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Middle Ages


In the spring of 809, Bulgarian ruler Krum captured Serdika on his return from a military campaign in the Struma valley. This event occurred on the eve of Easter, marking a significant moment in the city’s history. According to the Byzantine historian Teofan the Confessor, Krum’s forces killed 6,000 soldiers and many civilians, though this account raises questions about the size, armament, and strategic approach of Krum’s army and remains unverified.

Despite the dramatic capture, the takeover of Sredets (the name Serdika was known by at this time) did not result in significant destruction or lead to substantial changes within the city. The period following the capture saw an increase in pottery findings around the fortress walls, which some researchers attribute to the Slavs of the Balkan Peninsula. However, there’s a lack of detailed exploration into the Thracian and Bulgarian characteristics of these findings.

By the late 9th or early 10th century, significant architectural developments occurred, including the complete reconstruction of the Church of St. George. Additionally, the city received an illustrious visitor, Tsar Peter I, under whose instruction the revered hermit Saint Ivan of Rila, also known as the Rila Wonderworker and considered the Bulgarian Heavenly Patron, was buried in Sredets immediately following his death in 946. This burial underscores the city’s importance as a spiritual and cultural center during this period.

By the end of the 10th century, Sredets had become a significant stronghold within the territories controlled by the Komitopuli, specifically under Aron. Following the capture of the Bulgarian capital Preslav, Patriarch Damian found temporary refuge within its walls. A notable moment in the city’s history occurred in the summer of 986 when Emperor Basil II laid siege to Sredets for 20 days. Despite this, Basil II encountered a severe defeat at Trajan’s Gate during his return to Thrace, marking a significant setback for the Byzantine forces.

The eventual subjugation of Sredets to Byzantine rule did not occur until 1018, after the death of Ivan Vladislav, the last king of the First Bulgarian Kingdom. It was then that the leaders (voivodes) of 35 fortresses, Sredets included, voluntarily acknowledged the sovereignty of the Roman (Byzantine) emperor. This moment marked a pivotal transition in the city’s status, reflecting the shifting political landscapes of the region and the end of an era in Bulgarian history, as it became part of the Byzantine Empire.

In 1040, Sredets momentarily slipped from Byzantine control, falling into the hands of the rebels led by Peter Delyan. This insurrection prompted Emperor Michael IV to personally intervene and suppress the uprising. Subsequently, in an effort to stabilize the region, the Byzantine authorities resettled a substantial number of Pechenegs in the Sofia Field after 1048, with a portion likely taking residence within the city itself.

In 1059, Emperor Isaac I Comnenus led a sizable force to Sredets to confront the advancing Hungarians. However, the potential conflict was averted through negotiation, avoiding a significant military confrontation. By the late 1060s, specifically around 1066 or 1067, the future Emperor Romanus IV Diogenes was appointed as the governor of Sredets, highlighting the city’s strategic importance within the Byzantine Empire.

The year 1183 marked a dark period for Sredets, as it was captured and ravaged by the forces of Serbian Grand Duke Stefan Nemanja and Hungarian King Béla III. This devastating attack underscored the city’s vulnerability to regional power struggles. In 1189, Sredets found itself inadvertently hosting the northern contingent of the Third Crusade, led by Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa. The crusaders, having entered a city abandoned and devoid of resources — “without market, food, and wine” — faced severe hardships. This unexpected situation forced them to proceed on their arduous journey through Plovdiv towards Edirne and ultimately Constantinople, significantly fatigued and disillusioned by their experiences.

In 1194, Sredets became a permanent part of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom under Ivan Asen I, marking the beginning of a new era in the city’s history.

During the flourishing period from the 13th to the 17th centuries, Sredets held significant strategic importance within the Second Bulgarian Kingdom, primarily for its control over the regions of Pomerania and Macedonia. Following its annexation, efforts were promptly initiated to repair the fortress walls and address the substantial damages within the city’s interior. This period saw a noticeable increase in the density of urban construction, with many streets narrowing into tight passages and the emergence of two-story buildings, reflecting a burgeoning growth and urban development.

Several governors of Sredets in the mid-13th century were awarded the title of sevastokrator, a rank second only to the king. Notable figures bearing this title included Sevastokrator Alexander, the brother of Tsar Ivan Asen II, his son Kaloyan, and Alexander’s son-in-law Peter. Following the death of Ivan Asen II, Peter assumed control over the western territories of Bulgaria. This period underscores Sredets’ evolving urban landscape and its pivotal role in the political and strategic machinations of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom.

During the governance of Sebastocrator Kaloyan, it’s believed that the ancient remnants of the Constantinian quarter underwent reconstruction, transforming into a residence for the city’s governor. This period reflects significant architectural and cultural developments in Sredets, showcasing the city’s importance as a center of power and administration.

Sebastoprator Kaloyan is credited with founding the Boyana Church, an emblematic piece of Bulgarian medieval art. This church is particularly notable for housing a full-length portrait of Kaloyan, dated to 1259, making it an invaluable artifact for understanding Bulgarian medieval society and culture.

The 14th century in Sredets was marked by vibrant cultural and economic activity. A literary school operated near the Metropolitan Cathedral “Saint Sophia,” contributing significantly to the medieval Bulgarian literary tradition. From this school’s activities, the Sredets Gospel was preserved, a testament to the city’s scholarly and religious life. Additionally, the surrounding area of the city saw the formation of a complex of monasteries, later known as the Saint Sophia Forest, indicating the growth of monastic life and religious education.

Sredets also emerged as a hub for international trade and craftsmanship during this time. Merchants from Dubrovnik had offices in the city, facilitating trade and cultural exchange. The production of multicolored luxury sgraffito ceramics, jewelry, and ironwork in Sofia further underscored the city’s economic vitality and artistic creativity, painting a picture of a bustling, culturally rich, and economically vibrant medieval city.

In 1382, the Ottoman general Lala Shahin Pasha laid siege to Sofia for three months. His reports back to the Ottoman government lauded the city for its favorable natural conditions, its wealth and bustling economic life, as well as its political significance. Shortly after these reports, Sofia fell into the hands of his subordinate, Ince Balaban Bey. This marked the beginning of a new chapter in Sofia’s history, as it became the center of the Sofia Pasha Sanjak, a role it maintained from 1393 until 1878.

During the ambitious campaign led by Janos Hunyadi in the fall of 1443, the Ottomans made a strategic decision to abandon Sofia. In an effort to thwart the advancing Hungarian forces, they evacuated the population and set the city ablaze, hoping to deprive the enemy of supplies and shelter. Despite these efforts, the Hungarians were greeted warmly by the remaining Christians in Sofia, who held a solemn service in the Hagia Sophia Cathedral to welcome their liberators. However, this moment of respite was short-lived; within weeks, the Hungarians withdrew to Pirot, and in retaliation for their support of Hunyadi’s forces, the Christians in Sofia and the vicinity suffered a brutal massacre at the hands of the Ottomans. This tragic event underscores the tumultuous and often brutal nature of Sofia’s history during periods of military conflict and occupation.

In the midst of the 15th century, despite the Ottoman conquest, Sofia maintained its predominantly Bulgarian character, as observed by European travelers of the time. This testament to the city’s resilience highlights its ability to preserve its cultural identity amidst significant political and social changes.

The mid-15th century brought significant religious events to Sofia, enhancing its status as a spiritual center. Since 1460, the city became the custodian of the relics of Holy King Stefan II Milutin, a significant figure in Orthodox Christianity. Further enriching its religious heritage, in 1469, Sofia was a key point in the procession of the relics of Saint Ivan of Rila from Tarnovo to the Rila Monastery. This event was of profound importance to the Orthodox community, marking a moment of unity and spiritual renewal.

During this period, Sofia, along with the surrounding monasteries of the Sofia Holy Forest, became a hub for religious and cultural education, known for the development of the Sofia Book School. This school contributed to the preservation and creation of religious and literary texts, playing a crucial role in the cultural and spiritual life of the region. Through these developments, Sofia continued to assert its significance not only as a political and economic center under Ottoman rule but also as a beacon of Orthodox Christianity and Bulgarian heritage.

Following Sofia’s integration into the Ottoman Empire, the existing colony of Dubrovnik merchants experienced significant growth, further enriched by the arrival of Italian traders from Florence and Venice. Together, these communities established a Catholic quarter in the vicinity of the city’s demolished western gate, contributing to the cosmopolitan fabric of Sofia.

The city’s demographic and economic landscape also featured Armenians, who predominantly engaged in goldsmithing and furriery, residing in the city’s central areas. Meanwhile, the northeastern districts became home to Jewish communities, who fostered extensive trade networks with the Netherlands and France, enhancing Sofia’s position as a trading hub.

This era marked Sofia as a notable center for the production and export of luxury goods to Italy, including the woolen cloth known as chocha and a specially treated leather referred to as “bulgarini” in Italy. Additionally, the city imported glassware, medicines, and earthenware from Italy, reflecting a vibrant exchange of goods and cultural influences.

Sofia occasionally served as the temporary seat of the Beylerbey of Rumelia during this period. The Beylerbey was a high-ranking official within the Ottoman Empire, with considerable influence, and at times, the Grand Vizier himself held this position. This role underscored Sofia’s strategic importance within the Ottoman administrative and political hierarchy, highlighting its significance beyond a mere provincial capital.

The early 16th century marked a significant shift in the cultural and ethnic composition of Sofia. A stark contrast to the previous century, by the 1930s, travelers reported a Muslim majority in the city, and by the mid-17th century, descriptions pointed towards an entirely Turkish population. This change reflected the broader socio-political transformations under Ottoman rule, which included the conversion of religious structures and a significant demographic shift towards a predominantly Muslim populace.

Two of Sofia’s large ancient churches underwent conversion into mosques during the early 1500s: the “Saint Sophia” church became the Siyavush Pasha Mosque, and the “Saint George” church was transformed into the Gul Mosque. Archaeological evidence suggests that a substantial portion of the city center’s inhabitants were Muslims by this time, indicating the widespread nature of Islamization within the city.

The process of Islamization in Sofia, and the broader Ottoman Empire, is not extensively documented, particularly regarding the methods employed. However, the period saw the recognition of several Christians who refused to convert to Islam as martyrs, highlighting the resistance against religious conversion. These individuals include George of Sofia the New and Sophronius of Sofia, both in 1515, another George of Sofia the New in 1530, Nicholas of Sofia Novi in 1555, and Terapontius of Sofia also in 1555. Their martyrdom underscores the complex interplay of faith, identity, and resistance within the changing religious landscape of Sofia during the Ottoman era.

In 1530, Sofia was designated as the permanent capital of the Rumelia Eyalet, a status it held until 1836. Initially referred to as the Beylerbeystvo until 1590, the Rumelia Eyalet encompassed a significant portion of the Balkan Peninsula, extending from Eastern Thrace through Pomerania to Epirus. This era marked a notable period of economic growth and cultural development for Sofia, characterized by a resurgence in various crafts and the minting of coins—a practice not seen since antiquity. The gold and silver required for coinage primarily came from the mines around Chiprovtsi, highlighting the region’s mineral wealth.

From the mid-15th century, particularly leading up to the 16th century, Sofia witnessed the construction of impressive public buildings and religious edifices, contributing to the city’s architectural and cultural landscape. Noteworthy among these is the Buyuk Mosque, built between 1451 and 1494, and the Çelebi Mosque, erected in 1502 adjacent to the Konak. Additionally, the Koca Dervish Mehmed Pasha Mosque, dating from 1528 and now serving as a church, and the Banya Bashi Mosque, completed in 1567 by the renowned Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan, are significant for their architectural and historical value.

Although records indicate the existence of ten mosques in Sofia by name, contemporary authors from this period suggest the actual number could be around 150. This figure reflects the extensive Islamic architectural and cultural influence in Sofia during the Ottoman period, underscoring the city’s importance as a center of commerce, governance, and religious life in the Balkans.

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