With an ancient history founded by Thracian tribes at the foothills of Vitosha Mountain, the Bulgarian capital of Sofia is a destination steeped in Jewish heritage. Framed by its Triangle of Religious Tolerance, the very heart of the city contains the Christian Orthodox St Nedelya Church, the Banya Bashi Mosque and the Sofia Synagogue where practitioners of all faiths can attend their respective services.
The Sofia Synagogue has a fascinating heritage. Of Sephardic origin, the synagogue is the third-largest in Europe. Designed in Moorish and Byzantine styles after the now-destroyed Leopoldstädter Tempel in Vienna by architect Friedrich Grünanger on the site of a former older synagogue, today’s buidling can contain as many as 1,300 worshippers. Under the direction of Chief Rabbi Marcus Ehrenpreis, it was opened in 1909. Since 1992, the synagogue contains the Jewish Museum of History, chronicling the history of Jewry in historical and modern Bulgaria.
Built in Neo-Byzantine style, the Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is an opulent demonstration of Bulgaria’s Orthodox Christian traditions proudly sits surrounded by other monuments.
Behind the nearby Saint Sofia Church, for which the Bulgarian capital was named, a plaque written in English, Bulgarian and Hebrew pays tribute to those involved with the saving of around 48,000 Bulgarian Jews from the Nazi extermination camps. Though plans for the deportation of Bulgarian Jews to concentration camps was made known to Bulgarian authorities, public outcry and protest from the Orthodox Church as well as from the Parliament resulted in the hindering of Nazi German plans. Documentation was not made available about this feat until during the fall of communism in Bulgaria in 1989.
Located only a two-hour drive southeast of Sofia, Plovdiv is recorded as one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. A key trading route to the Middle East throughout history, its ancient remains dot the center, demonstrating the deep heritage of competing civilizations.
Discovered in 1981, the remains of an ancient synagogue were found in the center of the city. Researchers made the unquestionable link to the existence of the synagogue after discovering floor mosaics depicting a menorah. In part, due to major secularisation of the Jewish population during Communist times, and a large proportion of the Jewish population making aliyah to Israel, today’s Ottoman-styled Zion Synagogue caters to a small practising population of a few hundred people.
Plovdiv will be putting its cultural offerings on full display as it has been named 2019 European Capital of Culture.
More generally, Bulgaria shares strong diplomatic and political ties with the Jewish state of Israel. The unconventional fostering of this partnership, since the horrors of the Holocaust, was bolstered by the mutual sending of national fire brigades to put out wildfires that occurred in both countries.