Bulgaria's capital hosts many religions, each with its own history
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.
You can hardly miss the mosque if you are out sightseeing. out sightseeing. Not only is it in the very centre of Sofia, between Halite and the old city bathhouse, but it has a most elegant silhouette. Built in 1567 by the famous Ottoman architect Sinan, it is also the only survivor of Sofia's more than 100 mosques. After Bulgaria's liberation from Ottoman rule in 1878 two of these were rebuilt, one to serve as an Orthodox church and one the Archaeological museum, while the rest were demolished.
This mosque is the only active place of worship for the estimated 10,000 Muslims in Sofia. However, during Friday prayers many have to pray outside the mosque because there is not enough space inside. Attempts by the Muslim community to build a second mosque have encountered numerous problems with the Sofia authorities and the nationalist Ataka party, who created a media hype in 2006 by demanding that the loudspeakers for the call to prayer be removed.
Cathedral of St Joseph
The largest Catholic church in Bulgaria, St Joseph is a co-cathedral of the Diocese of Sofia and Plovdiv, together with the Cathedral of St Louis in Plovdiv. On the same site, 146 Knyaz Boris I St, there used to be a smaller church of the same name. Its construction started in 1878, as soon as Bulgaria was liberated. When it opened in 1880, the whole complex included also a Capuchin monastery, a college and a concert hall. The first parishioners were the Croatian and Albanian builders of the Sofia- Istanbul railway.
The Allied bombing raid on 30 March 1944 proved fatal for many historical buildings in the centre of Sofia, including St Joseph's. A foundation of the same name was launched to gather funds to rebuild, but when the Communist Party seized power, the money disappeared from the bank. The only part of the complex that remained intact was the concert hall, where services took place for almost 60 years. The priests' parish house was nationalised by the state.
The foundation stone of the restored church was laid during the visit of Pope John Paul II in 2002. Construction began on the project by architects Konstantin Peev and Stoyan Yanev, with Catholic donations from all over the world. The cathedral was finished in 2006 and can hold 1,000 people. It has an organ and a 33-metre bell tower. Consecrated by the Vatican state secretary Cardinal Angelo Sodano on 21 May 2006, it serves as a focal point for Catholic activity in Bulgaria.
The Chapel of All the New Bulgarian Martyrs
This chapel is in the park in front of NDK, or the National Palace of Culture, just 20 metres from the piece of the Berlin Wall, but if you do not know it is there, you might miss it. Dedicated to "all new Bulgarian martyrs," the small, square building was consecrated on 10 June 2001 and is one of the few monuments that celebrate the memory of the victims of Communist rule in Bulgaria. To the side, on a black granite wall, are engraved the names of the victims – some 8,000 or more people who were executed or vanished between 1944 and 1989. The Bulgarian Orthodox church declared them martyrs at the consecration of the chapel.
The chapel sometimes becomes a rallying point for political and civic meetings or demonstrations but, in contrast with everything else that surrounds NDK – benches, monuments, even rubbish bins, all covered with graffiti – the building and the wall with the names are unblemished.
St George Rotunda
This early Christian church is considered to be the oldest building in Sofia. Archaeologists place it in the so-called "Quarter of Constantine," which included the emperor's palace in the middle of Serdica. Now the rotunda stands in the courtyard between the Presidency and the Sheraton hotel. Around it are the remnants of a 2,000-year-old street, the foundations of an old basilica and a Roman heating system. The remains of the Roman town of Serdica constantly turn up during excavations for building foundations in the centre of Sofia. Close to St George, on Dondukov Boulevard, metro workers uncovered and preserved a large archaeological complex, including an ancient theatre.
The rotunda was probably a very important building in Serdica. It is built of red brick, in a symmetric circular plan, and was used for conversions as early as the 4th Century. There are frescoes in five overlapping layers – the oldest one is from Roman times, the next three are Bulgarian, from the 10th, 11th and 12th Centuries respectively, and the last one is from the 16th Century, when the rotunda was turned into "The Rose mosque." The Ottomans abandoned the mosque around the middle of the 19th Century and it quickly regained its Christian status.
The exquisite frescoes, some of them rare examples of Bulgarian medieval art, provided inspiration for several historians. First to study the church and write about it in 1933 was Bogdan Filov, a history professor and later prime minister. The rotunda established itself firmly as a Monument of Culture. In the 1980s the complete restoration and conservation of the church was finished. Nowadays it attracts a wide range of visitors ‒ tourists, Christians and scholars. On very solemn occasions ceremonies and church concerts take place in it.
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High Beam is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.