Once there were 70 mosques in Sofia, but today the Banya Bashi Mosque is the only one still functioning. It was designed in 1576, by the greatest of all Ottoman architects, Mimar Sinan, who also built the Sultan Selim Mosque in Edirne and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul.
This delightful mosque is a typical monument of Ottoman architecture which adds colour to the Sofia city centre. Banya Bashi means ‘a lot of baths’ and the name comes from the neighbouring Tsentralnata Banya (Central Baths). “Banya” is the bulgarian word for bath.
The exterior isn’t that special, but the interior is absolutely spectacular. The midrab and the eastern wall are covered in aquamarine tiles, tiles with calligraphy, citing texts from the Koran and as the portrayal of human figures is banned in Islamic art there is a large tile with an image of the Kaaba, the mosque in Mecca to which all Muslims must make the hajj or pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime.
What is notable for the mosque is the domed ceiling, which was restored to its original design, after the fall of Communism. It is also decorated with exquisite calligraphy. The dome has a diameter of 15 metres, and the building is the only remaining example in Bulgaria of a domed roof on a cubic base. There are also the ruins of a hammam next door.
The muezzin calls the worshippers to prayer 5 times a day every day with a loudspeaker on the minaret (a decision has recently been taken to reduce the volume as it disturbs those who live in the vicinity!). Around 700 worshippers can fit into the mosque, the whole area around which is particulary lively on Fridays when the service inside the mosque is broadcast on the loudspeaker for those who cannot fit inside.
Banya Bashi mosque is not officially open as a tourist attraction and there is no entrance fee. Visitors are welcome outside prayer times, including women, if modestly dressed. Remember to take your shoes off when you enter. You can take photos inside the mosque, although its always best to ask as there may be someone praying at the time of your visit.