Sofia is the only city in Europe where you will find places of worship for four major religions almost within sight of each other. Clustered in the vicinity of its Square of Tolerance are: an Eastern Orthodox church; a Roman Catholic cathedral; a mosque and a synagogue. This embodies the pride that Bulgarians have in their history of religious tolerance. Unlike some other countries in the region, its different faith communities have tended to coexist peacefully.
So let us take a walk around this part of the city and visit each of these four sites to appreciate what they mean to the people of Sofia.
Eastern Orthodox: the Hagia Nedelya church
The first church to stand on this site was wooden, probably built in the 10th century. It remained largely the same, still built of wood right through to the middle of the 19th century, unlike most other churches in the city. Its stone replacement was opened in 1867 and renovated in 1898, with new domes being added.
In 1925 this church was destroyed in a terrorist plot to assassinate the king, Boris III. The king was attending the funeral service of General Konstantin Georgiev, who had been killed in a previous communist assault. A group from the Bulgarian Communist Party blew up the church’s roof during the service; the king survived, having arrived late for the ceremony, but around 200 innocent people were killed.
So the church that stands here today was built between 1927 and 1933; it is largely a copy of the one blown up in that attack on the king.
I didn’t get a chance to go inside; but I understand it contains a gilt iconostasis that survived the bomb attack, and the relics of Serbian king Stefan Milutin, who ruled in the late 13th/early 14th centuries. Milutin is credited with resisting the efforts of the Byzantine Emperor to impose Roman Catholicism on the Balkans. The Serbian Orthodox Church later declared him a saint.
Roman Catholic: St Joseph’s Cathedral
This is the most modern of these four places of worship. Allied bombing raids destroyed the previous RC cathedral in March 1944; this replacement was only inaugurated on 21 May 2006. It is the largest Catholic cathedral in Bulgaria and can accommodate up to 1,000 worshippers.
What may look at first glance like a building site in front of the cathedral is in fact one of Sofia’s many Roman ruins, part of ancient Serdica. This was the area around that city’s west gate.
Islam: Banya Bashi Mosque
Banya Bashi is the only remaining active mosque of the 70 that were once functioning here in Sofia. It was built in 1576, by the Ottoman architect, Mimar Sinan, who also built the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. The name means ‘a lot of baths’ and comes from the neighbouring Central Baths – ‘Banya’ is the Bulgarian for bath.
This is the only one of these four that I was able to go inside on this visit. The interior is light and has some pretty frescoes and delicately coloured stained-glass windows. The dome has a diameter of 15 metres; it is is the only remaining example in Bulgaria of a domed roof on a cubic base, a classic Islamic architectural motif.
Judaism: the Sofia Synagogue
This is the largest synagogue in South Eastern Europe and the third-largest in Europe. It is one of only two functioning in Bulgaria (the other being in Plovdiv). It houses the biggest chandelier in the Balkans, which is rumoured to have been made with gold from Ancient Palestine. As I have no photos of the interior you might like to check out those on the synagogue’s website.
The synagogue is a good spot to pause to appreciate how Bulgarians’ pride in their history of religious tolerance is epitomised by events that took place during the Second World War. During that war, Bulgaria was an ally of Nazi Germany. But unlike many of its other allies, Bulgaria saved the bulk of its Jewish population, more than 48,000 Bulgarian Jews, from deportation to concentration camps. This is largely due to the actions of one man, the country’s Deputy Speaker Dimitar Peshev. He halted the deportation in part through the influence of a Jewish friend, Jakob Baruch.
This part of the city is watched over by the statue of Sveta Sofia. This is something of an emblem for the city. In the past a statue of Lenin stood here; but after the downfall of Communism the city was naturally keen to get rid of such reminders of the past, so in 2000 the mayor commissioned this statue to take its place. Sofia is depicted with the symbols of power (crown), fame (wreath) and wisdom (owl). She is said to have been the mother of three daughters (Faith, Hope and Charity) who were martyred for their faith.
Unsurprisingly most visitors assume that the city is named for this Sofia. But she is not the true origin of the city’s name, which was taken from the ancient Hagia Sofia Church, named for Holy Wisdom. Locals were rather annoyed with the mayor and his choice of monument; partly because it distracts visitors from an awareness of the true origins of the city’s name, but even more so because this Sofia looks more suggestive than saintly, with her low-cut dress clinging provocatively to her body.
I think many locals would prefer that we remember their city more for its famed religious tolerance than for this rather controversial statue!
I visited Sofia in 2019