The Romans believed that some places are inhabited and protected by their own spirit, a Genius loci, and consequently filled all the corners of their empire with altars and reliefs dedicated to these entities. The belief in Genii loci is no more, but if these spirits were real, one of them would definitely call a certain location in central Stara Zagora its own. For millennia, nations and religious have come and gone, and yet generations of people have continuously used a particular place as a sacred location. Understandably, these periods of religious activity have coincided with some of the crucial moments in the life of this city itself.
First, there were the Thracians. In the 10th-9th centuries, they created a pit shrine: a type of cult complex quite common in southeastern Europe in those times. These shrines consisted of large pits, where believers would pour wine, throw in cult figurines or reliefs, food and ritually slaughtered animals and, sacrificed men, women and children. Pit shrines are believed to have been dedicated to a chthonic deity, in this case probably the nameless Great Goddess of the Thracians.
Whether the early Thracians of Stara Zagora sacrificed people or not is unclear. After the shrine was abandoned and several centuries had passed, a temple to the Thracian Rider was built right over it, in the 2nd-3rd centuries AD. At that time the Roman Augusta Traiana was one of the empire's major cities in the region. The horseman was one of the most popular deities of the Thracians, but ascertaining exactly who he was has been notoriously difficult. Sometimes he represented the son of the Great God and the Great Goddess, other times he was the soul of a deified aristocrat, and to complicate the matter further, he was often associated with some Roman or Greek deity, such as Apollo or Zeus.
Several religions have claimed the location of the Old Mosque as their own
People stopped visiting the shrine when Christianity arrived and the ancient city was replaced by a fortified mediaeval town, Beroe. In the late 10th century, however, they returned and converted the location into a burial ground with its own church, which was in use until the 13th century. It is not clear why they abandoned the site, but when the Ottomans took the city in the 1360s, the plot was seemingly empty.
In 1407-1408, the most imposing mosque of the city was built there. Covered with a single dome with a diameter of 17m, The Eski Cami is still one of the largest mosques in modern Bulgaria. It remained a centre of religious activity for centuries, absorbing older religious remains into its structure (at a certain point ancient Roman tombstones were used for the construction of a porch) and surviving a devastating fire in 1856. The reconstruction that followed included the painting of the dome with rich Baroque ornamentation.
When the Ottoman army set Stara Zagora on fire, during the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1878, the Old Mosque was the only public building to survive. This prompted the Austrian-Hungarian architect, Lubor Bayer, who was commissioned to design the new urban layout of the city, to use the mosque as the focal point for his layout of parallel streets, intersecting at right angles.
After a short period as a church, the Old Mosque remained an active Muslim place of prayer until the early 1970s, when the centre of the city was entirely redesigned. The building's cultural significance had been recognised as early as 1927, and in 1976 it was declared a "national architectural and construction monument of the Antiquity and the Middle Ages."
In spite of its protected status, it remained closed and empty for decades, until 2011. Then, the former mosque was fully surveyed and restored, and due to its interesting and complicated spiritual past, became Bulgaria's only Museum of Religions. It is now part of the local Regional History Museum.
The mosque ornaments are in a style combining Muslim and Baroque elements that was in vogue in the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century
Today, the museum displays to the curious visitor remnants of all the shrines that used to exist on that very spot over a span of 3,000 years. Another point of interest is the beautifully restored ornamentations on the dome, not only because of their vivid colours and the sheer craftsmanship of their creators. The custodian will be happy to point out to you a particular place in the murals where, if you know what to look for, you will see the outlines of a rider. As human images are not allowed in Islam, it is highly probable that the horseman was painted, secretly, by an anonymous Bulgarian painter involved in the decoration of the mosque.
The Genius loci is probably laughing right now.
The Museum of Religions is on 115 Tsar Simeon Veliki Blvd, and is open from Tuesday to Saturday from 10am to 6pm.
High Beam is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.