Vitosha Streets Reveal Their Secrets
Whether one has lived in the same city all one's life, or is visiting for the first time, there are hidden clues that can reveal the cultural and historical importance of the urban surroundings and its inhabitants.
Sofia city center abounds with visible and spectacular archaeological and cultural relics of many historical periods, often discovered in almost violent juxtaposition.
Cars and trams roll around the Largo, site of Roman and medieval remains. Serdica Metro station commemorates the ancient Thracian name for Sofia, derived from the Celtic tribe, the Serdi.
But there are further fascinating pointers to historical landmarks, events and people to be discovered. If one takes a short stroll from the central Metro station to the NDK park, along Vitosha Boulevard, the intersecting streets bring episodes of Sofia’s varied and sometimes forgotten past to light.
Follow the route, and there are some 10 significant streets that criss-cross the main boulevard. A list of the street names reveals a jumble of history and culture, ancient and new. What brief episode of history is symbolised or commemorated by these names?
A few meters from Serdica Metro, opposite St Nedelya Church, one reaches the busy intersection at the end of Stamboliiski Boulevard:
Alexander Stamboliiski (1879 – 1923)
Stamboliiski was Prime Minister of Bulgaria from 1918 to 1923. A member of the Bulgarian Agrarian Union, he was opposed to the country’s participation in the Balkan War and its support for the Central Powers during World War I.
He supported the idea of a Balkan Federation, regarding himself as a South Slav rather than a Bulgarian. For taking this political stance, he was court-martialed and sentenced to death in 1915.
In 1918, with the defeat of Bulgaria, Tsar Ferdinand abdicated in favor of his son Boris III, who released Stamboliiski from prison. he joined the government in 1919, becoming prime minister the same year.
Stamboliiski became unpopular, particularly among the middle classes and the military, for his insistence on complying with the terms of Bulgaria’s surrender. Many considered him to be almost a dictator.
He was ousted in a military coup in 1923. He failed in an attempt to raise a rebellion against the new government, but was captured, tortured and killed.
Next, the rather insignificant Positano street, cluttered with parked cars:
Vittorio Positano (1833 – 1886)
Vittorio Positano, popularly known as Vito, was an early Italian diplomat famed for saving the city of Sofia from being burnt to the ground during the Russo-Turkish war of 1877 – 1878.
Born in southern Italy, Positano began his career in the military, before joining the fire brigade in the city of Bari. He was laos politically active, a supporter of garibaldi, and he participated in the Italian Reunification, or Risorgimento.
Following the establishment of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861, Positano joined the diplomatic service, as an agent in Trieste in the Austrian Empire. He later held various posts in Italian consulates, mainly in the Ottoman Empire. He served in Corfu, Malta, Algeria and Constantinople. In 1876, he was appointed Vice Consul in Sofia.
As Joseph Gurko's forces approached the Ottoman-controlled city during the Russo-Turkish War, Positano, together with the French Vice and the Austro–Hungarian Vice Consul, refused to leave Sofia, thus saving it from the planned burning by the Ottoman defending forces.
After the Ottoman retreat, Positano organized armed detachments to protect the population from marauders, and a fire brigade to put out individual fires; this was the first fire brigade in Sofia's history.
For his bravery and resistance, he was decorated by the Russians, and was made an honorary citizen of Sofia, the capital of the newly-established autonomous Principality of Bulgaria. He remained Italian Vice Consul in Sofia until 1879.
Positano later died in Yokohama, Japan, in 1886.
Make your way past the imposing law courts with their splendid symbolic lions to Alabin street:
Pyotr Alabin (1824 – 1896)
Prince Pyotr Alabin was a popular member of the Samara Duma in Russia. At the time of the Bulgarian revolt against Ottoman domination, thousands of Russian volunteers went to the Balkans to support their Slav colleagues.
To show their solidarity, the Samara Duma came up with the idea of presenting a flag to the Bulgarians. Alabin headed a delegation that came to Sofia to present the so-called Samara Flag.
It was made to an extraordinary design: on one side of the red, white and blue canvas on a black cross, decorated with golden ornament, the first Slavic teachers Kiril and Mephody were portrayed. On the other side was displayed the icon of the Iverskaya God Mother, which gave the name to the nunnery later founded in Samara.
The Samara Flag became a historic relic for Bulgarians. It was given the highest military award "For Courage" and is currently kept in Bulgaria’s National Museum of Military History.
In 1878, Prince Pyotr Alabin was appointed the first governor of the newly-liberated Sofia. One year later, Sofia was declared the new capital of Bulgaria, and Alabin embarked on a comprehensive transformation of the entire city, whose basic plan remains unchanged today. He was also responsible for setting up a new civil administration in the city and district.
After the busy tram intersection, Denkoglu street:
Ivan Nikolaevich Denkoglu (1781-1861)
Denkoglu was a Bulgarian patron of education during the National Revival. He was born in the village of Balsha, Sofia region, and later moved to Russia where he became a merchant and achieved significant wealth. Using his own funds, in 1849 he built the first modern school in Sofia in the courtyard of St. Nedelya church.
Throughout his life, Denkoglu took care of the school – bought books and training aids, provided teachers, granted big amounts for repair and expansion of the school. Towards the end of his life, he bequeathed 10,000 silver rubles for the maintenance of the school.
After the Liberation of Bulgaria, Sofia municipality used the money for the purchase of a building at the corner of the Vitosha and Alabin streets (a site now occupied by the City Courts). Denkoglu’s school was accommodated there, until it was burned down after the end of the Russo-Turkish war, in 1878.
Then, among the fashionable boutiques of Vitosha, the home of a young pioneer of aviation:
The street’s most famous inhabitant was probably the young Assen Yordanov (1896 – 1967). In 1911, at the age of 15, the family moved to a large house in this street. One year later, the prodigious youth had designed and built a glider, which flew successfully.
By 1915, he had succeeded in building the first Bulgarian plane, known as the Yordanov – 1 Biplane. The young man sold the design to the Bulgarian military, who built 23 more within a year.
In 1921, he emigrated to America, and changed the spelling of his name to Yordanoff. In a career spanning several decades, he formed his own aeronautical corporations, and worked for many American plane makers. He wrote several books on aviation, and was responsible for many associated and electronic inventions. He died in the US in 1967.
Solunska Street was formerly named after Vasil Kolarov (1877 – 1950).
Kolarov was a Bulgarian communist political leader. he studied law in france and Switzerland before becoming involved in politics, and was elected to the Bulgarian National Assembly in 1913 and 1920. By now one of the active leaders in his party, and a participant in the Comintern, becoming its general secretary from 1922 to 1924.
In 1923,he led a communist uprising along with Georgi Dimitrov. The uprising failed and Kolarov fled to the Soviet Union. During his exile, he held various academic and political posts in the Soviet Union and the Comintern.
Kolarov returned to Bulgaria in 1945 during its occupation by the Soviet Union, and was again elected to the National Assembly. In 1946 he became provisional president of Bulgaria, amidst the growing domination of the communists.
He remained president until 1947 and then became foreign minister in the Dimitrov government. When Dimitrov died in July 1949, Kolarov was elected to replace him. He served as prime minister until his own death a few months later.
So far, our short journey has revealed the traces of some prominent Bulgarians and others who actively shaped Bulgarian life and politics. It comes as a surprise to find a central Sofia street dedicated to the British Victorian politician, William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898), who was born on December 29, 200 years ago.
On April 20, 1876, the Bulgarians staged their largest uprising to date (later to be known as the April Uprising) against the Ottoman Empire, in their quest for national liberation and for setting up an independent nation state. Two weeks later the several thousand badly armed rebels were wiped out by Ottoman forces who took a cruel revenge on the civilian population. Some 30 000 people, mostly women, children, and elderly were raped, tortured, and slaughtered.
This development was made known to Europe and the world some two months later largely through the reports of a couple of journalists and the American Consul in Istanbul.
The reports were taken up by William Gladstone, Liberal Party leader and four times Prime Minister of Britain who used the Bulgarian case to stage a vigorous attack on the policies of the Conservative Party government of his arch-rival, Lord Disraeli, whose political policy supported a firm backing of the Ottoman Empire as a buffer against the expansionist ambitions of Russia despite any abuses the Ottomans committed against their Christian populations, including the Bulgarians.
Thus, Gladstone was moved to publish a 32-page pamphlet, "Bulgarian Horrors and the Questions of the East", which became extremely popular with the British public at the time. Gladstone thus strengthened his bid for returning to the position of Prime Minister.
Back to a true Bulgarian medieval hero:
Peter Parchevich (1612-1674) was a representative of a distinguished Bulgarian family. He was a Doctor of theological and canonical law, who studied in Loreto and Rome.
On his return to Bulgaria in 1643, Parchevich devoted his efforts to the organization of an anti-Turkish coalition of the Catholic states. To this purpose, and blessed by the Pope, he undertook a number of diplomatic missions to Austria, Hungary, Poland, Venice, Wallachia, Moldavia and Ukraine. On account of his contribution to the defence of Christianity, the Habsburgs conferred a baronetcy on him.
Parchevich was not alone in waging this campaign: representatives of other influential Bulgarian families, such as the Bogdanovs, the Stanislavovs, the Peykiches, the Marinovs (some of whom belonged to the old Bulgarian aristocracy) were all politicians and diplomats, but they also distinguished as Catholic bishops, scholars, administrators, and military men.
These were the families under whose guidance Bulgaria was elevated to the patriotic impulse crowned by the anti-Turk rebellion of 1688. After its defeat many members of these families emigrated to different parts of the Austrian Empire.
Parchevich himself died in exile in Rome in 1674, and his remains are buried in a vault at the San Andrea de la Fratte church.
The lasting influence of Orthodoxy is represented:
Neofit Rilski, also known as The Neophyte of Rila (1793 – 1881), was educated to become a teacher, initially by his father Petar, and later at the Rila Monastery, where he studied iconography and had access to Greek and Church Slavonic books. He went to Melnik in 1822, where he spent four years as a student of the noted teacher Adam, and perfected there his knowledge of Greek and Greek literature.
He continued his studies and teaching in various monasteries around Bulgaria, before returning to the Rila Monastery in 1852, where he spent the remaining part of his life, He preferred to stay at the monastery despite being offered higher positions in the Orthodox hierarchy,
Neofit Rilski’s greated achievements included the publication, in 1835, of his Bolgarska gramatika, the first grammar book of the modern Bulgarian language.
Other books include Tablitsi vzaimouchitelni, and the 1852 Greek-Slavic dictionary Slovar greko-slavyanskiy.
Commissioned by the American missionary, Elias Riggs, Neofit Rilski made the first translation of the Bible into the modern Bulgarian language. He had begun to translate the New Testament in 1853, competing this work three years later. The translation was published in several editions in the following years.
Finally, in 1871, Neofit Rilski published the first complete Bible in the Bulgarian language.
Much further back in time, to the beginnings of Bulgaria’s history:
Asparuch was the ruler of a Bulgar tribe in the second half of the 7th century, and is credited with the establishment of the First Bulgarian Empire in 680/681.
According to some Byzantine sources, Asparuch was a younger son of Kubrat, who had established a spacious state ("Great Bulgaria") in the steppes of modern Ukraine. Asparuch may have gained experience in politics and statesmanship during the long reign of his father, who probably died in 665.
Following the Arab siege of Constantinople, the Byzantine Emperor Constantine IV marched against the Bulgars and their Slav allies in 680. Forced to abandon the leadership of his army in order to seek medical treatment for his ailments, the emperor sabotaged the morale of his troops, who gave in to rumors that their emperor had fled.
With segments of the Byzantine army starting to desert, the Bulgars and their allies broke through the blockade and routed the enemy troops at the battle of Ongala in 680. Asparuch then swiftly moved from the Danube delta down to the Balkan range.
As Asparuh continued to raid across the mountains into Byzantine Thrace in 681, Constantine IV decided to cut his losses and conclude a treaty, whereby the Byzantine Empire paid the Bulgars an annual tribute as protection money. These events are seen in retrospect as marking the establishment of the first Bulgarian state and its recognition by the Byzantine Empire.
And, finally, a recognition of Bulgarian learning, education and patriotism:
Saint Evtimii (1320/30 – 1402/04) was Patriarch of Bulgaria between 1375 and 1393. Regarded as one of the most important figures of medieval Bulgaria, Evtimiy was the last head of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church in the Second Bulgarian Empire. Arguably the best esteemed of all Bulgarian patriarchs, Evtimiy was an authoritative figure in the Eastern Orthodox world of the time.
Born into an eminent Tarnovo family, Evtimiy was educated at the monastery schools in and around the city and became a monk. He joined the Kilifarevo Monastery around 1350, attracted by the fame of Theodosius of Tarnovo.
Later, he joined the Studion monastery and the Great Lavra of Athanasius the Athonite on Mount Athos. He was influenced by many outstanding thinkers, scholars and reformers of the spiritual life and beliefs in southeast Europe.
It was at Athos that he first reflected on the spelling reforms and planned corrections to the translations of the clerical books.
Around 1371 Evtimii returned to Bulgaria and founded the Holy Trinity Patriarchal Monastery near Tarnovo, where he grounded the Tarnovo Literary School. He established orthographic rules and corrected the wrongly translated Bulgarian religious books by comparing them to the Greek ones.
These corrected texts became models for the Orthodox churches of Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania and Russia using the Church Slavonic language.
Evtimii returned eventually to Tarnovo, where he founded a famous school. In the spring of 1393 the son of Ottoman Sultan Bayezid I, Celebi, laid siege to the Bulgarian capital with his sizable forces. With Tsar Ivan Shishman out of the city (leading the remnants of his troops to the fortress of Nikopol), Evtimi was entrusted with the defence of Tarnovo, which he led heroically. After a three-month siege the Ottomans captured the capital.
The Tarnovo Patriarchate thereupon ceased to exist, the Bulgarian church lost its independence and became subordinate to the Patriarchate of Constantinople until 1870.
Although many Christians and clerics were massacred following their defeat at Tarnovo, Evtimii was spared, and sent into exile in Macedonia (contemporary Thrace), possibly to Bachkovo Monastery, where he later died.
So, in one short stretch of central Sofia, one has the opportunity to muse on ancient history and national leaders, the Bulgarian Liberation, education and learning, the world of science, and the tangled web of international politics and ideologies.
A fascinating world, entrance free of charge, to which the only key is the humble street sign.
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