SOFIA (I) Synagogue and Market

Sofia, capital of Bulgaria, a city that has been part of numerous empires and political and idealist states, is doing its best to rise phoenix-like from the ashes of communism. It has not been an easy task and Sofia's true colours are still a little besmirched from the post-WWII years but it is growing both physically and economically.

In March 2009 I arrived in Sofia as the last of the winter snow lay in grey heaps at the side of the roads and a pale sun did its best to lift the gloom. Our hotel was a small boutique establishment which on closer examination of the literature revealed itself to be the first gay hotel in Sofia. It was ideally positioned not far from the shopping district and within easy walking distance of the numerous churches and monuments of the city. Particularly easy to reach were the synagogue and market hall opposite the hotel.

The Central Synagogue of Sofia has symbolized the Jewish community of Bulgaria for over 100 years (it was the centenary of its completion in September 2009) and is the only Jewish house of worship in the city. Construction started in 1903 on the site of the old synagogue. During the WWII bombing of Sofia in 1944 the synagogue was repeatedly hit. Ornamental wall designs, the balcony and several columns in the sanctuary were damaged and the Judaica library was destroyed with the majority of the valuable Hebrew books held within also destroyed. Over half a century later the building was undergoing further restoration to bring it back to its former glory and whilst we were not able to see all of the synagogue we were able to see enough to understand the beauty of the place.

We entered into a small courtyard and could see the Spanish Moorish influences in the building's design. A rectangular footprint gives way to a central dome and narthex and an octagonal  main sanctuary with four half domes. Suspended from the central dome was the an intricate and incredibly large brass chandelier. The colours of the domes and coloumns, the ceilings painted to resemble the heavens, and the Venetian mosaics decorating the interior transported me from the cool greyness of Sofia to somewhere much warmer. Hats, gloves and a close proximity to the portable heater may also have contributed to that warm feeling.
The inspiring chandelier in the Synagogue sanctuary
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Next door to the synagogue is the Central Market Hall (Halite) that became our breakfast hall, coffee bar and supermarket for the duration of the stay. Designed by Naum Torbov it was completed in 1911 predominantly in the Neo-Renaissance style with elements of Neo-Byzantine and Neo-Baroque also visible. Its purpose as a market hall has remained constant with some alterations in the 1950s and considerable modernization in the 1990s during which it was closed. With foodstalls, cafes, clothing stalls and tobacconists it offered us everything we could possibly want. In the morning we came to with strong coffee and croissants and the hub-bub of a busy market as seemingly the whole of Sofia walked through the hall's interior, voices echoing beneath the roof supported by green iron. 
Central Market Hall, Sofia (the domed roof of the synagoue is visible behind it)
© Plamen Agov • i
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Swathes of Sofia were rebuilt by the Soviets after WWII with high rise residential blocks and some rather monstrous monuments so it makes it all the more interesting and pleasant to be able to enjoy the revivalist architecture of the early twentieth century.

Next post: The churches of Sofia

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