The Church of St Petka of the Saddlers is a medieval Bulgarian Orthodox church located in Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital.
It is a modest one-naved structure partly sunk into the earth in the TZUM underpass, right in the heart of both the contemporary and historic city. The church has a semi-cylindrical vault, a hemispherical apse, and a crypt uncovered during post-World War II excavations. The walls are composed of brick and stone and are 1 meter thick.
The church was built on the site of an ancient Roman religious structure and was first recorded in the 16th century. It is currently a cultural landmark noted for its mural paintings representing biblical episodes from the 14th, 15th, 17th, and 19th centuries.
The church is named for St Petka, a Bulgarian saint who lived in the 11th century. The Church of Saint Petka got its current name because it was a patron of saddlers in the Middle Ages, who held their rituals at the church. The adjective samardzhiyski, which means “of the saddlers,” is derived from the Ottoman Turkish term semerci, which means “saddlemaker.”
One hypothesis holds that Bulgarian national hero Vasil Levski is buried in the church. Press reports from 1937 retelling the stories of those who carried out a reburial, which could have been for Levski, and reports from the 1956 excavation speculating that the bones discovered could have been those indicated by the 1937 press, led to the skeleton labeled “No. 95” being sent for professional examination. When Magdalina Stancheva, museologist and director of the Archaeology Department at the Sofia Regional Historical Museum, acquired the bones, she sent them to the Archaeological Institute’s laboratory managed by Petîr Boev for study. The bones were either eaten by mice or were lost. Nikolai Khaitov, a popular writer, accused Stancheva, archaeologists Georgi Dzhingov and Stamen Mikhailov, Archaeological Institute director Krîstiu Miiatev, and Todor Pavlov, president of the National Academy of Bulgaria, of conspiring to prevent an investigation into Levski’s burial site, and publicly accused Stancheva of mishandling the remains. In the 1980s, two commissioners gathered to discuss the matter, and both agreed that there was no evidence that the bones belonged to Levski, since the bones were missing.
History of Church of St Petka of the Saddlers
The modest church was erected atop an existing Roman crypt in the 11th century. During the Middle Ages, this area of Sofia was home to a large number of saddle manufacturers. Because Saint Petka was their patron, the chapel was named after her. It is a one-nave structure that is partly excavated into the earth. Its walls are constructed of bricks and stones.
The murals are its most remarkable feature. They were painted at various dates and portray scenes from the Bible. The earliest paintings visible now originate from the 14th century, and there are two more layers of murals dating from the 15th and 16th centuries. In the 1970s, the church was repaired and reopened to the public.
Vasil Levski, one of Bulgaria’s greatest national heroes, is said to have been reburied in the chapel after being killed for his revolutionary actions. The claim has never been verified, although there is a sign adjacent to the church indicating that “according to popular recollection” and “a number of scientific sources,” Levski may have been buried in the little church. Nonetheless, this subject remains very contentious to this day.