Sofia, historic kaleidoscope

One of the highlights on the Sultanstrail is the city of Sofia. The capital of Bulgaria now is a vibrant city with a turbulent history. Donna Buchanan describes vividly how this history manifests itself in many aspects to the visitor.

History woven through the city

“History in Bulgaria surrounds the visitor on a vast scale; moreover, it threads through people’s conversations, remembrances, and descriptions-they use it on account for the presence of problems and justify solutions. Sofia itself is a city of stark contrasts whose design, architecture, street names, and sites embed one historical layer atop another, continually reminding residents of their link to past civilizations

About five thousand years ago the Serdi, one of several Thracian tribes whose artifacts fill many display cases in the National History Museum, christened the town Serdica. In 447 AD, Attila’s Huns ravaged much of the city, but it was rebuilt by the Roman emperor Justinian in the next century. The Romans transformed Serdica into the much-favored capital of the province of Dacia, retaining its Thracian name.

Underground street crossings as musea

The stone walls of this ancient city are still very much in evidence; many were unearthed when the system of underground street crossings lacing the heart of modern Sofia was dug. Construction crews consequently wove the pedestrian tunnels around the old stone boundaries, turning some crossings into miniature archaeological museums. A map reconstructing Serdica hangs inside one of these tunnels, showing passersby how the walls once protectively bounded the Roman city, while sections of numerous columns, friezes, and buildings dating from the same period remain strewn where they toppled, atop lots now designated as parks. Many comparable relics fill the National Archaeological Museum, a fifteenth-century quadrangular edifice that served as the Great Mosque during the Ottoman era, and which today is located across the street from the American Embassy.

Bulgaria as state

When the South Slavs descended from the Dniester river valley into the Balkan peninsula during the sixth century, they encountered and assimilated the Thraco Illyrian peoples, such as the Serdi and Bessi, then inhabit ing that area under the dominion of the Eastern Roman Empire. In 679 the Bulgars, nomadic Turkic tribesmen originating in the lower Volga River basin, conquered the Slav-dominated regions of Moesia (northern Bulgaria) and Little Scythia (Dobrudzha) under the leadership of Khan Asparukh (r. 680- 701). After military victories against the Byzantine Empire to the south and the Avar Khanate to the north, in 681 Asparukh organized the seven Slavic tribes living along the banks of the Danube into the Bulgarian state. The Bulgars merged with the Slavic population, contributing only their Bulgar name and an ancient system of government to the Bulgarian Khanat.

Sredets becomes Sophia

The new Bulgarian population redesignated Serdica “Srcdets”, meaning middle, perhaps because of its strategic location along trade routes between Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. But by the fourteenth century, Sredets was called Sofia in honor of the sixth-century church raised by Justinian when he rebuilt Serdica. The three-nave, red brick church, whose name points to Hagia Sophia, Byzantium’s Eastern Orthodox basilica (located in Istanbul), still stands in the city ’s downtown.

Living lawn mowers

Such monuments to the past have not been usurped by contemporary life, but simply woven into its fabric. Thus memorials to the Russian Liberators stand near former Turkish baths, colossal structures of Bulgarian socialism adjoin frilly homes of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie, and Viennese sweet shops neighbor neon-illuminated car dealerships, along brick-paved Roman roads named for former tsars and communist heroes. Even less weighty events of every day appear caught in a multi-temporal mesh. Horse-drawn carts plod placidly amidst double-jointed diesel-spewing public buses, while sheep and shepherds cross tram tracks and trolley lines on the outskirts of town twice daily, munching as they go, in one local answer to a lawn manicure.

Roma women

In 1986 a chance encounter threw these contrasts into bold relief when, as I wandered leisurely across the gloom-edged plaza beneath the megalithic hexagon-shaped Palace of Culture, a sudden shaft of autumnal sunlight drew my eyes to a Rom woman wearing a flowered skirt and kerchief sweeping with a twig broom the concrete tiles surrounding a futuristic sculpture”.

Buchanan Donna A.(2006).  Performing Democracy: Bulgarian Music and Musicians in Transition. (Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, ISBN 0-226-07827-2). P27-29.