From beauty to dereliction: Muslim places of prayer combine distinctive architecture with rich history
Sunni Islam is Bulgaria's second largest religion after Eastern Orthodoxy. In the centuries that have passed since its arrival with the Ottoman Turks in the second half of the 14th century its adherents have created some stunning and impressive mosques – though many have been lost to time, dereliction or active destruction, particularly after Bulgaria was liberated from the Ottomans in 1878.
Among the survivors you will find buildings that still spawn admiration and curiosity because of their architecture, stories, legends and, unfortunately, dereliction. Some are in Bulgaria's large cities while others are in towns and villages off the beaten track. Here is a partial list of some of the best.
Under the Ottomans, Sofia was an administrative and military centre, at least most of the time. The city lost many of its mosques in the 19th century to devastating earthquakes and the reshaping of the cityscape that started soon after the Liberation in 1878 when new, European-style streets and buildings were in vogue. Three mosques have survived in Sofia, but only one is currently used as a house of prayer. The old Grand Mosque has become the home of the Archaeology Museum, while the 16th century Black Mosque was turned into the Seven Saints church.
The only Ottoman mosque that continues to function as such is Banya Bashi, beside Sofia's mineral hot springs. It was built in the 16th century by the poet Saidi Effendi, and the design is presumed to be by the famous Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan. The name of the mosque comes from the nearby water springs, which had been piped by the Ottomans into a splendid bathhouse. In close proximity stood the main trading centre of the city, with the Salt Market and four inns, which offered accommodation to travelling merchants. Today, the commercial facilities are no more, but the mosque is firmly on the itinerary of each visitor to Sofia.
Bulgaria's second largest city preserves two beautiful mosques built in the times when Filibe, as the Ottomans called it, was a major urban centre. Cuma Mosque is the grander and more impressive of the two. It has three lead-covered domes and a prayer hall 33m long and 27m wide.
Built some time in the early 15th century, it is one of the earliest Muslim temples in Bulgaria and one of the few architectural examples for a multi-dome mosque in this country. This style was fashionable in the first centuries after the creation of the Ottoman state and started to wane in the 16th century, when the architect Mimar Sinan introduced mosques with a single free-standing dome.
The mosque's picturesque minaret of two-colour bricks is the only part that survives from the original structure. The rest of the building suffered greatly during an earthquake and was restored in 1785.
The mosque was recently renovated and is a functioning house of prayer. Situated beside Dzhumaya Square, it continues to be at the centre of city life. Locals in a hurry pass by, avoiding the slower tourist groups admiring the nearby Roman stadium, on their way to the cobblestone streets of Old Plovdiv or the restaurants and bars of the Kapana quarter.
Some mosques in Bulgaria fascinate not only with their history, but also with their sad state of dereliction, and the one in Gotse Delchev is a case in point.
The single-dome mosque was built around 1490 and is the oldest building in this town. It is also a protected monument of culture, theoretically.
This, however, has not prevented the building from being totally neglected and abandoned to the elements, which have taken their toll. The dome is no more, the minaret is a safety danger to passers-by, and the ground around is scattered with chunks of bricks and mortar.
There was some talk of preservation and conservation after parts of the mosque collapsed in 2011, but so far nothing has been done.
The central mosque of Targovishte is the only reminder of this town's history as an important centre of local trade. The Sahat Mosque was built in the 18th century and used to have a clock tower, hence the name. It is a monument of local significance, but a recent renovation has robbed it of its erstwhile charm, a reminder of what can happen to a historical building when it falls prey to ill-conceived renovation.
The village of Podkova, in the southern reaches of the Rhodope mountains, has one of the most unusual mosques in Bulgaria and all of the Balkans. Small and dark, it was built entirely of timber, without the use of a single iron nail. It it still a living, vibrant house of prayer and the local Muslim community is friendly and welcoming to outside visitors.
No one knows how the Wooden Mosque came to be. Local legends ascribe the building to seven girls who chose to remain unwed. They sold the rich dowries that their parents had been amassing for years, and spent the money on timber, which they used to build the mosque overnight. In memory of their feat it is called The Mosque of the Seven Maidens.
Why the girls chose celibacy is a question on which the different versions of the legend fail to agree. One says that they were motivated solely by piety and strength of faith. A more romantic rendering says that all the girls lost their husbands-to-be in combat. The grief-stricken maidens chose celibacy rather than life with men they would never love.
Built in the 1740s, Tombul Mosque in Shumen is the largest in Bulgaria and, arguably, the most beautiful. The dome over its central hall is 25m high, and the minaret rises to 40m.
Beauty might be in the eye of the beholder, but Tombul Mosque is definitely the most spectacular example of the Tulip-era Ottoman architecture in modern Bulgaria. This architectural and artistic style was in fashion in the 18th century and borrowed heavily from Baroque and Rococo, which is why Tombul Mosque has elegant proportions and is covered with colourful, richly embellished ornamentation on the inside.
Tombul Mosque was built as a present to the community by a local man who had become successful at the Ottoman court. It was the centre of a larger compound of religious buildings, including a school and a library, housed in a beautiful courtyard with a fountain.
All of these have been preserved. Tombul Mosque was recently restored and is a true marvel of late Ottoman architecture.
Communist-era housing dominates the central part of this town, where one building stands out: a massive but elegant mosque with a dome that rises to 16m. According to some estimates, it is the third largest mosque in the Balkans (presumably outside Turkey).
It was built in the 17th century on the site of an earlier mosque, and was financed by donations from the Grand Vizier Ibrahim Pasha. The mosque still bears his name.
A dark legend is told about its construction. When Ibrahim Pasha saw how beautiful the mosque was, he decided that even the sultan himself should not be able to boast of having built such a structure. Thus the pasha imprisoned the builder, a Bulgarian, in the minaret and vowed to kill him. However, the builder made himself a pair of wooden wings and flew away. The flight did not last long because the master was reluctant to part with his tools. The wings could not carry the additional weight, and so the builder fell to the ground and died.
A statue of a winged man, made in the 1980s, now stands in front of the mosque as a reminder of this legend.
The beautiful Ibrahim Pasha mosque was closed for prayers in the 1970s, when it was supposed to be researched and restored. The survey was done, but restoration was never completed, which is why this beautiful building has fallen into decay – and remains so to this day.