1-5 September 2016
It’s hard to find capital cities in Europe not overrun by hoards of tourists. Which is why I find myself visiting Sofia, the capital of the Balkan nation of Bulgaria. Sofia is a beautiful, vibrant combination of very old and new and reflects more than 2,000 years of history, including Greek, Roman, Ottoman and Soviet occupation. And I should be able to sample good, cheap beer.
Bulgaria has a shaky history in the modern era. Ruling for 31 years, “Foxy” King Ferdinand was a master of the balancing act between his German/Austrian friends and the Russian Empire. He was forced to abdicate in 1918 and was replaced by his son King Boris III. Boris was not the foxy statesman that his father was thought to be, but he was loved by his citizens, something Ferdinand did not earn. Bulgaria always had its sights on parts of Macedonia, Serbia and the Greek Thrace region and Ferdinand did not hesitate going to war to win these territories. Unfortunately, he lost them in the Second Balkan War and the people never forgave him – that and the fact that he was a Catholic. Bulgaria also had the misfortune of supporting the wrong team, first Austria in WWI and then Hitler in WWII. They still didn’t get their territories back but did earn soviet occupation for 45 years. Boris defied Hitler’s requests for troops for the eastern front and scattered his Jewish population about the countryside as a way of thwarting Hitler’s demands that he deport them. But King Boris died mysteriously in August 1943 and Bulgaria stuck by Hitler until late 1944. Always “courted” and manipulated by the Russians, who “liberated” Bulgaria from the Nazis, Bulgaria fell under the Russian sphere of influence after WWII.
So, between Bulgarian beers, what is there to see in this multicultural, historic city?
Churches abound! In fact, you can stand on a corner within sight of a Roman Catholic, Bulgarian Orthodox, a Mosque and a Synagogue. Most are in various states of disrepair, tight security, and neglect. Beginning at the oldest:
Built by 4th century Romans, the Church of St George is a red brick rotunda and considered the oldest building in Sofia. Like many churches, I was told, it is surrounded by towering modern buildings so the communists could minimize its importance. St. George is a cylindrical domed structure built on a square base a few feet below the modern streets.
It is believed it was built on the site of a pagan temple when emperors Galerius and Constantine the Great hung out in Sofia, then named Serdica. The building is famous for its 12th, 13th, and 14th-century frescoes inside the central dome. There are five layers of partially preserved frescoes: the oldest is a Roman-Byzantine with floral motifs from the 4th century; the second in Bulgarian medieval style with the face of an angel from the 10th century; the third from the 11th and 12th centuries – a frieze with prophets over 6′ tall and frescoes; the fourth is from the 14th century with a portrait of a bishop; and the fifth displays Islamic ornamental motifs.
The dome rises over 44′ from the floor. Painted over during the Ottoman period, when the building was used as a mosque, these frescoes were only uncovered in the 20th century. However, like many of the frescoes that I will see, they are in serious need of further restoration and care. I can’t say that the frescoes are impressive as they are dark, incomplete, and candles and humidity continue to take their toll.
During the Ottoman rule in the 16th century, St. George became a mosque. In the middle of the 19th century, the Rotunda, along with St. Sophia Church and the Sofia Mosque (today used as the National Archaeological Museum) were abandoned by the Muslims. Not long after, Bulgarians reclaimed their original purpose of a Christian church.
At one time, Serbian King Stefan Milutin, since beatified, was buried here but his relics were later transferred to the Sveta Nedelya Church.
Behind St. George there are ancient ruins: a section of a Roman street with preserved drainage and foundations. Walking through the archway, I find myself in front of the Presidency where I can watch the very short, simple changing of the guards. Love their feathered cap.
Saint Sofia Church is the second oldest church in Sofia, built on the site of earlier churches dating back to the days when it was the necropolis of the Roman town of Serdica (Sofia). Over the next few centuries, churches were constructed then destroyed by invading Goths and Huns. The present basilica, with its two east towers and one cupola, is thought to be the fifth structure on this site and was built during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in the middle of the 6th century and was a contemporary of Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia. In the 14th century, the church gave its name to the city.
In the 16th century, during Ottoman rule, Saint Sofia was converted into a mosque, the original 12th-century frescoes were destroyed and minarets were added. In the 19th century earthquakes destroyed one of the minarets and the mosque was abandoned.
Saint Sofia represents one of the most important pieces of Early Christian architecture in Southeastern Europe. The building is a cross design with three altars. Its floor is covered with Early Christian ornamental and flora- and fauna-themed mosaics. Many tombs have been unearthed both under and near the church. Look for the bell in the tree outside.
According to myth, Saint Sophia’s miraculous powers protected the building over the centuries, warding off human invasions and natural disasters.
The Eastern Orthodox Sveta Nedelya or Holy Sunday Church is a medieval structure probably built in the 10th century with stone foundations and a wooden construction, remaining wooden until the middle of the 19th century. It has suffered destruction through the ages and has been reconstructed many times.
Around 1460, the remains of the Serbian King Stephen Milutin were carried to Bulgaria and stored at various sites until being transferred to St Nedelya after the 18th century. With some interruptions, the remains have been preserved in the church ever since.
The former building was demolished for the construction of the more imposing 116′ long and 62′ wide cathedral in April 1856. It suffered from an earthquake in 1858, but ultimately was finished in 1863. A new belfry was added to accommodate its 8 bells given to the church as a present by a Russian Prince in 1879.
The church was renovated in 1898, with new domes added. In 1925, an assassination attempt was made upon King Boris III, but fortunately the King was late for funeral services for an assassinated general (because he was at another assassinated general’s funeral) thus saving his life. Unfortunately, almost 200 fell victim to bombs and the church was razed. After the assault, the church was restored to its modern appearance and once again inaugurated on 7 April 1933. The new church was 98′ by 50′ with a central dome 101′ high. The gilt iconostasis survived the bomb attack and was returned to the church. The murals are relatively recent, between 1971 and 1973.
The Church of St Petka of the Saddlers (who performed their rituals in the church) is a medieval Bulgarian Orthodox church first mentioned in the 16th century and constructed at the place of a former Roman religious building. It is a small one-nave church partially dug into the ground in the heart of both the modern and the antique Sofia, in the TZUM subway which came several hundred years later. The church features a semi-cylindrical vault, a hemispherical apse, and a crypt discovered during excavations after the Second World War. Its unique brick and stone walls are three feet thick. The church is dedicated to St Petka, an 11th century Bulgarian saint.
St Petka is known for its mural paintings from the 14th, 15th, 17th and 19th century. Unfortunately, it does not seem to be open most of the time and I was never able to get inside.
Banya Bashi Mosque is the only functioning mosque in Sofia, a remnant of Ottoman rule that lasted nearly five centuries. Its construction was completed in 1576, during the years the Ottomans had control of the city. Its name derives from the Banya Bashi, the natural thermal baths the area. Steam can be seen rising from vents in the ground near the mosque. The mosque is famous for its large 50′ diameter dome and its tall minaret. It is currently being renovated so many men are gathered in front on the pavement during afternoon prayer, far more than I have seen inside any other church in Sofia. Conversely, it is also the only place I have seen several policemen.
Construction of the Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral started in 1882, but most of it was built between 1904 and 1912. Saint Alexander Nevsky was a Russian prince. The cathedral was built to honor the Russian soldiers who died during the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1878, as a result of which Bulgaria was liberated from Ottoman rule.
Alexander Nevsky is Bulgarian Orthodox and built in Neo-Byzantine style. It serves as the church of the Patriarch of Bulgaria and is one of the largest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals in the world. The Cathedral occupies an area of 34,100 sq ft, can hold 10,000 people, and is the second-largest cathedral on the Balkan Peninsula (the largest is the newly-built Cathedral of Saint Sava in Belgrade.)
The Cathedral is a cross-domed basilica featuring an impressive gold-plated 148′ main dome and a bell tower reaching 174 ft. The temple has 12 bells with total weight of 23 tons, the heaviest weighing 12 tons and the lightest 22 lb; it is said you can hear them for miles. The interior is decorated with colorful Italian marble, Brazilian onyx, alabaster, and other luxurious materials. The central dome has the Lord’s Prayer inscribed around it in thin gold letters. Bring your binoculars.
It is truly an international church: marble and lighting fixtures were created in Munich, the metal elements for the gates in Berlin, the gates were manufactured in Vienna, and the mosaics were shipped from Venice. To the left of the altar is a case displaying relics of Alexander Nevsky and appears to be a piece of his rib.
There is a museum of Bulgarian icons inside the crypt. The church claims that the museum contains the largest collection of Orthodox icons in Europe.
The Sofia Synagogue is the largest synagogue in Southeastern Europe, one of two functioning in Bulgaria (a second in Plovdiv) and the third-largest in Europe. Constructed for the needs of Sofia’s mainly Sephardic community who were chased from Spain by Queen Isabella, it shows traces of a Moorish design and was opened in September 1909 in the presence of Tsar Ferdinand. The synagogue is large enough to hold 1,300 worshippers, yet services are only attended by 50 to 60 worshippers due to the aliyah when, after 1945, most of Bulgaria’s Jews emigrated to Israel.
The Moorish Revival architecture is topped by an octagonal dome. The interior is richly decorated, featuring columns of Carrara marble and multicolored Venetian mosaics, as well as decorative woodcarving. The Synagogue’s main chandelier, the biggest in the Balkans, weighs 1.7 tons. One rumor says it is made from Ancient Palestine gold. The Synagogue also houses the Jewish Museum of History. Security is very tight and you must go to the side gate and ring the bell for entry.
The church of St Nicholas the Miracle-Maker is a Russian Orthodox Church found centrally located on Tsar Osvoboditel Boulevard. The church was built on the site of the Saray Mosque, which was destroyed in 1882 after the liberation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire by Russia. It was built as the official church of the Russian Embassy, which was located next door, and was named, as was tradition, for the patron saint of the Emperor who ruled Russia at the time, Nicholas II (who was the godfather of Boris III).
The church was designed in the Russian Revival style, with decoration inspired by Russian churches of the 17th century. Construction was supervised by the same architect who was building the nearby Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. The exterior decoration is of multicolored tiles and the interior murals were painted by artists who also painted those in Alexander Nevsky. The five domes are coated with gold. The bells were donated by Emperor Nicholas II. It is a small, gleaming contrast to most of the other churches visited. The interior murals unfortunately are darkened by smoke from candles and from time and are in need of restoration.
Construction began in 1907 and the church was consecrated in 1914. It remained open after the Russian Revolution and during the Communist period in Bulgaria (1944–1989), though priests and worshipers were carefully watched by the State Security police.
The crypt housing the remains of Saint Archbishop Seraphim, who died in 1950, is located beneath the Church’s main floor. Dozens of people still visit the grave of the archbishop, praying and leaving notes asking for wishes to be granted.
Is Sofia just a series of churches, you ask? No, there is much more. However, it is time for a refreshment break in one of her park’s many cafes.