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Decline in the 17th – 19th centuries


Starting from the 17th century, Sofia, mirroring the broader decline of the Ottoman Empire and the cessation of its expansive military campaigns into Central Europe, began to experience a gradual downturn. The city, once a pivotal launchpad for these campaigns, saw a marked deterioration in its infrastructure and public amenities. Many public buildings fell into disrepair, and the ancient water system, a critical component of urban infrastructure, deteriorated significantly. In many areas, this system was abandoned in favor of wells, signaling a regression in the city’s urban development and public health standards.

By the century’s end, Sofia witnessed a notable demographic shift. The city’s economic and cultural landscape changed as Dubrovnik and Italian merchants, along with some Jewish trading families and high-ranking Turkish officials, left Sofia. This exodus of merchants and officials contributed to the city’s declining economic vitality and administrative importance. However, this period also saw an influx of Bulgarians from nearby villages settling in Sofia’s outskirts, indicating a shift in the city’s ethnic and social composition.

The 18th century brought further changes to the administrative landscape of the region. The Beylerbeys of Rumelia, who had periodically resided in Sofia, began to increasingly stay in Bitola. This shift culminated in 1836 when Bitola officially became the center of the Rumelia Eyalet, marking the end of Sofia’s administrative prominence within the Ottoman Empire. This transition reflected the shifting political and administrative priorities of the Ottoman authorities and underscored the changing fortunes of cities within the empire.

The uprising of the bishops in Sofia and the Samokov region erupted in 1737, marking a significant episode of resistance against Ottoman rule. This rebellion, however, was swiftly and brutally suppressed by the end of July and the beginning of August 1737, under the orders of Ali Pasha Küprülüoğlu. The crackdown resulted in the deaths of approximately 350 individuals from Sofia, including priests, monks, and residents from surrounding villages. Among those killed was Metropolitan Simeon of Samokov and Sofia. He was executed by hanging in Sofia by the Ottoman authorities on August 21, 1773. Metropolitan Simeon’s martyrdom led to his recognition as the ninth Saint of Sofia, underscoring his importance in the city’s religious and historical narrative. This tragic event highlights the severe measures employed by the Ottoman Empire to maintain control over its territories and the profound impact of such actions on the local populations and their leaders.

By 1738, the demographic composition of Sofia, mirroring that of other significant cities in the European territories of the Ottoman Empire, was predominantly Turkish. This shift reflects the broader changes in the region’s ethnic and cultural landscape over the centuries of Ottoman rule. The transition towards a predominantly Turkish population in Sofia and similar urban centers was influenced by a variety of factors, including migration, economic opportunities, and the administrative priorities of the Ottoman Empire, as well as the impact of events like the suppression of local uprisings. This period marks a significant phase in the historical and demographic evolution of Sofia, highlighting the complex interplay of political power, cultural identity, and population dynamics within the empire.

The turn of the 19th century brought a period of turmoil and instability to Sofia, exacerbated by the phenomenon of Kardzhalism, a wave of anarchy and banditry, as well as the implications of Serbia’s liberation and the consequent shift of the border closer to Sofia. This series of adverse events, coupled with the devastating fire of 1816, the plague outbreak of 1857, and significant earthquakes in 1818 and 1858, severely impacted the city’s wellbeing and development.

Despite these challenges, Sofia maintained its status as a prominent Bulgarian city. The presence of consuls from France, Italy, and Austria-Hungary underscored its importance in the region. In 1862, American missionaries observed that Sofia had a population of approximately 30,000, with Bulgarians making up about one-third. They noted the city’s somewhat dilapidated state but also recognized the burgeoning affluence of its Bulgarian community.

In 1864, Sofia’s administrative significance was further solidified when it became the center of the Sofia Sanjak within the newly established Danube Vilayet. By 1876, Sofia evolved into the administrative hub of the Sofia Vilayet, spanning a vast area of what is now western Bulgaria, from Koprivshtitsa to Niš and from Gorna Djumaya to Pirot, including towns like Orhanie, Vranya, Samokov, and Prokuple. This administrative reorganization reflects Sofia’s enduring strategic and cultural importance in the region, despite the trials and tribulations it faced over the centuries.

In the 19th century, the Bulgarian community in Sofia demonstrated significant cultural and educational development despite the challenges of Ottoman rule. They managed to establish their own municipality, maintain seven churches, and operate two secular schools, showcasing a commitment to education and community organization. The mutual school, initiated in 1825, alongside a class-type school, underscored the community’s dedication to literacy and learning, building upon the legacy of educational initiatives like the cells at churches and monasteries dating back to the Sofia Book School era.

In 1867, the cultural and educational landscape of the Bulgarian community in Sofia was further enriched with the founding of the “Tsviat” community center, marking a significant step towards cultural autonomy and enrichment. The establishment of the Bulgarian women’s society “Mother” in 1869, and the student group “Napreduk” in 1874, were indicative of the burgeoning sense of national consciousness and the drive for social improvement among the Bulgarians in Sofia.

A notable figure in this period was Baba Nedelya, who founded the first girls’ school in the Bulgarian lands, breaking new ground in female education and empowerment. Additionally, since 1859, the community began celebrating the contributions of the Slavic first teachers, Saints Cyril and Methodius, highlighting the importance of Slavic heritage and Orthodox Christianity in shaping Bulgarian identity and culture.

These developments reflect the resilience and resourcefulness of the Bulgarian community in Sofia, as they navigated the complexities of the 19th century, laying the groundwork for future national and cultural revival.

Conflicts between the Bulgarian community and the Greek clergy in Sofia date back to as early as 1818, highlighting the longstanding religious and cultural tensions under Ottoman rule. These conflicts were part of the broader struggle for religious and national autonomy among Bulgarians in the Ottoman Empire.

A pivotal moment in this struggle occurred on October 15, 1872, when the Bulgarian Exarch Antim I ordained the first Exarch Metropolitan Meletius of Sofia at the church of St. Stefan in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul). This event was significant for several reasons. Firstly, it represented a formal recognition of the Bulgarian Exarchate by the Bulgarian community and its leaders, marking a crucial step towards ecclesiastical independence from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople. Secondly, the ordination of Metropolitan Meletius as the Exarch Metropolitan of Sofia underscored the city’s importance as a center of Bulgarian ecclesiastical and national identity.

The establishment of the Bulgarian Exarchate and the ordination of Metropolitan Meletius were crucial milestones in the Bulgarian struggle for church independence, which was intricately linked with the broader movement for national awakening and liberation from Ottoman rule. These events contributed to the strengthening of Bulgarian national consciousness and played a key role in the eventual liberation and formation of the modern Bulgarian state.

In 1870, Vasil Levski, a pivotal figure in the Bulgarian movement for national liberation from Ottoman rule, established revolutionary committees in Sofia and its surrounding villages, signaling a significant intensification of the revolutionary efforts. These committees were part of a broader network that spanned the territory of the then-Ottoman Empire, aiming to prepare the Bulgarian people for an uprising to achieve national independence.

Prominent members of the Sofia Revolutionary Committee and the local revival movement included:

  1. Dimitar Trajkovic: A member of the Sofia Revolutionary Committee.
  2. Ivan Denkoglu and Sava Filaretov: Key figures in the revivalist movement.
  3. Yordanka Filaretova and Zahari Ikonomovich (Krusha): Notable contributors to the cause.
  4. Nikola Vardev: A revolutionary bookseller.
  5. Hieromonk Gennady Skitnik (Ivan Ikhtimanski): A member of the committee and abbot of the Dragalevsky Monastery, which served as a frequent meeting place for Levski and the committee.
  6. Nikola Stefanov Krushkin (Cholaka): An associate of Levski and a member of the committee, executed by the Ottomans.
  7. Georgi Abadzhiyat: A bookseller and courier for the committee, also executed alongside Cholaka.
  8. Kiro Geoshev (Kiro Kafedzhi): Levski’s accomplice and companion, who faced the same fate.
  9. Hadji Stoyan Knizhar: Executed by the Ottomans.
  10. Hristo Kovachev: A committee member, exiled to Diyarbekir.
  11. Stoycho Rashkov and Todor Maleev: Participants in the April Uprising from Koprivshtitsa, tasked with transporting materials for bullet casting from Plovdiv, were executed by the Ottomans on the Lion Bridge.

These individuals, among others, played crucial roles in the struggle for Bulgarian independence, enduring persecution and, in many cases, paying the ultimate price for their commitment to the cause. Their sacrifices and contributions were instrumental in the eventual liberation of Bulgaria, underscoring the profound impact of the revolutionary movement led by figures like Vasil Levski

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