A Brief History of Sofia

SOFIA is located on an elevated plain in midwestern Bulgaria, at the foot of the Vitosha and Lyulin mountains (part of the Balkan Mountain chain). It is Bulgaria's largest city and its chief commercial, manufacturing, transportation, and cultural center. Major manufactures include metal, wood, and rubber products, machinery, chemicals, electronic and transportation equipment, processed food, textiles, clothing, footwear, and printed materials. Government activities, construction, and tourism are also important in the city's economic base. The population is approximately 1,117,000.

Sofia is one of the oldest European cities, but at the same time it is one of the youngest capitals of Europe. The Thracians settled in Sofia between 800 and 700 B.C.  In the 1st century A.D., the town was conquered by the Romans and named Serdica - after the name of the local tribe Serdi. In the 3rd century Serdica became the center of the Roman province "Inland Dacia." In the 4th century Emperor Constantine the Great transformed Serdica into a rich and beautiful town. Inside the strong walls of the fortress were beautiful Christian basilicas, ornate public buildings and an Emperor's residence.

Like today, there were many mineral springs in the city and in the vicinity. The town expanded around the mineral spring in the center. The mineral waters are very hot (46 degrees Celsius / 155 degrees Fahrenheit). The healing properties of the water have been known to help people with various illnesses. The mineral spring is one of the symbols of Sofia. It is included on the city's coat of arms, along with the silhouette of Vitosha Mountain, St. Sofia Church and the goddess patroness Tuhe.

How did Sofia get its name? Legend says that the daughter of Byzantine Emperor Justinian the Great was very ill and came to Serdica. She recovered after drinking the water, breathing the fresh air and enjoying the pleasant climate. As gratitude to the town for the recovery of his daughter, Justinian built a church, named after his daughter Sofia. This church, which became known as St. Sofia, would one day give its name to the city.

In 809, under Khan Kroum, the town was captured from the Byzantine Empire and incorporated into Bulgaria. It was given the Slavonic name Sredets. It became one of the administrative and strategic centers of the first Bulgarian kingdom. The fortification system, the streets network, the ancient buildings, the St. George and St. Sofia churches of early Christianity were preserved (despite the fact that at that time Bulgarians had not yet converted to Christianity). In the 10th century Sredets was a significant strategic point in the defense of the western Bulgarian lands against the Byzantine Empire. In 972 the Byzantine Empire conquered northeastern Bulgaria. Sredets itself is reconquered by Byzantium in 1018. Byzantine rule lasted almost two centuries. Bulgaria rebelled and established a second Bulgarian kingdom in 1185. Sredets is freed from Byzantine rule
in 1194.

During the Second Bulgarian Kingdom the town was the center of commerce, crafts, culture. By the 14th century the town was already called Sofia - after St. Sofia Church. Ottoman Turks conquered Sofia in 1382. After that, the image of the town changed. Mosques, caravans, inns and bazaars appeared along the narrow winding streets. However, even under Ottoman rule the Bulgarian literary and artistic tradition developed in the many churches and monasteries of Sofia. 86 monasteries, many of them built after the 14th century, are still standing in Sofia and the close vicinity.

In the 18th -19th centuries, especially after the Crimean War (1853-1856), Sofia began to decline. During the Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878) the burning down of the city was prevented thanks to the intervention of the vice-consuls of Italy, France and Austria-Hungary. On January 4, 1878 Russian troops entered the city. According to the treaty of San Stefano, signed on March 3, 1878, Bulgaria gained its independence. (The Congress of Berlin would later take away some of the territorial gains of Bulgaria and reimpose theoretical suzerainty to the Ottoman Sultan in the territory of Eastern Rumelia.) However, there was no mistaking the fact that for the first time in nearly 500 years there existed a Bulgarian state ruled by Bulgarians.

On April 3, 1879 Sofia was chosen to be the capital of newly liberated Bulgaria and this started the urban development of the town as a center of the political, cultural and economic life of the state. High schools and institutions of higher education were opened.  Sofia University (1888), the Academy of Fine Arts (1896), the Musical Academy (1904), the National Theater (1904) and the National Opera Theater (1908) were established. The Saints Cyril and Methodius National Library would become the biggest library in Bulgaria. The National Library, the Archaeological Museum and the Ethnographic Museum were later separated from the National Museum (1879). Sofia developed quickly in terms of economy. The first industrial enterprises appear and corporations and banks were set up.

During World War II production decreased, but Sofia remained an industrial center encompassing 37 % of all enterprises in the country. Following 1944, the population of the capital increases several times (on the eve of World War II it is 350,000 inhabitants). The town expands, new neighborhhods are built and nearby villages are incorporated into Sofia.

Sofia is currently undergoing a renaissance. The new Metro (subway) has opened in the downtown and links the downtown with distant neighborhoods. Further expansion of the subway is planned. There are many shopping opportunities in places such as the Tsoum shopping center, Vitosha Boulevard, Pirotska Street, Hali food shopping center, Knyagina (Princess) Maria Luisa Boulevard and Graf Ignatiev Street. In addition, there are many theaters, restaurants, cafes, museums, symphony orchestras (more than one) and  and exibitions to visit while in Sofia. The largest exhibition complex in Bulgaria is NDK (National Palace of Culture) and it often has interesting concerts and exhibtions .