A view of Bulgaria’s main government buildings in downtown Sofia. Photo: Wengen, Pixabay
The city of Sofia celebrates on Wednesday, April 3, 2019, the 140th anniversary since it was declared capital of modern-day Bulgaria.
Sofia was declared capital of the then Principality of Bulgaria (later to become the Third Bulgarian Tsardom or the Tsardom of Bulgaria (1878/1908 – 1944/1946) on April 3, 1879, several months after the partial Liberation of the Bulgarian-populated territories from the Ottoman Empire as a result of the Russian – Turkish War of 1877 – 1878.
In 271 AD, it became the capital of the Roman province of Dacia Aureliana, after Roman Emperor Aurelian (r. 270-275 AD) transformed the province of Moesia Superior after vacating Dacia Traiana beyond the Danube. Around 283 AD, Dacia Aureliana was divided into two provinces, Dacia Mediterranea, with its capital at Serdica, and Dacia Ripensis (“Dacia from the banks of the Danube") with its capital at Ratiaria (Colonia Ulpia Ratiaria).
Serdica is known to have been the favorite city of Roman Emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306 – 337 AD) who used to say, “Serdica is my Rome", and even considered moving the capital of the Roman Empire there before he chose Constantinople (Byzantium).
Serdica / Sofia first became part of Bulgaria in 809 AD when it was conquered by Khan Krum (r. 803 – 814) of the First Bulgarian Empire, and became known as Sredets – a word stemming from the Bulgarian word for “middle" – referring to the city’s central location in the Balkan Peninsula.
In the Middle Ages, in both the First and the Second Bulgarian Empire, Sredets / Sofia was a major city. It was during this time that the name of the city changed to “Sofia", supposedly after the ancient St. Sofia Basilica.
In the 13th century, at the time of the Second Bulgarian Empire, Sofia acquired one of its most famous historical, archaeological, and cultural monuments, the Boyana Church in today’s Boyana Quarter at the foot of the Vitosha Mountain, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its unique Pre-Renaissance or Early Renaissance murals.
Sofia was conquered by the invading Ottoman Turks at the end of the 14th century, after first withstanding a three-month siege in 1389.
In the Ottoman Empire, Sofia was the capital or center of the Rumelia Eyalet in the 15th-16th century, up until the 18th century. In 1864-1878, it was the main town of the Sofia Sanjak, a smaller administrative unit.
Sofia was chosen to become capital of the newly liberated Bulgaria by the Bulgarian Constituent Assembly sitting in Veliko Tarnovo in 1878 – 1879, the successor of the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire Tarnovgrad.
Sofia was proposed as the new capital of Bulgaria by Prof. Marin Drinov. The main argument in its favor vis-à-vis other contenders such as Veliko Tarnovo (Tarnovgrad) and Plovdiv (the successor of ancient Philipopolis) was its central location, practically in the middle of all Bulgarian-populated territories at the time.
The territories in question included the three historical and geographic regions of Moesia, Thrace, and Macedonia – although the newly liberated Principality of Bulgaria, a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire, including only a small part of them, namely the territories between the Danube River and the Stara Planina (Balkan Mountains).
Subsequently, the Principality of Bulgaria united with an autonomous district covering much of today’s Southern Bulgaria known as “Eastern Rumelia" in 1885, declared its Independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1908, turning the title of the Bulgarian monarch from Knyaz (“prince" or “king") to Tsar (“emperor"), and in 1912 – 1913, the Tsardom of Bulgaria liberated some more of the Bulgarian-populated territories in the First Balkan War against the Ottoman Empire, only to lose much of the regions of Macedonia, Thrace, and Moesia to other Balkan nations in the Second Balkan War (1913) and the First World War (1915 – 1918).
During World War II, as the Tsardom of Bulgaria became an ally of Nazi Germany and even declared war on the United States of America, though it never declared war on the Soviet Union, Sofia saw massive aerial bombing by British and American air forces.
After Bulgaria was occupied by the Red Army and a communist coup toppled the government in September 1944, Sofia saw extensive communist-style development and construction up until the end of the communist regime in 1989.
Sofia population stood at over 1.1 million people in 1990. Resulting from economic and social developments, imbalances, and internal migration, by 2019, its population has reached 2.7 million people, although nearly half of those do not have a “permanent address" in the city, and are thus not counting as Sofia residents by Bulgaria’s National Statistical Institute.
Recent developments have seen a greater emphasis on cultural tourism and the further research of Sofia’s archaeological, historical, and cultural heritage.
The 140th anniversary since Sofia’s formally becoming the capital of modern-day Bulgaria has been celebrated with a wide range of events, including a liturgy at the 4th century AD St. Sofia Basilica in the downtown, the temple that gave its name to Serdica – Sredets in the High Middle Ages.
“Sofia is a very ancient city with ancient history but it is a quite young capital," Sofia Mayor Yordanka Fandakova at the formal celebration.
“Sofia is a city of the young people, they provide our perspectives for the future, and we are the ones who guarantee the conditions for those," she added.
As part of the celebrations, Sofia Municipality has bestowed consecrated Bulgarian flags to a total of 140 schools in the city to symbolize the unity of past and future.
The Ancient Thracian and Roman city of Serdica is the precursor of the contemporary Bulgarian capital Sofia. The oldest traces of civilized life in Sofia are from a Neolithic settlement dated back to 5000 BC located in today’s Slatina Quarter. There are also traces of life from the Charcolithic (also known as Aeneolithic or Copper Age) and the Bronze Age.
After the Bronze Age, the Sofia Valley was inhabited by the Ancient Serdi who are believed to have been a Celtic tribe (some Bulgarian scholars hypothesize that the Serdi were a Thracian tribe, or a Thracian tribe which assimilated a smaller Celtic tribe while keeping its original name).
The name of the Serdi tribe gave the name to the Ancient Thracian settlement called Serdica or Sardica. The city of Serdica was conquered briefly in the 4th century BC by Philip II of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great.
Around 29 BC, Sofia was conquered by the Romans and renamed Ulpia Serdica. It became a municipium, the center of an administrative region, during the reign of Emperor Trajan (r. 98-117), and saw extensive development with many new buildings. It is known to have been the favorite place of Roman Emperor Constantine I the Great who used to say, “Serdica is my Rome".
In 343 AD, the Council of Serdica was held in the city, in the 4th century church that preceded the current 6th century St. Sofia Basilica. In 447 AD, the city was destroyed by the Huns. During the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (r. 527-565 AD), a new fortress wall was built whose remains have been excavated and can be seen today. This is when it was renamed Triaditsa.
It became part of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680 – 1018 AD) in 809 AD when it was conquered by Bulgaria’s Khan Krum, and was known by its Slavic-Bulgarian name Sredets until the 14th century when it took the name of the St. Sofia Basilica.