Sofia's Ancient Beginnings

Thracians (6th Century BC - 1st Century AD): Bulgaria's story begins with the Thracians, an ancient civilization that inhabited the surrounding lands as early as the 6th century BC. Renowned for their advanced artistry and spiritual practices, the Thracians left an indelible mark on the region. In the Thracian heartland, Sofia, the remnants of their existence, from burial mounds to fortresses, serve as archaeological testaments to their cultural sophistication.

Check out: The National History Museum houses an extensive collection of artifacts from various periods, including Thracian artifacts. Outside of Sofia, visit the Valley of the Thracian Kings (burial mounds and gold treasures displayed at local museums), the Starosel Thracian Tomb or Perperikon, an ancient Thracian fortress in the Rhodope Mountains.


Romans (1st Century BC - 4th Century AD): The Roman era brought profound changes as Bulgaria, becoming a part of the Roman Empire, experenced urbanization, and cultural assimilation. Serdica, modern-day Sofia, emerged as a thriving Roman city, renamed Ulpia Serdica in honor of Emperor Trajan. The Romans implemented systematic city planning, constructing forums, administrative buildings, and a basilica, while also developing a well-designed infrastructure with defensive walls and aqueducts. As a hub for trade and commerce on major routes, Serdica thrived economically, and its cultural landscape was enriched with Roman influences, including temples, theaters, and public baths. The city played a significant role in early Christian history, hosting the Council of Serdica in 343 AD. Today, archaeological excavations reveal remnants of Roman Serdica, such as the Eastern Gate and Roman Theater, providing insights into the city’s enduring Roman legacy. 

Check out: The Eastern Gate complex in the underpass to the Presidency building, and St. George’s Rotunda in the internal courtyard of the Presidency building. Outside of Sofia, visit Plovdiv to marvel at the Roman Theatre, Ancient Stadium of Philippopolis, Odeon, the Roman Aqueduct and the Bishop’s Basilica of Philippolis with breathtaking Roman mosaics..


Slavs and Proto-Bulgarians, and the birth of a nation (5th Century - 7th Century):
The migration of the Slavs from Central and Eastern Europe in the 5th century marked a significant chapter. Interacting with the local Thracian and Romanized populations, the Slavs contributed agricultural expertise and linguistic nuances, fostering a cultural fusion. Meanwhile, the Proto-Bulgarians, a nomadic Turkic people, migrated from Central Asia in the 7th century. Under Khan Asparuh, they integrated with the local communities, forming the First Bulgarian State in 681 AD. This synthesis of Slavic, Thracian, and Proto-Bulgarian elements became the foundation of Bulgaria’s unique cultural and political identity.

 

Golden Age: Achievements and Expansion

The cultural synthesis deepened with the adoption of Christianity under Boris I in 864 AD. The brothers Cyril and Methodius played a pivotal role in this process, introducing the Cyrillic alphabet to the Bulgarian people. This linguistic innovation not only facilitated religious unity but also became a unifying element for the diverse cultural strands within Bulgarian society.

The First Bulgarian Empire experienced a Golden Age with territorial expansion and cultural achievements during the reign of Tsar Simeon I (893–927). Pliska and later Preslav flourished as centers of art, literature, and religious scholarship. The empire expanded its influence, encompassing territories from the Adriatic to the Black Sea, contributing to the rich mosaic of cultures within its borders. However, external threats from Saracen and Magyar invasions in the 9th and 10th centuries challenged the empire’s stability. Ultimately, in 1018, the First Bulgarian State met its end after a series of Byzantine campaigns, resulting in the annexation of Bulgaria and concluding its political independence.

Check out: Outside of Sofia, visit the archeological sites of Pliska, Preslav, and the Madara Rider, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

 

Byzantine Legacy

As the Byzantines ascended, Bulgaria found itself at the crossroads of East and West. As a crucial urban center at the crossroads of trade routes, Sofia continued to grow and likely underwent fortifications to enhance its defenses against external threats. Orthodox Christianity played a central role in shaping Sofia’s cultural and religious identity during this period. The city also became a hub for cultural exchanges, fostering a diverse cultural milieu. The St. Sophia Basilica in the center of Sofia, a masterpiece of Byzantine architecture, stands as a testament to this era.

Check out: St. Sofia Basilica

 

Second Bulgarian Empire

The Second Bulgarian Empire, spanning from 1185 to 1396, emerged following the Uprising of Asen and Peter against Byzantine rule. The Asen dynasty, which ruled during the late 12th and early 13th centuries, shifted the capital to Tarnovo and achieved notable cultural and religious advancements.

The Tarnovo Literary School flourished, contributing to Bulgarian literature and art, while the construction of significant religious buildings showcased architectural and artistic achievements. The state faced challenges, including Mongol and Tatar invasions, internal conflicts, and eventually succumbed to the Ottoman Turks.

As the capital was situated in Tarnovo, Sofia’s significance during this period was not as pronounced. However, Sofia continued to be a strategic urban center, influenced by the empire’s territorial expansion and conflicts with neighboring powers.

Check out: The Boyana Church, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, originally built during the First Bulgarian Empire, experienced significant expansions and modifications during the Second Bulgarian Empire when ornate frescoes, preserved to this day, were also added. Outside of Sofia, visit Tsarevets fortress in Veliko Tarnovo.

 

Ottoman Rule: Centuries of Endurance
The Ottoman Empire’s embrace of Bulgaria in the late 14th century marked a tumultuous period that would endure for nearly five centuries. Sofia, like much of the region, bore witness to the ebb and flow of Ottoman domination. Mosques and bazaars, such as Sofia’s Banya Bashi Mosque and the central market, reflect the cultural synthesis that occurred during this time.

Amid the challenges of Ottoman domination, Bulgaria maintained its cultural identity. Folklore, music, and traditions became resilient expressions of national pride. The Rila Monastery, founded in the 10th century by St. Ivan of Rila, became a spiritual refuge and a symbol of resistance against cultural assimilation.

Check out: Banya Bashi Mosque and Bath, the latter now housing Sofia’s History Museum, and the central market. Outside of Sofia, visit the Rila Monastery.

 

The Liberation Movement

The Liberation Movement in Bulgaria was a pivotal period of resistance against Ottoman rule that culminated in the restoration of Bulgarian independence. Sofia played a central role in this movement, serving as a focal point for revolutionary activities and strategic planning. Throughout the 19th century, numerous secret revolutionary committees were formed in Sofia, with the aim of coordinating efforts to achieve liberation. The city became a hub for intellectuals, revolutionaries, and freedom fighters who sought to inspire national consciousness and mobilize the Bulgarian population.

One notable event was the April Uprising of 1876, a widespread rebellion against Ottoman oppression that had profound implications for the course of the Liberation Movement. While the uprising faced harsh suppression, its aftermath sparked international outrage and led to increased diplomatic pressure on the Ottoman Empire. The subsequent Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 saw the active involvement of Bulgarian volunteers and fighters, with Sofia serving as a logistical and organizational center. The Treaty of San Stefano in 1878 marked the end of the war and paved the way for the establishment of the modern Bulgarian state, with Sofia as its capital.

Check out: Monument to Vasil Levski, Monument to Tzar Liberator (Tzar Alexander II of Russia), Monument to the Unknown Soldier (in front of St. Sofia Basilica). Outside of Sofia, visit Koprivshtitsa (a center of revolutionary activity, with preserved houses and several museums dedicated to the Liberation Movement) or the Monument of Liberty at Mt. Shipka, the site of the heroic Battle of Shipka Pass. 

 

National Revival: A Cultural Renaissance

The 19th century heralded a period of awakening known as the National Revival, where Bulgarians sought to reclaim their cultural heritage. Sofia, now the capital of an emerging nation, witnessed a resurgence of artistic and intellectual pursuits. The revitalization of the Bulgarian language and the establishment of schools contributed to a renewed sense of identity. The city underwent significant modernization with the introduction of paved streets, improved transportation, and a diverse architectural landscape. Architectural styles ranging from Neo-Renaissance to Neo-Baroque showcase a fusion of traditional and contemporary influences. City Gardens emerged as a cultural hub, reflecting changing urban lifestyles.

 

Check out: Battenberg Palace, Vrana Palace, the National Theatre and Sofia City Gardens, the National Assembly, Revival era paintings inside the National Art Gallery, the Alexander Nevski Cathedral, and Sveti Sedmochislenici Church. Outside of Sofia, visit Plovdiv’s Old Town, with its charming architectural ensemble from the National Revival period.

 

The Turbulent 20th Century: Wars and Transitions

The 20th century brought both triumph and tragedy to Bulgaria. World War I saw the nation on the side of the Central Powers, and post-war negotiations resulted in territorial losses, reduced military capabilities and reparations. The interwar period witnessed political instability and social change, including an unsuccessful assassination attempt on the political and military elite of the country that significantly damaged St. Nedelya Church. The construction of Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski’s main building in the 1920s was made possible through a combination of state and public donations, and contributions from prominent individuals and philanthropists. 

Boris III became the king of Bulgaria in 1918 and ruled until his death in 1943. World War II thrust Bulgaria into complex geopolitical dynamics. An event of utmost historical significance from this period is the government’s refusal to deport its Jewish and Roma citizens–a point of pride for Bulgaria’s society today. King Boris III died under mysterious circumstances in 1943. After his death, Bulgaria faced internal and external pressures. The capital city was extensively bombed during 1943-1944, with almost a quarter of all buildings destroyed and many civilians killed. In 1946, a referendum abolished the monarchy, and Bulgaria officially became a People’s Republic under Communist rule. Socialism and Transition: Navigating Change

Check out: Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski, the National Museum of Military History, and Eagle’s Bridge (which had its eagles added only in 2006). 


Socialism and Transition: Navigating Change
The latter half of the 20th century saw Bulgaria under socialist rule, an era marked by industrialization and centralized planning. In Sofia, the National Palace of Culture, an iconic symbol, emerged during this period, as did the Largo, a monumental architectural complex that houses the Presidency, the Council of Ministers, and the new Parliament (former Party House). 

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 ushered in a new chapter. Bulgaria transitioned to democracy, navigating economic challenges, and redefining its place on the global stage. The country joined NATO in 2004 and the European Union in 2007. Today Bulgaria welcomes more than 12 million visitors annually, over twice the size of its own population, attracted by its competitive beach and winter sports vacation offers, and is developing rural, city, SPA, and archaeological tourism. 

Check out: The National Palace of Culture (NDK), the Largo Complex, and the Museum of Socialist Art.

 

News on the Keynote Speakers will follow soon!