Lined with advertisements for winter sports and down-at-heel sellers of local potatoes, the road to Samokov, about 70 km from Sofia, does not promise much excitement in the town itself, but Samokov is a surprise. The town is much more than the producer of famous potatoes, a gateway to the Borovets ski resort or the starting point for a number of treks in the Rila mountains.
Samokov is on the Iskar river, in the valley where the Rila, the Vitosha, the Sredna Gora and two lesser mountain ranges meet. It came to life in the 14th Century, thanks of a cluster of iron ore mines that had been exploited earlier by the Romans and the mediaeval Bulgarians. Under the Ottomans, local industry grew and the name of the town reflected this: samokovi were the water-powered mechanical hammers used in the production of iron. The town's location on a major crossroads between the Sofia and Thracian plains and the Aegean also helped. This prosperity attracted both people and cash. Bulgarians, Muslims and Jews all lived in Samokov, and in 1870 Americans arrived. These were Protestant missionaries who established a school there, the predecessor of the American College in Sofia.
Samokov was not only about industry, but also about culture. The town nurtured its own, very popular school of icon-painting and wood-carving. The Muslim community developed one of the few calligraphy schools in what is now Bulgaria.
After centuries of growth, however, times began to change. In the 19th Century routes shifted and Ihtiman replaced Samokov as the main crossing point between the Sofia and Thracian plains. Old-fashioned mining and iron production could not compete with cheaper and better quality imported steel. When Sofia became the capital of newly independent Bulgaria in 1879, many of Samokov's citizens left to seek better business opportunities there. The decline became painfully evident after the Great War, and in the 1920s the Americans left, too.
Stripped of its industry and abandoned by its citizens, Samokov reinvented itself as a centre for mountain tourism. The first holiday mansion appeared on the city's outskirts in 1896, and soon Borovets, the first mountain resort in Bulgaria, became a favoured spot for wealthy Sofianites. This trend continued under Communism.
Archangel Michael takes the soul of a dying rich sinner in this didactic mural from the 19th Century
Today, Samokov has the distinct atmosphere of a place that has seen better times. Life here has a slow, provincial pace. There are more houses than apartment blocks, children play on the streets and the elderly folk look at visitors with barely hidden curiosity. Crumbling buildings from the Communist time fill the centre, some of them still bearing signs from this bygone era (like Pokazen Magazin, or Deli Shop).
Among this decay rise some buildings from the times when Samokov was buzzing with life, most of them places of worship of the three Abrahamic religions.
Between 1557 and 1909 Samokov was the seat of a bishopric, and monasteries and churches abound in and around the town. The Belyova Church, 2 km from Samokov on the road to Borovets, is the oldest one. It was built in the 15th-16th centuries on the site of older ecclesiastical buildings and served as the main church for local Christians until 1793, when the Assumption Church, known also as The Bishopric, was built.
The Bishopric is still in Samokov, but the local convent is more popular. Located on one of the main streets, hidden behind a sturdy wall, it is usually filled with ladies more interested in gossip than in prayers. The monastery church dates from the 1830s: a narrow, dark space filled with saints who, according to researchers, were painted not by local artists but by those from the rival icon-painting school at Tryavna, in northern Bulgaria.
The mosque of the long-gone local Muslims is preserved on the main street. Bayrakli Mosque has a colourful minaret and was built in the 1820s by a local lord in memory of his mother, who is buried by the entrance in a grave decorated with a couple of marble tombstones. Inside, the walls are painted with flowers and landscapes, probably by local painters.
Next to the mosque is one of Bulgaria's finest Ottoman water fountains.
The insides of Bairakli Mosque were supposedly decorated by Bulgarian artists
The mosque is a museum now and can be visited by appointment at the local History Museum, which has a nice exhibition on the local iron ore industry and icon-painting.
A block away is the town's Jewish heritage. No Jews have lived in Samokov since the 1940s, but the empty shell of a beautiful synagogue from the 1860s is still there. When it was used by believers, the synagogue was decorated with rich woodcarvings and frescoes.
The fate of the Sarafska, or Usurer's, House has been better. Built at the same time as the synagogue and close to it – the inhabitants of the mansion had direct access to the house of prayer – it was the smallest of the residences of a wealthy Jewish family, the Aries. The Aries moved to Sofia in the early 20th Century, looking for better prospects for their businesses, and later emigrated. The house is now a museum, and offers a rare glimpse into the lifestyle of the wealthy people of Samokov. The house was designed in line with the finest traditions of the Revival Period architecture, and furnished with expensive tables, stools, sofas and wardrobes imported from Europe. Jewish symbolism is everywhere and the museum also has a huge family tree of the Aries.
Samokov's synagogue is now an empty shell, with scant remains of its former beauty
The St Nikola Church served as the bishopry of Samokov. A number of important locals are believed to be buried here, among them Zahariy Zograf. Sadly, most of the graves are now lost
The Sarafova House of a rich Jewish family was decorated by the famed local painters
Old tombstones were used to cover the ground around a supposedly miraculous spring near the Belyova Church
The altar doors of Belyova Church
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 opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.