Wherever you happen to be in Sofia, the capital city of Bulgaria, the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral will never be far from your sight. Built in the Byzantine Revival style of the late 1800s, the Cathedral is a massive landmark in the city, occupying 3,170 square metres of land and rising 45 metres high. Its gold-plated dome with its huge solid-gold cross is a permanent fixture in the Sofia skyline.
The prominence of the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia is not an accident. It may be an edifice of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, but to the citizens of Bulgaria, the Cathedral is more than just a place of worship or the fruit of marvellous craftsmanship. To them, this church represents the moment in history when Bulgaria finally cast away her Ottoman yoke and attained her freedom.
Despite the importance attached to the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, it is not the oldest church in the city. Rather, it was built some 1,500 years after the Hagia Sofia Church for which the city of Sofia was named. The St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral was an architectural project of Bulgaria’s First Great National Assembly and was meant to commemorate the fallen Russian soldiers who helped liberate Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire during the Russo-Turkish War of 1878.
The idea for the Cathedral first came about in 1870 and its foundation stone was laid in 1882. A Russian architect named Ivan Bogomolov drafted the original design for the Cathedral in 1884. However, another architect named Alexander Pomeratsev took over the project in 1898. Inspired by the splendour of ancient Byzantium, Pomeratsev revised Bogomolov’s original design. The Assembly approved Pomeratsev’s design shortly after, and construction of the Cathedral commenced in 1904. Pomeratsev himself supervised the building with the aid of architects Alexander Smirnov and Alexander Yakovlev. In 1912, the Cathedral was completed.
One can say that the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is a masterpiece many times over. Over 40 master craftsmen from across Eastern Europe were commissioned to work on the project, creating the various wood carvings, mosaics, bas-reliefs, metal work and all the other elements that make the Cathedral a glorious work of art. Many of the materials used in building the Cathedral were imported from other countries, specifically multi-coloured Italian marble, light fixtures from Munich, Venetian mosaics, African alabaster, and Brazilian onyx.
For most of its life, the Cathedral bore the name of St. Alexander Nevsky. Though a Russian and not a Bulgarian, St. Alexander is highly venerated in the Orthodox Church of Eastern Europe.
Unlike what most people imagine of saints, St. Alexander was not a monk or a priest in his lifetime. Born on May 30, 1220, St. Alexander was a nobleman. He was Aleksandr Yaroslavich, Grand Prince of Novgorod and Vladimir in Russia. He was a war hero credited mostly for spearheading the developments that created Muscovite Russia as it is today. His 1240 victory against Swedish invaders prevented Sweden from launching a full-scale invasion of Russia from the North. It was this battle that earned him the name “Nevsky,” meaning “of the River Neva.” His campaign in the Battle of the Ice of 1242 was notable for its successful use of footmen against mounted Livonian knights.
It was said that St. Alexander made monastic vows before his death in 1263. Years after his death, visions about him surfaced. In 1380, his remains were exhumed and were found incorruptible. He was canonised in 1547. To this day, Russians still honour St. Alexander Nevsky as the greatest Russian who ever lived.
Aside from the cultural and historical significance of the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, why should you visit this building? First of all, it is truly a beautiful work of architecture that houses various artworks in the Neo-Byzantine style. The cathedral has various frescoes, stained glass windows, wood carvings, statuaries and other works that are prime examples of Neo-Byzantine art. Among its highlights is the Lord’s Prayer inscribed in gold on the Cathedral’s central dome.
The Cathedral is also home to a relic of St. Alexander Nevsky, said to be a part of his rib. The relic is a gift bestowed by the Russian Orthodox Church. The Crypt and Icon Museum of Bulgaria’s National Museum is also located at the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.
If you are planning to visit Sofia for a holiday, do not forget to visit the glorious St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. More than just a place of worship, the Cathedral is the pride of Sofia, a monument to its culture and history.