Europe, Bulgaria, Sofia

Sofia’s religious architecture

No Comments 21 July 2010

Sofia’s religious architecture

As a crossroads of cultures, Sofia has many religious buildings of outstanding quality. Here the Monkey visits a few of the Bulgarian capital’s classic churches, temples, and mosques.

Alexander Nevski Cathedral, Sofia, Bulgaria
The Monkey gets a good side view of the massive, neo-Byzantine Alexander Nevski Cathedral in central Sofia. Built to honor the 200,000 Russian soldiers who died helping to liberate Bulgaria from Ottoman rule in 1878, the Cathedral is one of the most splendid buildings in the Balkans. Designed by Russian architect Pomerantsev, the cathedral was built between 1882 and 1912, and paid for entirely by donations. The Soviet Union donated the gold for the domes in 1960, but by the time of the Monkey’s first visit to Bulgaria in September 2000, the cathedral’s domes were in need of re-gilting. Here, you can see the scaffolding on the large dome as the re-gilting drew close to completion in November 2001. The cathedral’s interior frescoes were also being restored from smoke damage caused by the burning of countless candles inside

The crypt of the cathedral houses an impressive museum of medieval and renaissance Bulgarian icon painting, one of the country’s historic art forms.

Banya Bashi Camii, Sofia, Bulgaria
Another central Sofia religious building is the Banya Bashi Camii (the Mosque of the Baths). It is the main mosque in Sofia and has a solid architectural pedigree, having been built by the Ottoman master Sinan in 1576 (see his work in Istanbul here LINK TK). The mosque is next to the city’s public baths, which have been recently restored.

After pausing to inspect the mosque’s graceful dome, the Monkey continued to another nearby domed temple, Sofia’s Synagogue (see below).

Synagogue, Sofia, Bulgaria
The Monkey poses by central Sofia’s Synagogue. Though the Jewish community of Sofia has dwindled in recent decades, it was once sizable and Sofia’s Synagogue, built in 1909, remains the largest in the Balkans and the third largest in Europe (after Budapest and Amsterdam). Most of Bulgaria’s Jews trace their roots back to Iberia, from whence their ancestors were expelled by the 15th Century Inquisition. The Ottoman Empire allowed the Iberian Jews to resettle in its vast territories, and Istanbul and Salonika (modern Thessaloniki) became major Jewish centers. A number of cities in Ottoman-era and independent Bulgaria also had significant Jewish populations.

Despite Bulgaria’s entry into World War II as an Axis power, local interfaith resistance prevented the transfer of Bulgaria’s 50,000 Jews to the Nazi concentration camps. Having survived the war, however, many of Bulgaria’s Jews emigrated to the newly created state of Israel.

Sveti Kiril i Metodi, Sofia, Bulgaria
The Monkey enjoys the results of a midwinter blizzard in central Sofia. Behind him is the colorful Sveti Kiril i Metodi church, named for the two 9th Century monks (Cyril and Methodius) who developed the Cyrillic alphabet (used throughout Bulgaria, but most commonly associated with Russia) and in so doing gave the Slavic peoples a written expression for their oral traditions.

Russian Church, Sofia, Bulgaria
Sofia’s Russian Church dates from 1913, and was originally part of the grounds of the Russian Embassy (which has since moved). Despite its small proportions, the Russian Church’s gold-leaf onion domes make it a stand-out site in central Sofia. Here the Monkey enjoys an autumn morning on the church grounds.

This Monkey adventure has been viewed 1363 times since the 2010 website relaunch.



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7,262,675 (2008)

Land area:

110,550 sq. km.


Sofia (pop. 1,113,674; 2005)


In 2006, Bulgaria ranked 55th in the UNDP Human Development Index and 66th in total GDP, with a per capita GDP of $4,089.22. Public debt accounts for 10.5 percent of total GDP, while 14.1 percent of Bulgarians are beneath the poverty line.

Main language(s):


Monkey's name:

Maimunka (my-moon-ka)

Fun fact:

Bulgarians nod their heads up and down to say “no,” while they shake their heads from side to side to signify “yes.” That is, unless they adjust their head movements to accommodate for visitors accustomed to the more conventional non-verbal cues. Either way, head symbols can be a confusing affair in Bulgaria.

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Recommended reading

A Concise History of Bulgaria
R.J. Crampton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997)
This short book has become the go-to summation of this Balkan country’s long and complex history. A perfect introduction to the country.

Beyond the Frontier: The Politics of a Failed Mission, Bulgaria 1944
E.P. Thompson (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997)
A fascinating exploration of a British mission to rendez-vous with Bulgarian Partisans and raise a force against the Nazi-allied royalist dictatorship during World War II. Reads like a spy novel at times, but also a memorial to the author’s brother, who was killed in the effort.

Communism and the Remorse of an Innocent Victimizer
Zlatko Anguelov (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2002)
Part personal memoir, part exploration of the all-encompassing nature of Bulgaria’s Communist government, this book poses uncomfortable questions about the banal, everyday forms of repression and victimization that take root under coercive governments. Anguelov’s observations resonate far beyond Bulgaria’s borders…

The Balkans: A Short History
Mark Mazower (New York: Modern Library Paperback, 2002)
As the title says, a short history of the Balkan region. A helpful intro to this corner of Europe.

The Balkans: Nationalism, War, and the Great Powers, 1804-1999
Misha Glenny (New York: Penguin, 2001)
A rather epic undertaking by a former BBC correspondent for Central Europe, this book traces the tumultuous two centuries of the Balkan states’ struggles for independence from the Ottoman Empire, the emergence of pan-Slavic tendencies and their tribulations, and the reign of various regimes of the right and left during the 20th Century. A worthwhile read—don’t let its dimensions frighten you…

Description of a Struggle: The Vintage Book of Contemporary Eastern European Writing
Editor: Michael March (New York: Vintage Books, 1994: Out of print)
A great anthology of short stories from the former Eastern Bloc, providing an evocative snap shot of the early post-Cold War era. Stories are organized by state, with the Bulgarian Victor Paskov’s tale of “Romanian” exiles in the Paris Metro a particular highlight.

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