Sofia – a bustling hub of trade from Antiquity down to our day

Photo: sofiahistorymuseum.bg

“Under the sign of Mercury” – this is the name of an exposition on at the Regional Museum of History, Sofia until the end of February. The exposition takes a look at how the trade relations of the city and the region have developed from ancient times to the end of the 20th century. And this is no coincidence – as far back as the year 106 AD the autonomous Roman city pf Serdica had its own mint and minted its own coins for 17 emperors.

In Roman mythology, Mercury is the god of tradesmen and travelers, patron of proficiency. The exhibition’s curator Mariana Marinova who is in charge of the museum’s research, exposition and fund activities says:

“Our aim was to present an exhibition showcasing as long a period in the city’s history as possible. This was one of the reasons why we decided on this subject, the other reason being that commerce is a fundamental human activity, closely allied to economics, without which the modern world would simply not exist. That makes it an interesting subject in our own day. The exposition shows facts that are not widely known illustrating what commerce was like through the centuries. The exhibition covers a very long period in history – from the 2nd century to the late 1980s. It is difficult to be cover absolutely everything connected with trade over such a long time segment but the exposition does give an idea of the kind of trading hub Sofia used to be.”

Mariana Marinova explains what the importance of Sofia was as a centre for trade but also for handicrafts.

“Sofia is en route from Western Europe to the Middle and the Far East, from the cold north to the warm Mediterranean, it lies on the ancient Via Diagonalis. This favours a city’s development in trade. Not only that, but in the Sofia plain there are plenty of ways to make a living - growing fruit, vegetables, cereals, animal husbandry. But there is woodland close by as well, which means different occupations connected with the timber industry were practiced as well. Samokov, an ore mining town, is not far away and that contributed to the emergence of handicrafts connected with ironmongery and the use of iron. For example, during the Middle Ages, Sofia was famous for the production of clubs – a weapon used widely in those times. It was a centre where tradesmen would bring goods from all parts of the country which would then travel to the Mediterranean, to Western Europe, or, at a later period, to the Ottoman Empire. The handicrafts and the abundance of raw materials was one of the reasons why a Dubrovnik colony blossomed here over the course of two centuries. They had their own offices and trade between the Bulgarian lands and Western Europe flourshed thanks to Ragusa, i.e. the Dubrovnik colony.”

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There are innumerable exhibits on display at the exposition: the first coins minted that were used for trading, different kinds of measuring instruments, the first Bulgarian 2 Leva silver coin, minted in St. Petersburg in 1882, with the inscription on the reverse side “God save Bulgaria” and many more objects connected with the development of commerce. There is a portable writing desk from the age of the National Revival with a document copying mechanism. What else? Curator Mariana Marinova:

“I myself would advise visitors to read the texts. There, they will discover a wealth of interesting information – like how much the salary was in the Roman Empire and what you could buy with it, what the weights and measures were and what their latter-day equivalents are. One of the most intriguing exhibits, is, beyond any doubt, the container used to sell salep in the streets of Sofia. Salep is an oriental drink made from the tubers of orchids, popular in this country in the past. To this day it is used in the Arab world.”

Visitors can also see what door-to-door trade looked like in the years after the national liberation in 1878 down to the 1940s. They will be able to read that the first trade law in Bulgaria is from 1880, that the ministry of trade was first set up in 1893 and the chamber of commerce and industry – in 1898. To put together this array of exhibits and photographs the museum experts conducted extensive studies. In 2018, the Regional Museum of History will mark its 90th anniversary, as it is heir to the Municipal City Museum. The exhibition was organized in partnership with the National Polytechnic Museum and it is the first of a string of events which the Regional Museum of History, Sofia plans to dedicate to Bulgaria’s Presidency of the Council of the EU.

English version: Milena Daynova

Photos: sofiahistorymuseum.bg
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