Bulgaria's capital hosts many religions, each with its own history
Issue 43-44, April-May 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.
CYRIL AND METHODIUS CHURCH
This church owes much to capitalism – its very existence, in fact. When the city plan of 1891 made it necessary to demolish the old church of the Sublime Virgin Mary, the church governors received compensation. They decided to build a new church with the money, but had enough only for the foundations. Two years of deliberation followed, until Nikola Zdravkov, a clerk in the city council, took the initiative. The plot for the church, on the corner of Maria Louisa Blvd and Trapezitsa St, was given to a concessionaire and turned into the London hotel. The income from this secular enterprise, combined with bank loans and donations, served to finally build the church Ss Cyril and Methodius at 47 George Washington St.
Once started, work progressed quickly and the church was consecrated in 1909. The parishioners and the church governors set up many charity initiatives: a free kitchen for students and old people, financial aid for the sick and the poor, disabled servicemen and refugees, and donations for building other churches in Sofia. In the end, the governors disbursed twice the cost of building the church as charity.
The change of regime in 1944 did not stop the growth of its community, which continues to the present day. The church has a renowned youth choir and offers courses in various arts connected with religion, such as wood carving, Eastern church music and icon painting. It even has a consultation service for religious matters and offers counselling to former members of sects. These activities make it one of the few Orthodox churches in Bulgaria that tries to engage people in religion – remarkable in a country where the official religious institution is largely passive on public issues.
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