Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, has much to offer any traveller interested in history – ancient and modern. Whether its walking through the exposed ruins of Roman Serdica, visiting its many Orthodox Christian Churches, a museum, or strolling through one of its many parks where you can find grand reminders of the countries communist past, there is history around every corner.
At the heart of the modern city of Sofia lies the ruins of the ancient city of Serdica, conquered by the Romans around 29 B.C. Under the Romans the city flourished, becoming an administrative centre for the region under the Emperor Trajan, and expanding to include all the necessary amenities expected of an important Roman city: a basilica, public baths, amphitheatre, walls and monumental gates. Some of this has been excavated and preserved for all to enjoy. In the middle ages the city continued to flourish, establishing itself as an important centre of trade and craft production. It was renamed Sofia in 1376, after the church of St. Sophia. In 1385 things changed dramatically when the region was conquered and absorbed into the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman rule would last until 1878 when it was seized by Russian forces during the Russo-Turkish War. This event, and much about the period of Ottoman rule, has left its mark and is still something that is regularly referred to by those living in Sofia. Shortly after 1878 Sofia became the capital of the Kingdom of Bulgaria, and from that time until 1989 it would be heavily influenced by Russia. During WWII Bulgaria sided with Nazi Germany and was bombed by allied forces. It was later occupied by the Russian Army, Sofia becoming the capital of the communist ruled Peoples Republic of Bulgaria until 1989. With the fall of communism Bulgaria has charted a new path forward, joining the EU in 2007.
The earlier history of Sofia is best examined through a stroll around the ruins of the ancient city of Serdica, and as these are limited, a visit to the National Archaeological Museum. The museum is by far one of the best I have visited anywhere, with an exceptional collection of breathtaking artefacts covering the earliest settlements in the region to the grandeur of Roman Serdica and beyond.
The displays illustrate how important the region was for trade and manufacturing, how it represented an important link between the Mediterranean world of Classical Greece and Rome, and the Russian hinterland beyond the Balkans. Many of the artefacts were of exceptional quality and wouldn’t be out of place in a museum in Greece or Italy, showing the significant influences these regions had on the Balkans.
If its churches you enjoy visiting, then Sofia has much to offer. The iconic Alexander Nevski Church, which was constructed in honour of the Russian soldiers who gave their lives freeing Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire in 1878, offers a great opportunity to explore the unique design of Orthodox churches.
This church, and the Russian Orthodox Church St. Nicholas which is close by, both speak of the significant influences Russia had upon the country following its independence and through much of the 20th century. Their interiors are both beautiful and an assault upon the senses, especially to anyone used to the white plaster and exposed limestone of most English churches. Almost every inch of their interiors are covered with murals, intricate carvings and impressive metal-work.
However, perhaps the most impressive (at least for me) is the one which is easiest to miss. The Rotunda church of St. George is the oldest architectural monument in Sofia, dating back to the days of the Roman Empire. There are significant parts of the church which have been replaced and repaired over the centuries, but it is still easy to get a real feel for what it was like earlier in its long history. The dome was twice destroyed and repaired, possibly from earthquakes, or during the Visigothic invasion of the late 4th century or the Huns in the 5th century. Changes were made when the region was under Byzantine rule, and again later on when under Ottoman rule. In the late 19th century it fell into ruin, but since has been restored, providing visitors with a snapshot of the different cultures that have influenced the region over the last 2000 years. The highlight is without question the impressive frescoes that cover its interior. There are no less than 5 layers of murals, although little of the original layer remains visible. Most impressive are the medieval frescoes dating to the 10th century which show six flying angels and 16 prophets. All show great artistic skill, and the vivid colours bring the interior to life.
There is no shortage of reminders of Bulgaria’s recent history as well. From the monumental communist era “Palace of Culture” (Basically a conference centre), to the many statues commemorating the role of Russia in the nation’s independence and development as a communist state. The country’s communist past is always close at hand. This is something that doesn’t always sit well with the people of Sofia, and in recent years many have raised the same questions that have been raised in the U.S. regarding statues of Confederate leaders. The Bulgarian response has been slightly different, however, with some choosing not to have them removed as this would tarnish its relationship with Russia, but instead have a little fun with it.
For example, several years ago the people of Sofia awoke to find that the statues commemorating Russian soldiers had been dressed up as Marvel characters such as Iron Man.
Overall Sofia is well worth a visit, with a rich history to explore. It is run down and reflects a capital city which is on the rise, with significant investment being made in infrastructure. Once you get past the overwhelming amount of graffiti, the disruption from construction projects, and the famous (or infamous treacherous sidewalks) you are left with a city which has much to offer. It is cheap when compared to other European capitals, with a beautiful airport, great food and above all, an amazing past waiting to be explored.