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History of Sofia

Sofia is a city with a 7000-year history, which makes it a unique phenomenon in Europe, and places it among the settlements dating back to most distant antiquity. To this very day excavations in Sofia downtown bring up objects of the Neolithic man, and remnants of the Stone and Bronze Era. The reason why settlements arose so early is the abundance of thermal springs in the Sofia Plain. They cluster mainly around todays city centre - near the old mineral baths, around the Presidency building, in Lozenets Quarter, and in Gorna Banya and Knyazhevo Quarters. The water temperature varies between 21o C and 42 o C, and they are curative, because of the significant amount of ions and mineral salts dissolved in them.

The first known tribes to settle in the plain were the Thracians from the triabe of Serdi. They gave Sofia its first name - Serdica.

Around 500 BC another tribe settled here, the Odrissi, known as a ethos having a kingdom of their own. For a short period during the 4th BC the city was in possession of Philip of Macedonia and of his son Alexander the Great. As late as in the year 29 AD Sofia was conquered by the Roman legions, and during the reign of Emperor Trayan (98-117) became the centre of an administrative region. It was given the name of Ulpia Serdica as a municipium, i.e. a centre of administrative region. Construction on the territory of the city expanded - turrets, protective walls, public baths, administrative and cult buildings, a civic basilica and a large amphitheatre, called bulevterion were built. In the 2nd century AD Sofia became the centre of the Lower Dacia province. It subsequently expanded for a century and a half, so that Constantine the Great came to call it my Rome. The city was of moderate size, but magnificent as an urban concept of planning and architecture, abundant in amusements and of active social life. The city flourished during the reign of Emperor Justinian  when it was surrounded with  great fortress walls, remains of which can be seen even today.

Fully preserved and well restored now is the Roman Rotunda, transformed into the Early Christian Church of St. George; it now stands behind the Sheraton Hotel. Attila took the city by storm in the 5th century. After his death the Byzantine Empire recovered it. It remained part of the Eastern Roman till the early 9th century AD.

When the kingdom of Danubian Bulgaria was founded in 681 AD, many Bulgarian khans coveted Serdica. But it was only in the year of 809 that Khan Kroum succeeded in conquering and including it in the Bulgarian territory. The new name of the city was changed to Sredets, which in the parlance of that time meant middle, central part, centre. Actually its location gave it all grounds to be considered the centre of the Balkan Peninsula.  The city existed until the year 1018 AD when Bulgarian lands fell under Byzantine rule and it was renamed Triyaditsa, which meant between mountains. After 1194 the city regained its former name.

The city was repeatedly besieged and attacked by Magyars, Serbs and Crusaders. After the liberation of Bulgaria from Byzantine rule it was re-included in the territories of the country. Its name was now Sophia. The St. Sophia Church, which stands to this day next to the St. Aleksander Nevski Memorial Cathedral, gave the city its present-day name.

Sofia quickly expanded and became a centre of crafts and trade. New buildings and numerous churches were built in the city and the neighbouring villages, the best known of these is the Boyana Church.

Sofia fell under Ottoman rule in 1382. In some documents of that time the city was described as a place of particular charm, which evoked the admiration of the conquerors. Irrespective of that, the Turkish authorities neglect rapidly changed the appearance of the city. Christian churches became derelict and started ruining, while Turkish administration buildings, mosques, public baths and covered markets rose in their place. The five centuries of Ottoman rule changed Sofia beyond recognition. Only recent excavations open to the world the true picture of the city such as it was during its eventful history along the centuries. Few buildings of the Ottoman period are preserved today. The Turkish administration recognised the advantageous location of Sofia as a crossroad and important centre of the Balkan Peninsula, and the citys development as crafts and market centre was promoted. During the 17th century it grew into the largest marketplace of the Balkans, and in the 18th century a stone-paved road linked it with Europe and Asia Minor. During the 19th century the first railway crossing the Balkans reached Sofia as part of the famous Orient Express. Sofia became the administrative centre of a sandzhak, large administrative unit of key importance to the Ottoman Empire. After Serbia was liberated in the 19th century, Sofia Sandzhak remained on the border. The city was repeatedly attacked and plundered by kurdzhalii (Turkish brigands), who periodically devastated its surrounding settlements.

During Bulgarian Revival and the struggle for liberation, the Apostle of Freedom Vassil Levski considered Sofia as one of the centres of a future uprising and created revolutionary committees in the city. To the irony of fate, after his arrest he was brought to Sofia, where he was sentenced and hanged in 1873.

Sofia was liberated from Ottoman rule on 4th January 1878. At that time the city had a population of only 12 000, but its favourable strategic location made it suitable for a capital and on the 4th of April 1879 Sofia was proclaimed the capital city of the Principality of Bulgaria. In a couple of years the population increased nearly tenfold, the outlook of the city radically changed; the Turkish soukatsi (narrow muddy streets) were supplanted by paved and planned streets, administrative buildings, churches, and schools were erected, public gardens laid out, a modern sewerage and water-supply system was installed, and so were telegraph and telephone lines. Sofia took on the appearance of a European city, although numerous features of the East remained. During the 20-es of the 20th century Sofia acquired a more European outlook. It developed into a truly modern city of unique charm during the reign of Tsar Boris III, when the construction of houses and buildings in modern, art nouveau (secession), bauhaus, neo-classicism and European eclecticism styles flourished. Today the centre of Sofia and the quarter between the Luvov Most (Lions Bridge) and the Sheraton Hotel abound in buildings from the first half of the 20th century. The small streets and gas-burning street lights were preserved until nearly the World War II. US planes bombed the city during the war, causing some damage of the downtown area. At that time Bulgaria was an ally of Nazi Germany.

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