Sofia’s Churches: Microcosm of Bulgarian History

Orthodoxy is the historical religion of the Bulgarian people. In this article, the author takes us on a tour of the capital’s Orthodox churches.

by Valerie A. Abrahamsen, Th.D.

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St. George, St. Petka and St. Alexander Nevsky – prominent figures from the history books and the names of several churches in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia. From the country’s Roman and Byzantine roots, through the rule of the Turks and the period of Russian and Soviet control, the construction and alteration of these monuments provide a colorful overview of Bulgarian history.

Modern Sofia is a city of more than a million people. It has a unique central area that rivals other capitals in beauty and grandeur; yellow brick roads meander through the city, basilicas and bronze and marble sculptures dot the horizon.

However these yellow brick roads do not lead to the land of Oz. In just three years, Sofia, like the rest of the country, has experienced a revolution. In this former bastion of communism, the revitalization of religion can clearly be seen. Religious artifacts, icons and jewelry are openly sold in Sofia’s parks, and the churches, mosques and synagogues are alive with fervent activity. Remarkably, people of all sorts – young and old, male and female, urbane and provincial – are making pilgrimages to these shrines.

Modern Bulgaria dates from 681 A.D. when the Byzantine emperor recognized the Bulgar tribe’s control of the region between the Balkan Mountains and the Danube River. Until then, the region had been divided and ruled successively by the Thracian tribes, the Romans, the Bulgars and the Byzantines.

The seminomadic Thracians were known for their fighting skills and their highly-skilled work with gold. Among the early gold artifacts found are those depicting the Thracian Horseman/Hero, a major deity whose cult survived into the Byzantine era and whose iconography resembles St. George slaying the dragon.

Roman Sofia (Sardica) was an important urban center, and with the establishment of Christianity, an episcopal see. It hosted an early church council in c.342 A.D. at which the orthodoxy of St. Athanasius and his early followers was contested.

As in other cities of the empire, Sofia’s pagan structures were appropriated by the Christians and transformed into Christian places of worship. These transitions from one religion to another rarely seem to have been violent. The churches of St. Petka (Bulgarian for St. Paraskeva, or Friday), St. George and Haghia Sophia are examples of such transitions.

The Christian “takeover” in the Mediterranean, at least until the fourth century, was actually a gradual assimilation of beliefs and practices. Bulgaria did not become officially Christian until 864 A.D. Thus for many centuries, the prevailing religious expression was pagan. Even today, much of Orthodoxy, the form of Christianity taken by the Bulgars, preserves some forms of pagan worship – the appreciation of the spirit of God in nature, the cult of saints and icons, the veneration of the female aspect of God through the Virgin Mary and the extensive use of incense, water and oil in its rites.

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Tags: Orthodox Church Icons Architecture Bulgaria Haghia Sophia