Another strong contrast is evident in Sofia. As the tourist leaves the Church Sveta Nedelya he is confronted by the the grandiose splendour of the Hotel Balkan Sheraton and is unaware of the ancient jewel that the hotel hides from his view. As he passes by the glittering splendour of this imposing structure and turns right he notices, on the right hand side, something completely different: a small round unadorned red brick building that he could quite easily have missed had he not been walking at a leisurely pace. There, behind the Hotel Balkan Sheraton, in a courtyard, lies the most ancient monument of the city of Sofia, a Roman rotunda transformed into the church of St George standing amid the remains of the ancient town of Serdica.
It comes both as a surprise and as a most striking contrast. After the imposing vast façade of the Hotel Balkan Sheraton with all its glitter and luxury the tourist has to adapt to a completely different scenario. Not only does his mind have to adapt to a building of much smaller dimensions but also to the lack of lustre of the unpretentious, unadorned red brick building that stands before him. He also has to move mentally from the glitter and luxury of the Hotel that he has left behind to the solitary beggar standing at the entrance to the church holding out his hand in anxious expectation of financial help .
A strident contrast between the proud, imposing vastness and wealth of the hotel and the humility and poverty that it eclipses. Furthermore, a similar challenge meets him when, on leaving the church, he happens to find himself face to face with the Presidency. Such an extraordinary experience! This humble red brick building sandwiched, almost suffocated, between two symbols of modern society: power and wealth. Just like the Sveta Nedelya Church we have, once again, the same contrast. Both churches constitute a most a poignant critique of power and capitalism, the two giant forces of modern society. Bulgaria has triumphed over the communist regime only to become immersed, like most of western Europe, in something just as damaging: capitalism. In the shadow of the Sheraton "sh"adow of the "Sh"eraton: "sh, sh" the voice of conscience is silenced. Sandwiched between the symbols of power and wealth the ancient church cries out to be noticed by modern man. The call of the spirit that is often suffocated by the riches of man. The church of Sveti Georgi is like a voice of one crying out in the spiritual wilderness, a modern John the Baptist that many pass by but some privileged ones heed.
The tour of Sofia is quickly becoming a spiritual tour, a tour of the depths within. The strident contrasting features of the city force the attentive tourist to stop, to ponder and to become aware of his own condition, to see what lies hidden below, to discover the life of the spirit below and beyond the surface glitter of outer riches.
This unimposing building dates back to the 4th century AD, a round, naked, unadorned Roman red brick construction dedicated to St George, hence the name Sveti (Saint) Giorgi (George) Rotunda (circular, round), Sveti Giorgi Rotunda: The Circular Church of Saint George. It became a church in the 6th century. Just like the Church of Sveti Nedelya this one, too, has known the onslaught of the forces of evil. It was severely damaged by air raids during World War II and has undergone extensive restoration and was only reopened fully to the public in 1998. Once again the physical fate of both churches visited so far symbolises the triumph of good over evil, life over death. Both have lived through the trials of faith in adverse political circumstances. Stifled by bombs, by ideology and now stifled by the onslaught of another form of materialism, capitalism, wealth and power. But the church survives, sustained by even greater forces at work. Still it advances "growing, yet not ageing", with the calm serenity of smoothly running waters that the turmoil and bristling activity above cannot overcome. The Balkan Sheraton spreads its arms, octopus like to engulf this structure and what it symbolises and the Presidency hems it in on the opposite side. Hemmed in on all sides. But there it still remains challenging modern man to come to his senses. "Learn of me who am meek and humble" this age old message has reverberated through the centuries and is still valid and so realistic in today's world where materialism and power prevail. The challenge of modern times lies here: the paradox of Christianity, there is power in meekness, there is strength in humility, it is the life of the spirit that grows yet does not age as is said of the city of Sofia. The church is dedicated to Saint George and Saint George is the patron saint of the Army here in Bulgaria, but the army of the church of St George is the army of the spirit, it is a spiritual warfare of which few are aware.
Inside the church there are interesting frescoes under the dome. Of particular interest is the fresco of Christ the Pantokrator and a surrounding frieze of prophets, 22 in number; these date back to the 14th century. Below there are more ancient frescoes depicting more prophets dating from the twelfth century. The floral designs date back to the 10th.
This church has not always been so unimposing throughout its history, there is a dark note in its life. It was here that the state, newly Christianised, forced mass baptisms of the aristocracy. The church, in its human weakness, has also known the corruption of allying itself with power politics and riches! Church and state are not the happiest of bedfellows! Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's, a message that is not so easy to learn, and even more difficult to assimilate and apply!
During the Ottoman period the church was used as a mosque which explains why the frescoes were painted over and not discovered until last century.
If you would like to know of another church that has suffered similar fates to the two churches in Sofia that we have visited you might want to read about Coventry Cathedral in England
The church cannot remain open during winter, the heating is expensive. You might consider a donation.
The beggar at the entrance is also cold and hungry, you might consider him, too.
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