assembly) will be exhibited under a glass dome, while the Ancient Roman ruins below the Knyaginya Marie Louise Blvd will be exhibited in the open.
The restoration and rehabilitation of the ruins of Ancient Serdica at the Sofia Largo has been delayed by a number of court appeals over the tender for selecting an executer of the construction works. In the meantime, the open sections of the excavated ruins turned into a “swamp”, as described by headlines in the Bulgarian press, leading Sofia Municipality to carry out emergency conservation of the site in the fall of 2014.
Now, however, the court procedures have been terminated with rulings issued by Bulgaria’s Supreme Administrative Court and Competition Protection Commission, and a consortium of four firms (including “Roads and Bridges”, Patstroy, “Finance Group”, and “Restoration” Jsc) has been selected for the restoration and construction works, which are due to start immediately, and to be completed in mid October 2015.
According to Bulgarian Culture Minister Vezhdi Rashidov, no archaeological artifacts have “fatally damaged” as a result of the delay, and the fact that they were left in the open for such a long period of time.
Thus, the second and third phases of the project entitled “Ancient Cultural and Communication Complex Serdica” will be executed providing for the rehabilitation of the archaeological remains of the Ancient Thracian and Roman city on two levels under the Knyaginya Marie Louise Blvd and within the Sofia Largo, under the Independence Square, with a total of area of 8,000 square meters.
They will be connected into an all-out open air museum with recreational, exhibition, and performance space.
The Ancient Serdica open-air museum will feature a number of restored Roman buildings: two streets from the 4th-6th century AD, including part of the main street, the Decumanus Maximus, the ruins of a residence and seven homes, as well as colorful Roman floor mosaics. The period of the Bulgarian Empire in the Middle Ages will also be represented with the remains of a church and a medieval inn.
The Sofia Largo project, after the first phase of the rescue excavations conducted during the construction of the Second Line of the Sofia Metro, is worth BGN 15.8 million (app. EUR 8 million), of which BGN 13.4 million (EUR 6.85 million) are EU funding provided under Operational Program “Regional Development”.
“The [Sofia] Largo was supposed to have been completed long ago, and the people in Sofia were supposed to be going for walks here. The money was all there. Unfortunately, I must be honest, nobody in the previous government started the procedure so that this thing could work out. The downtown of Sofia was covered in nylon, and before that it was the site of archaeologists’ work,” Bulgaria’s Culture Minister Vezhdi Rashidov says.
He has stressed, however, that in just about 200 days the Sofia Largo project will be completed, and “a beautiful Sofia” will be on display.
Sofia Mayor Yordanka Fandakova has noted the “lack of consistency” stemming from the fact that in the past two years Bulgaria had four Cabinets (including two caretaker cabinets with three-month terms) which has caused the major delay of the archaeological restoration of Ancient Serdica.
“Four governments took turns, and with each new [Culture] Minister I had to explain from scratch how important this project was,” Fandakova has complained.
In her words, the design of the Serdica metro station was changed five times in order to make possible the in situ exhibition of the Roman ruins whose rescue excavations cost Sofia Municipality BGN 6 million (app. EUR 3 million).
In March 2015, Deputy Mayor of Sofia Todor Chobanov announced that in addition to the Sofia Largo project Sofia Municipality also planned to excavate and exhibit in situ the Western Gate of Ancient Serdica and the mosaics inside the St. Sofia Basilica.
The Ancient Thracian and Roman city of Serdica is the precursor of the contemporary Bulgarian capital Sofia. The oldest traces of civilized life in Sofia are from a Neolithic settlement dated back to 5000 BC located in today’s Slatina Quarter. There are also traces of life from the Charcolithic (also known as Aeneolithic or Copper Age) and the Bronze Age. After the Bronze Age the Sofia Valley was inhabited by the Ancient Thracian tribe serdi (some believe them to have been a Celtic tribe) which gave the name to the Ancient Thracian settlement called Serdica or Sardica. The city of Serdica was conquered briefly in the 4th century BC by Philip II of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great. Around 29 BC, Sofia was conquered by the Romans and renamed Ulpia Serdica. It became a municipium, the center of an administrative region, during the reign of Emperor Trajan (r. 98-117), and saw extensive development with many new buildings. It is known to have been the favorite place of Roman Emperor Constantine I the Great who used to say, “Serdica is my Rome”. In 343 AD, the Council of Serdica was held in the city, in the 4th century church that preceded the current 6th century St. Sofia Basilica. In 447 AD, the city was destroyed by the Huns. During the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (r. 527-565 AD), a new fortress wall was built whose remains have been excavated and can be seen today. This is when it was renamed Triaditsa. It became part of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680 – 1018 AD) in 809 AD when it was conquered by Bulgaria’s Khan Krum, and was known by its Slavic-Bulgarian name Sredets until the 14th century when it took the name of the St. Sofia Basilica.
The Sofia Largo is the architectural complex of government buildings in downtown Sofia erected in the 1950s, in the early years of the former communist regime. Regardless of their Communist Era architecture, today the buildings house the most important Bulgarian government institutions and are one of the most famous parts of Sofia’s cityscape. Parts of the ancient city of Serdica, which have been excavated, can be seen in the underpasses and the Serdica Metro Station right next to the Sofia Largo.