Text: Magdalena Gigova
Video 1: Tsvetan Ignatovski
Video2: BNT, TV show: 100% Awake
In Samokov, the ‘13 Centuries of Bulgaria’ National Endowment Fund’ stewards a unique architectural monument, built in the 19th century in the style of the ‘symmetrical urban house’. In times of pandemic and quarantine, you can visit the Sarafs’ House entirely free of charge and without leaving your home!
The Jewish Arié family house has rich mural decorations with exquisite framing around the openings, and plastered niches with profiled shelves, beautiful wooden columns, and intricately ornamented, carved ceilings.
The house has an antique hammam, or a Turkish-style bath, as well as wondrous kyoshks [verandas]. The permanent exhibition of unique old furniture enriches our knowledge of the 19th-century urban way of life. The external architecture of the building corresponds to its symmetrical internal arrangement. The windows are framed with profiled sills and overhead arches, with magnificent iron bars. The cornices are plastered and richly painted.
The Sarafs’ House was built by the famous Jewish Arié family, which left Vienna and settled in Bulgaria at the end of the 18th century. The Revival city of Samokov sheltered them, attracting them with its tranquillity, ethnic tolerance and opportunities for commercial prosperity.
Having a reputation and prestige of influential entrepreneurs on the Balkan Peninsula, and having established economic, commercial and financial ties with the European market, the family representatives undertook an unprecedented construction of houses, called ‘palaces’, in Samokov, of which one of the smallest has remained—one that fascinates our imagination even today.
It was erected in the 1860s by builders from Plovdiv. Its architect was Master Stefan of Edirne, who designed a typical symmetrical urban house.
The office and living premises are arranged around the main salon, crowned with a magnificent carved wooden ceiling, architectonically uniting the floors.
The woodcarving on the ceilings and frescoed decoration are entirely authentic; they are associated with the flourishing of the Samokov Art School and are its most representative examples. As well as being a home of the sarafs’ [moneychangers’] family, the house was also used as a bank and commercial office.
This national monument of culture is an architectural landmark visited by Bulgarian and foreign tourists; it is managed and stewarded by the ‘13 Centuries of Bulgaria’ National Endowment Fund, to which it was donated.
And here is the history of the Sarafs’ House as told by Dimitar Balabanov, and published on the website of Samokov’s Paisii Hilendarski Municipal Library.
The story is too romantic to be entirely trusted. Urban legend has it that the gentleman, Avraham Moshe Arié, lived in Vienna with his three sons. They were really handsome, but one of them was exceptionally attractive. The heart-throb was one day met on the streets of the imperial city by Empress Josephine herself. Stunned by his beauty, she ordered her bodyguards to take him to the palace. Josephine herself visited him twice a day.
The emperor objected to that special attention and, in 1744, the entire Arié family was expelled from the global city; it settled in Vidin, in the Ottoman Empire. (Historical records show that an empress of a similar name did not exist in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The wife of one of Maria Theresa’s sons was called that, but because the marriage was dynastic and not a very happy one, the couple lived separately – Ed.)
The Ariés were indeed destined to live in palaces, but they gained this privilege themselves, attaining enviable prosperity. They began with trading, but soon the riots of the Kardzhalis drove them out of the Danubian town. One of the members of the family, Avraham Moshe Arié, arrived in Sofia, where he came to the notice of the ayn [local notable] of Samokov, Aga Ahmed Emin.
He not only became the reason for Arié to go to Samokov, but helped him with money and gave him one of his houses. Because, as the chronicler claims, at that time there was no one to trade in manufactured goods in Samokov.
The heirs of the old Arié developed an even greater scope of activity in Samokov. They traded in iron, frieze and skins. They collected the tithe from entire districts—Samokov, Sofia, Niš and Prizren.
By the middle of the 19th century, they had become owners of several smelteries and were already thinking about building a modern blast furnace for steel production. They had also bought 100 braiding machines from Vienna.
Their trade extended to the fairs of Uzundzhovo and Serres, Thessaloniki and Macedonia. However, they looked upon all these as marginal activities. Most of all they liked to exchange coins and lend money with interest. As they admitted: ‘trading in currencies (the old coins) was very neat and pleasant’, ‘and whoever needs money, resorted only to us’. In 1844, they began to be called ‘the sarafs’ instead of Arié. They had their trading house in Constantinople, as well as credits in many European countries.
In 1858, Arié initiated the construction of the Synagogue, which is why the names of Yehuda, Gabriel and Avraham Arié appear in gilded letters above the entrance gate.
Arie’s houses were even more wondrous, fitting into the harmony of the Revival Samokov in an original way. ‘They were very large, and all had gardens, fountains, trees.’ çelebi Yehuda’s house had a water jet in a large salon, while in Davichonachi’s house, there was such a fountain, its water rising to a height of 10 metres.
In 1866, an engineer from Plovdiv was brought to the house of çelebi Avraham; the masons were also from Plovdiv, while the architect was Master Stefan of Edirne. ‘All salons were decorated with oil paint, each in a different colour. The furniture was from Vienna, of the best and most beautiful kind. And so, it was very well placed and arranged like a small palace. All the visits and banquets that he arranged for the governors and pashas coming to Samokov took place in these salons.’
Today’s Sarafs’ House, the only one left of this amazing construction, is one of the smallest, with an area of 380 sq.m. Although having a more intimate, residential appearance, it is the most prominent representative of the so-called symmetrical urban, or ‘Plovdiv’, house.
Rooms of different sizes, located around the vestibule, comprise the only floor of the house. All have rich interior decoration, with intricately profiled ornamentation and carved motifs. In these elements, the house suggests a direct resemblance to the neighbouring Synagogue. The external architecture of the building corresponds to its symmetrical arrangement.
Like any architectural landmark, this ancient house hides a secret: in the ceiling of one of the kyoshks (probably intended for trade negotiations and deals), there is a special opening to a small room above the kyoshk for eavesdropping and observation.
And now we invite you to join the NEF ‘13 Centuries of Bulgaria’ virtual walk around the Sarafs’ House.
You can also watch an interview with the Executive Director of the Fund, Slava Ivanova, concerning the virtual walks through the sites stewarded by NEF ‘13 Centuries of Bulgaria’: