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Middle Ages without borders: a conversation on medievalism

Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri
Pierre Savy
Lila Yawn

c) Memory and perception of time

1) Remembering Sofia’s Romaniote Jewish community

Fani Gargova

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1This paper showed how the new borders of the Bulgarian nationat the end of the 19th century forced the local Jewish population to reframe the historical understanding and situatedness of its own community in order to envision and negotiate their place in society. It argued that the Sofia Jewish community used a myth of a common, Bulgarian and Jewish, medieval local history as a means of establishing a belonging to the Bulgarian nation. The need arose from the advent of antisemitism and an increasing exclusion of minorities from the public visibility and discourse in the Bulgarian capital. However, this medievalist narrative was counter-intuitive to the demographic composition of Bulgarian Jewry, which was predominantly Sephardic.

2When Bulgaria gained its independence in 1878, the new capital of Sofia had a sizeable Jewish community. During Ottoman times, Sofia’s Jewish population lived in the center of the town and consisted of several historically grown communities, the largest of which was the Sephardic one, attested since the sixteenth century. There were also Ashkenazi and Romaniote communities, who traced their ancestry in the city to medieval times. Importantly, they maintained their separate synagogues, liturgy, and customs, but they were otherwise largely ‘Sephardicized’, i.e., they had adopted the Judeo-Spanish language and the overall leadership of the Sephardic Jews in community matters.

3This Ottoman Jewish neighborhood was entirely dismantled during the remodeling of Sofia in the late 1880s. Even prior to this erasure of Jewish history in the city center, the old Romaniote synagogue, “Kal Gregos,” had been neglected, and contemporary authors report that the Romaniote community ceased to exist in 1881. Since this community is at the center of the medievalist narrative on the origins of the Jews of Sofia, the process of erasure of the actual community, while appropriating their history, is significant.

4Following the dismantling of the old Jewish neighborhood, Sofia’s Jews moved to a new, poor area called Yuch Bunar, where they no longer maintained any distinction according to minhag or origin, but rather according to social status and political views, and they were assimilated and integrated into the dominant Sephardic majority. By 1900, Sofia’s Jewry was in a physical, cultural, and social transition.

5In this context, the medievalist myth of the origins of the Jews of Sofia was born and then popularized by the historiographical works of Shelomo Rozanes, Avram Tadjer, and Saul Mezan. According to that narrative, after defeating the Byzantines in 811, the Bulgarian Khan Krum brought thirty thousand captives to Sofia among which was a considerable number of Jews from Thessaloniki. These would form the nucleus of the Sofia Jewish community. Not coincidentally, it was then that Sofia, for the first time, became a Bulgarian city. This narrative also introduces a second group of Jews that came to Sofia in ca. 967/969, welcomed by the Bulgarian Tsars Peter I and Boris II as they fled anti-Jewish violence and suppression in Byzantium. This favorable disposition of the Bulgarian rulers towards the Jews is a central topos of the narrative spanning the entire Bulgarian history.

6In contrast, and striking in the context of Balkan Jewish history, is the narrative’s overall omission of the centuries of Ottoman rule, even though the Sephardic Jews, the largest Jewish group, only arrived in the area in the sixteenth century. The relatively benevolent stance of the Ottoman authorities towards their Jewish subjects benefited Jewish life in the Balkans. Thus, this omission is significant as it reproduces the Bulgarian Christian narrative of the Ottoman “yoke” rather than the Sephardic Jewish lived experience in the borderless territory of the Ottoman Empire. This adoption of the Christian perspective was a necessary tool for the Bulgarian Jews to be accepted as “true Bulgarians,” devoted citizens deserving their equal rights.

7Thus, at a time of rising antisemitism and the physical exclusion of the Jewish population from the urban image of Sofia, Jewish historians sought for a means to affirm the Jewish belonging to the Bulgarian nation. They chose to focus on a Romaniote “foundation myth” for the Sofia Jewish community that coincided with the arrival of Bulgarians in the city, as well as on the idea of a welcoming and favorable treatment by Bulgarian medieval rulers. Their judgment of Ottoman sovereignty according to the common Bulgarian negative stance—even though they knew the reality of a strong network of Sephardi communities in the Ottoman realm—remains surprising. Ultimately, the legendary narrative was important for the establishment of a modern Bulgarian Jewry.


8Mezan 1925
Rozanes 1923
Tadjer 1932


University of Vienna

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