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After the Liberation


At the dawn of the new year, on January 4, 1878 (December 23, 1877, in the old style calendar), Sofia witnessed a significant turning point in its history. Following the battle of Sofia, Russian military units, led by General Joseph Gurko, made their entry into the city, marking the beginning of a new era. This event was part of the larger Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878), which ultimately led to the liberation of Bulgaria from Ottoman rule.

In the aftermath of the conflict and the ensuing societal upheaval, Sofia experienced a dramatic decrease in its population. By February 1878, the number of residents had fallen by almost half compared to the pre-war period. According to records from the municipality, the population stood at 11,694 individuals. This figure included 6,560 Bulgarians, highlighting their majority status in the city’s demographic makeup. The Jewish community numbered 3,538, demonstrating their significant presence in Sofia. The city also housed 839 Turks and 737 Gypsies, two-thirds of whom were Muslims, indicating the diverse and multi-ethnic character of Sofia’s population even in the face of the recent conflict.

This moment in Sofia’s history signifies not only the end of centuries of Ottoman domination but also the start of a challenging period of rebuilding and redefining the city’s identity in the newly liberated Bulgarian state. The demographic shifts and the physical and psychological scars left by the war underscored the complex legacy of liberation and the arduous journey towards recovery and national unity.

On October 20, 1878, a pivotal administrative shift occurred when the seat of the Provisional Russian Government was relocated from Plovdiv to Sofia. This move was a significant indicator of Sofia’s growing importance and strategic value in the aftermath of the Russo-Turkish War and the liberation of Bulgaria.

The decisive moment for Sofia came on April 3, 1879 (March 22 in the old style calendar), when, upon the suggestion of Marin Drinov, the Constituent Assembly declared Sofia the capital of the Principality of Bulgaria. This historic decision was celebrated with the declaration of April 4 as a holiday in honor of Sofia, marking the city’s new status and its central role in the nation’s future.

Following its elevation to the capital, Sofia experienced a rapid population increase, outpacing other Bulgarian cities. This growth was driven predominantly by internal migration, as people from across the newly liberated country moved to the capital, attracted by the prospects of economic opportunities, education, and the administrative functions now concentrated in Sofia. This period marked the beginning of Sofia’s transformation into the political, economic, and cultural hub of Bulgaria, setting the foundation for its development into the modern metropolis it is today.

The designation of Sofia as the capital city significantly accelerated its transformation into a major hub for political, administrative, economic, scientific, and cultural activities in Bulgaria. This pivotal decision sparked an era of extensive urban planning and development, reshaping Sofia’s architectural and urban landscape to reflect its newfound status.

One of the initial changes was the shift of the city’s center from the area near the Banya Bashi Mosque to the square around the Cathedral of St. King (today known as the Sveta Nedelya Church). This area was historically significant, with the four main roads of Se(a)rdika-Sredets-Sofia intersecting at right angles since antiquity, symbolizing the city’s evolution through various epochs.

The urban redevelopment included the formation of wide radial boulevards, a stark contrast to the small, winding alleys that previously characterized the city. These efforts aimed to modernize Sofia, with neighborhood streets now laid out in a grid pattern, intersecting at right angles. This rationalization of the city’s layout facilitated better traffic flow, improved accessibility, and reflected the contemporary European trends in urban design of the time.

Through these comprehensive changes, Sofia not only expanded physically but also evolved into the vibrant heart of the newly liberated Bulgarian state, laying the groundwork for its future growth and development as the country’s foremost city.

The historical center of Sofia is demarcated by the boulevards Slivnitsa, Vasil Levski, Patriarch Evtimiy, and Hristo Botev, encapsulating the urban expanse of the city as it was shortly after Sofia’s elevation to the capital of Bulgaria in 1879. This area became the focal point of Sofia’s transformation, embodying the city’s architectural and cultural evolution.

The representative heart of Sofia developed around two key landmarks: the Princely Palace (which later became the Royal Palace) and the National Assembly. This area quickly emerged as the nexus of political, cultural, and public life in the capital. In 1907, the proximity to these pivotal structures saw the inauguration of the National Theater building, further cementing the area’s status as a cultural hub.

A significant urban feature, Tsar Osvoboditel Boulevard, was laid out at the beginning of the 20th century, distinguished by its “yellow cobblestones.” This boulevard created a direct link between the Palace and the People’s Assembly Square, leading to the monument of Tsar Alexander II, known as the Tsar Osvoboditel (Liberator Tsar). The boulevard extended towards a newly established quarter at the end of the 19th century, which became home to educators, politicians, lawyers, and military officers, marking a key area of expansion for the city towards the Pearl River and Orlov Bridge.

This early phase of expansion was critical in shaping Sofia’s urban landscape, steering the city’s development direction and laying the foundation for its growth as a modern European capital. The architectural and urban planning decisions of this period reflect Sofia’s aspirations and its role as the center of Bulgaria’s political, cultural, and intellectual life.

With the establishment of Sofia as the capital, there was not only an architectural and urban transformation but also a significant economic shift. The concentration of capital in Sofia catalyzed the development of various industries, including power mining, metal mining, brewing, and wood processing. Initially, the industrial landscape was dominated by small factories and workshops, reflecting the nascent stage of industrialization in the region.

A significant milestone in the city’s industrial development was the construction of the first hydroelectric plant on the Iskar River above Pancharevo towards the end of the century. This development was pivotal in providing electricity for Sofia, marking a leap forward in modernizing the city’s infrastructure and enhancing its economic capabilities.

The expansion of the railway network further integrated Sofia into the national and regional economy. In 1893, the construction of the Sofia-Pernik railway, followed by extensions to Plovdiv and Varna, facilitated the movement of goods and people, contributing to Sofia’s growth as an economic hub.

However, Sofia’s history also includes moments of tragedy and violence. On Maundy Thursday, April 16, 1925, a devastating attack was carried out in the St. Nedelya Church (also known as the “Holy Sunday” church) by operatives of the military wing of the Bulgarian Communist Party (BKP). The attack resulted in 170 fatalities and left 500 individuals injured, marking one of the darkest days in the city’s history. This event underscored the political tensions and conflicts that have occasionally marred Sofia’s progress and development.

In 1938, Sofia embarked on a visionary path to urban development with the adoption of the “Musmann Plan,” named after its architect, Professor Adolf Muesmann (German: Adolf Muesmann). This comprehensive urban development plan was crafted with the foresight of accommodating a future population growth up to 600,000 inhabitants. The Musmann Plan laid out a blueprint for expanding and modernizing the city’s infrastructure, residential areas, and public spaces to meet the anticipated needs of a growing capital. By addressing issues like transportation, housing, green spaces, and public utilities, the plan aimed to ensure that Sofia could evolve into a well-organized, functional, and aesthetically pleasing metropolis, ready to face the challenges of the 20th century and beyond. This strategic approach to urban planning marked a significant milestone in Sofia’s development, highlighting a commitment to sustainable growth and urban improvement.

During the Second World War, following Bulgaria’s declaration of war against Great Britain and the United States, Sofia experienced heavy bombing raids by British and American air forces. These attacks resulted in significant damage to the city, primarily affecting civilian infrastructure and historic sites. Notable landmarks such as the National Theater and the 11th-century Saint Spas church sustained severe damage, with the latter being heavily destroyed in 1944. The City Library, a treasure trove of knowledge containing 40,000 volumes, was completely destroyed on March 30, 1944. The Catholic Cathedral of St. Joseph also met the same fate on the same day, along with the Theological Academy, which suffered considerable damage including the burning of the dome of the temple built into it.

The air raids led to the destruction of thousands of residential buildings, devastating the city center, and causing the loss of more than 2,000 lives among the Sofia population. A total of 12,657 buildings were reported destroyed. In response to the destruction and in an effort to preserve human life and important cultural and administrative functions, Sofia was evacuated. Hospitals, pharmacies, state and municipal offices, schools, architectural bureaus, construction companies, and other essential services sought refuge in nearby towns and villages during the last two years of the war. Additionally, many men were mobilized to the front as Bulgaria shifted its allegiance in the war against the Third Reich.

The return of these individuals to the capital began only after May 9, 1945, marking the end of the war in Europe and the beginning of Sofia’s slow process of recovery and rebuilding in the second half of 1945. The aftermath of the bombings left Sofia with the daunting task of reconstructing its destroyed infrastructure, homes, and cultural landmarks, a challenge that would shape the city’s post-war development.

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