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Sopianae – early Christian cemetery from Roman times in Pécs (Hungary)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Chapel called the Mausoleum in the early Christian cemetery in Pécs
Chapel called the Mausoleum in the early Christian cemetery in Pécs

Hungary is not a country that in the minds of the average European is associated with the Roman Empire and the monuments of antiquity. However, the entire western part of Hungary, on the right bank of the Danube, was from the reign of Augustus until the 4th – 5th century under Roman rule, in the province of Pannonia.

Many tourists learn about this fact by visiting Budapest, where you can see the remains of the huge Roman city of Aquincum, e.g. a military and civil amphitheatre, thermal baths, and foundations of an early Christian chapel. The remnants of the Roman presence in today’s Hungary are not limited to the capital. One such place is the largest city of the county of Baranya – Pécs (Hungarian Pecs), which in antiquity existed under the name of Sopianae. There you can see the early Christian cemetery, which entered 2000 the UNESCO World Heritage List.

History of the city

The city of Sopianae was founded in the early 2nd century CE by colonists from Italy and other regions of Pannonia at the intersection of important communication routes. The area was inhabited immediately before the Romans by the Celts, and the first traces of settlement date back to 6,000 years ago. The city survived the crisis of the Empire in the 3rd century CE and in 308 CE became the capital of the province of Pannonia-Valeria (one of the parts divided into smaller Pannonia). Just in the 4th century CE dates back to the heyday of the city and the construction of most public buildings. It can be assumed that Sopianae was the seat of a Christian bishopric. During the fall of the Empire, Huns, Avars and Germans settled in the city.


The division of Pannonia into smaller provinces at the beginning of the 4th century

The centre of the ancient Sopianae is located on the site of the present Bishop’s Palace in Pécs. There are also fragments of the Roman aqueduct in the city. However, the main monument of antiquity here is the early Christian cemetery. The necropolis is located directly in front of the Cathedral of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul. About 15 Christian tombs have been discovered here, in a different, more or less fragmentary state. They usually consist of two levels: a burial chapel (cellae memoriae), from which, by climbing several steps, one can descend to the burial chamber (cubiculum, hypogeum). They are built on a rectangular plan with an apse and a barrel vault. The chapel, located above, was probably intended for funeral ceremonies, and the chamber only for the dead. The walls are illustrated with biblical scenes referring to the Resurrection, often depicting the most important characters of the New Testament, as in Roman catacombs. Three chapels attract special attention:

  1. built on the plan of a three-leaf clover (cella tricchora) with three apses, discovered in 1922
  2. with seven apses (cella septichora), discovered in 1938-39, the number of apses is quite unusual, and it was not finished, probably the family to which the tomb belonged fled from the city on the wave of invasions of the Huns and other barbarians
  3. Mausoleum – much larger than all, with a marble sarcophagus and much more impressive wall paintings, discovered in 1975-76.

The chapel called the Mausoleum in the early Christian cemetery in Pécs

The later names of the city in languages ​​other than Hungarian – Latin “Quinque Basilicae” – “Five cathedrals” or “Quinque Ecclesiae” – “Five churches”, probably derived from the fact that the material from five old Christian chapels was used to build the cathedral. The Polish name of the city of Pécs is sometimes given – “Pięciochóły”.

The necropolis in Pécs is one of the most important monuments of this type, it is the only one outside Italy where you can see wall paintings in Christian tombs. It is certainly a place worth visiting.

Author: Eligiusz Idczak (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  •écs?uselang=de dostęp: 22.01.2023
  • dostęp: 22.01.2023
  • Frühes Christentum in Osttransdanubien – Projektbericht: dostęp: 22.01.2023
  • Z. Visy: Von Sopianae bis Fünfkirchen: Neuere Untersuchungen im frühchristlichen Gräberfeld von Sopianae. In: Peter Herz (Hrsg.): Zwischen Region und Reich: das Gebiet der oberen Donau im Imperium Romanum. Berlin 2010.
  • dostęp: 22.01.2023

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