We arrive in Sofia, Bulgaria, after taking the night train from Belgrade. We struggle to find our hotel, then walk over Lions Bridge, which connects the railway station with the city center.
The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, the 10th largest Eastern Orthodox church in the world, was built in memory of the 200,000 Russian, Ukranian, Belorussian, and Bulgarian troops killed in the Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878). The war included massacres of both Christan and Muslim populations but resulted in liberating Bulgaria from 500 years of Ottoman rule, regarded as an age of oppression, intellectual stagnation, and misgovernment.
Inside, I videotape two guys mopping the floor. They were not typical janitors — they crossed themselves before each icon and monitored other people’s behavior. If they had spotted me shooting the video, they would have stopped me. I am violating the rules, a rebel.
People direct us to an area of the city where there is a Muslim mosque, a Jewish synagogue, an Orthodox Church, and a Catholic Church, in close proximity. They are proud of their city’s ecumenical characteristics…but history describes major emigrations of Jews and Muslims following atrocities.
The Jewish Synagogue is the largest of Southeastern Europe. Although Bulgaria aligned itself with Germany during World War II, Bulgaria resisted Germany’s genocidal instructions.
We find the Church of St. George, the oldest building in Sofia. Built by the Romans in the 4th century, it was reconfigured as an Eastern Orthodox church, then a mosque during the Ottoman era, then back to a church (after the Russian-Ottoman War drove many Muslims out). Many of its 10th century Christian frescos have been restored.
I meditate inside the Church of St. George.
I think about my experiences visiting Sofia in 1975.
Bulgarian Communists, controlled by the USSR, ran Bulgaria after World War II. Although economic well-being initially improved, productivity declined, and, in 1975, I perceived conditions as stagnant and dreary.
We visited the Church of St. Petka, constructed, in a depression, when the Ottomans allowed no church to be higher than a man on a horse. The Church of St. Petka is thought by some to contain the grave of the great Bulgarian revolutionist Vasil Levski (1837-1873), killed by the Ottomans but regarded by Bulgarians as their all-time greatest citizen. Five years after his death, the Russo-Turkish War liberated Bulgaria.
We visited the Hagia Nedelja Church, built in the 10th century but reconstructed many times. Seeking to kill government leaders, the Bulgarian Communist Party blew up the roof in 1925, killing 150 and injuring 500.
Inside the Hagia Nedelja Church, we see an astonishing array of icons.
I saw a man and woman kiss, then light a candle together.
We visit the Basilica of Hagia Sophia (Sofia), where an Orthodox service was in progress. We view the archeological execuvations of graves and relics under the church while a choir sings above us.
Bulgaria is experiencing a demographic crisis. It has low birth rates, high death rates, high youth unemployment, high emigration rates, and the most rapidly shrinking population in the world — the only country with negative population growth for the last 23 years.
Karen and I took the night train toward Istanbul (only one train runs each day). We had to change trains three times and buses two times, waiting for hours in the cold.
We arrive at the Turkish boulder at 2am and got through customs by 6am, spending much time standing outside in the cold wind.
Lao tsu writes (chapter 53):
“The Great Way is easy,
yet people prefer the side paths.
Be aware when things are out of balance.
Stay centered in the Tao.
When rich speculators prosper,
while farmers lose their lands,
when government officials spend money
on weapons instead of cures,
when the upper class is extravagant and irresponsible
while the poor have nowhere to turn —
all this is robbery and chaos.
It us not in keeping with the Tao.”
Lao tsu does not call for social activism or revolution. He advocates the Inner Way.
All societies are unbalanced, to a degree. That is why they are changing. “Stay focused in the Tao,” Lao tsu says.