Thursday, June 4, 2009

Bulgaria: Celebration of Sofia’s Central Synagogue Centennial Planned

Sofia, Bulgaria. Great Synagogue in final phase of restoration.
Photos: Samuel D. Gruber 2003

Bulgaria: Celebration of Sofia’s Central Synagogue Centennial Planned
by Samuel D. Gruber

ISJM) The Jewish Community of Bulgaria has announced the planned celebration of the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Central Sofia Synagogue, to take place on September 9, 2009. The Synagogue opened on September 9, 1909 in the presence of regional leaders, ministers and supreme representatives of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.

The large domed synagogue, located at Ekzarkh Josef St. 16, is a prominent architectural and urban landmark in downtown Sofia. It is the is the largest Sephardi Synagogue in the Balkans, and the third largest synagogue in Europe after those in Budapest (Dohany Street) and Amsterdam (Esnoga). Designed by Austrian architect Friedrich Gruenanger (1856-1929), the large domed structure was erected from 1905 to 1910. After falling into disrepair, the building was restored over a period of many years, and is now a great source of pride for Bulgarian Jews.

Prayer services have been held at the synagogue regularly since its opening, except for the years 1943-44 when most of the Jews of Sophia were removed to the countryside. The synagogue was not, however, severely damaged by the Nazis or local Fascists during the war. Instead, most wartime damage was the result of Allied bombing in 1944, when the gallery and several columns in the sanctuary were partially destroyed. After the War, most Bulgarian Jews emigrated to Israel. The remaining community could not afford to fully restore the synagogue, though small repairs were made intermittently between 1945 and 1989. Only in 1989 did the gradually reviving, but still small, Jewish community begin a full-scale restoration, which progressed in fits and starts as support from international partners was available The synagogue was officially rededicated in 1996, but restoration work continued for another decade.

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The building combines various historical styles, particularly Byzantine and Moorish, in an expressive eclecticism characteristic of the early 20th century. Compare the building to the near contemporary large central-plan, domed syangogues of SuboticaSerbia) and Szeged (Hungary). Sofia, however, the choice of style may also reflect local history. In In the past, Bulgaria was part of the Byzantine Empire and then the Ottoman Empire. Many of Bulgaria’s Jews are descendants of Sephardi refugees from Spain. Thus, the Great Synagogue is a rare example where Spanish (Moorish) architectural motifs are actually employed in a synagogue that serves a congregation with roots in Spain. Architectural historian Carol Herselle Krinsky has pointed out that the design of the synagogue may also have been due in part to the Bulgarian nationalist movement in architecture that developed around 1900, and was dependent in large part on Byzantine sources (see Krinsky, Synagogues of Europe, pp 183-186 for a more detailed history in English).

The interior is decorated with multicolored mosaics, Carrara marble columns, ornamental carvings and other types of wall ornamentation. A brass chandelier weighing over 2200 kilos, the large candelabra and other decorations were imported from Vienna. The ceiling is painted to portray the heavens – a sea of stars on a blue background. Click here for an extensive gallery of photos.

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