St. Sofia Church – Sofia
The church “St. Sofia” is the second oldest church in the Bulgarian capital Sofia, dating to the 6th century. In the 14th century, the church gave its name to the city, previously known as Sredets. It is situated in the center of Bulgaria’s capital, in close proximity to the Monumental Temple “Alexander Nevski”. Nowadays the temple is considered one of the symbols of Sofia.
The church was built on the site of several earlier churches and places of worship dating back to the days when it was the necropolis of the Roman town of Serdica. In the 2nd century, it was the location of a Roman theatre. Over the next few centuries, several other churches were constructed, only to be destroyed by invading forces such as the Goths and the Huns. The basic cross design of the present basilica, with its two east towers and one tower-cupola, is believed to be the fifth structure to be constructed on the site and was built during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in the middle of the 6th century (527-565). It is thus a contemporary of the better-known Hagia Sophia church in Constantinople.
During the period of the 11th – 14th century it was a metropolitan church and its glory was so great that in the 14th century it gave its name to the city.
In the 16th century during the Ottoman Dominion the temple was reconstructed into a mosque, and its wall paintings were destroyed. According to a legend, in the 16th century the goldsmith Georgi was burned alive in front of it, because he refused to convert into Islam. The great earthquakes in 1818 and 1858 demolished the minaret and destroyed the building, and according to a legend during the second earthquake the two sons of the imam were in the building and died. The Muslims considered that a bad omen and deserted the temple. It was deserted for a long time, but after the Liberation (1878) it was turned into a warehouse.
The building was renovated a number of times, and since the beginning of the 20th century archaeological excavations have been conducted here. Currently the appearance of the temple is as close as possible to its authentic look from the late antiquity and the early Middle Ages. The revolutionary Vasil Levski (1837 – 1873) was hung in close proximity to the temple. Behind the church lies the grave of the great Bulgarian writer Ivan Vazov (1850 – 1921).
The Hagia Sophia Church is now one of the most valuable pieces of Early Christian architecture in Southeastern Europe. The present building is a cross basilica with three altars. The floor of the church is covered with complex Early Christian ornamental or flora and fauna-themed mosaics. The Hagia Sophia Church stands in the middle of an ancient necropolis and many tombs have been unearthed both under and near the church. Some of the tombs even feature frescoes.
According to popular lore, St Sophia's miraculous powers protected the building over the centuries, warding off human invasions and natural disasters to keep the church as an example of the elegant, austere, and symmetrical architecture of the age.
Because St. Sophia represents divine wisdom rather than a historical saint, icons within the church depict Sophia as Christ Emmanuel - a young figure of Christ seated on a rainbow. The church also displays icons of historical saints, including St. George and St. Vladimir.