After travelling to stay with a friend in Southwest Hungary, I decided to spend a few days checking out the surrounding area and ended up in Pécs, a city with a rich and interesting history. Lying at the southern foot of the Mecsek Mountains, Pécs is the fifth largest city in Hungary and home to one of the most important historical Roman burial sites in Europe.

In the 1st Century AD, Western Hungary became a province of the Roman Empire named 'Pannonia' after a group of Indo-European tribes who had lived in the area - and within this Province, the Romans founded a settlement called Sopianae where the city of Pécs now stands. Since Sopianae lay in the intersection of several important transport routes and had well-established commercial connections with Italy, Gaul, Germany, Rhaetia, the Balkans, Constantinople and even with the Barbaricum on the other side of the Danube, it soon evolved into a bustling multicultural society that included native Celts, Italian settlers, Dalmatians, immigrants from the Danube provinces, and families from other parts of Pannonia. As is indicated by the presence of the ancient burial site, there was also a flourishing Christian community who lived - and died - there.

Built over 1,600 years ago, the necropolis of Sopianae is regarded as the one of the best recorded Christian tomb complexes outside of Italy and provides a remarkable example of late Roman burial and funerary practices. The first known information about the ancient cemetery comes from around 1726 when a painted burial chamber was discovered during the construction of a school, however this was not preserved at the time. It was not until the early twentieth century that archaeologists carried out significant exploratory activities on the site, and over the course of the last century, the burial complex has slowly been revealed. A major contributor in bringing the cemetery to light was Dr. Ferenc Fülep, director of the Hungarian National Museum, who launched excavations of Sopianae in 1955 and worked on research related to the Roman city and cemetery until his death in 1986. He had always hoped that the cemetery would become accessible to the general public, and this eventually became a reality with the opening of The Cella Septichora Visitor Center in 2007. The center contains a collection of 16 monuments - although it is believed that the cemetery itself includes over five hundred more modest graves which cluster around the major monuments. Using a system of walkways, visitors can walk through, around, above and even below excavated tombs to view the chambers and the ancient frescoes decorating their interiors.

When the sepulchres were unearthed, archaeologists originally used roman numerals to identify them, however some of them have also been given names that refer to their interior mural paintings. One of the most famous buildings that exists here is Chamber I, also known as the Peter and Paul Chamber. The walls and vault of the burial chamber are adorned with various paintings, including a tendril decoration with stylised leaves which has been determined to symbolise Paradise. In the centre of the northern wall there is a monogram surrounded by a wreath, which supposedly depicts the resurrected Christ. On the wall opposite the entrance, the Apostles Peter and Paul can be seen pointing at the Christ monogram. Another painted scene is thought to be of Daniel in the Den of Lions. Depictions of Daniel can often be found in the catacombs of Rome (for example in the Lucina catacomb), however the painting in Sopianae shows Daniel wears a tunic instead of the usual Persian dress which is quite unique.

Burial Chamber II is known as the 'Wine Pitcher' or 'Jug' Chamber due to the paintings of a wine pitcher and a glass on its walls. Although originally discovered in the eighteenth century, parts of it were only excavated in 1964 and it was discovered to have been robbed and vandalized at some point. On the northern wall is a depiction believed to be the Pitcher and Glass which the burial chamber was named after. These items are frequent pieces of grave furnishings in late Roman funerals and also believed to be utensils of the funerary feast. Roman coins that were found during the excavations indicate that the building was used for burials between 370AD and 380AD.

The biggest known building from the Roman era in that location is the early Christian Mausoleum which comprises two levels: a chapel on the ground level and a crypt beneath. Murals on the crypt walls depict the fall of Adam and Eve and early Christian iconography, including a Christogram. It is thought that the inspiration for the paintings of the mausoleum comes from the catacomb art in Rome where the theme of the Fall was very popular, however this mausoleum is unique as no building with the same ground plan has been unearthed anywhere in the Roman Empire.

Another interesting artifact in the visitor centre is a sarcophagus which once contained the skeleton of a 50-60 year old man laid in an east-west direction, alongside a grave furnishing of a glass pitcher placed upside down near his right leg. The sarcophagus - a word of Greek origin meaning 'flesh decomposer' or 'flesh eater'- has two parts; the coffin itself within which the deceased was laid, and the outer covering which, in this example, has a gabled roof with acroteria on the corners. It is thought that the body may have belonged to a wealthy person however probably not the richest at the time. The graves of everyday citizens were usually brick graves, while the most well off citizens were often laid to rest in burial chambers, and it was noted that this sarcophagus is in between the two in quality.

As well as being important both structurally and architecturally, the tombs, with their rich decorations and murals, are also important in artistic terms. The higher classes would care about keeping up with the new cultural movements in Rome and funerary art was especially important because that was the only memory of a person's life after their death. Travelling artists played an important role in spreading a fashion or an artistic style and it is likely that wandering Italian painters worked in the burial chambers in Sopianae using images from Italian sample books. It is also possible that the people from all over the Roman Empire (and beyond) who ended up in Sopianae brought their own versions of funerary art.

Although the archaeological remains appear to show a strong Western influence, they also seem to indicate the effect of a Greek-speaking Eastern and Balkan culture in fourth-century Sopianae. When the area around Burial Chamber XIII was excavated between 1968 and 1972 by Ferenc Fülep, 110 glass vessels were discovered. These included jars, vases, beakers and perfume bottles. Other finds such as rings, earrings, bracelets and fourth-century coins were also found and, while they show similarities with items found in the catacombs in Rome, a more detailed search revealed other influences (particularly among the grave goods). For example, a glass beaker from the 4th century (which is now housed in Hungarian National Museum) contains an inscription written in Greek, while another inscription in Greek was found on a glass cameo dated to the third or fourth century. On this item the writing is inscribed around a female head portrait depicting an eastern type hairstyle. This is thought to be from the East, and perhaps offers some evidence for the oriental connections to Sopianae.

Since no written sources have survived about the community of Sopianae, these archaeological monuments are extremely important evidence of the existence of a considerable Christian population here - although it's important to highlight that most of the archaeological findings are assumed to be from high-status burials, therefore this does not mean that the lower classes were subject to the same kind of influences or rituals.

In 2000 the Pécs (Sopianae) Early Christian Cemetery was inscribed as a World Heritage site. More info and a 3D online tour of the visitor centre can be found here.

Other notable places in the area 

Most people visiting Hungary tend to head to Budapest, but Pecs and the Southwestern area of the country is extremely rich in history, with an abundance of interesting museums, festivals and stunning scenery. Pecs is also a university city with a large student population. In fact, the first university of Hungary was established there by Louis I of Hungary in 1367 - although it was later completely discontinued during the Ottoman occupation, before being restarted in 1785. Perhaps due to the significant number of students, there is a flourishing music scene with plenty of bars and concert halls. Interesting buildings include the barbican, a 15th century stone bastion, the impressive Cathedral with its four towers, and the Kodály Centre, an architecturally significant concert hall that opened in 2010. Another building with a fascinating history is The Downtown Candlemas Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a Roman Catholic church which was originally a Mosque built by Pasha Qasim the Victorious after the Ottoman invasion. Located in the main square, the building was converted to a church in 1702 after Habsburg-Hungarian troops reconquered the city but still retains many Turkish architectural characteristics and is one of the largest Ottoman constructions remaining in Hungary.

Perhaps the most notable landmark in Pecs is the needle-like TV tower that overlooks the city. Built from 18,500 tons of reinforced concrete, the 197-meter-high building stands on the top of Misina hill in the outskirts of the Mecsek mountain range and was the tallest structure in Hungary after its completion in 1972. In addition to its function as a transmitter for Hungarian TV channels and radio stations, the tower attracts around 80,000 people each year who are keen to take the express elevator up to the observation deck in order to witness the spectacular views over the city and the Baranya Hills. A few meters below the observation deck is a restaurant with large glass windows that allow customers to enjoy panoramic views of the city while enjoying their meal. When it gets dark, the tower is lit by LED lights which change colours, allowing it to be seen in the dark from all over the city.