The mosque that became a church
Sveti Sedmochislenitsi in Sofia preserves elements of both religionsAdelina Lozanova
In the centre of Sofia there is an imposing and very popular church, but few people know that before it became a Christian temple it had been a mosque for centuries. The name of the church is Sveti Sedmochislenitsi and it is dedicated to Saints Cyril and Methodius, the two brothers who devised the precursor of the Cyrillic alphabet, and their five disciples - Clement, Naum, Angelar, Gorazd and Sava.
The present-day building was built in the 16th century on the remnants of an old Christian church of the 5th-6th centuries and an even older pagan sanctuary of Asclepius, god of medicine and health. The legend runs that during his military campaign against the Kingdom of Hungary, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent encamped near Sofia. One night he had a prophetic dream that he would win a victory. In the morning he told his grand vizier and governor of Sofia, Mehmed Pasha, that he would build a mosque in gratitude to Allah if his dream came true. Suleiman put the Magyars to rout at Mohacs and two years later the mosque was built.
The will of Suleiman was for the construction to be entrusted to Kodzha Mimar Sinan, chief architect of the Ottoman Empire. The new mosque was named Kodzha Dervish Mehmed Pasha after Grand Vizier Sokollu Mehmed Pasha, but it went down in history as Kara Dzhamii (the Black Mosque) because its minaret was made of dark stone. Famous Ottoman explorer Evliya Chelebi wrote that at the mosque there were a madrasah (a theological school), an imaret (or asylum for the poor and sick) and a roofed market. When an earthquake struck the region in the 19th century, the mosque's minaret collapsed.
After Bulgaria was liberated from the Ottoman rule in 1878, the mosque was converted into a military warehouse and was later used as a prison. Eminent Bulgarian politician Petko Karavelov was imprisoned there for a while. This function of the building only affirmed its popular name - the Black Mosque.
After the Liberation, Sofia expanded rapidly and the city's growing population needed new churches. In 1897, the government decided to convert the Black Mosque into a Christian church. The reconstruction was carried out in 1901-1903. That's when the corner cupolas, bell tower and narthex were added to the building.
Elements of the Bulgarian traditional medieval church architecture are intertwined in the church's design. Of special interest is the clock on its western facade, made in the 1930s, which is not characteristic of the Bulgarian church architecture. A special feature of the church is its original iconostasis. It is made of masonry and covered with rich gypsum ornaments. Its position within the church's interior is so well-balanced that it creates an allusion to organic wholeness.
The iconostasis was made by master builders from Debar, and its beauty is complemented by the many icons of various sizes painted by famous artists who at the time founded the Drawing School which later became the National Academy of Art. It took 80 years to complete the frescoes of the entire church.