Walking around Central Sofia is like walking nowhere else, notwithstanding the incredibly uneven pavements. A mixture of buildings in a range of time periods and styles define the Bulgarian capital: Roman fortifications and early-Christian buildings rub walls with medieval churches, former Ottoman mosques and fine fin-de-siècle residential houses. Over these loom monstrous buildings in the Stalinist Baroque style and soulless glass-and-concrete concoctions built after the 1990s. This inimitable mixture of historical periods and architecture defines the urban fabric of Sofia, a visual representation of its millennia-long past.
Few Sofianites and tourists are aware that, to a large extent, Central Sofia's urban scape exists thanks to the efforts of a single woman. In the early years of Communism, when the city was being redefined as an "exemplary" Communist capital and large-scale construction took over the centre, a young university graduate dared to stand up to the authorities and fight for the preservation of Sofia's archaeological heritage.
Magdalina Stancheva (1924-2014) was a unlikely hero from the time when opposition to the government could result in the end of your career, imprisonment – or worse.
Stancheva fought for the preservation of ancient, medieval and Ottoman ruins by St George Rotunda, now in the backyard of the Office of President
To understand why Stancheva's task of preserving Sofia's archeological heritage was so hard, one first needs to understand what Bulgaria looked and behaved like in the years after the 1944 Communist coup.
A new government had taken over, one that strictly toed the line drawn by Stalinist USSR. The past was considered a "bourgeois folly" and all energy was to be targeted towards the creation of a new, Communist society. Urban architecture should have reflected this. Sofia was to become a "model Socialist city."
At that time, the centre of Sofia lay in ruins after the Allied bombing raids during the Second World War. With large spaces free for new development and a propaganda task to advertise the new Communist regime, the government initiated the construction of a new centre, which would accommodate the most important agencies of the state: the Central Committee of the Communist Party (the building is also known as Party House), the Council of Ministers, the ministries of heavy industry and energy, a hotel, a department store and a vast square. The area was supposed to underline, by its architecture and urban planning, the omnipotence of the Communist state.
Serdica fortifications and tower on Iskar Street. Stancheva excavated them in the 1950s, unemployment was high so the team of manual workers included two physicians, a physicist and a linguist
The construction of the so-called Largo started in 1949, but it encountered a problem. The centre of the city lies over the remains of a number of ancient settlements including Roman Serdica, medieval Bulgarian Sredets and Ottoman Sofia. Repeatedly – and infuriatingly for the apparatchiks responsible for the tight deadlines – every time construction of a new building started the remains of older buildings would emerge.
Initially, the new authorities did not bother to preserve any of those. They saw ancient and medieval ruins merely as a nuisance that got in the way of progress. For propaganda purposes, projects had to be finished well before the officially announced deadlines, and managers were extremely zealous.
Magdalina Stancheva, a new employee of the Sofia History Museum, saw things differently.
A fresh graduate of Sofia University's classics department, she started working in the museum by chance: times were hard and unemployed people were seen as suspicious. She had a chance and she grabbed it, and anyway the position in the museum was too humble and insignificant to attract a trained and ambitious historian or archaeologist.
Magdalina Stancheva shows ruins to dignitaries
Had Stancheva been a person interested only in securing a pen-pushing job with little responsibility, Central Sofia would have looked very different today.
It turned out she had the talent to reconstruct and imagine times long gone by from the ruins that the construction sites revealed. She also had mettle. She started fighting for the preservation of the archaeological heritage as early as her first task as an overseer of the construction of the Party House. Stancheva did not succeed in preserving the fine early Christian basilica that appeared from the ground where, symbolically, the Communist Party headquarters were supposed to stand, but she won a small victory – the baptismal pool of the basilica, a rare find even now, was saved and moved to the nearby Archaeological Museum.
Stancheva's fight was always uphill. It usually meant quarrelling with construction workers and arguing with the architects, pushing them to alter their projects. She even confronted State Security's top brass, regardless of the fact that her own family had suffered repression in the first years after 1944. What troubled her the most, however, was the fact that she often had to stand her ground while established archaeologists including her mentors, her friends and even her two husbands, preferred to bite their tongues in front of the authorities.
Inscription by Emperor Marcus Aurelius commemorating the construction of a fortification wall in Roman Sofia displayed in the underpass between the Energy Ministry and the Heavy Industry Ministry (now Office of the President and Council of Ministers)
But Stancheva persisted. Sometimes she failed. Sometimes she succeeded, and this is why Central Sofia looks the way it does today. Thanks to her we now enjoy the elegance of the St George Rotunda and the remains of an ancient, medieval and Ottoman neighbourhood in the courtyard of the Office of the President. Stancheva fought for the preservation of Roman Serdica's Eastern Gate in the underpass between the Office of the President and the Council of Ministers and for the preservation of the medieval St Petka of the Saddlers church in the Serdica underpass. These are just few examples for what she saved.
How did she do it? This is a question that Stancheva herself struggled to answer. By the 1960s she had won both the recognition and the respect of the Communist authorities. Stancheva became Bulgaria's delegate to the newly established UNESCO and the International Council on Monuments and Sites, or ICOMOS, an association for the conservation and protection of cultural heritage.
In her long career, Magdalina Stancheva gathered a significant personal and scientific archive. It is now digitised, on www.magdalinastancheva.net and the dedicated Facebook page, Under Sofia's Pavements. The unpublished autobiography she penned while retired is now available on audiobook (Bulgarian only).
Stancheva was interested in all periods of Sofia's past. She discovered a rare medieval manuscript, originally kept in Boyana Church, that listed the names of medieval Bulgarian kings and notables
These archives became public thanks to Dr Veselina Vasileva from the New Bulgarian University, who inherited Magdalina Stancheva's archive and her cat, and Kalina Garelova and Yana Sarandeva from 1002Productions Studio. "Veselina brought a plastic shopping bag full with yellowed papers: articles, lectures, journals and an autobiography. When I started reading the autobiography, I soon stumbled on the story of the basilica under the Party House," recollects Kalina Garelova. The team worked for 10 months to digitise the part of the archive that is now available on the Internet. Sofia Municipality supported the website and the Facebook page. 1002Productions made the audiobook with its own money.
Why did the team see this story as an important one to tell? "For me, personally, Magdalina Stancheva was a new, alternative hero," says Kalina Garelova. "Our whole project was powered by the notion that the ideas, dedication and willpower of a single person can leave a significant trace. Magdalina Stancheva successfully integrated into our city a past – a composite, complex, contradictory past, on which we can build a community. Knowing and acknowledging this past makes us more flexible and open to the future. We were unprepared for the attention the project attracted from architects, urban planners, journalists, activists and people trying to construct their personal and group identity in regard to the ancient, medieval and/or Communist past. People were inspired to try to compare the then and now – and find a more complex perspective towards memory, past and present that successfully unites contradictions."
Next time you think that a single person is unable to change anything, go to the centre of Sofia, look at the modern city buzzing over its millennia-old roots, and remember Magdalina Stancheva, a young woman living in dark times who dared to arise and make a difference.
When construction of new boulevards at the Largo started, St Petka of the Saddlers was seen as an ugly remain of the past. It survived thanks to Magdalina Stancheva
How to stand up to an authoritarian government
Magdalina Stancheva's autobiography is full of funny, tragic and even scary stories of the obstacles she had to overcome while trying to preserve Sofia's archaeological heritage.
"People would come to the digs, watch with fake interest and then sceptically purse their lips, while I tried to explain how important it was to preserve this or that," Stancheva wrote. "Bulgarian archaeologists, wearing impassive faces, would attend my meetings with officials and party managers. Very rarely someone would drop a meek word in support of the preservation of antiquities. I am still sad when I remember one such meeting when the then director of the Archaeology Institute, Academician Miyatev, a respected archaeologist, said that the St George Rotunda should be preserved but the ruins around it looked like 'rotten teeth' in this new 'Socialist centre of Sofia'."
Excavations of the area between the Energy Ministry and the Heavy Industry Ministry revealed a preserved street and the Eastern Gate of Roman Sofia. They are now displayed in the underpass, thanks to Magdalina Stancheva
Chillingly, said "rotten teeth" bothered the feared State Security. The ruins would narrow the passageway used by the cortèges of top Communist apparatchiks to the backdoor of the Balkan Hotel (now the Sofia Balkan Hotel), their entrance to their cocktail parties. Preservation of the ruins would mean motorcycles could not drive parallel to the limousines of the Communist elite. According to State Security, the "rotten teeth" should be removed. Fully aware of this, Stancheva decided to talk to the high-ranking State Security official responsible for this and defy him.
"He was a stately man with a threadbare coat and an even more threadbare soft hat, and he was calm," she wrote in her autobiography. "But I was already very tense and greeted him with the words: 'Good, go ahead, if you need space for cars and motorcycles, destroy, demolish all, even the Rotunda, so that the police can do their job!' The man in the soft hat smiled a little and said timidly: 'Calm down, Comrade, we will reorganise the motorcycle cavalcades.' I did not believe my ears. But this happened. Later, I learnt that this man was from the intelligentsia and that his wife was a Latin teacher."