ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Sofia’s Churches: Microcosm of Bulgarian History

Sofia’s churches reflect the history of Christianity in Bulgaria.

St. George, St. Petka and St. Alexander Nevsky – prominent figures from the history books and the names of several churches in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia. From the country’s Roman and Byzantine roots, through the rule of the Turks and the period of Russian and Soviet control, the construction and alteration of these monuments provide a colorful overview of Bulgarian history.

Modern Sofia is a city of more than a million people. It has a unique central area that rivals other capitals in beauty and grandeur; yellow brick roads meander through the city, basilicas and bronze and marble sculptures dot the horizon.

However these yellow brick roads do not lead to the land of Oz. In just three years, Sofia, like the rest of the country, has experienced a revolution. In this former bastion of communism, the revitalization of religion can clearly be seen. Religious artifacts, icons and jewelry are openly sold in Sofia’s parks, and the churches, mosques and synagogues are alive with fervent activity. Remarkably, people of all sorts – young and old, male and female, urbane and provincial – are making pilgrimages to these shrines.

Modern Bulgaria dates from 681 A.D. when the Byzantine emperor recognized the Bulgar tribe’s control of the region between the Balkan Mountains and the Danube River. Until then, the region had been divided and ruled successively by the Thracian tribes, the Romans, the Bulgars and the Byzantines.

The seminomadic Thracians were known for their fighting skills and their highly-skilled work with gold. Among the early gold artifacts found are those depicting the Thracian Horseman/Hero, a major deity whose cult survived into the Byzantine era and whose iconography resembles St. George slaying the dragon.

Roman Sofia (Sardica) was an important urban center, and with the establishment of Christianity, an episcopal see. It hosted an early church council in c.342 A.D. at which the orthodoxy of St. Athanasius and his early followers was contested.

As in other cities of the empire, Sofia’s pagan structures were appropriated by the Christians and transformed into Christian places of worship. These transitions from one religion to another rarely seem to have been violent. The churches of St. Petka (Bulgarian for St. Paraskeva, or Friday), St. George and Haghia Sophia are examples of such transitions.

The Christian “takeover” in the Mediterranean, at least until the fourth century, was actually a gradual assimilation of beliefs and practices. Bulgaria did not become officially Christian until 864 A.D. Thus for many centuries, the prevailing religious expression was pagan. Even today, much of Orthodoxy, the form of Christianity taken by the Bulgars, preserves some forms of pagan worship – the appreciation of the spirit of God in nature, the cult of saints and icons, the veneration of the female aspect of God through the Virgin Mary and the extensive use of incense, water and oil in its rites.

Two of Sofia’s earliest churches date from the early Byzantine era, St. George and Haghia Sophia. St. George is a fourth century brick rotunda, presently closed for restoration. The rotunda had formerly been a caldarium (hot room) of a third century Roman bath; in Thrace, mineral spas were important for their healing qualities. It is logical then that this former healing site should be dedicated to St. George, a figure endowed with certain Thracian traits of the Horseman/Hero and still revered as a healer.

The sixth century Church of Haghia Sophia is roughly modeled after the church of the same name in Constantinople. Built in the shape of a Greek cross with a shallow dome that hovers over the crossing, it is decorated with rich floor mosaics and frescoes. A number of chambered tombs associated with the church are decorated with fourth and fifth century frescoes depicting floral designs, birds and candelabra – popular Hellenistic, Oriental and Roman motifs.

Haghia Sophia, although partially closed because of earthquake damage, continues to hold services. The city takes its name, Greek for Wisdom, from this basilica.

The Bulgarian kingdom reached its peak in the 13th century as its spheres of influence extended into present-day Albania and parts of Greece, Romania, Turkey and the former Soviet Union.

But in 1396, the Turks subjugated the Bulgarian tsars and began a harsh reign that lasted five centuries. While the Turks did not attempt to eradicate Christianity or the native language, they did annihilate the nobility, enserf the peasants and destroy cultural developments.

Although vestiges of Turkish domination have been erased since independence (de facto 1908), several of Sofia’s churches reflect the Turks’ presence – the frescoes of Haghia Sophia, St. George and St. Petka were whitewashed when they became mosques.

The 19th century witnessed the revival of Balkan nationalism. Greece, Romania and Serbia all successively won independence from the Turks. Bulgaria, although in the midst of a national cultural revival, remained politically tied to the Sultan.

Holy Sunday Cathedral, constructed in 1863, exemplifies this Bulgarian revival. Cruciform in shape with cylindrical domes, the cathedral was destroyed in 1925 when a bomb exploded during the funeral of a general, himself the victim of assassins. The bomb killed 123 people; more than 300 were injured.

Recently, a simple wedding took place in the restored cathedral. The structure reverberated with worshippers kissing icons, lighting tapers and offering flowers and other gifts to favorite saints.

The centerpiece of Sofia, and perhaps its most moving symbol of Bulgarian liberation, is the Church of St. Alexander Nevsky. Named for a 13th century Russian prince and warrior, it stands alone at the end of Nevsky Square. The church commemorates the 200,000 Russian soldiers killed in the Russo Turkish War (1877-78); the war virtually liberated Bulgaria from the Turks.

Erected in 1912 by a Russian architect and patterned after the grandest of Orthodox structures, the church symbolizes the enormous debt still felt by some Bulgarians toward their Russian liberators.

St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, built roughly at the same time as the Nevsky shrine, is small but impressive. With its five gold onion domes and emerald spire, the church is another architectural jewel along Sofia’s yellow brick road.

Since the demise of the monarchy in 1946, the Orthodox Church’s fortunes have drastically changed.

Under the Soviet-inspired communists, hundreds of priests were arrested, church property desecrated, worshippers menaced and prayers and religious instruction forbidden. The church was forbidden to open hospitals, orphanages or schools, its function reduced to rituals.

When the Orthodox Church pledged loyalty to the regime in the 50s, outright persecutions ceased; however the integrity of the hierarchy was compromised. The present patriarch, Maxim, has recently been charged with collaborating with the government and may be forced to resign.

With the collapse of the communist government in 1990, the church’s fortunes have once again changed. The churches in Sofia, as with the rest of the country, are coming back to life. On one Sunday alone, one could witness several church weddings taking place, along with regular liturgies.

At all hours of the day – every day – Bulgarians, now unafraid of harassment, are performing centuries-old acts of piety and devotion, as if these rites had never been suppressed or forgotten. However, following the yellow brick road for both country and church will not be easy.

Valerie Abrahamsen is a New Testament archeologist and an early church historian.

Get to know us and stay informed about the impact your support makes.

Nous constatons que votre préférence linguistique est le français.
Voudriez-vous être redirigé sur notre site de langue française?

Oui! Je veux y accéder.

Hemos notado que su idioma preferido es español. ¿Le gustaría ver la página de Asociación Católica para el Bienestar del Cercano Oriente en español?

Vee página en español