Sofia, Bulgaria – Roman churches, Ottoman mosque, a landmark cathedral 2

Sofia is Greek word; it means wisdom.

Sofia a pretty name for a child. What does it mean, though, when the name is given to a city?

Ivan Vazov National Theatre, Sofia, Bulgaria

Ivan Vazov National Theatre, Sofia Bulgaria. Photo credit: Benjamin White

The origins of Sofia

Sofia is situated on an age-old trade route through the Balkans, midway between the Adriatic and Black Seas. Human occupation in this part of Bulgaria dates back to at least the 8th Millennium BCE.

The Thracians arrived on the scene in 1400 – 1300 BCE. They had the place to themselves for a thousand years or so, before the Serds, a Celtic tribe, showed up and picked a fight. The Serds were the victors and took control of the region. Their principal city (which later developed into Sofia) was given the name Serdi.

What happened next isn’t entirely clear. Were the Celts Thracian-ised? Or were the Thracians Celt-icised? Probably a bit of both. Anyway, the two cultures mixed together and became one.

The Romans arrive

Sofia, Bulgaria

There are ruins everywhere you look in Sofia. Photo credit: Benjamin White

In 29 BCE the Romans conquered Serdi. Under Roman rule the city was named Ulpia Serdica (to honour Roman Emperor Trajan – who was born Marcus Ulpius Traianus). The title was shortened over the years to Serdica.

Serdica developed into an important Roman city – it was the capital of the province of Dacia Aureliana – and it was embellished with all the usual stuff that Romans liked to build: amphitheatres, baths, forums, basilicas, circuses, and the like.

Sofia, Bulgaria

Neoclassical architecture in downtown Sofia. Photo credit: Benjamin White

Roman Emperor Galerius came form Serdica. During his short-lived reign (305 – 311 CE) he issued the Edict of Toleration, which recognised Christianity as a religion, and thereby ended the persecution of its followers.

And Emperor Constantine (who ruled Rome from 306 – 337 CE) was evidently a big fan of Serdica. He is quoted as saying Sardica mea Roma est meaning Serdica is my Rome. He even considered making Serdica the capital of his empire – obviously he chose otherwise; that role went to Constantinople.

Banya Banshi Mosque, Sofia, Bulgaria

‘Banya Banshi Mosque’ by Stolichanin, 2015. Available online at under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International licence. Full terms at

Arrival of the Bulgars, then the Ottomans

In 809 CE the Bulgars – semi-nomadic warrior tribes from Central Asia – led by Krum Khan, laid siege to Serdica. They ended up conquering the city and annexing it into the First Bulgarian Empire.

In 1392 the Ottomans took control of Serdica, and they maintained control until 1878. In the meantime more than 100 mosques would be built in the city, and many of its churches would also be converted into mosques. Only one of these mosques survives today – Banya Bashi Mosque, seen in the picture above.

With the removal of the Ottomans at the end of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78, Bulgaria was faced with the task of selecting its capital. Serdica was the obvious choice.

And after almost 2,000 years of being called Serdica, the city was given a new name: Sofia.

But why Sofia?

Church of St George, Sofia

Church of St George, Sofia, Bulgaria

‘Church of St George’ by Ann Wuyts, 2010. Available at,_Sofia.jpg under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence. Full terms at

The Church of Saint George is the oldest extant building in Sofia – and currently squished between the Sheraton and Presidency buildings.

It was built by the Romans in the 4th Century CE, and during its lifetime has been employed for secular, pagan, Christian, and Muslim uses.

Boyana Church, Sofia

Boyana Church, Sofia, Bulgaria

‘Interior view of the Boyana Church’ by Interact-Bulgaria, 2016. Available online at under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International licence. Full terms at

Boyana Church was built in three stages; beginning in the 10th – 11th Centuries, with extensions occurring in the 13th and 19th Centuries. The interior walls of Boyana Church (which has UNESCO World Heritage status), are lined with religious murals; the oldest of which – now badly damaged – date to the 11th – 12th Centuries.

The church’s most impressive murals, which are still reasonably well preserved, were painted in 1259. Additional murals were painted in the 14th, 16th, 17th, and 19th Centuries.

St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia

St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia, Bulgaria

St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Photo credit: Benjamin White

St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, construction of which began in 1882, is a landmark of Sofia.

It is the second largest cathedral in the Balkans (the Church of Saint Sava in Belgrade is larger; however, St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is undoubtedly the prettier of the two).

Saint Sofia Church

Basilica of Hagia Sofia, Sofia, Bulgaria

‘Basilica of Hagia Sofia’ by Klearchos Kapoutsis, 2008. Available at,_Bulgaria.jpg under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence. Full terms at

Saint Sofia Church, which dates to the mid-6th Century CE, is the second oldest extant building in the city. It is thought to be the 5th church to be built on this site – earlier iterations were destroyed during raids by Huns and Goths.

The very first church to grace this site was built during Roman times, and it held the momentous Council of Serdica in 343 CE, in which 170 bishops gathered to debate the relationship between God the Father and God the Son. There was no resolution.

And, at last, we have the answer that we seek.

It was from this historically significant church that Sofia took its name.

Practical information and how to reach Sofia:

Sofia has an international airport with flights to cities throughout Europe.

From Sofia you can catch regional buses throughout Bulgaria including to Plovdiv (2.5 hours), and Veliko Tarnovo (4 hours). International buses travel to Belgrade, Serbia (5 hours), Skopje, Macedonia (5 hours), Istanbul, Turkey (8 hours), and Bucharest, Romania (7.5 hours). More transport info here.

Or visit my crappy capital cities page.

More on Bulgaria:

Plovdiv – 3rd oldest city in Europe

Veliko Tarnovo – enormous fortress once held 23 churches

Kazanlak – Buzludzha, Seuthopolis, a phenomenal Thracian tomb

Rila Monastery – UNESCO-listed + hellish frescoes = worth visiting?

Belogradchik Rocks – crazy rocks = perfect spot for a fortress

Magura Cave – Stone Age cave paintings + fertility rituals

More on South eastern Europe:

Northern Macedonia:

Ohrid – an old, deep lake, where Cyrillic was invented?

Skopje – controversial statues, and ownership of Alex the Great?


Bran Castle – is it Dracula’s castle? Nope!

Rock sculpture of Decebalus – Guardian of the Iron Gates

Sighișoara – birthplace of Vlad the Impaler (aka Dracula)

Brașov – Christmas in Transylvania. Think snow!

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