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THE IMAGE OF OTTOMAN SOFIA IN THE CULTURAL MEMORY OF BULGARIANS

Stefan Peychev

Turkish Cultural Foundation Fellow (2012-2013)
Ph.D. Candidate, Urban history, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Sofia, one of the oldest urban agglomerations in the Balkans, an important administrative and economic center in the Roman, Byzantine, and Bulgarian Empires, was conquered by the Ottomans in the 1380s. Within about a century, the city was promoted to the status of capital of Rumeli, one of the largest Ottoman provinces. Almost four centuries of service as provincial capital left a significant imprint on Sofia’s urban landscape. The city boasted of some of the most representative works of Ottoman architecture in the Balkans, resulting from the endeavors of provincial governors, local notables, as well as high functionaries of the central government in Istanbul. Remarkably, this great period of imperial grandeur is missing from the cultural memory of modern Bulgarians who prefer to imagine Ottoman Sofia as an underdeveloped ‘Oriental’ city with crooked muddy streets, retrograde architecture, and lack of any public amenities.
   
The driving force behind the construction and wide dissemination of this biased image of Ottoman Sofia has been the sustained effort on the part of Bulgarian authorities and a large group of intellectuals to push forward late antiquity and modernity as the two pillars of local urban identity. The end of the Ottoman period in Sofia’s history, brought about by the formation of an autonomous Bulgarian Principality in 1878, was followed by radical urban transformation aimed at the construction of the national image of the young state’s capital city. Ottoman architecture was demolished on a grand scale to give way to modern, European-style urbanism. Meanwhile, the study of Sofia’s history has been focused on the Roman city whose street plan has been considered a masterpiece of Roman urbanism, built to survive foreign encroachment and introduce the city into modernity. The Ottoman impact on Sofia’s urban fabric has largely been seen in the destruction of the ideal city plan established in antiquity and presumably surviving until the last decades of the fourteenth century. With this harsh verdict, the Ottoman period has stood no chances of becoming part of modern Sofia’s representative image.

Bulgarian historiography has traditionally treated the Ottoman conquest as a veritable clash of civilizations, with the conquerors being located on a lower lever on the evolutionary scale of development vis-à-vis the high culture of medieval Bulgaria. The Ottoman state, it has been argued, had little, if any, concern for the public good, which resulted in a rudimentary public works system. Nineteenth-century descriptions of Ottoman Sofia, focusing on the city’s winding streets covered by mud and surrounded by half-ruined buildings, have been pushed forward as the standard image of the Ottoman city, with complete disregard of the realities of this last century of Ottoman rule when military instability, economic decline and two devastating earthquakes had brought an end to Sofia’s grandeur. According to studies of Ottoman Sofia’s architecture, the imposing mosques, caravanserais, and baths of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were built by a fanatical empire for the purpose of instilling awe and fear among the conquered Christians. It was only natural for such an oppressive regime to disappear without leaving a trace on the surface of the city and in the minds of the population.

The dynamic tourist flow of the last two decades, resulting from the collapse of socialism in 1989 and the recent accession of Bulgaria into EU membership, has stressed the importance of cultural heritage. The recent excavation project in the historic core of Sofia has been accompanied by further obliteration of the vestiges of Ottoman times. As a confirmation to the ultimate achievement of Sofia’s dual image of a simultaneously ancient and modern city, the attention of tourists and locals has been pointed to the good level of integration of Sofia’s underground treasures, the remains of Roman Serdica, with those on the ground, the emblematic architecture of the mid-twentieth century. This blend of antiquity and modernity, however, has been achieved only by way of the deliberate elimination of the undesired Ottoman architectural presence, thus leading to a constructed vision of evolution and a flawed understanding of urban identity.



Image 1 : Old Sofia with the clock tower. Joseph Oberbauer, 1890s.
Painting courtesy of Sofia History Museum


Image 2:Joseph Oberbauer, Mosque on the bath Square, 1890s. Painting courtesy of Sofia History Museum
 

Image 3:Sofia’s main Ottoman public bath during its demolition in 1914. Source: P. Deliradev, Sofia’s thermal baths. Geological and historical notes (Sofia: Pechatnitsa “Gladston,” 1937)

 

Image 4:Getting rid of the undesired Ottoman heritage during archaeological excavations
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