The Presence Of An Absence – Jews & Muslims In Sofia (Travels In Eastern Europe #9)

Sofia can seem like little more than a massive, heaping jumble of buildings with little continuity outside of the frightening concrete apartment blocks that fringe the city. During my first walk through the city center I had trouble getting my bearings. Stubbornly I refused to study the map in my guidebook, only glancing at it from time to time, enough to get further lost. For me, the city seemed to have been thrown together in fits and starts. Fortunately I happened upon a couple of buildings in the center that represented the history of Bulgaria in all of its textured diversity. Each of these brought the city and its past alive for me. Suddenly I could make sense of Sofia. These buildings were the Sofia Synagogue, which is the third largest of its kind in Europe and the Banya Bashi Mosque, the only active mosque left in the city today. In different ways each of these buildings represents a fascinating aspect of modern Bulgarian history, a recent past riven by upheaval, violence and survival.

Sofia Synagogue

Sofia Synagogue
(Credit: Plamen Agov)

The Unfulfilled Void – What Used To Be & What Might Have Been
The Sofia Synagogue is an imposing structure. With its Moorish style architecture the building has a presence unlike any other in the city. It was built a little over a century ago by Viennese architect Friedrich Grunanger who modeled it after the Leopoldstadter Tempel in his hometown. Though the synagogue can seat up to 1,300 people, only a small group of worshippers can be found at any service. This is nothing new for southeastern Europe. The Holocaust led to the destruction of Jewish communities throughout the region. Yet it was not the Holocaust that led to the disintegration of Bulgaria’s Jewish community. Uniquely among Eastern European nations the Bulgarian people objected to the deportation of their Jewish populace during the Second World War. This resistance saved most of Bulgaria’s Jews as well as preserving the synagogue.

Unfortunately after the war ended, the country’s Jews faced state sponsored oppression, this time in the form of the atheistic Communist regime which discouraged any religious activity. In 1946 there were approximately 44,000 Jews in Bulgaria, over the next five years 90% of them left for Palestine. They would never come back. Today there are only 2,000 Jews in the entire nation. Put another way, 65% of Bulgaria’s Jewish population could fit in the Sofia synagogue. Visiting the synagogue left me with an eerie sense of absence. There was something vacant and hollow at the heart of this grand space. Standing beneath a magnificent 2,000 kilogram chandelier and a ceiling painted in the image of a blue, starry sky, I still felt an abiding emptiness. It was hard to stand amidst all the beauty and splendor of the synagogue without thinking of what used to be and what might have been. If not for ideological oppression this would be less a museum and more an active house of worship. The lifeblood of human community was missing. Not even the stunning architecture could fill the void left by the absence of Jews in Sofia and Bulgaria.

Banya Bashi Mosque in Sofia

Banya Bashi Mosque in Sofia (Credit: Dudva)

The Oppressed Becomes The Oppressor – Role Reversal
Little more than a stone’s throw away from the synagogue was the Banya Bashi mosque, a symbol of another religious community, the Muslims of Sofia that had also largely vanished. While Bulgaria still has plenty of Muslims today, an estimated 550,000, very few of them live in Sofia. Prior to Bulgarian independence in 1878, there were 44 mosques in the city, today Banya Bashi is the only active mosque left. I was drawn to the structure mainly because I had never been in a mosque anywhere outside of Turkey. I was interested to see what it was like at a lone mosque in the capital city of a country that still bore signs of latent hostility towards its Muslim population. During the final decade of communist rule, the Bulgarian government had made the country’s Muslims scapegoats in an effort to distract from their misrule and widespread economic depravity plaguing the country. This led to an exodus of some 310,000 Muslims, almost all of whom fled to Turkey. Since that time there had been some improvement in relations, but the legacy of mistrust had never been fully overcome.

A large part of the problem has been the fact that Bulgaria’s sense of patriotism comes from the successful struggle to overthrow the Muslim Ottoman Turks in the latter part of the 19th century. Bulgaria’s Orthodox Christians had suffered mass repression during what Bulgarians so often referred to as the “500 years of slavery” under the Ottoman yoke. That repression was reversed after the Bulgars regained control of their country. Since that time, any overt religious expression by the country’s Muslim population has been met with suspicion at best and violence at worst. Islam is still regarded as a threat to the Bulgarian nation’s existence, despite the fact that Christian Bulgars vastly outnumber Muslims in the country today.

Visiting Banya Bashi was a very different experience from my visits to mosques in Turkey.  People were very welcoming and friendly, while it is a serious spiritual place Banya Boshi is also a local attraction. Those who manned the entrance seemed glad that a foreigner had decided to visit. This behavior I ascribed to the “minority effect.” When a group has been oppressed or vastly outnumbered in a place they are usually on their best behavior. This is induced by fear of a backlash. Entering a mosque is always a strange experience for me. I am used to people sitting silently in church pews, not open spaces covered with eye popping colors and geometric patterns. Because the floor space is used for prayer, this makes acts of ritual much more noticeable. I tried not to stare, but it was difficult. Most of my time was spent people watching or marveling at the beautiful colors and exotic interior design. The worshipers inside paid me little to no attention. I had no idea what to do other than stand. It is a bizarre sensation to feel totally lost in a space where all four walls can easily be seen and everything is out in the open. After about ten minutes I left. My visit to Banya Bashi was a strange experience that left me feeling out of place.

Blue Starry Sky - Ceiling At The Sofia Synagogue

What Has Been Lost – Blue Starry Sky Ceiling At The Sofia Synagogue (Credit: Mark Ahsmann)

Another Country – Not Their Own
Though both the Sofia Synagogue and Banya Bashi Mosque are in their rightful place at the heart of the city, they still feel foreign to Sofia, as though they are part of another century, another country, another city, that has long since vanished. These fantastic and otherworldly architectural set pieces offer a window into the richness of Jewish and Muslim cultures that once thrived in the city. They also offer a window into what has been lost and can never be brought back, specifically the peoples who brought these places to life.

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