Walking through the streets of one of the oldest cities in Europe, one could touch up with a thousand-year history. Few are familiar with the rich morpho code of Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, and many are surprised by the city’s 7000-year history. The historical layering is evident and recognizable in the richness of styles of various epochs that shape the overall urban character. Today, with a population of around 1,5 million, the city that “grows, but does not age” is a modern and developing European capital.
The Second Oldest European Capital
Humans settled the area of the city since at least 7000 BC, moreover artefacts show that the Sofia field, as known today, has been inhabited for at least 30,000 years. An important factor for the early settlement in the region is the crossroad location and the presence of the hot mineral spring near the Vladayska river. The first tribes colonizing, were the Thracians of the Serdis, which gave the initial name to the city – Serdica. Ancient Thracian settlements are still being found between the Central Hall and the Sheraton Hotel in the city center.
Conquered by the Romans, Serdica flourished under the rule of Mark Ulpius (98-117). The strategic geopolitical location of the city on the Via Militaris – the axis between the East and the West, obtained a great importance in the Roman province of Trakia. In 106 AD, Serdica gained autonomy and has been renamed as Ulpia Serdica, in honor of the emperor, and became the “brightest city of the Serdis”.
Between 176-180, when the empire was ruled by Marcus Aurelius and his son Commodus, the fortress wall of Serdica was built, thus the permanently fortified urban area and the city’s plan were determined forever. The traces of this planning can be still seen today, nearly two millennia later, in the location of the central Sofia streets, boulevards and buildings.
Named as “my Rome” and confirmed as a center of the new Christian faith by Constantine the Great later, Serdica remained part of the Eastern Roman Empire until the beginning of the 9th century, when the city’s population has been already mixed up with the Slavs.
Sofia Under Ottoman Rule
Sofia was under the power of the Ottoman Empire for five centuries (1382-1878). In some documents of that time the city was described as a place of particular charm, which evoked the admiration of the conquerors. However, Ottoman authorities rapidly changed the appearance of the city and influenced its architectural style. Some of the Christian churches and basilicas replaced with mosques and administrative buildings was turned into public baths and covered markets, that carried the tradition of the Ottoman city planning. The Ottoman rulers appreciated the strategic location of the city and continued its expansion as a crafts and trade center, that by the 19th century, the first Balkan railway was built as a section of the famous “Orient Express”, marking Sofia as an important point on the axis, linking Europe with Asia.
The New European Capital
On April 3, 1879, the Constituent Assembly elected Sofia as the capital of the Principality of Bulgaria, after The Liberation from the Ottomans. In this regard, April 4 was declared as the city’s official holiday. Steadily, a transformation of Sofia into an important political, economic, scientific and cultural center of the country began. The modern architectural outlook of the city was highly influenced by Austro-Hungarian movements of the Viennese Historicism and Secession, and was introduced by the end of 19th century and the first half of 20th century. Today, the beautiful buildings of that time are restored and transformed to administrative premises or consulates.
The synthesis of the Sofia’s neo-Byzantine style, also popular locally as a ‘national – romantic Bulgarian variant of the Secession’, brought by the first generation of Bulgarian architects, alumni of European architectural academies, stands as one of the most significant achievements that characterize the city today. Through this style a highly representative and outstanding look was endowed to key emblematic for the city public buildings: Some of the buildings constructed on the basis of neo-byzantine style in Sophia are as follows: Saint Nedelja Cathedral, Public Hot springs, The Covered Market, Saint Alexander Nevski Cathedral built in 1912 for the memory of the soldiers who passed away in Halite and Independence wars.
The Architecture of the Period between the World War I and World War II is characterized by the construction of administrative buildings and hotels under the sign of the late Secession. New trend in both monumental and residential architecture with bright patterns of Modernism, marked by the influence mainly of the German Functionalism and Bauhaus, testified a fast and stable economic upsurge.
However, the WWII left traces of remains on the overall architectural and urban structure in the city. In 1945 a new town-planning of the capital was adopted, under the Socialist regime, when the government declared the National Republic of Bulgaria. During the socialist rule (1945-1990), Sofia changed its appearance significantly. The new state authorities initiated a large-scale construction of public buildings in the spirit of the ‘social realism’ and the ‘late socialist eclectics’, concerning the industrial and residential development. Emblematic examples of this monumental architecture are: the present day governmental complex (the Presidency, the Council of Ministers, and former Communist Party House) and the National Palace of Culture. Distinctive for the socialist period is the residential architecture of the complexes of prefab-panel blocks – a typical example of industrialized housing-construction that is evident for the countries of the former Eastern bloc.
“Grows, But Does Not Age”
The end of the Socialist regime and the establishment of the democracy in the 90’s let to devastating economic and political shifts in Bulgaria. Walking down the wide streets and public squares – the backbone of the city, one could still feel the deeply rooted sense of a “red” city with a rational postmodern urban atmosphere. The saturation of contemporary architecture relying on glass and steel express the period of transformation, during the last decade, towards a global metropolitan capital. Today, with a population of around 1,5 million, Sofia serves as an economic and tech center that is affirming to a “digital capital for the new markets” for the Eastern Europe (F. Guerrini, Forbes, 2016). “Growing but not aging”, as stated on its motto, today Sofia acts rather as a reliable “adult” that articulates freedom and conscious evolution, but still manages to keep the youth deeply. Surprisingly, or not, this is particularly true for its residents that are characterized with dynamic and rich social life. With its active nightlife, strangers would define Sofia as a “celebration” every day, and wouldn’t be misled, because Sofians would stand for the good food and the cozy cultural events all the time.
There are many things that are happening now, showing a true desire to change and invest in the future urban development. Numerous projects and concepts, influenced by global trends, are paving the way to build a “city for people” – a user-friendly approach that concerns the true needs of its citizens (Jan Gehl, new plan for the city center, 2017). In 2013, under the leadership of The Sofia Municipality, an open international architectural competition for the volume-spatial concept for the development of the central part of Sofia, was held. Dividing the central city space by priority into four parts, 2018 was a remarkable for starting the implementation and operation on them. Having congratulatory positive outcomes, still there is much more to be adopted and learned from the international experience.
Although having a dramatic destiny in the past, Sofia proved its harsh character as a strong mother, and found a way to evolve to keep the “Faith, Hope and Love” for a better and brighter future.
Sofia has a rich cultural and natural identity. As one of the oldest cities in Europe, the city hosts 1400 protected historical buildings and monuments. The presence of river canals and mineral springs form its “blue” character, which is supported with the rich green infrastructure of the city. Moreover, the existence of mountains and the hilly topography of the surrounding environment, makes Sofia an attractive destination four seasons, and have a crucial role for the overall silhouette formation and visual presence.
St. Sofia Basilica
Conquered by the Byzantines and ruled during 1018-1194, the capital gained its name Sofia, as known today, from the “St. Sofia” basilica. During the late Byzantine rule, the city became a center for crafts and trade for the Balkans.
Turkish Embassy Building
The architectural design is by the Austrian Friedrich Grünarger and is in the Viennese Imperial Baroque style. At the beginning of the twentieth century, it became a Turkish embassy where Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the creator of modern Turkey, worked as a military attache. Source: “Sofia Portraits”, Sofia Municipality, 2012.
An Attractive Tourism Centre
The economic benefits from becoming an attractive tourism destination in the borders of the European Union in the last decade are undeniable, though. Sofia is among the most preferred travel destinations due to the cheap flight options and affordable entertainment life, compared to other European capitals.
Saint Sophia Day
On 17 September, the church honors the memory of the holy martyrs Sofia, Faith, Hope, Love and respects the virtues whose names they bear. On this holiday Sofians celebrate the Day of St. Sofia. The story tells that in the second half of the 1st century AD, a lonely Christian woman and her three daughters – Faith, Hope and Love, have been executed by the Emperor Adrian, because of their religion. The relics of the holy martyrs Sofia, Faith, Hope and Love are based in 777 in the northeastern French region Alsace.
By: Dzheylan Karaulan
*This article was published in the September-October issue of Marmara Life.