A Tale of Urban Expansion: Late-19th-Century “Çarʂı” Row Houses, Functional Integration, Street-Life, and Class Mobility

Late-19th-century "çarșı"-style row house, Pirotska St., Sofia, Bulgaria, 2014. (Fuji x100). Click on image to enlarge.

Late-19th-century “çarșı”-style row house, Pirotska St., Sofia, Bulgaria, 2014. Note the neo-classical decorative elements and prim domesticity of the curtained windows on the second story and the presence of an Apteka (pharmacy) on the ground floor. (Fuji x100). Click on image to enlarge.

After the founding of an independent Bulgarian kingdom in the aftermath the Russo-Turkish War of the 1870s, the city of Sofia was chosen as the capital of the new nation-state.  The choice of Sofia comprises a tale unto itself.  True to the nation-state model, from day-one newly independent Bulgaria was giddy with dreams of expansion, northward, westward, and southward (to the east, expansion was blocked by the waters the Black Sea).  Sofia, located near Bulgaria’s western border, would be at the country’s epicenter if Bulgaria would succeed in realizing its revanchist “manifest destiny” by expanding westward to the Lake Ohrid and annexing all of Macedonia.

At the time, Sofia had not fully recovered from a heavy earthquake and ensuing epidemics during the first quarter of the nineteenth century.  The city boasted the palatial residence of the former Ottoman governor — soon to be re-purposed as the palace of a monarch recruited from a family of minor German “nobility”– and a main thoroughfare paved with ocher-colored bricks imported from abroad.  For the rest, however, Sofia’s streets were warrens of winding lanes centered around Friday mosques, neighborhood mesjids for daily prayer, churches, wells and fountains.

The first step in creating a self-styled European capital was to sweep away the old Ottoman neighborhood structure and cut a street plan in the western model.  The adopted plan combined a rectilinear street grid with a circular ring road and curving boulevards ala Hausmann’s plan for Paris.  The next step was true to the model of mono-ethnic nation state that Bulgaria was striving to become: “ethnic cleansing.  Gypsies and Jews, the latter comprising a full one-third of Sofia’s population of 10,000 at the time, were forcibly expelled from the city center; Jews to the newly cut parallel streets of  Üç Bunar (“Three Wells)” to the west of downtown Sofia, and Gypsies further outward to the far bank of the Vladaya river, one of several seasonally flooding streams that together formed a moat surrounding the city.

Amongst the new grid of streets cut from Sofia’s main north-south boulevard through the old Ottoman quarter of Sungur and out to Üç Bunar was Pirot, today Pirotska.  The downtown end of Pirotska eventually was lined with European-style apartment houses.  At the Üç Bunar end of Pirotska an older form of architecture still dominates: Two-to-three-story row-houses built in çarʂı (Turkish for “arcade” and “market”) style, with commercial space for shops and craftsmen’s ateliers on the ground floors and family dwellings on the floor(s) above.  Such çarʂı dwellings contributed to the re-shaping of Sofia by spatially integrating the functions of residential streets and  market quarters.  By doing so, they contributed to a culture of urban street life and the emergence of an urban middle- and lower-middle-class and paths to class mobility, both essential elements of democratic nation-building, an imperfect process in Bulgaria to this very day.

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