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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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