Sunday, April 19, 2009

Easter "take 2" – Orthodox celebration in Sofia

I really enjoyed Bulgaria the second time around, even despite being horribly ripped off by yet another taxi (it would be a lot easier if licensed and unlicensed weren’t identical yellow!). I was there again for work and while there wasn’t much free time I made the most of what time I had. After a publicity appearance at a public school, a completely run down and depressing building, but one filled with so much energy and light from the very enthusiastic & happy children learning there, I went off to the downtown area. There I discovered new sites like the Archaeology Museum (a sign at the entrance informed me no handguns allowed) where I saw incredible artifacts from the 3rd century, the Presidency where I watched the hourly changing of the guard, and the Sveti Georgi Rotunda, the oldest building in Sofia.
After a tasty pizza lunch, I walked down by Sveta Nedelya, en route to see the Banya Bashi Mosque, the only working mosque in the city, and the Mineral Baths built in the early 1900s. I ventured on to the City Garden, and strolled through the Easter craft market admiring the intricately hand painted eggs and had some fun looking at the quirky statues and old men playing chess nearby. I rounded out the day with a little shopping and ice cream on Vitosha Blvd.
Work consumed most of the rest of the week, but the best parts of this trip were still to come! Outside our venue I met a sweet elderly couple who were selling hand-made pinwheels on the plaza, after a few purchases and comical hand gestures I learned they used to have a magic act, very coincidental since I was there with our magic show.
On (Orthodox) Good Friday I went inside the Aleksander Nevski church and watched as a line of people reaching out the door slowly progressed toward a table in the center, which they passed under after kissing the Priest’s hand and then left flower offerings at the crucifix. I read somewhere that the table symbolizes Jesus’ coffin and passing under it brings health & fertility, but somewhere else it said the act was symbolic of Jesus’ passing into the tomb. In either case it was a very unique and interesting tradition to watch.
Saturday I attended the Pascha (Easter) vigil with our local partners. At the church we joined hundreds of other worshippers in a candlelit procession around the church, reenacting the journey of the myrrhbearers to the tomb of Jesus, while a deep chanting, coming from a remarkably ordinary man inside the church, floated over the crowd. The liturgy very ceremonial lead by the ornately dressed bearded Priest. Of course I didn’t really understand much of what was said, and as it was standing room only in the incense laden church I didn’t stay too long, but to take part in such a real cultural/religious celebration, far removed from the typical tourist haunts, was unbelievably beautiful and truly moving. Unfortunately I did not have my trusty camera along to document the experience, but at least it’s an experience I will not soon forget.

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