Situated in the very heart of the Balkan Peninsula, equidistant from both the Black Sea and the Adriatic Sea, is Bulgaria‘s capital Sofia. We were there in April. As we began to explore the city and take in the sights, we stumbled across many churches. They conspicuously carved out a great deal of space. Most of them welcomed visitors with open doors, but many restricted photography inside.
The majority of citizens of Bulgaria are Eastern Orthodox Christians. The second largest religious group is Muslim. Numerous faiths coexist in Sofia and throughout the country, with churches, synagogues and mosques standing peacefully side by side. Below we share a bit about some of the more interesting churches we have visited as well as a mosque, a synagogue and buildings of historic importance for the country.
Rotunda Church of St. George
Built by the Romans in the 4th century, this structure is considered the oldest still standing in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia. The emperors Constantine the Great and Galerius spent quite a lot of time in Sofia (in the Roman times known as Serdica) and left their mark all over the city.
This church preserves beautiful frescoes dating from the medieval period inside its small rotunda. These wall paintings were covered up when the church became a mosque during the Ottoman period in Bulgaria and were only re-discovered in the 20th century. Other Roman remains can be seen around the church, framed by some very large and impressive buildings, such as the Bulgarian Ministry of Art and Science and the Sheraton Hotel.
Church of St. Nikolas (or, The Russian Church)
This charming little church is nestled on the edge of a tiny, quiet park just down the street from its much larger, and much more famous neighbor, the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (more on that below). It was built in the early 20th century for the Russian embassy and the Russian community of Sofia. Named after the emperor at the time, Nikolas II (the last to rule Russia), it was designed after Russian Muscovite churches of the 17th century.
Near the Russian Church is the National Art Gallery, which occupies most of the historic and imposing edifice of the former royal palace of Bulgaria, having been established in 1934 and moved to the palace in 1946, after the abolition of the monarchy.
St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
And now, for the grand dame of all the churches in Sofia. This soaring behemoth is quite different than any cathedral or church we have seen in southeast Europe. Its multiple domes climb up one on top of the other in seemingly endless layers. The top-most domes shine in splendid gold.
Like so many great buildings of the past, this cathedral took decades to build: it was started in the 19th century and finished in the early 20th century. It was built to commemorate the Russian soldiers who died during the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1878. Named after Alexander Nevsky, a Russian prince-turned-saint, the cathedral’s name was briefly changed during WWI as Bulgaria and Russia were on different sides. Today, it is one of the largest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals in the world, and the second largest in southeast Europe.
Church of St. Sofia
Dating back to the 4th century, it is the second oldest church in Sofia after the Rotunda Church of St. George, and its history is closely related to the history of the city. In fact, Sofia is named after this church. Over the centuries, several other churches were built on the current site, only to be destroyed by migrating tribes such as the Goths and the Huns. The church was then constructed during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the middle of the 6th century.
The church building is likely the site of the Council of Serdica held in Sofia in the 4th century. While it was upheld in the East and the West, this council did not accomplish its goals, and thus is not viewed as an ecumenical council as, for instance, the Council of Nicea would be. During the Second Bulgarian Empire in the medieval times, the structure acquired the status of a metropolitan church, and in the 14th century, the church gave its name to the city.
Church of St. Nedelya
It is a cathedral of the Sofia bishopric of the Bulgarian Patriarchate. The Church of St. Nedelya is a medieval structure that has suffered destruction through the ages and has been rebuilt many times. The present building of the temple is among the landmarks of Bulgaria’s capital.
Stopping along the Vitosha Boulevard is the best idea. This is the main pedestrian walkway in Sofia and a perfect spot to relax, eat and shop.
Church of St. Petka of the Saddlers
It is a medieval church constructed on the site of a former Roman religious building as a small one-naved building partially dug into the ground located in the very center of Sofia, almost at the entrance of the Serdika metro station. The church was built during the Ottoman times with donations from the country’s master saddlers. During those old times, the construction of churches was tolerated if their height did not exceed that of a soldier on horseback. This explains why it was half burried under the ground level.