Mahmud Pasha was a great vizier of sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror (1451-1487). He was born in Krushevats, Serbia, at the beginning of the 15th century. His mother was a Serbian aristocrat. His father was a descendant of the dynasty of the Angels, the last Christian kings of Thessaly. When Mahmud was a boy, he had probably been taken captive by the Turks. He spent his youth at the court of sultan Murad II (1421-1451) in Edirne. The sultan noticed the boy’s abilities and Mahmud received good education. He began his successful career in 1451 as a governor-general (beylerbey) of Rumelia, seated in Sofia. The building of the mosque started in the same year on his initiative and finished in 1494, some twenty years after the death of Mahmud Pasha.
The site around and under the mosque has was investigated twice – in 1939 and 1998. Excavations in 1939 revealed corner walls, built of oval river stones with bands of five courses of bricks under the southern dome of the mosque. The wall date from a period, not coinciding with the other finds. Among the artifacts from these excavations was a statue of Artemis. An area of about 120 square meters of the garden in front of the mosque and the administration building of the Museum was investigated in 1998. Cultural layers of several periods were established. The earliest finds came from a prehistoric settlement, localized under Alexander Batemberg Square. Vessel, attributed to the end of the Early Iron Age (8ht-7th c. BC), were among the finds. Two construction periods from the existence of Roman Serdica (when the place was a shopping precinct), finds from 11th and 12th century, as well as walls of a building, synchronous to the mosque, probably from the inn constructed in close proximity were also revealed.
The plan of the Buyuk mosque is a square with 36.6 m long side, oriented (with a slight deviation) in line with the four cardinal points. Four pillars and their pilasters separate this area into nine identical squares, each dominated by a dome. All domes have an equal diameter. They are supported by pointed arches and covered with leaden sheets. The middle ones are higher and ‘the entire space, through a special system of domes and arches, is an absolutely symmetrical construction, and it’s on this symmetry, harmony and equality among all its parts, that the major artistic effect is due.’
It is not easy to point out the prototype of Buyuk mosque. The development of the Ottoman religious architecture on the Balkan Peninsula and the interaction between the Ottoman and the eastern architecture in the different regions of the Ottoman Empire is not closely examined. Scholars accept that Ulu mosque in Bursa is the prototype of the few many-domed mosques on the Balkan Peninsula. The mosque was built by the architect Ayvaz Pasha about 1395.
But much earlier East Christian art in Egypt, Asia Minor, Armenia and most of all Byzantium solved the problem of space rearranging of the many domed churches.
The walls of the mosque were constructed of small stone blocks, rough cast and encircled by bricks – the so-called ‘cell construction’, characteristic of the Ottoman building methods. Initially the mosque probably had an arcade antechamber with five domes of its northern facade. On the earliest still preserved picture of Buyuk mosque it is obvious that there was a portal with a tilted roof on its frontal facade, and its minaret was on the right side of the building. The portal was probably built in the 19th century, after one of the two sizeable earthquakes in Sofia in 1818 and 1858. It replaced the arcade antechamber. From the same picture it is obvious that the central dome had no windows. They were probably opened during the overall reconstruction of the mosque in 1938 for better illumination of the inner exhibition space. At the end of the 19th century the portal and the minaret were in ruins (five arches only marked the length of the portal).
During the War of Liberation (1877-1878) the abandoned mosque was turned into a hospital. The lack of buildings fitting the need of cultural institutions in the newly liberated state determined the choice of Buyuk mosque as shelter of the Museum after moving the hospital. In the late 1879 the mosque was granted to the newly established Museum as an exhibition area from the Ministry of National Education. It was supposed ‘to add a museum for antiquities’ to the Library. The building was in a wretched state. Almost one third of the mosque was divided by means of planks in four rooms. The largest one was a reading-room. The Library opened officially for visitors in the mosque was on March 2, 1880. The reconstruction, that preceded the opening, cost 7000 levs. Nowadays the reconstruction of the building is still in progress.
The mosque housed the Library until the early 1885. The director of the Library stated in a report to the Ministry of National Education that it is impossible to stay in the mosque anymore because: ‘The rooms are very moist, stifling, dark, and narrow. The building is situated in a very low area of the city and very heavy and disgusting smell is formed as a result of the river moisture, the stifling air and the moldy substances on the walls’.
In this period Buyuk mosque housed also the offices of the State Printing House. Two additional wooden buildings were constructed for the printing machines - one next to the western facade in nowadays’s Lege Street, and the other - one on the opposite facade, in Royal Princes Clementine Boulevard (nowadays building of the National Bank of Bulgaria). These buildings existed until 1887, when the State Printing House moved to a new building.
The mosque housed the Museum from its establishment in 1892. According to official documents ‘there is no fence around the mosque; the moisture in the building will ruin the Bulgarian national antiquities; the narrow, but expensive galleries, the only wooden staircase, the gloomy rooms and small windows with grating, it is too narrow for the exhibits and for the public’ From reports of Vaclav Dobruski, the first director of the Museum, to the Minister of National Education it is obvious that 65,000 levs in 1892 and 40,000 levs in 1894 in the budget of the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Public Buildings were provided for reconstruction of Buyuk mosque.
Gradually new wings were built on three of the facades of the building. In 1900-1905 all artifacts were moved to the building of the mosque. The area around the building was rearranged for the first exhibition. An artistic steel fence, donated by Ferdinand, the Royal Prince, enclosed the building and the large yard around it. The rich Collection of Sculpture and Inscriptions was exhibited in the yard. Trees were planted. The western façade entrance was supplied with a shelter. An entrance hall and a 7,5 m wide adjoining building on the northern façade of the mosque were constructed. Several rooms were differenciated on the first floor of the adjoining building. Their initial number and purpose are obscure, but probably the small room to the right of the entrance housed the Numismatic Collection. The spacious corner room, facing Lege Street and Alexander Batemberg Square, was the office of the Director of the Museum until the beginning of the 1930s. The other rooms were offices of the staff. A permanent and temporary exhibition room was build. In some periods this room sheltered artifacts of the Medieval Collection.
Neither the improvements nor the persistence of the Museum’s staff could turn Buyuk mosque into a building fitting as museum. All reports of the directors of the Museum until World War Two inform that ‘the lack of space is a big inconvenience for the activity of the Museum. The artifacts are kept in boxes and cannot be exhibited. The small depot’s space makes it difficult to enrich of the Collections. We don’t have a museum in the true sense of the word, but just a warehouse of antiquities’.
The idea to construct a new museum building popped up periodically, but twists of fortune or lack of funds stopped it. Just before the beginning of the Balkan War foundations of the new building were laid next to the Museum. In the next decades, until the beginning of the 1930s, when the construction of the building of the National Bank started, these foundations still awaited to supply the construction of a museum building. When the National Bank was constructed the Museum was granted with two new wings: to the eastern and the southern facades of the mosque. Nowadays the first of these wings, at the eastern façade of the mosque, on the level of the Central Hall, houses the Collection of Sculpture and Inscriptions prior situated in the yard. Two rooms on different levels were constructed as well - nowadays they shelter the permanent exhibition of the Treasure Room and the Prehistory Room. The second wing on the southern facade is nowadays the administration three story building. Twenty rooms are on disposal of the staff. The depots of the Medieval and Prehistoric Collections are on the ground floor. The cabinets of the staff of the Museum, as well as the Laboratory for Conservation and Maintenance of Exhibits and the Photographic Atelier occupy the two upper floors.
In 1938-1940 after the building of the new wings was completed, the first since 1900, reconstruction of the mosque and the adjoining rooms was fulfilled. All rooms were reconstructed the way they are nowadays. The domes, nearly destroyed by the penetrating rain water, were covered with lead sheets. The northwestern corner and the vault of one of the domes were restored. The walls of the Central Hall were straightened from the inside. The Prehistoric Collection was moved to the northern 1900-1905 wing, to the room nowadays reconstructed into an assembly hall. Under the southern part of the museum building a depot for the Collection of Sculpture and Inscriptions was built. Right next to the northern depot for stone artifacts another underground premise was built. From the early 1990s the room houses the Paleolithic Collection of the Museum. The depot of the Numismatic Collection was situated to the right of the entrance hall. The former office of the Director of the Museum housed an Atelier for Conservation and Restoration of Sculptures.
The building of the Museum was severely damaged by bombing raids on March 30, 1944. Incendiaries hit the left wing and the room of the Numismatic Collection burnt together with its documentation. The roof of the mosque, the windows and large parts of the furniture of the administration building were also damaged. The Central Hall could was seriously damaged and could not be used neither as an exhibition area, nor as a depot. The right corner of the additional 1900-1905 building was destroyed. There were no heating, electricity and water and all the employees used one room only. Everybody could freely penetrate through the destroyed rooms into the depots. More than 100,000 levs had to be granted for the reconstruction. In order to accommodate the Collections of the Ancient Department and some of the artifacts of the Prehistoric Collection, the space under the gallery of the northwestern facade was separated by means of planks. The Collections of the Museum were inaccessible for more than a year. The building, due to the lack of means, was reconstructed not until the end of 1946. A general reconstruction followed and new windows were installed. It was only in 1948 that the Museum opened its doors to the public again.
The next repairs were made in 1982 during the arrangement of the new permanent exhibition. Then it was just refreshment of the walls and a repair of the roof. The wooden floor of the Central Hall was stabilized.
The last reconstruction of the building in 1993-1994 was financed chiefly by the Republic of Italy trough the Agency for Foreign Assistance. All three sections of the Museum (the mosque itself and the two additional wings) were reconstructed. The electrical and the two heating installations were renewed. Centralized fire alarm systems were installed. A new type of central diffuse lighting was installed following the original sources of natural light in the mosque. A series of restoration and conservation were made in the Central exhibition hall. The planks, dividing the space under the gallery from the exhibition area, were removed. The reconstruction eliminated condensation in the air. The Ancient and the Prehistoric Collections were moved to new rooms.
In 1999-2000 the southern depot of the Collection of Sculpture and Inscriptions and the yard in front of it were reconstructed into an art-café – an additional museum service, present in all modern museums. A new depot for the Collection of Stone Sculpture and Inscriptions next to the southern underground depot was built.
The reconstruction of the Museum in 2003-2005 was the final stage of the overall repair. The roof of the big hall on the second floor was entirely reconstructed. The hall itself was divided in two smaller rooms – a room for temporary exhibitions and a room for medieval exhibitions. The entrance hall of the Museum was also reconstructed. The former office of the Director of the Museum nowadays is a depot for the Collection of the Ancient (Antiquity) Department. The small room next to it houses the Museum’s Representative Collection of Pretious Metalware. The third room to the left of the entrance is rearranged into an office of the Security Department. The cabinets of the staff and the Central Hall were also reconstructed.
Thus, more than a century after Constantin Jireček, the initiator of first collection of the Museum, who considers the Buyuk mosque unfitting as Museum, it still shelters one of the richest archaeological collections on the Balkan Peninsula.