This is the inscription in the narthex (lobby area) of Sofia cathedral St. Alexander Nevsky, above the entry to the nave (the central and main part of the church). It says My Home, a Home of Prayer. Beautiful, isn’t it?
And this is the same place during yesterday’s Good Friday service.
St. Alexander Nevsky is the cathedral church of the Bulgarian Patriarch and also one of the largest and most beautiful Eastern Orthodox cathedrals in the world. It is also the church located the closest to my home, so it is the church I most often go to. It is my church :).
It is also the church where the Bulgarian political elite comes to worship (occasionally) and services at crucial religious holidays take place amid TV camera installations (everything is recorded for the state archives), and brass stanchions with red velvet ropes, keeping the laity in its right place – to the side naves.
During the Easter vigil service, a plush pile carpet runner is placed not only inside the church, which is normal for the Sunday Liturgy, but also on the stairs outside, to welcome the patriarch and the political elite. At such times, common worshipers who have not managed to enter the church, are kept to the sides of the carpet behind metal fences.
I will spare you the technical details on this flagship temple such as height and capacity, as they are all over the Internet.
Instead, I thought I’d jot down some things that, to the best of my knowledge, are not so commonly found in one place on the web.
- St. Alexander Nevsky’s cornerstone was laid on February 19, 1882 and the construction was completed in 1912, or 30 years later. The church bells sounded for the first time on March 13, 1913, to mark the Bulgarian Army’s taking over of Adrianople in the Balkan War (1912-1913) (Edirne in present-day Turkey, or Одрин). This is one of Bulgaria’s greatest military feats in the 20th century, among many others.
- The temple has been sanctified for divine service in August 1924. Politics, geopolitics and state ideology are heavily intertwined in its construction and naming. Its patron saint, St Alexander Nevsky, is a Russian warrior saint, who was also the heavenly protector of Russian Emperor Alexander II, labeled Liberator. In Bulgaria, he is commonly referred to as The Tsar Liberator (Цар Освободител), there is also a very central boulevard called like that, but actually Liberator is a nickname Alexander II received for abolishing peasant serfdom in Russia, not for liberating the Bulgarians.
- After the Russian fleet bombarded the Black Sea city of Varna on October 14, 1915 as punishment for Bulgaria’s entering World War One on the side of the Central Powers, the Bulgarian people were outraged, despite their traditional gratitude to the Russian Empire for being part of its geopolitical plan that resulted in Bulgaria’s liberation. As a result of this mass indignation, which was also shared by national poet and pronounced Russophile Ivan Vazov, the cathedral was renamed into St. St. Cyril and Methodius (св.св. Кирил и Методий), in a change that lasted for about five years.
- By convention, distances between cities are measured as the distances between the buildings of their respective administrations. For Sofia, however, this “kilometer zero” is the St. Alexander Nevsky cathedral.
- The decoration of the temple was entrusted to leading Bulgarian and Russian painters of the time, including Anton Mitov, Ivan Mrkvicka and Russian Victor Vasnetsov. Many of the icons are painted like portraits, oil on canvass, and are kept in framed glass.
- On the northern side close to the Altar (meaning to your left when facing the Altar), there is a large icon of Vladimir Sviatoslavich the Great, ruler of Kievan Rus between 980 and 1015, and also the patron saint of KGB, the Russian secret service. (This is common knowledge in Bulgaria, but I could not find corroboration of it on the Internet or in a book).
- The small dome located right above the Altar, has been covered with a thin sheet of a total 5 kg of gold, obtained from the wedding and family jewels many Bulgarian women donated to support the construction of the cathedral.
- St. Alexander Nevsky has seen no maintenance except gilding of the outside domes twice, throughout all the years of its existence. Some of the frescoes are currently in a bad state and need restoration, money for which is constantly lacking, despite all the donation campaigns that have been staged.
- Centenarian Grandpa Dobre (дядо Добре), born in 1914 and still alive with God’s mercy, astonished Bulgarians in 2010 when he donated BGN 35,700 (EUR 18,250) collected as charity, to support restoration works at the temple. Grandpa Dobre had previously donated smaller, though still substantial, sums to other churches across Bulgaria.
- In one of his few visits to Bulgaria under Communism, world-renowned Bulgarian operatic bass singer Boris Hristov, or Christoff, (Борис Христов, 1914-1993), recorded Bulgarian and Russian Orthodox chant pieces in the St. Alexander Nevsky cathedral, together with its mixed choir, comprising about 40 singers. Hristov used to sing in this choir as a boy. He was an acclaimed soloist of another choir in Sofia while he studied law and also after he started working at a Sofia court in the 1930s and 1940s. His magical voice was noticed by Tsar Boris III during a public prayer for Epiphany in 1942. Epiphany, or St. Jordan’s Day, celebrated on January 7, is also a day honouring the glory of the Bulgarian Army. Therefore, the public prayer was attended by the tsar and all the political and military elite of the country. Later Boris Hristov went to study music and belcanto singing in Italy, on a grant by the Bulgarian government.
- In an article published in 1980, the National Geographic magazine quite cynically commented, in a caption to a picture of the church’s lavish interior, that religious services there were attended mainly by tourists. Were they now…
- The current conductor of the St Alexander Nevsky choir, maestro Dimitar Dimitrov, and the current Bulgarian patriarch Neophyte, born as Simeon Dimitrov, are brothers. Maestro Dimitar Dimitrov has been conducting the choir for more than 40 years.
- People gathered spontaneously at the square in front of the cathedral to support each other and express their outrage and disbelief in 1919, after news of the signing of the Neuilly Peace Treaty had reached Bulgaria. The crowd was singing patriotic songs and at a certain point headed to the home of poet Ivan Vazov, situated close by, for solace. They called Vazov on his balcony and he delivered a speech which was interrupted by his bursting into emotional tears. Dumbfounded, the crowd knelt and started singing a mourning march composed to Vazov’s poem Юнаци, лека нощ! (Brave youths, good night!) – one of the most powerful specimens of Bulgarian patriotic verse. Vazov’s grave is located right opposite the main entrance of the cathedral, and is not adorned with a marble monument, but with a huge rock, called a morena, from the Vitosha Mountain.
All of the above is why, dear Reader, I strongly feel that we Bulgarians should know and cherish our main cathedral and cross its threshold with the utmost respect, not only as a Christian temple, but also as a monument paying homage to our ancestors and past. It is a sacred place indeed. Even more so, because of the 6th-century St Sophia church, located just a few metres away. Think how many centuries of prayers are circling in the air above…
I’d like to close with a really great stanza from poem To The Young*, by Polish poet Adam Asnyk (1838-1897). I know he is not Bulgarian, but the poem is so beautiful. Let’s be patriotic, not chauvinistic :):
“But trample not the altars of the past!
Although you shall much finer domes erect.
The holy flames upon the stones will last,
And human love lives there and guards them fast,
And them you owe respect!”
There. Nothing more to be said.
*Translated by Jarek Zawadzki; http://tlumacz-literatury.pl