Bulgaria's capital hosts many religions, each with its own history
Issue 41-42, February-March 2010
by Gergana Manolova; photography by Anthony Georgieff
They are all over Sofia; some with shining domes, some old and crumbling, and some housed in inconspicuous grey buildings. Through the many places of worship in Sofia you can trace back the history of the city for nearly two millennia, although many were only built during the last 150 years and bear the marks of wars and Communism.
This diversity of religions comes from a long and complicated history, peopled by Romans, Bulgarians, Ottomans, Jews and Greeks, along with other minorities. Each group built its own place of worship, though the line between "traditional" and "non-traditional" religions blurred between 1944 and 1989, when the Communist regime persecuted all of them indiscriminately.
A walk through Sofia's temples is an invitation to explore the city from an angle you may not have thought of before – that of faith.
St Alexandr Nevskiy
Landing in Sofia by plane, you can't miss the shining, gilded domes of St Aleksandr Nevskiy, right in the very centre of the city, surrounded by landmarks such as the Parliament building and St Sofia church. The iconic cathedral was planned in 1879, immediately after the end of the Russo- Turkish war (1877-1878), which brought about Bulgaria´s liberation. It was built with donations from Bulgarians, but construction didn't start until 1904 and finished in 1912. Russian architect Alexander Pomerantsev worked on the design, which is an eclectic mixture of Eastern and Western religious architecture. Different elements had to be custom-made all over Europe: the chandeliers were made in Munich, the mosaics are Venetian, and the wooden doors are from Vienna. The cathedral has the largest bell in an Orthodox church, weighing 12 tons. Along with the other 11 bells, it was made in Moscow. On delivery it had to be pulled by oxen to the top of the 53-metre belfry – one man was killed in the process, when the bell slipped.
The seat of the Bulgarian patriarch, the cathedral can hold 5000 people, and often does so on the great Christian holidays such as Christmas and Easter, when people flock to the ceremonies. It is a prime tourist attraction, with its grand scale and magnificent murals and icons, some of them painted by the most famous Bulgarian artists. The crypt contains the Museum of Period Bulgarian Art with more than 200 examples of icons and icon fragments.
70 years ago, on 10 March 1943, Bulgaria's pro-Nazi government decided to defy Berlin and halt the deportation of Bulgaria's 50.000 Jews. This was down to the actions of one man - Dimitar Peshev. Just two years later he faced Communist justice and found himself on trial for his life. His niece Kaluda Kiradjieva remembers