Some time ago, the gritty historian and director of the National Museum of History, Bozhidar Dimitrov, published a book with the telling title Bulgarians: The First Europeans. It caused quite a stir in the academic circles and many were quick to accuse the doctor of history of using ‘unverified’ information. Yet his thesis may be well-founded and the evidence for this is … well, right beneath your feet.
Sofia is 7000 years old and is one of Europe’s most ancient cities. Even today, its center contains objects belonging to Neolithic man, as well as remains from the Stone and Bronze ages. Its first settlers, the Thracians and the Serds, were probably attracted to the Sofia plain by its abundance of mineral springs (the majority are in the vicinity of the city’s old mineral bath, the Presidency or in the Lozenets, Gorna Banya and Knyazhevo residential areas).
It was the Serds that gave the city its first name – Serdica. When the Roman legions conquered it (in 29 BC), they renamed it Ulpia Serdica and turned it into the municipium (central city) of the region. Soon turrets, fortification walls, thermal baths, administrative buildings, a basilica and a large amphitheater emerged. During the 2nd Century, Ulpia Serdica became the centre of the Roman province of Lower Dakia expanding to such an extent in just 150 years that Emperor Constantine the Great affectionately termed it “My Rome”.
No sooner was Danubian Bulgaria established (681) than the Bulgarian khans began the first of their stubborn attempts to annex the city to their state. In 809, Khan Krum finally succeeded in making Serdica part of Bulgarian territory, renaming it Sredetz (meaning middle center). After the Byzantine invasion (1018) the town became Triaditza, which means “between the mountains” and when Bulgaria restored its independence (1187), it became known as Sofia. It was named after the St Sofia Church which exists to this day. At the time Sofia enjoyed a reputation as a craft and trade center and many new buildings and churches, the most famous of which is the Boyana Church, were erected.
In 1382, the Ottomans seized the city and the Turks quickly altered the landscape – Orthodox churches gave way to mosques, and Turkish administrative buildings and baths emerged. The Ottoman administration was aware of Sofia’s excellent crossroads location and transformed the city into the biggest marketplace on the Balkans. During the 18 Century, the stone bridge that connected Europe to Asia Minor passed through Sofia.
After Bulgaria’s Liberation from Ottoman dominion (1878) the state needed to elect a capital. This prompted a heated discussion about which city was most worthy of the honor. At the Constituent Assembly in 1879 Marin Drinov – an eminent Bulgarian citizen who served in the Russian administration – proposed that Sofia become the capital of the Principality of Bulgaria. He argued that it was located in the centre of the Bulgarian ethnic community. Veliko Tarnovo and Plovdiv were the two other candidates, yet the latter was quickly dismissed as it remained within the bounds of Eastern Rumelia – and was in fact its central city. On 4 April 1879 Sofia was elected as the capital of the Principality.
Sofia’s first years as a capital were far from glorious – the city had long lost its former grandeur. The old neighborhoods that had been immortalized in the engravings of Joseph Oberbauer had lost their glitter. A number of the city’s symbolic churches, with the exception of the “Sveti Kral” (St King) or presenttday “St Nedelya” (St Sunday), were in a wretched state and many had been transformed into mosques.
Yet urbanization took place quickly, and after 1907 (when one of Sofia’s most stately buildings – the National Theater – was inaugurated) it was already a true European city. Paved streets replaced the Turkish souks, churches and schools had been constructed; along with a sewage system, telephones and a telegraph. Sofia was one of the first cities in Europe to be electrified and boasted trams for public transportation. In the 1920s, art nouveau, Bauhaus and neo-c1assic forms of architecture began to appear.
Some of the buildings can still be viewed in the area between the Lion’s Bridge and Sheraton hotel. Sofia was a compact yet modern city. And it remained so until the allied air raids during WWII – which almost completely destroyed the center. After this, Sofia was to change its outlook once again. On 9 September 1944 (the date of the communist coup), monolithic buildings – such as the Partien dom (Communist Party Headquarters), TZUM (Central Universal Market) and the Balkan hotel were erected, and the prefab residential areas came into existence.
Today, Sofia is ever growing and never aging. Its luxury apartment and office developments are becoming even more luxurious, cars outnumber the available roads and parking spaces, the new malls continue to mushroom and the capital’s metro is soon expected to become 10 km (6.2 miles.) longer.