Bulgaria's capital hosts many religions, each with its own history
Issue 45-46, June-July 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.
In Sofia the synagogue is in the old centre of the city, in what used to be the Jewish district – right behind the Halite marketplace. The Sephardic Jewish community in Bulgaria commissioned the construction of a synagogue in 1905. The architect Friedrich Grünanger drew up three plans in different sizes, all based on the Viennese synagogue of Leopoldstädter. At first, the building was designed to hold 700 worshippers, but the rapid expansion of Sofia's Jewish population made community leaders reconsider and they decided to add 400 more places. As a result, the synagogue became the third largest in Europe, after those in Amsterdam and Budapest. It is in the Moorish style with Art Nouveau elements and exquisite interior decoration. Its 31 m high cupola supports a 2 ton chandelier, the largest in Bulgaria.
The ceremonial opening on 9 September 1909 was a grand occasion, attended by King Ferdinand, Prime Minister Alexander Malinov and members of the Orthodox clergy.
In 1940 there were about 48,000 Jews countrywide. After the establishment of the State of Israel, about 90 percent emigrated. This migration continued under the Communist regime, which aggressively promoted atheism and persecuted religious institutions. The synagogue was practically closed down until 1990, when the newly- formed organisation Shalom took over the care of Jewish traditions and culture in Bulgaria.
The synagogue was renovated for its centenary and now greets regular visitors and tourists. The adjacent Jewish historical museum is also worth exploring, with its collection of old photos and artefacts which chronicles the Jewish community here over a couple of centuries.
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