There were formerly 70 mosques in Sofia, but the Banya Bashi Mosque is the only one that is still open. Mimar Sinan, the finest of all Ottoman architects, constructed it in 1576. He also built the Sultan Selim Mosque in Edirne and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul.
This lovely mosque is a classic Ottoman architectural relic that lends color to the Sofia city center. Banya Bashi translates as “a lot of baths,” and the name is derived from the nearby Tsentralnata Banya (Central Baths). The Bulgarian term for bath is “banya.”
The outside isn’t very noteworthy, but the inside is extremely breathtaking. The midrab and the eastern wall are covered with aquamarine tiles, tiles with calligraphy quoting verses from the Koran, and a big tile with a depiction of the Kaaba, the mosque in Mecca to which all Muslims must perform the hajj or pilgrimage at least once throughout their lives.
The domed ceiling, which was restored to its original form following the collapse of Communism, is unique for the mosque. It is also embellished with beautiful calligraphy. The dome is 15 meters in diameter, and the structure is Bulgaria’s sole extant example of a domed roof on a cubic foundation. Next door, there are the remnants of a hammam.
The muezzin summons the faithful to prayer five times a day, every day, using a loudspeaker on the tower (the level has lately been reduced since it annoys people who live nearby!). Around 700 attendees may fit inside the mosque, and the surrounding area is most bustling on Fridays, when the service within the mosque is broadcast over the loudspeaker for those who cannot fit inside.
The Banya Bashi mosque is not officially available to the public as a tourist attraction, and there is no admission price. Outside of prayer hours, visitors, including women who are modestly clothed, are welcome. Remember to remove your shoes before entering. You are allowed to take photographs inside the mosque, however it is usually advisable to ask beforehand since there may be someone praying at the time of your visit.
History of Banya Bashi Mosque
The mosque was planned by the renowned Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan and finished in 1566, during the Ottoman occupation of the city. The name of the mosque is derived from the term Banya Bashi, which means “many baths.” (In Turkish, Banyo means bath, and Baş, pronounced Bash, means ‘head’ or’main,’ therefore given the location, a more reasonable translation of the name would be ‘Head of the Bath Mosque.’) The mosque’s most notable feature is that it was constructed over natural thermal spas; steam can even be seen coming from vents in the ground near the mosque walls. The mosque is well-known for its huge dome (15m in diameter) and minaret.
The Banya Bashi Mosque is now the sole operating mosque in Sofia, a vestige of Bulgaria’s Ottoman occupation that lasted over five centuries, and is utilized by the city’s Muslim minority.