Rotunda of St. George

Built with deep-red bricks a small round church promotes Sofia as a modern city with ancient roots

Rotunda St. George is in the background. On top is the text, "So Ancient Sofia".

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While crossing the streets of Sofia, waiting for the underground trains, or simply buying a coffee it used to be hard to miss the bright poster with the The Rotunda of St. George.

In 2018 Bulgaria held the rotating Presidency of the Council of the European Union. For this occasion the Sofia Municipality organized a campaign to promote the capital city as a welcoming and vibrant tourist destination. It has developed six themes, each with a unique set of cultural highlights. They all follow the “So Sofia” formula of presentation, which is a cool word game. It plays with the first two letters in the name Sofia, used as an exclamation by surprise. The themes were the following: So…

  • Welcoming Sofia;
  • Green Sofia;
  • Innovative Sofia;
  • Creative Sofia;
  • United Sofia;
  • Ancient Sofia.

The last one puts an emphases on the archaeological heritage and ancient roots of the city. The dedicated poster shows an image of the Rotunda of St. George – a small round church, built with deep-red bricks. Looking at it, absorbed in the orange-red glow that surrounds the building (and matches its brick color) I started to think that the Rotunda is an excellent choice to represent this theme well.

Surely, there are numerous age-old stones and artefacts in the city that could look nice on a poster, but none could convey the same sense of historical depth and endurance better than this humble building. Therefore, I can come up at least with three reasons that support the Rotunda’s claim to be a cultural heritage ambassador. Let me try to persuade you!

A side vies of the building in a cold spring morning.
The Rotunda and the Presidential Office in the background / Photo: Sketches of Sofia

ONE. The Oldest Building

To begin with, the Rotunda is very old. Ancient! It was built in the early 4th century AD by the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. He is well known for issuing the Edict of Milan in 313 AD putting an end to the Christian prosecutions and forever changing the Empire. As he started to spend more and more time in Serdica (the Roman name of Sofia) he undertook major reconstructions in the city. In fact, Constantine built a large complex for himself and his family. The archaeologists call it Constantine’s district because it occupied a whole quarter of the defended area, inside the fortress walls.

In the beginning, the people of Serdica used The Rotunda as a ceremonial hall but soon had been converted into a Christian temple. Its round shape was not uncommon in the complex. Just the opposite, it has been a repetitive form. There were at least four other buildings with circular interior and three with octagonal. Following the Christian tradition all of them were oriented in an East-West direction. They were adjacent to spacious halls for emperor’s guests and all of them were equipped with the Roman floor heating system, the so called hypocaust.

Archaeological ruins in the foreground and the Rotunda in the background.
Ruins from the “Constantine district” and the Rotunda. / Photo: Sketches of Sofia

For your disappointment, today most of the Constantine’s district lies hidden under nowadays streets and buildings. Everything that the archaeologists have discovered is some sort of a ruin: collapsed walls of former magnificent halls, fragments of columns, worn out stones of the street pavement. On the ground you can still see the arched tunnels of the hypocaust where once the servants pumped hot steam. In contrast, the Rotunda stands out as a complete building, miraculously untouched through the ages, and the only survived piece (together with the roof) from the once splendid Constantine’s district. This makes it the oldest building in Sofia.

TWO. The Rotunda is still in Use

Today the Rotunda looks lonely and isolated. If you want to visit it you have to enter the inner courtyard of the Presidential office – the former headquarter complex of the Bulgarian Communist Party. This is a massive, monumental building that surrounds the Rotunda at four sides. An ancient church had no place in the center of a communist capital, so the architects put it behind a huge architectural curtain in order to hide it.

But I prefer to reveal its location in a different light. The ornamented gates of the courtyard look like frames to me that outline the site. The infinite rows of grey vaulted widows of the back facades serve as a neutral background and the Rotunda stands out with its warm brick colors. Thus, approaching it feels like entering a museum hall under the plain sky.

Note the exception, the Rotunda is not a museum exhibit. It is still in use, rather being a pile of preserved bricks. It is functioning as an Orthodox church with an excellent choir. Surprisingly, it is a very busy one. It is not uncommon to find a crowd gathered for a wedding or a baptism. Or perhaps you would hear the elegant chants of a commemorative service. The Rotunda continues to benefit the city and its people in an aura of tradition and authenticity.

The entrance to the inner courtyard of the Presidential Office is creating a frame to the building.
Entrance to the inner courtyard of the Presidential Office. / Photo: Sketches of Sofia

THREE. Witness of Change

With a brief visit to this small round church you can follow centuries of transformation. Every big change that happened in Sofia has left its mark on it. You can see this inside, where the true charm of the Rotunda awaits you.

The interior is specious. It has a circular plan, enlarged with four arc-shaped niches, closed with a wide dome (9.75 m in diameter and 14 m in height). On the walls you can see a mixed composition of five painted layers, representing different periods of ownership and mastery of the craft. What is more, they are going one on top of the other, hiding and revealing flying angels, biblical scene, and Old Testament prophets.

The earliest layer is from the 6th century, when the Rotunda was inaugurated as a Christian temple and first painted. There are two layers form the Bulgarian medieval Kingdoms of 9th and 14th centuries. Between them lies a Byzantine layer of the 12th century. There is also a painted layer with flowers from the time when the Rotunda had been converted into a mosque during the Ottoman rule of the 16th century.

Looking up at the dome of the Rotunda from inside. There are marvelous paintings from different time periods.
Wall painted layers inside the Rotunda. / Photo: Sketches of Sofia

The local authorities claim that the idea for the “So Sofia” formula is a result of interviews with foreign tourists. Many of them genuinely exclaimed: “So Ancient Sofia!”.

I tend to believe it.

The Rotunda of St. George is included in the Free tour.

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