FOR almost seven millennia the capital city of Sofia has undergone invasions, destruction, four changes of its name, and has hosted various tribes, conquerors and passers-by each of who left a trace of their own culture.
Today Sofia has preserved its magnificent mixture of cultures, architectural characteristics and rich historical heritage. Within the city's modern fabric, many archaeological, historical and cultural monuments created through the ages by Thracians, Romans, Byzantines, Slavs, Bulgarians and Turks are incorporated.
One of the oldest cities in Europe, Sofia was named for Saint Sofia (meaning "wisdom" in Greek).
The three sisters Vyara, Nadezhda and Lyubov (Faith, Hope and Love) were executed together with their mother St. Sofia the Martyr today celebrated on September 17.
Legend says that Sofia, the daughter of Byzantine emperor Justinian the Great was very ill and came for treatment to the city, then known as Serdika (for the Thracian Serdi who inhabited Sofia in the first millennia). Her condition improved after she drank from the water, breathing the fresh air and enjoying the climate and atmosphere (between the elevated plain in midwestern Bulgaria, at the foot of the Vitosha and Lyulin mountains). As gratitude to the town for his daughter's recovery, Justinian built a church, named after his daughter Sofia. This church, which became known as St. Sofia, would one day give its name to the city.
Thracian Serdi occupied the territories around the hot springs, which today are one of the most crowded part of the centre (located just behind the Council of Ministers), villas and temples.
Given its strategic location on the crossroads connecting Asia and Europe, the city also served as a fortress town during the reign of Alexander The Great.
Soon Sofia became a centre of early Christianity and many churches were erected including the Saint George Rotund (fourth century) and Saint Sofia Basilica (Holy Wisdom). At the time, however, the country had not yet converted to Christianity.
In 809, under Khan Krum, the town was captured from the Byzantine Empire and incorporated into First Bulgarian Kingdom with the Slavonic name Sredets (meaning in the middle of the Balkan peninsula).
After a siege in 1018 Sofia was conquered by the Byzantine emperor Basil II who gave the city the name Triaditsa (meaning "within the mountains").
The glorious development of the city, its location and favourable environment made it the most powerful administrative and strategic centre of the First Bulgarian Kingdom.
This tendency was preserved during the Second Bulgarian Kingdom, when the town was the center of commerce, crafts, culture, goldsmiths, potters, tanners, and skilled weavers.
Sofia's changing phases has not ended with its upheaval following its Ottoman conquering in 14th century. The five-century Ottoman yoke changed the image of the town drastically. Narrow winding streets with scattered bazaar places and open markets, which are about to disappear only today, replaced the tiny and cobbled covered streets.
Mosques, caravans and inns started being constructed and the minarets dominated the landscape due to the conversion of some of the existing churches into mosques.
The swift progress and importance of the city as an important trade and cultural centre of the Ottoman Empire's market followed a decline closely related to the empire's decline in the end of 18th century.
An important fact of Sofia's history was its proclamation as capital of Bulgaria - its population was then 12 000, after the liberation from Ottoman rule signed on March 3, 1878, by a decree by the first Bulgarian prince Alexander Battenberg on April 3, 1879.
Subsequent years saw the character of Sofia change from an oriental outpost to a European city, a trend that continues. Today many streets, buildings, parks, and even whole neighborhoods preserve the architectural style from the turn of the century.
The years that followed the turn of the century saw a period of brisk construction, as the city became the centre of the political, cultural and economic life of the state.
The city experienced major changes after the communist regime seized power in 1944. Following 1944, the population of the capital increased several times. On the eve of World War 2 it had 350 000 inhabitants, while today this figure exceeds a million people. The city is continuing to expand, new neighborhoods are being built and nearby villages are being incorporated into Sofia as some of its most luxurious suburbs (eg Dragalevtsi and Boyana).
About 40 higher education institutes were opened and about as many high schools. Sofia University (1888), the Academy of Fine Arts (1896), the Musical Academy (1904), the National Theatre (1904) and the National Opera House (1908) were established. The Saints Kiril and Methodius National Library has become the biggest library in Bulgaria with more than a billion items on stock.
Gradually, the city became the heaviest industrialised territory of the country with dominant Stalinist-style architecture and monolithic residential housing complexes erected in the suburbs.
During the years of the totalitarian regime that lasted to November 10, 1989, Sofia became the major national economic, academic and cultural centre. The country's chief commercial, manufacturing, transportation, and cultural center featured major manufactures including metal, wood, and rubber products, machinery, chemicals, electronic and transportation equipment, processed food, textiles, clothing, footwear, and printed materials. From its years of socialist growth, however, the capital inherited a great deal of problems, which are at present the priorities of the democratically- elected council of Sofia. Parking spaces, closure of manufactures, inappropriate construction in the centre of the city, with heavily populated centrifugal spots. Many elderly Sofians remember that it was prestigious to be sent to work in Sofia and get Sofia "citizenship" (under communism, there were limitations to rights of residence).
In 1992, in honour of the celebration of St. Sofia the Martyr, the Government made September 17 the Day of Sofia. Four years ago, a 24 m high statue of "Sofia" which recalls the Goddess of Fate (Tuhe) was erected near Sheraton Hotel.
Sofia is currently undergoing a renaissance of its architecture, location and attractiveness. It has become a two-day runaway for the business elite of Europe with its easy transport system, abundance of restaurants and cafes as well as a great deal of cultural places of interest for visitors.
The shopping opportunities in places such as the TSUM mall (being the only one of its kind during communist times), Vitosha Boulevard (longest street in Sofia), Pirotska Street (being the only pedestrian street), The Hali food shopping center, Knyagina (Princess) Maria Luisa Boulevard and Graf Ignatiev Street are all so easily accessible being just a walking distance from each other.
Among must-to-visit places of the city are St. Alexander Nevski Cathedral (1912) and St. Nicholas (The Miraclemaker) church (1914) where wishes are written. The National Theatre Ivan Vazov (1907) with its modern German classicism style is a symbol of the artistic development of the city. Today, the gardens in front of it and the improvised chess-games remind of the only meeting place of Old Sofians.
Sofia's greenery and parks have also their own history. Their story dates back to 1937 when Bulgaria's nature-admiring and mountain-climbing Tsar, Boris III, ensured that a capital city with over 280 000 residents, would be graced with large gardens and parks. These would also be directly linked in continuous green corridors to beautiful Mount Vitosha towering nearby.
Vitosha National Park, in which foot Sofia is located, is a dominant image of the city and a suitable all-year-round recreation, tourism, hiking, biking and excursions.
More than 60 years later, Boris Garden (Borissova Gradina) remains a lush green sanctuary in the centre of the capital not far from the Yuzhen Park (South Park) located south of the National Palace of Culture (NDK).
Very near the Boris Garden is the Doctor's Garden hosting students and citizens living in the heart of Sofia, being majorly renovated and maintained with the help of the foreign embassies. Zaimov Park (former Oborishte park), The Western Park and the Loven Park (Hunting park) make a difference in the capital by offering greenness and a hiding place in the hot summer days of Sofia.
The expansion of Sofia and the construction works going on have changed the capital's image a lot for some being even frightening. The tendency to transform parks into gas stations (242 installed and 200 more applications submitted as of September 8) makes people protest and fear for the greenery's future of Sofia.
Next September 17, Sofians will celebrate as citizens of a newly separated city's plan with six major territories. The centre of Sofia will no be longer accessible by car and the public transport and the modern underground will reach as far as Mladost, Obelya and Lyulin last part.