Historical buildings of the Bulgarian capital
Written by Scott Green, edited by Andrea Vushkova. photos by Zhanet Stamatova
Saint George Rotunda
Ротонда Свети Георги, location
The Church of Saint George is a 4th-century late antique red brick rotunda located in the middle of the Parliamentary and Ministry of Education buildings. Personally, after a day of going around the city, my girlfriend and I enjoy coming here to admire the relative peace and to relax in one of our favorite spots. It’s part of a larger archaeological complex and many believe it to be the oldest building in Sofia. Ancient ruins are to the south of the building, a Roman street with preserved drainage can be seen, as well as foundations of a large basilica, and other small buildings.
Thought to have originally been used for public purposes, it later became a baptistery after the recognition of Christianity as a religion in the Roman Empire. Inside, there are layers of partially preserved frescoes on the walls, the oldest ones dating back as early as the 4th century. As times and rulers changed the frescoes were painted over four times, lastly during the Ottoman rule in the 16th century, when the church became a mosque. Now belonging to the Bulgarian Orthodox church, the rotunda is still in use to this day.
Saint Petka of the Saddlers Church
Света Петка Самарджийскa, location
This medieval Bulgarian Orthodox church is believed to have been built in the 11th century on the grounds of a Roman religious building. Nowadays it is considered a monument of culture, known for its mural paintings depicting biblical scenes painted through four different centuries. A crypt was later discovered during excavations after the Second World War. Many believe that the church may well be the final resting place of Bulgarian revolutionary and national hero Vasil Levski (1837 - 1873), however, it is largely considered to be a myth as there is little serious evidence to support this claim.
The church is dedicated to the 11th-century Bulgarian saint, St Petka. It acquired this name due to her being a patron of the saddlers in the Middle Ages, who performed their rituals in the church.
Banya Bashi Mosque
Баня баши джамия, location
This mosque was designed by Mimar Sinan, the famous Ottoman architect, and completed in 1566. Its name is derived from the phrase “Banya Bashi,” which translates to many baths. Apart from being able to see steam rising from vents in the ground near the mosque walls, you wouldn’t be able to tell that it’s built over natural thermal spas. The mosque is famous for its large 15m dome, and the minaret. Currently, Banya Bashi is the only functioning mosque in Sofia and is used by the city's Muslim community.
The Mosque is also part of the larger, so-called “Tolerance Square”. This square is in the heart of Sofia and comprises of four churches of different religions; the Eastern Orthodox “Sveta Nedelya” (St Sunday), the Catholic Cathedral “Sveti Yosif” (St Joseph), the Mosque “Banya Bashi”, and the Synagogue “Sofia Synagogue”.
National Archaeological Museum
Национален археологически музей, location
The National Archaeological Museum occupies the building originally known as Koca Mahmut Paşa Camii, the largest and oldest former Ottoman mosque in the city. Construction began in 1451 under the supervision of the Grand Vizier to the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Veli Mahmud Pasha, and took 43 years to complete. After Bulgaria regained autonomy in 1878, there was a need to create cultural institutions, but there was a lack of suitable buildings. During and after the war the Mosque was used as a hospital, which got moved in 1879 as the building was to be handed over to the recently founded National Library and set to be used as an antiquity museum.
The National Library was housed here until the spring of 1885 when it was moved due to unfavorable conditions inside the building, namely, the dampness. After renovations, it began use as a national archeology museum from 1892 and was officially opened and inaugurated in 1905, as by then all archaeological exhibits previously kept all over the city were moved within its walls. The museum was badly damaged by a bomb during WW2 and was restored again in 1948.
We hope you’ve enjoyed a brief look into the historical past of this ancient city that we here at Open Bulgaria love so much. Sofia is a city steeped in history and rich in culture. Keep an eye out for part two and three of the series.