2023. 11. 25.
Orthodox church tour and a brief history of Sofia
A brilliant treasure box of the Balkans vol.1.
Tartalom értékelése (4 vélemény alapján):
Orthodox church tour and a brief history of Sofia

Most of the people like adding new ticks on their wish lists in order to emphasize how many countries they have visited so far. In general, I have a different attitude towards traveling and I believe in a sort of ‘less is more’ principle: namely, sometimes it is better to visit maybe just a few countries, but with much more details. 

Of course, my need for a deeper perspective is just my point of view which comes from the fact that I had a chance to live in many different places for a while. I do not say that we cannot find a balance between old and new, known and unknown, so everything I think here is only my personal observation. 

Photo: Ferenc Ocsovai

Photo: Ferenc Ocsovai

It is undeniable that there is a shivering, thrilling magic in the first steps in a country where one has never been before. That is why I realized that the time had come for me to discover a new domain, as a perfect ending for this year. 

Photo: Ferenc Ocsovai

Photo: Ferenc Ocsovai

My choice was somehow predictable: a place where I wanted to go for a long time, which is relatively close to Hungary and which is cheap and connected both to the Balkans and to Slavic cultures.

So the first prize went to Bulgaria, which was indeed such a unique and remarkable country that sometimes all the stereotypes about the Balkanic region came there true, but sometimes there were dozens of pleasant surprises as well.

Photo: Ferenc Ocsovai

Photo: Ferenc Ocsovai

Yo might know that the most popular parts of Bulgaria are the coastline and the mountains, mainly due to the sea and activities like winter sports or hiking –  although you will soon see that in terms of culture there is also a lot to explore. Therefore, I was glad that I was going to the capital, Sofia, which was a common, but maybe not so mainstream destination within Bulgaria. 

It is important to underline that the Balkanic countries are full of contrast and opposite trends: from one hand, the nature and the traditional architecture is full of miracles, but from the other hand, the destruction of wars and not taking care of certain things led to many abandoned places.

Photo: Ferenc Ocsovai

Photo: Ferenc Ocsovai

Since I tend to show you the whole picture, I do not want to hide this other face of the city, so apart from the wonderful towers and domes I will also attach photos of ruins and old buildings,because I would like to describe the truth instead of creating fake realities.

In spite of the the mild Bulgarian autumn that was full of tourists, I did not feel that I chose a place just to follow some kind of fashion or do something that people usually consider compulsory.

Sofia – unlike ‘compulsory’ trips to Paris, London, Barcelona or Rome – seemed to be an original choice indeed with all of its difficulties, beauties and funny moments we had with my father who also joined me for the trip this time.

Photo: Ferenc Ocsovai

Photo: Ferenc Ocsovai

Firstly, I need to start with the question of the city’s name, because Sofia was not meant to be called like that at the beginning at all.

The place was inhabited by Thracian tribes, and the Roman colony founded later, Serdica also derives its name from the previous dwellers (by the way, the name’s phonetic form is still used today: Serdika is an important metro station in the city center, where you can also see the ancient city’s ruins). 

Photo: Ferenc Ocsovai

Photo: Ferenc Ocsovai

The Bulgars themselves, while settling down in the region, were still nomadic people of Turkic origin, but later on they adopted the language of the local, subjugated Slavs who outnumbered them: that is why nowadays’ Bulgarians are Slavic people in terms of linguistics, but partly also in terms of genetics due to getting mixed with the Slavic population.

That is why Sofia’s first (Slavic-)Bulgarian name was Sredec, which was so common and spread until the late Middle Ages, that it was also adopted by us, Hungarians as Szeredőc.

Photo: Ferenc Ocsovai

Photo: Ferenc Ocsovai

Then, the fall of Constantinople and the Ottoman rule changed everything forever: a lot of Byzantine Greeks fled in the city and they began to call it Sofia after Saint Sofia (who was, by the way, never a real person - eventually the Greek name means ‘wisdom’, see for instance the word philosophy).

It is an interesting fact that during the glorious years of the two medieval Bulgarian empires, Sofia had never served as the capital, even though there were at least eight (!) different cities having this honor (one of the most important imperial castles is still located in Veliko Tarnovo nowadays).

Photo: Ferenc Ocsovai

Photo: Ferenc Ocsovai

Sofia was an important trade- and particularly church center, which is still visible, if someone wants to discover some of the amazing Orthodox churches of the city.

The most famous and iconic one is certainly the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral covered in golden and green, which was named after the legendary prince of Novgorod, who defeated the Teutonic Order in the Battle on the Ice on Lake Peipus and later was inaugurated among the Orthodox saints. 

Photo: Ferenc Ocsovai

Photo: Ferenc Ocsovai

How is it possible that such a remarkable Bulgarian building has a medieval Russian ruler as its namesake? Well, one should understand that the once close Bulgarian-Russian relations were not established only because both nations are Orthodox Christians, Slavic and use the Cyrillic alphabet.

The reason can be seen better, if one takes a look at the Monument to the Tsar Liberator (Pametnik na Tsar Osvoboditel) close to the National Assembly of Bulgaria and the round square around the Cathedral.

Photo: Ferenc Ocsovai

Photo: Ferenc Ocsovai

It is a monument dedicated to Russian Emperor Alexander II who helped a lot with his troops during the liberation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire in the last third of the 19th century.

The Church of Saint Nicholas the Miracle-Maker (often shortly referred to as ‘The Russian Church’ of Sofia) is also a sign of this tribute towards Russia with the classic and almost 'obligatory' onion domes on its towers.

Photo: Ferenc Ocsovai

Photo: Ferenc Ocsovai

I had not been in a lot of Orthodox churches before visiting Bulgaria (once in a Serbian one in Trieste and in another one in Athens maybe), but I have to admit that they have a quite transcendental and spiritual atmosphere.

The colorful, impressive frescos, painting and icons everywhere, the eerie, gloomy lights, the outstanding richdom of ornamentics, the wide, open space, the marble statues, the ancient stones and the long, blazing candles dedicated to the dead perfectly represented that. 

Photo: Ferenc Ocsovai

Photo: Ferenc Ocsovai

It was fascinating to think about that Orthodox church art had such a historical development that the style remained more or less the same throughout centuries - exactly if the same person would have made everything.

This transfer of art between generations can only be compared to the art of ancient Egypt where the artists could follow the same rules and patterns even for thousands (!) of years. 

Photo: Ferenc Ocsovai

Photo: Ferenc Ocsovai

Well, nowadays many would say that this is a strong limitation of the artist’s autonomy, but it is also a remarkable achievement and includes an undeniable message of permanency.

Not to mention that artists had different objectives in history so having a living from art and a fair social reputation was as much important as creating something great for spiritual reasons and offering it to the Eternity.

Photo: Ferenc Ocsovai

Photo: Ferenc Ocsovai

I could also talk a lot about the round shaped golden domes of the cathedral that all together seemed to be multiple giant heads or hats, while they implied a clear, intact, humble, but respectable appearance for the main church of Sofia.

In spite of the similarities, I could not see exactly the same characteristics twice among the other important churches like the one of Saint Nedelya (where we bumped into a funeral reception), of Saint Sofia (where we witnessed a real Orthodox wedding), of Saint George (called simply Rotunda by the locals) or the one of Saint Cyril and Methodius

Photo: Ferenc Ocsovai

Photo: Ferenc Ocsovai

Of course, an inexperienced person can easily mix up such churches of the same style, therefore I saw it only afterwards that I forgot to check places like the Seven Saints Church (Sveti Sedmochislenitsi) dedicated to missionary brothers Cyrill and Methodus and their five most important followers (e.g. Saint Sava and Saint Clement of Ohrid are also among them).

These saints were all signifiant figures of the creation of the Slavic Orthodox church, thus there is also a strong national mythology beyond apart from Christianhood itself.

Photo: Ferenc Ocsovai

Photo: Ferenc Ocsovai

Apparently, after the funeral reception and the wedding we just did not see an Orthodox baptism among the most important Christian family occasions; but at least we saw some moments of a holy mass held in Saint Petka’s Church close to Serdika station.

The tiny building reminded me to the Orthodox concept of God how a Greek lady in Athens explained it to me once: while the Catholics have enormous cathedrals visible from Heaven to praise and please the Lord, Orthodox people rather think that the spirit of God is among us here on the Earth, right inside our hearts; so there is no need to look for it in another, distant otherworld.  

Photo: Ferenc Ocsovai

Photo: Ferenc Ocsovai

I do not take any of the sides, because both concepts can be true in their sense, but none of the versions or theological arguments change the fact that everything that church architecture has given to arts is an unquestionable value.

No matter if they are Orthodox or Catholic, they serve the purpose of creativity, magic, peace, dignity, spirituality and, in my opinion, they delight us equally. 

Photo: Ferenc Ocsovai

Photo: Ferenc Ocsovai

However, Orthodoxy is not the only denomination which is present in Sofia: there were a few Catholic churches as well, and additionally, something else that really surprised me and meant a unique experience to us.

If you are interested in what else we discovered in terms of cultural diversity and church architecture, please join me next time to enter and walk in the city center together! 


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