Decent to an Underground Realm
The museum is located exactly under the floor of the basilica St. Sophia and the adventure starts with a decent to an underground level. What you are going to discover is a fragment of the so called Eastern Necropolis of Serdica (in Greek necropolis means a city of the dead). Suddenly you find yourself amidst an underground realm. You are at the boarder to the afterlife. The place is crowded with cold tombs. Soon you begin to notice the underground streets, buildings, and treasure vaults.
If you haven’t been to the museum yet, you may expect this place to be dark and chill. But that is not the case. This underground city is neither dark, nor chill, nor it is bleak. It is rather happy and joyful. And not because the lights are turned on, but because these “eternal dwellings” reflect the Christian idea of the death as a defeated foe, reduced to no more than a gentle sleep. They had been built by citizens of Serdica who had converted to Christianity in the 4th century. Once your eyes get used to the low light, you would find signs of hope and silent joy: like the polychrome floor mosaics, depicting birds peacefully drinking water from the life-giving spring.
It is true, the undergrounds are overtaken by a low feeble light. But, it is often interrupted by bright lamps, illuminating the spots of interest. Thus a mysterious atmosphere is created – wow! – so suitable for any secret expedition. However the lightning creates one additional effect: it increases the contrast of the picture that surrounds you. It makes the bricks to appear irregular, the mortar – rough and uneven. It makes the shadows to bend and move. The ruins became less a spectacle set for the eyes of the ordinary tourist and more a raw archaeology, forgotten for centuries, awaiting to be discovered.
The Eastern Necropolis of Serdica spreads across the neighboring streets, too. The density of tombs under the basilica, though, is remarkably high. That is no surprise since the lands nearer the church were always in high demand. Here had formed some kind of a downtown in the underground city. Order is the last thing you would find here. The place is packed with tombs, which often step one on the other and endless reconstructions and repairs are evident. Your route of exploration must take sharp turns, going forward, backward, and forward again . Many obstacles lay ahead: high doorsteps, low ceilings, narrow passages, and steep stairs with signs of caution.
So described route does not allow the whole space to be perceived at once. Instead, it is revealed gradually like a series of surprises. The brochure that you get at the entrance is of little help to navigate around. More likely you would be wandering among stone tombs asking yourself “Am I welcome here or I am just an intruder?” – But all the same! The curiosity would hold you from turning back and would push you behind the next corner.
All these three effects of the interior space break the illusion of a comfortable museum where artifacts are conveniently ordered. In the undergrounds of basilica St. Sophia the visitor must bend and sneak in order to enjoy the beauty of the late Antiquity.