Hagia Sophia Church

Emblematic Basilica in the Center of the Bulgarian Capital

The entrance of Hagia Sophia Church with a small square in front of it.

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Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, is a city of many centuries of history. It has been known with different names through the ages: Serdica, Sredets, Triaditsa and Sofia. The last name emerged in the middle of the XIV century. It was given after the Hagia Sophia Church, which was a cathedral at that time. This church had appeared in the middle of the pagan necropolis of Serdica as a graveyard church.

At this place there used to be smaller graveyard churches. The first dated back from the IV century. It is very possible that at its architectural recomposition during the reign of the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian (527-565) the church was named Hagia Sophia, which means Wisdom of God. This was a direct impact of the imposing Hagia Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople, today’s Istanbul in Turkey.

Invaders and Liberators

In 809 the Bulgarian Khan Krum (803-814) conquered Serdica and included it within the borders of the Bulgarian state. During the reign of Prince Boris (852-889), who christianized the Bulgarians, the Church of Hagia Sophia was rebuilt and became a city cathedral. During the Second Bulgarian Tsardom (1185-1396) it was a metropolitan church, generously endowed by Sebastokrator Kaloyan.

After the conquest of Sofia by the Turks in 1389, the church was half-destroyed and unmaintained, so the conquerors turned it into a mosque. In 1443 the united Christian army under the leadership of Vladislav III Jagiello (Varnenchik) and Janos Hunyadi entered the enslaved Bulgarian lands. In Sofia, the Crusaders abolished the Turkish rule and appointed the local metropolitan to be the governor.

Although for a short time, Hagia Sophia again became a functioning Orthodox church. It was not until the first half of the XVI century that Siyavus Pasha rebuilt it into a mosque and so on for centuries.

Looking at Hagia Sophia Church from the north side.
The Hagia Sophia Church has a complex structure and rich spaces.

Turns and Twists of History around Hagia Sophia

In 1818 and 1858, strong earthquakes severely damaged the massive building. In the second earthquake, the minaret fell and killed several Muslims, so they abandoned it. After the Liberation of Bulgaria in 1878 by the Russian army, the people of Sofia used the ancient church as a storehouse for the gas used to light the street lamps. At the beginning of 1882 they erected a fire watch on the church roof.

After many years of archaeological research, repairs and reconstructions, it was not until 1930 that the ancient church of Hagia Sophia reopened its doors to worshipers. On September 21 of the same year, the then Metropolitan of Sofia Stefan performed the consecration of the church. The numerous clergy of the capital and many officials, including the Bulgarian Tsar Boris III (1918-1943) took part in the ceremony.

Stones in the wall are surrounded with bricks. This is a Turkish way of masonary.
The Northen wall had been constructed during Ottoman rule in the typical Turkish masonry: one stone is surrounded with bricks.

Hagia Sophia in the modern city of Sofia

Eleven years after the establishment of the communist regime, in 1955, the authorities declared the church an architectural monument of national importance. During those times Christianity was allowed by the Constitution but in everyday life the christians were persecuted and the atheist doctrine was widely propagated. In the 1980s and 1990s the church was again restored and preserved. On its southern facade they also restored the main official memorial of the Republic of Bulgaria – the Monument to the Unknown Soldier.

Today Hagia Sophia is open for regular church services. After the end of the Communist regime it was natural to celebrate the day of the city of Sofia in regard with the Holy Wisdom feast day – on Annunciation day, March 25th. But during the term of office of Sofia Mayor Alexander Yanchulev (1991-1995), the authorities declared Sofia Day to be on September 17th.

This day, according to the Orthodox Church calendar, is the celebration of the holy martyrs Faith, Hope and Love and their mother Sophia. This misunderstanding is still unacceptable for the older citizens of Sofia, but it seems not to matter at all for the younger people, who are generally not religious.

The memorial of the unknown hero is a everlasting fire.
The unceasing fire at the monument of the unknown hero. It is located on the south side of Hagia Sophia Church.

Secretes under Hagia Sophia Revealed

Today, under the current Hagia Sophia Basilica, tombs from the eastern necropolis of the ancient city of Serdica and the remains of three earlier churches are on display. The fourth church building was built at the end of the V century or the beginning of the VI century AD.

The exposed graves and tombs are about 50 and fit in the period III – V century AD. Although rare, some of the vaulted masonry tombs are frescoed. A typical example of this type of decoration is the tomb of Honorius, discovered northwest of the church and dated to the V century. On the arch of the lunette there is an inscription in red letters, which reads: “Honorius, servant of God”.

Included in the Sofia Free Walking Tour

By joining our Sofia Free Walking Tour you will enjoy:

  • Walking around the Sofia city centre guided by a licensed guide
  • Exploring the most famous buildings and the stories they go with
  • Learning about the Bulgarian culture
  • Laughing at our jokes
  • Paying just a tip if you have liked the show.

The Hagia Sophia Church is included in the free walking tour and you will see it only from outside. But we encourage you to go inside and also visit the tombs underground after the end of the free walking tour. Later in the day there are also many things you can do in Sofia: enjoy great Bulgarian food, go hiking in the Vitosha Mountain. But don’t forget to recommend us on TripAdvisor.

Coming soon – Sofia Free Walking Tour in Italian (Italiano).
Do not hesitate – join our free walking tour!

Sofia Free Tours Blog