Sofia and the Byzantine Legacy in Bulgaria

Sofia, as the capital of Bulgaria, is naturally very important to Bulgaria. It has a long history, dating back to prehistory. It also shows the importance of the Byzantine legacy in Orthodox Christianity, Bulgarian and even Ottoman culture.

Sofia is in the region which was once known as Thrace.  Known as Serdica in the Roman Era, it seems to have been the birthplace of Galarius, the caesar under Diocletian, and co-emperor with Constantine. It was from here Galarius announced the Edict of Toleration in 311, official ending the Diocletian persecution of Christianity, and predating Constantine’s Edict of Milan (313). It was also the site of the Council of Serdica in 343, probably held in the historical Church of Saint Sofia, which gave its name to the city. While it was upheld in the East and the West, this council did not accomplish its goals, and thus is not viewed as an ecumenical council as, for example, the Council of Nicea would be.

The Bulgars were a nomadic steppe people who invaded Thrace in the 6th century, conquering the region from the Byzantine Empire. The Bulgars and Byzantines were frequently at war with each other, though Byzantine culture increasingly influenced the Bulgars. One of the most important moments of cultural exchange in 864, when the Bulgar Tsar Boris I abolished paganism and accepted Orthodox Christianity as the official religion. The Byzantine Emperor Basil II defeated the Tsar Samuel II in 1041, thus conquering the First Bulgar Empire. Towards the end of the 12th century, a second Bulgar Empire arose in the same region, which would last until the Ottomans conquered it. Having an Orthodox Christian majority for centuries alone shows the importance of Byzantine culture and Constantinople in Bulgarian culture. It can also be clearly seen in the oldest and most important art and architecture of Sofia.

Sofia has some noteworthy churches, as the aforementioned Church of Saint Sofia. Its current building dates to the 6th century, though the ruins of its predecessor can still be seen underneath the foundations of the current structure. The Church of St. George, a rotunda dating to the time of Constantine and Galarius, is the oldest structure in Sofia and is one of the oldest churches in the world. It is believed that it was the site of a pagan temple before. It has frescoes across a long span of time, across much of the Medieval Era in particular. The Boyana Church, which lies on the outskirts of Sofia, is a UNESCO world heritage site with remarkable medieval frescoes. This church in particular shows the connections between Byzantine culture and Bulgarian culture. The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral was designed in a Neo-Byzantine manner.

Sofia is in no way the only place to find Byzantine influence in Bulgarian culture. The first two capitals of the First Bulgarian Empire, Pliska and Preslav, were influenced by Byzantine culture especially after the Bulgars converted to Christianity. The UNESCO world heritage site, the Rock-hewn Churches of Ivanovo, is a complex of monastery caves in the north eastern Bulgaria. The city Nesebar, another UNESCO world heritage site, has numerous churches including several dating to the Byzantine Era. The Rila Monastery, while largely dating to the 19th century, has existed since the 10th century. Its bright, colorful fresoes from the 19th century, show the lasting mark of Byzantine culture on the region, as it continues to create new forms of art at the same time. 

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The Byzantine Legacy
Created by David Hendrix Copyright 2016