Serdica is My Rome

but my home is my mosque.

Dear Reader, 

With a bit of imagination, the slightly nonsensical sentence above may serve to illustrate the chequered history of Sofia from pre-historic times, to year 45 AD when it became part of the Roman Empire, to the 7th century when the proto-Bulgarians came on horseback to settle in its plain and mountain, to the 9th century when it became Christian, to the 14th century when the Ottomans cast their veil of darkness, right to the 19th century when it re-emerged on the map of Europe as the capital of the Principality, aka Kingdom of Bulgaria from 1908.   

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Roman Emperor Constantine I the Great loved Sofia.

In fact, Serdica is my Rome are words attributed to Roman Emperor Constantine I the Great, who was allegedly very impressed with the mild climate and beautiful natural scenery of that particular part of his vast empire. 

The My Home is My Mosque line is a whimsical admonition I found in a travel guide to Poland, warning visitors to wear nice socks as their potential Polish hosts in the countryside in particular, might expect them to take their shoes off while visiting their homes.  

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I’ve found the book this came from at our improvised office library. It is titled “About Polska, an Insider Guide for Outsiders”, and was published by the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

It may be our common Slavic nature, but all the three points listed above are very true for Bulgarians too. When Turkish soap operas became en vogue in our country, I was amused to discover that taking one’s shoes off at home, or not, constituted a very marked line of division along the rural/urban axis in Turkey. Here we may be more provincial, but we always take our shoes off at home. When handymen come, they are usually reluctant to work in their socks so, knowing the outcry they’d cause if they try to trod on people’s carpets with their shoes on, they put disposable shoe covers on. 

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It looks like I’m in a garrulous mood tonight, as I did not want to discuss socks at all, but actually tell you of my visit to the Sofia History Museum last Sunday. For starters, look how nice the ticket looks! I kept it to use as a bookmark. 

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Sofia’s Central Baths was designed by two Bulgarian architects and was built in 1913. It functioned as a public bath until 1986. It was restored a couple of years ago and was lying in total ruin during the decades in between. Now it is the proud home of the Sofia history museum.

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Public drinking fountains outside the museum. The temperature of the mineral water is about 40 degrees C and is releasing steam in the cold winter day. In the early 20th century, Bulgarians used to take a bath at a public bath once a week. They brought clothes to wash, wooden clogs and a change of clothes, as well as soap and food for the day. Bathing seems to have been quite the experience. In fact, people started taking daily showers with the advent of democracy and used to bathe only on Sunday during Communism too.

Even today, people of the older generations are reluctant to have to go outside on Sundays, because, in their book, Sunday is a bathing day and if you go outside after a bath, you are supposed to catch a cold. Well, I’ve been washing my hair on weekday mornings right before work for years, in summer and winter alike, and I think this is complete nonsense. So when I hear that somebody is staying in on a Sunday because it is a bathing day, I grin broadly. And perhaps roll my eyes a little. 

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The remains of an old drinking fountain outside the museum. A thing I love about Sofia is that pieces of old stone, from Roman times to Communism, are lying about the city as part of the scenery. I think this is very chic and adds nobleness to the otherwise withered looks of Sofia’s historic centre.

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The mineral water is for drinking only, in case you’ve been contemplating putting it to alternative uses. 🙂

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Sofia’s deluxe department store of the communist times, TSUM, is nearby. Sofia’s mosque is nearby too, as well as the Catholic church and about four Orthodox churches, the oldest of which, St. George, is of the 5th century, and the newest is the Sveta Nedelya, which was rebuilt after the Communists saw it opportune to blow it up in April 1925, at the funeral of a general they’d murdered beforehand. There is even one church, Sveti Spas, of the 13th century, which was demolished during the 1941-1944 WWII bombings, and remains of which are currently in the basement of a bank built on top of it. In fact, this is the current Unicredit Bulbank right next to the St. Sofia monument (the gold-faced pagan-looking woman on a huge pedestal), which in turn was erected where a statue of Lenin once stood. That’s the sands of time moving for you. Oh, and my office is nearby too. 

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The St George rotunda, hidden in the courtyard of the President headquarters and TSUM. Look at the little gem that it is. It is artistically lit up at night and looks very mystical.

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The same church, which used to be larger compared to what has remained of it today, painted by Czech artist Joseph Oberbauer. Bulgaria owns a lot to the adventurous and entrepreneurial spirit of the Czechs, who were the first to bring European art, music and cuisine to Bulgaria after the Liberation. The person who introduced the classical guitar to Bulgaria, one Karel Mahan, was a Czech too. 

If you care to see how a Lithuanian confectionery company complimented Sofia for being A City of Spirit, check out the end of this post. Good for them!

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Sofia’s mosque, just opposite the bath. I took this picture while the muezzin was summoning the faithful for the 5 o’clock prayer, which added colour to my experience.

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Across the street from the mosque – Sofia’s Central Shopping Hall, also in place since the beginning of the 20th century. The custom was only for men to shop there, while women shopped unchaperoned at the open-air market nearby. This market is still standing and is in fact called Zhenski Pazar, or Women’s Market, because 1. women constituted most of the shoppers and 2. girls from nearby villages used this market as a place to find employers and work as maids in the city. 

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In the shopping hall the original Hall clock is displayed. It was restored in 2000 but was not working when I took the picture. It is mechanical and perhaps someone had forgotten to wind it.

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A few weeks back, I went to that shopping hall but found it in terrible need of renovation, re-branding and a better tenant mix. Originally I wanted to buy fish, but ended up buying only two pocket cloth handkerchiefs. I recently started using those again and, lo and behold, they are still being produced and sold. Means someone else is using them too. 

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Now that we’ve taken a look around outside the museum, let’s go inside! It’s freezing.

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If you’ve been paying attention to my other posts, you’d know that my heart skips a beat when I see floors like these.

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…Or interiors with wrought iron details like these.

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A prehistoric home found in Slatina, which is now a neighbourhood close to where I live. Doesn’t look too uncomfortable I must say. Slatina used to be a village just outside Sofia under the monarchy. My current neighbourhood, which is called in three different ways under various administrative divisions of Sofia, all in force simultaneously of course, was part of the erstwhile village of Poduene, which was the first village to become part of Sofia after the Liberation. 

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Mosaic floor found at a Roman villa in Filipovtsi, another Sofia residential district of today. The museum’s souvenir shop sells magnets of these mosaics for people to put on their fridges. Some magnets are really cute, but I am generally not a fan, as they add visual clutter. I have only one magnet on display, on the aspirator above my stove, and that is a painting of a girl against a chrysanthemum background by Maystora. Can be seen here, at the picture showing my retro metal kettle. 

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This fence was part of a pool at the same villa. La dolce vita, or what?

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Model of a late 4th-century tomb located under the current 13 General Gurko Street in downtown Sofia. Oh, just look at those gorgeous archangels!

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The temptations of the Devil, an 18th-century mural from a monastery on the outskirts of Sofia. The words used for the virtues and the sins are in Church Slavonic, which, as I’ve told you here, is basically mediaeval Bulgarian. They sound delightfully quaint and poetic, but are, alas, untranslatable.

The town of Samokov, some 50 km away from Sofia, was home to one of Bulgaria’s major icon -painting schools. The murals in the churches of today look more or less the same, it is really impressive that the Orthodox community has managed to preserve icon painting traditions for about two millennia.

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Hand-painted wooden church furniture of the 18th century. If you care to look at similar ones, located on a romantic and tiny Black Sea island that used to be a secluded place for monks and then a political prison, check out this post

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The Archangel Michael and St Nikolay, rarely to be found on the same icon. 18th century. All the icons on display were very impressive in the subdued light and the chants that were playing in the background. Knowing how icons were the only source of colour and hope in the lives of Bulgarians for so long, it was impossible to not feel deep emotion when looking at them. When I was younger, I thought it very grandma-ish to have icons at home, but now I have three and love them dearly. And the more so every day. 

Now I will leave you, hopefully kicking and screaming for more, because my Internet connection is strangely unstable and in addition, it would be impossible to fit the Sofia museum’s entire exhibition into one post. I spent about three hours just looking at it.

So talk soon,
Boryana

PS No Internet – no musical greeting. C’est la vie.