By Sharon Mitchell
The Headliner News
Bulgaria. Why the interest in this southeastern European country to the extent that someone would write an article about it? My answer is simple: There are many fascinating reasons to learn about this country that is wedged between Greece, Turkey to the south, Romania to the north, Serbia to the west and the Black Sea coast to the east.
Also, the ancient civilization of Thrace, which can be traced back to hundreds of years before Christ, is now part of modern Bulgaria.
Yet another reason is the diversity of its nature: Alpine mountain snow-capped peaks, Balkan Mountains, sunny Black Sea coast, Danubian River plains, Mediterranean climate in the valleys and the lowlands in the southern most territories. All of this diversity of its terrain on a territory that is about the size of Tennessee in square miles.
The final and most important reason is the people whom proudly call themselves Bulgarians.
A picturesque, resilient people who have overcome centuries of almost continuous warfare.
So very interesting is the fact that Bulgarians are the descendants who came to the territory of modern day Bulgaria about A.D. 631 from western Asia.
One hundred years later, the eastern most southern Slavic people migrated to the territory as well.
Together by the ninth century the Bulgarians and Slavs were mutually assimilated and are fully represented in today’s modern-day Bulgarian.
The Thracians are another ancestral groups of the modern-day Bulgarian, whose culture can be traced back 600 years before Christ. Invaluable is the cultural and historical heritage of the ancient Thracians, generations of Bulgarians leaving through their achievements intriguing and useful information about their lifestyle and tradition.
The first Bulgarian Empire—681-1018— was considered to be Bulgarians’ “Golden Age.” Their unique art, musical styles and literature began during this time.
Such achievements as the Cyrillic alphabet was developed and it is still the writing system to many languages in Eastern Europe and Asia today.
In 864 the Bulgarians became Orthodox Christians and today 83 percent of its people remain so. Christianity and the Orthodox church has played a major role in the lives of the Bulgarian people. Their faith and Christian values have sustained them through centuries of injustice and is partially responsible for the resilient people they are today.
By 1018 the Byzantine Empire had conquered Bulgaria but by 1185 the Bulgarians broke free and established the second Bulgarian kingdom. It was during this period that many beautiful Orthodox churches were built and their heritage of rich religious visual arts began. Gold leaf frescos, murals, mosaics, icons of Christ and his saints in rich, pastel colors line the walls of the churches and famous monasteries.
Unfortunately, this brilliant civilization was cut short by the invasion and takeover of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. A brutal war-like people, they practiced genocide on the Bulgarian people in the name of Islam.
During the next five centuries of Ottoman rule, most of Bulgaria’s cultural centers were destroyed. Several uprisings against the Ottomans were met with defeat and the blood shed of Bulgarians.
However, the 1876 uprising would begin Bulgaria’s final liberation from the Ottoman Empire and is referred to as the Revival Period.
During this period the world democratic community began to question and that provoked the Russian Turkish war of 1878, which would finalize the liberation for the Bulgarian people.
It would not be long, however, until Bulgaria would be caught up in the terrible conflicts of World War I and World War II. During World War II the orthodox Christian churches and the general public aided the Jewish community and helped its 50,000 members survive the war, despite harsh conditions. An expression of the Bulgarians’ will and Christian values for all human tolerance was the unprecedented salvation of the Bulgarian Jews during the second World War.
After World War II, Bulgaria became a communist state and it was not until 1989 that the Communist party allowed multi-party elections. In 1990 Bulgaria transitioned to democracy and free-market capitalism. Today, the resilient Bulgarians have finally reached the portals of becoming a parliamentary democracy and members of NATO and the United Nations.
My own personal interest in Bulgaria began 24 years ago when I met one its beautiful native daughters, my dear friend Rumiana Backardjieva. Rumiana and her family had escaped Bulgaria while her country was still under the throes of communism in 1983.
Most of our early conversations were centered around the country she had left behind: The cultural ways, the beautiful terrain and of course her parents whom she missed so often.
She would freely share precious memories of her childhood, taking holidays with her father to the Black Sea coast and traveling to the northern mountains to visit relatives with her mother.
As she spoke in her alluring European accent, I would listen in wonder and then I began to realize that Rumiana was a portrait of a true Bulgarian: Confident, frugal, wise and never taking any blessing for granted.
It is these same virtues that have allowed her and her family to live the American dream of education, employment, new friends and a beautiful home with many gardens of flowers.
It has been said, “Put a Bulgarian in the desert and he will make it a garden of roses.” And this truth shines ever so clearly at the home of the Backardjieva’s in Portland, Ore.
Little would I have ever imagined that one day 18 years after we met I would make the journey back home with Rumiana to visit her family members and see her country.
As the airplane started its decent into Sofia, Bulgaria, I looked out the window and saw my first glimpse of Bulgaria and its Alpine snow-capped mountains.
Finally I could put a face to the family members I had so often heard about. Our first gathering together around the table was the celebration of Rumiana’s father’s 90th birthday. He had remained physically strong and was of a sound mind. It was obvious he had practiced the morsels of wise he had so often taught his adoring daughter.
Sofia is the capital of Bulgaria and a cultural center as well. While there we visited the ancient St. Sofia, which was built in the fourth century in the tradition orthodox Christian architecture.
We were blessed to see a traditional orthodox baptizing while in the church that day. Experiencing this among the walls of this exquisite chapel made it seem as if we had marched back in time.
On another day while in Sofia we had the honor to attend church with Rumiana’s mother at her lifelong place of worship. As we stepped into the sanctuary we were met with the singing voices of the a cappella choir helping to spread the Holy Spirit throughout the decorated walls in this place of worship. The unique music and choirs of the Bulgarians are performed all over the world and are famous for their mystical harmonic melodies. Their musical roots stem back to the second kingdom—1185-1242—and national folk music can be set apart for its distinctive sounds blending together.
Sofia has many parks and gathering places as it is accustomed for the Bulgarian to take time to visit their neighbor. Sofia is also the site of the famous St. Alexander Nevski orthodox church.
Our journey would take us to the city of Plovdiv, which was once the Roman city of Philippopolis. The Romans had captured the southern territories from the Thracians and built fortress walls, forums, temples and amphitheaters. Among the best-known amphitheater is the one in Plovdiv, which is the oldest city in Europe and the sixth oldest settlement in the world continuously inhabited since at least 3,000 B.C. by the Thracian civilization. Today in Plovdiv you will see narrow streets of quaint cottages nestled together on cobblestone roads.
Another town we visited, Koprivshtita, is one of the characteristic Bulgarian towns still preserving the atmosphere of the Bulgarian national revival period of the 19th century. Koprivshtita is huddled in the mountain folds east of Sofia. It is not uncommon to see man, animal and cart still doing a day’s labor or small orthodox churches richly colored in blue.
It was here that the first shot of the uprising against the Ottomans was fired in 1876.
Little children and the elderly seem to take life at a slower pace here and there are museums of traditional dress such as a kerchief of flowers for a hat richly embroidered with a blouse and jacket.
As I had written earlier, little could I have ever imagined I would make the journey back home with my dear friend, Rumiana. As I experienced first hand the unique features, the artifacts, the orthodox Christian churches, the music and traditions, I now felt acquainted with her country.
More than the country itself, I know more about its people. The political hardships of generation to generation have given them the human spirit to press forward and do their best in all aspects of life. It is of great benefit to the rest of the world that even in their struggles, the Bulgarians were able to preserve their unique colorful heritage that belongs only to them.
These picturesque people are proud of their heritage and how it has shaped them into the resilient people they are today.
And now you would probably agree that yes, Bulgaria is a country worth writing about and sharing its story of antiquity and resilient people.