Spiritual retreat in Sofia

 

 A majestic building stands right in the heart of the Bulgarian capital Sofia – this is the Central Synagogue. It is impressesive with its architecture and its history symbolizing the peaceful  spritual co-existence. Today this building is regarded as the largest Sephardic (Spanish Jewish) synagogue in Europe.

At the time when the construction of the synagogue started, the general feeling was of hope in the country’s revival. This was how the idea for the construction of such a large and imposing building was born.  This building is in itself an indication of the spritual strength of the  community and its desire to join this overall upraise trend with the idea that a beautiful and well-structured building.

The building was designed by the famous Austrian  – Friedrich Grünanger whose drawings have been used also for some of the most remarkable public buildings, including the Historical Museum , the Ecclesiastical Seminary, etc. Exploring the modern architectural styles of synagogues in Western Europe, Grünanger proposed a model inspired by the Sephardic synagogue in Vienna. The construction started in 1905 and an additional 400 seats were added to the original 700 seats. The expansion resulted in a significant increase of the costs. It caused a controversy among the community as some people thought it would have been better to allocate the financing to schools. Despite all difficulties, the construction was completed and the official inauguration of the synagogue turned into a joyful celebration for the entire city. The official consecration on September 1909 was attended by the whole state elite, including Tsar Ferdinand and his wife, Prime Minister Alexander Malinov, cabinet ministers and the higher clergy.

The synagogue is distinguished by its beautiful architecture – Spanish-Moorish style with elements of the Viennese Secession. Much of the decoration was commissioned from Vienna – for example, the brass chandelier and the multibranched candelabrum (menorah). Not only Italian but also some of the most famous Bulgarian craftsmen worked on the interior design. The wood carvings and multicolored mosaics created by them adorn the synagogue to this day. The building also housed a library storing a collection of medieval rabbinic writings. Unfortunately, many books, archives and even the exquisite stained glass windows were destroyed during the bombing of Sofia in World War II when a bomb fell right in the section where the library was housed.

After the restoration of the synagogue on the occasion of its 100th anniversary, it now shines in its full glory. Today it is not only one of the jewels in the crown of the Bulgarian capital, but it continues to perform its main function of being the spiritual center of the  community. The religious services are conducted in Hebrew and there are chants in Ladino (a Romance language descended from medieval Spanish spoken by Sephardic Jews in the Balkans, Turkey, and the Near East).

The synagogue, together with its nearby spiritual buildings – the Orthodox Church of Saint Nedelya, the Catholic Cathedral St. Joseph and the Banya Bashi mosque symbolizes the traditional model of multi-faith coexistence.

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