Sofia At First Sight – A Beautiful Name, A Not So Beautiful Place (Travels in Eastern Europe – Bulgaria #5)

Sofia is a beautiful name for a city. Unfortunately, much of the city from an architectural and aesthetic standpoint does not match the beauty of that name. On the drive into the city I could not help but notice the concrete apartment blocks which surround much of Sofia. These unsightly tombs of the masses rose up around the city after World War II. During the war, twelve major air raids from Allied bombers resulted in the destruction of over 2,600 buildings and another 10,000 suffering grave damage.  History was especially unkind to Sofia in the decades following the war.  The reconstruction of the city fundamentally altered its look and feel. It was built for a rapidly industrializing, mass proletarian society ruled by an iron fisted communist regime. Stalinist and Brutalist architecture emphasizing gigantism reigned. The number of dwellings rose ten-fold between 1950 and 1989, swallowing up whole swathes of Sofia in a maze of mindless concrete and prefabricated constructions. There were more buildings constructed in the 1950’s than existed in the entire city before that time. This construction was for the living and working quarters of a population that exploded from a meager 68,000 in 1900 to over a million by 1980. Sofia was transformed from a small and rather dull European capital into an uninviting and mind numbing urban jungle. This massive growth created a city that valued the state over the citizen, masses trumping the individual.

Tower Apartment Blocks in Sofia

The Enduring Legacy of Communism – Tower Apartment Blocks in Sofia (Credit: Mrs. Robinson)

Penetrating The Depths – Ancient Serdica
My first impressions of Sofia were intimidating: concrete, chaotic traffic, a city with little semblance of order. Only the tower apartment blocks seemed to have any sort of symmetry. Lost amid all this detritus was the important role that Sofia played through the ages.  This had once been THE place, rather than just another place. Sofia had been so much more than the capital of Bulgaria through the centuries. Its civilizational history reaches back into a past that predates the Greeks and Romans by many thousands of years. The city bills itself as the second oldest in Europe. By the looks of things I would have believed that Sofia was only a century or two old. Architecturally that is pretty much true, but historically Sofia’s depth is almost impenetrable. The city’s quasi mystical motto expresses this quite well, as a place that “grows but does not age.”

Thracians, Celts and Romans all conquered what is now the city of Sofia. In the towering shadow of Mount Vitosha, they imposed civilization in the form of urban settlements known as Pernik and Serdica. Once the Romans took over in 29 BC the city boomed, becoming the most important settlement in the eastern Balkans. It occupied a highly strategic position on the Roman military road, a midway point between Belgrade and Constantinople. It was the capital of successive Roman provinces during the 3rd and 4th centuries, acting as a residence for several later emperors, as well as the birthplace of the emperors Aurelian and Galerius. The first edict legalizing Christianity in the empire was issued in Serdica. Constantine the Great almost chose Serdica instead of Constantinople as the new capital of Rome. This brush with greatness was short lived as little more than a century later the Huns demolished the city almost overnight, leaving little more than dusty ruins smoldering in their wake. The Byzantines under Justinian would rebuild the city, an approximation of its former importance. This time surrounded by a series of fortified walls.

The 4th century St. George Rotunda behind remains of Serdica

The 4th century St. George Rotunda behind remains of Serdica (Credit : Ann Wuyts)

The Five Hundred Years of Slavery
The Bulgars did not arrive on the scene until the early 9th century. Despite the fact that they have now inhabited the city for over 1,200 years, this accounts for less than a fifth of the time that the Sofia area has been occupied. The Bulgars reign over Sofia was also interrupted by five centuries of Ottoman Turkish rule. This period left a lasting imprint on the Bulgarian psyche. From the time I arrived in Sofia until my departure, I heard over and over again from English speaking Bulgars about, “the five hundred years of slavery.” This constant reference to Ottoman Turkish rule was spoken of as though it had ended just yesterday, rather than in 1878.

Ottoman rule in Bulgaria had led to Muslim dominance of the country. This was especially true In Sofia which was a major commercial center and the Ottoman capital of Rumelia (Turkey in Europe aka Balkan Europe). During the 16th century, Muslim households outnumbered Bulgar ones by five to one. Only in the 19th century would Bulgars once again decisively outnumber their Muslim overlords. When the Ottomans were finally thrown out of Sofia once and for all – with major assistance from the Russians – nearly every Ottoman mosque was destroyed, including eight in a single night. Today there is only one mosque left in Sofia.

Panoramic view of Sofia as seen from the National Museum of History

Panoramic view of Sofia as seen from the National Museum of History (Credit: Ann Wuyts)

A Carnival at Every Crossing – Modern Sofia
Bulgarian independence inaugurated the beginning of modernity in Sofia. At the time of independence only 11,600 people were still living in the city. In just two decades the population grew six-fold. Starting in 1900, the population doubled every twenty years, becoming by far the largest and most important city in Bulgaria. This growth – especially during communist times – led to the unsightly architectural monstrosities that I saw on the way to the hostel.  The fall of the Iron Curtain had brought more prosperity to Sofia and with it snarls of traffic.

Cars and buses were jammed together on the streets. The city had not been designed with motor vehicles in mind. In 1989, very few people had owned an automobile. Now Sofia teemed with traffic packed together in the streets. All the noise, honking, and aggressive driving made me question my decision to travel several thousands of miles to experience this mess. I was totally confused. The city streets were like a maze with a carnival at every crossing. My driver finally pulled up to the curb and pointed at a door, smiled and said, “Hostel.” I jumped out of the car and headed for where my driver had just pointed. I promptly went in the wrong door, an entrance to a casino, recoiled and then found the doorway to Hostel Mostel. My introduction to Sofia had been an exercise in disorientation.

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