Resurrection of Saint Spas

The medieval church in the centre of Sofia becomes new archaeological complex

In the near future the medieval church of St Spas will reveal its secrets.

Very soon the citizens of Sofia and tourists coming to Bulgaria's capital will be able to visit the medieval church of St Spas, the remnants of which are preserved right at the heart of the city. The archaeological layers uncovered at this place are abundant in artefacts and date back to different epochs. Among them are an antique street from the 2nd-3rd centuries, part of the fortification wall of ancient Serdica with a round tower and a medieval church from the 11th-13th centuries. All these monuments will be converted into a new archaeological complex.

During the period of National Revival and in the first years after Bulgaria's Liberation from Ottoman rule, St Spas and St Sofia were the biggest churches in the capital city. The church of St Spas, however, was half destroyed by bomb attacks during World War II and later, when the centre of Sofia was being restored, the building of the then Foreign Trade Bank (now UniCredit bank) was erected upon its remnants. The remains of the church are now under the bank's building and can be seen to this day from Todor Aleksandrov Blvd.

The church of St Spas, or the Ascension of Our Lord, was originally built in the 11th-13th centuries. During the Ottoman invasion at the end of the 14th century, the church was badly damaged. That is why later it was rebuilt and dug into the earth at a depth of two metres. In 1564, Matthew the Grammarian describes the church as a witness of the martyr's death of St Nikolay Novi Sofiyski. In 1578, Stefan Gerlach also mentions the church in his travel essays.

In its original form the church was a one-nave building, 13 by 8 metres in size, with a small crypt, small narthex, an altar screen, with a five-walled on the outside and seven-walled on the inside apse that was marked with two columns which converged forming a 'triumphal' arch. Later the columns were removed and replaced with an iconostasis. The church's foundation is made of big round stones bound together with clay. The building is typical of the Middle Ages - decorative check masonry with stones surrounded by bricks and bound by mortar.

There are several layers of frescoes in the church dated to the 15th-19th centuries. The earliest are extremely valuable, highly artistic paintings characterised by austere and soulful images. The larger part of the frescoes, made when the church was painted anew in the 16th century, are also preserved. The church keeps memory of the Bulgarians who fought against the Ottoman rule. In the 16th century, the life journey of St Nikolay Novi Sofiyski came to end near the church, and in 1877 an associate of Vasil Levski, Kiro Kafedzhi was hanged near its ruined old altar.

After the Liberation, the old St Spas was inserted into a new big three-nave church built in 1881. The iconostasis was carved by the famous Debar masters and the frescoes were painted by Haralampi Tachev, an eminent Bulgarian representative of the Secession period, and by Apostol Hristov. The architectural form is typical of the late 19th century - it is a basilica with a saddle-like roof and three cupolas resting on high tambours. On 30 March 1944, the church was bombed by British-American air force and was half ruined.

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