Sofia's oldest churchAdelina Lozanova
The St George Rotunda is the oldest architectural monument in Sofia and the city's only building since the time of the Roman Empire that has been preserved as fully functional. It is believed to have been built by Emperor Constantine the Great in the early 4th century, when what was Serdica at the time was thriving as one of the most significant Roman cities on the Balkan Peninsula.
Initially, the structure was a martyrion but was converted to baptistery following the pronouncement of Christianity as the established religion of the empire. It is dedicated to the martyred Saint George, who was killed in the 3rd century in Asia Minor because of his faith.
In architectural terms, the building is a classical Roman rotunda - a central dome rising over a square base with four semicircular recesses in the corners and a square exedra to the east. The dome rests on a drum-shaped structure made of red fired bricks and featuring eight cylindrical windows. Access to the church passes through two entrance halls - an oval and a cruciform one. Four pilasters prop up a semi-cylindrical arch. The space inside is designed as a square altar room and four symmetrically positioned recesses.
The church keeps fragments of five layers of frescoes, ranging from the 6th to the 16th century. The fragments of the first layer, a Roman-Byzantine work, still standing in the north-western recess, depict floral motifs. The second layer, dating back to the 9-10th century, is considered to have been created by Bulgarian masters and represents two friezes of angels. Unique to that period is the expressive image of an angel's head painted on the inside of the dome.
The third layer of frescoes is an 11-12th century Byzantine one and includes depictions of several saints, a wide frieze of 16 prophets beneath the dome and frescoes showing the Ascension and the Assumption, among other scenes. The fourth layer is of Bulgarian origin and dates back to the 14th century, presumably done following the dome's final restoration. It consists of two parts - the central image of Christ Pantocrator surrounded by four flying angels and four Evangelists and the frieze of 22 prophets painted beneath them. The fifth layer is from the end of the 16th century and is mostly decorative, as by that time the church was functioning as a mosque. The dome was severely damaged at least two times - due to earthquakes, erosion and the barbaric incursions of the 4-5th century - but was quickly restored every time.
The rotunda is part of a larger archaeological complex located in downtown modern Sofia. Behind the church's apse are located a section of a Roman street, complete with preserved plumbing, and the foundations of a large three-nave basilica, a large public building and some smaller buildings. One of the structures is equipped with a Roman heating system called hypocaust.
Today, the rotunda is the scene for daily liturgies, while the accompanying chants are performed in the style of Eastern Orthodox singing, also known as Byzantine chant.