For many centuries, the city was known by different names: Serdika, Sredets, Triadica.
It wasn't before the 14th century when people started referring to it as Sofia, after the name of its biggest church; The Hagia Sophia or Holy Wisdom.
It is the ancient feel of the church and the large contrast with the neighboring Alexander Nevsky Cathedral that are the main reasons to go inside.
THE HISTORY BEHIND ST SOPHIA CHURCH
The first church at this location was built in the early 4th century over a pre-Christian religious site and close to a big Roman amphitheater. The church was outside of the city walls and served the city's necropolis.
A much bigger construction was erected in the 6th century under the rule of Emperor Justinian, the Emperor who also commissioned the rebuilding of the much more famous Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.
Unlike Istanbul's Hagia Sophia’s innovative design, a typical basilica plan was followed here; a rectangular construction with the cross-shaped floor plan, lots of internal columns, three naves and altars.
The church continued to serve the city and the adjacent necropolis through the Middle ages. Its crypt was a favored resting place for the city’s nobles.
In 2014 the nearby tomb of a noble Sofia resident opened to the public.
In 16th century, the city’s Ottoman rulers turned St Sofia into a mosque. Minarets were added and the Christian frescoes were replaced by the floral motifs.
In the 19th century, one of the walls and the minarets collapsed after a strong earthquake. The building was abandoned, most probably because the repair was deemed too costly.
Urban myths at the time claimed that the Muslims got scared of the wrath of the Christian God. If so, God's anger must have futher escalated, when after the Bulgarian Independence the building was used for gas storage!
Around that time, it was reportedly scheduled for demolition due to its untidy appearance, a plan that thankfully did not materialize. Old photos of the church from the time can be viewed inside.
A long renovation turned the building into an active Orthodox church.
An “Eternal Flame” was built in 1981 on the site, to commemorate the fallen soldiers from numerous 20th century wars.