The hot mineral springs, the major roads between Europe and Asia and the natural protection of several mountains have long made this a prime location for a city.
In 1879, when the newly liberated Bulgaria had to choose where to have its new capital, Sofia seemed like a reasonable choice. It is true that, by then, the mineral springs and mountains were of less importance. However, the commercial crossroads worked in Sofia's favor against the bigger Plovdiv and the historical capital Veliko Tarnovo.
As early as the First Millennium B.C. the ancient inhabitants of the Balkan peninsula, the Thracians, formed a settlement around the hot mineral springs that still flow in the center of Sofia. As the town grew in size it became known as Serdica after the name of the Celtic tribe serdi (according to some historians). The area around St. Nedelya Square has been inhabited ever since and is still the historic and administrative heart of modern Sofia.
ROMAN ULPIA SERDICA
Excavation works on the ancient Thracian and Roman city of Serdica are taking place in the heart of modern-day Sofia.
In the year 45 C.E., Serdica was conquered by the Romans. It became the capital of the newly-formed Roman province of Thracia and became a major commercial center in the area. The Romans kept the name of the city but after the 2nd Century C.E. they started calling it Ulpia Serdica, in honor of Emperor Marcus Ulpius Trajanus. By that time Roman Emperors had gotten into the habit of spending time here. Constantine the Great even settled in Serdica for a while and erected the small St. George Rotunda, which still stands today, as a part of his residential complex.
The 4th century St George Rotunda is the oldest building in Sofia.
After the death of Constantine the Great and the split of the Roman Empire, the city became part of the Byzantine territory and a major religious center in the region. In the year 343 C.E., church officials from the entire Christian world gathered here for the “Council of Serdica”. The building of churches, now an affair of the state, intensified. One of the churches built around 6th Century C.E., the Basilica of St. Sofia, still stands today. At around that time too, Slavs began to settle in the region and in the city, and lived under Byzantine authority. They started calling the city Sredets, which in their language meant “in the middle”, a reference to the city's central location on the Balkans.
BULGARIAN SREDETS (IX -XIII c C.E.)
The UNESCO-listed Boyana church was built by Sofia's 13th century ruler Kaloyan.
In the 8th Century, the Bulgarians formed their First Kingdom to the North and started to chip away at the Byzantine lands. In the 9th Century they conquered Sredets and the city remained their second most important settlement until the 13th Century (if we don't count the 100 years in which Sredets and the Bulgarian state were under Byzantine rule).
Sredets reached its heyday as a cultural center in the 13th century under the feudal ruler Sevastokrator Kaloyan. He commissioned the Boyana Church, now a UNESCO Heritage Site, with his family portrait inside. Many of the monasteries around Sofia date back to his rule.
By the early 14th Century, locals started referring to the city with the name of its biggest church, St. Sofia, a name it keeps to this day.
OTTOMAN SOFIA (1382 - 1876)
The 16th c Bani Bashi mosque is the only active mosque in Sofia today.
In the year 1382, the city fell under Ottoman rule. For close to 500 years Sofia was the capital of the Ottoman province of Rumelia (or the Ottoman Empire's European lands).
Most of the city's mosques date from the 16th c when the city experienced a commercial revival.
Along with the rest of the Ottoman Empire, by the 18th century Sofia had fallen into disrepair. The few Western travelers who made it to these lands described minarets, red roofs and shattered city walls and unpaved streets covered with mud, which inspired the nickname “Bulgarian Venice”. It was not uncommon to lose a shoe in the sticky substance and frog croaks were reportedly the city's soundtrack at night.
THE NEW BULGARIAN CAPITAL (1879 - 1945)
Numerous statues of lions - the symbol of the Bulgarian state - can be seen around Sofia.
In 1878, Russian forces led by General Gurko, pushed Ottoman army and administration out of Sofia, as a part of a military campaign that led to the formation of an independent Bulgarian state.
At the time, Sofia's population was around 12,000 people (following the mass exodus of about 6,000 Turks after the Liberation).
A year later, Sofia was chosen as the capital of the newly liberated state and scores of people from far and near moved to the city.
Big urbanization projects were undertaken and a new (and very European looking) part of town emerged east of St. Nedelia Square.
Sofia was the seat of the Bulgarian King and the modest palace that hosted him. It was also the arena for major political battles that led to the assassination of several prime ministers, high-ranking politicians and generals.
A gruesome terrorist act in April 1925 destroyed St. Nedelia Church and left 200 dead and nearly 300 wounded.
The city was heavily bombed during the World War II after the country's disastrous decision to ally themselves with Germany.
COMMUNIST SOFIA (1945 - 1989)
The monument of the Soviet Army in Sofia was built in 1954 to mark 10 years from the Soviet invasion of Bulgaria.
After 1945, Sofia became the center of the grip of power of the Communist party.
Many from the former elite were expelled from the city and their homes and businesses were nationalized or redistributed.
Big Stalinist-era buildings emerged in the center of the city, most notably the huge Communist party headquarters, the Presidency and TZUM, a big department store meant to serve as a showcase for the Communist Bulgaria's prosperity.
Large factories sprang up in the city's outskirts and the new jobs attracted residents from the neighboring villages.
In order to solve the city's half-century long housing shortage, the government built large apartment complexes from pre-manufactured concrete panels, which to this day house the majority of the residents.
Large shopping malls have transformed many of Sofia's streets in the last 10 years.
The fall of the Communist Party was followed by over 10 years of chaos and bad government. Office buildings and hotels often sprang up in parks and gardens, infrastructure crumbled and the residents were terrorized by street dogs and ever-more brazen mafia-related shootings.
Those days are long gone now and Sofia has turned, somewhat reluctantly, into a pleasant and safe city.
EU-funded infrastructure projects like the Metro have eased the growing traffic problems and the latest craze for malls has transformed many of the city's streets.