Still off-limits, the former Central Bath House offers thrilling experiences
Issue 66, March 2012
by Bozhidara Georgieva; photography by Anthony Georgieff
It grows but does not age, as the motto of Sofia proudly boasts: judging by the city's history, it is easy to see why. Two Neolithic settlements existed here and, in the 1st Millennium BC, the Thracians created another, which later become the Roman Serdica, the beloved "My true Rome" of Emperor Constantine the Great (306-337). The city then became the Bulgarian stronghold of Sredets, the centre of an Ottoman province and, in 1879, the capital of Bulgaria. For centuries, Sofia was the place where kings and dictators ruled, and artists, composers, writers and architects created. Mayors tried to make a difference, while people, architectural styles and ladies' fashions came and went. Fires raged, earthquakes struck, armies attacked, buildings were destroyed and new ones were erected on the ruins.
If you want to learn more about this ever-changing city, however, be prepared for a long walk, both virtual and real. Traces of the history of Sofia are scattered all over the city. In the Archaeological Museum, a former mosque, you will find the Kazichene gold vessel and Roman reliefs of gladiator games, among others. The National History Museum in Boyana houses bits and bobs of post-1878 history, while the city centre has its late Antiquity churches, the Banyabaşı Mosque and the synagogue, and more. The website stara-sofia.blogspot.com is dedicated to the capital's recent history, if you don't mind just browsing through the pictures, as it doesn't have an English version.
You will be forgiven if you come to the conclusion that the city doesn't have a proper museum, where the curious could learn more and in a more consistent way about its history, from its obscure beginnings to its recent past.
The truth is, that Sofia does have a museum; it is simply off-limits, unless you are a state dignitary, a journalist, a Nobel laureate or just know the right people.
The idea of establishing a museum of Sofia appeared in 1928, when the city was celebrating the 50th anniversary of its independence from the Ottomans. The proposal of the Mayor Vladimir Vazov, one of the brothers of the writer Ivan Vazov, a year later the idea transformed into a sort of a multi-purpose institution, which would combine a museum with a city library and an archive. The library gained its own premises on Slaveykov Square in the same year, but the museum remained homeless until 1 December 1941 when it was placed – together with the library and the archive – in a former bank building on Banski Square, by the Central Mineral Bath-house.
It didn't survive long. The building suffered heavy damage in the Allied air raid on 30 March 1944 and whatever survived from the exhibits and the books was removed to the outskirts of Sofia.
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