Islam in Bulgaria

Written and photographed by Stephen Lewis

Bulgaria, a country of rich farm lands, spectacular mountain ranges, and a meandering coast of crowded resorts and deserted beaches, is both the cradle of Balkan Islam and the homeland of Slavic Christianity.

Wedged between Romania, Yugoslavia's fragments, Greece, Turkey and the Black Sea, Bulgaria straddles the historic overland trade routes linking Europe to the Aegean and the Muslim East. For three millennia, Bulgaria has absorbed waves of conquerors and migrants—Greeks and Romans, Avars and Pecenegs, Slavs and Bulgars, Seljuk and Ottoman Turks, Romanies, Jews, and Armenians—creating a society in which peoples of differing cultures, traditions, and beliefs could dwell side by side undisturbed.

Nobel laureate Elias Canetti, writing of his turn-of-the-century childhood in the Bulgarian city of Ruschük—present-day Ruse—captured the tranquillity and diversity that characterized the land of his birth: "Ruschük...was a marvelous city.... People of the most varied backgrounds lived there; on any one day you could hear seven or eight languages. Aside from Bulgarians...there were Turks, who lived in their own neighborhood; next to it was the neighborhood of the Sephardim, the Spanish Jews...and there were Greeks, Albanians, Armenians, and Gypsies."

Yet in 1989, Bulgaria's former government flew in the face of the country's centuries-long history of tolerance and caused the mass exodus of some 300,000 Muslim Bulgarian citizens, most of them of ethnic-Turkish origin.

The flight, mostly to Turkey, of almost a quarter of Bulgaria's Muslim population—people whose ancestors had dwelt in the country for centuries—represented the culmination of the Bulgarian government's prekrustvane ("regeneration") campaign, the final phase of a two-decade attempt to pressure the country's Muslims to abandon their religion, traditions, language, and even their names, and "assimilate" into the ethnic mainstream of Bulgarian society.

The campaign drove a wedge between Bulgarians of differing backgrounds by citing the suffering of the Bulgarian nation under "the Turkish yoke"—a view of history rejected by most contemporary scholars—and lauding the role of Russia, whose armies ended more than 500 years of Ottoman rule over Bulgaria with the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878.

But prekrustvane backfired grotesquely. By the autumn of 1989, dozens of factories were left without employees and scores of villages without labor to harvest the country's crucial hard-currency tobacco crop. In 1990, shortly after the fall of Communist Party boss Todor Zhivkov, Bulgaria's freely elected parliament voted to end anti-Muslim and anti-Turkish measures.

In the years since, tens of thousands of Muslim emigres have returned to their native Bulgaria. Like many of their Christian compatriots, they hope their country's centuries-old record of tolerance and its new commitment to democracy will prove stronger than the sectarian and ultra-nationalist politics now erupting in parts of Eastern Europe.

It is uncertain exactly how many Muslims live in Bulgaria today. Spokesmen for the office of President Zhelo Zhelev speak of 1.2 million, roughly 15 percent of the country's total population—a figure some Muslims contest as too low. Although the majority of Bulgaria's Muslims are of ethnic-Turkish origin, at least 250,000 are of ethnic-Bulgarian descent (See box, page 26); roughly the same number are Romanies—Gypsies—a people who have lived in Bulgaria for almost a millennium.

Despite the traumas of the 1970's and 1980's, visitors to Bulgaria today encounter relics of a rich Muslim past and signs of a promising future. Many mosques have reopened and new ones are being built to replace some of those demolished, vandalized, or neglected beyond repair in recent decades. Across Bulgaria, Muslim schools or madrasas are functioning once again. From the rolling agricultural lands south of the Danube to the heights of the Rhodope Mountains, muezzins call the country's Muslims to prayer five times daily.

The history of Islam in Bulgaria dates to the 14th century, when the Ottoman Empire turned its might against the kingdoms of the Balkans. In 1361, the armies of Sultan Murat I captured the Byzantine city of Adrianople—present day Edirne in European Turkey—gaining a foothold on the Maritsa River and opening the way to the conquest of Bulgaria and the lands beyond. In 1363, Plovdiv—ancient Philipopolis, the richest city in Bulgarian Thrace—surrendered after a lengthy siege. The fall of the medieval Bulgarian capital at Veliko Turnovo in 1393 marked the downfall of a kingdom whose power had once rivaled that of Byzantium.

In the wake of the Ottoman conquest, Muslim administrators, soldiers, and civilians flocked to Bulgarian lands, followed by masses of Anatolian peasants, nomadic herdsmen, and Turkoman and Tatar warriors forcibly resettled to consolidate Ottoman control. The Turkish origin of the names of modern Bulgarian cities and towns, such as Karnobat, Pazardzhik, and Novi Khan, mark the route of the Ottoman advance; village names such as Tatarevo denote the ethnicity of their first settlers.

The overwhelming influx of Muslim settlers into Bulgaria created a need for the complete infrastructure of Islamic life. Muslim and Christian craftsmen labored to erect new cities outside the walls of medieval Bulgarian fortifications and towns, and to build mosques, public baths, khans and markets.

This rush of building led to a new style of Muslim architecture: rough, pragmatic and immense, influenced by the Seljuk architecture of Bursa—the first imperial city of the Ottoman Empire—but lacking its delicacy and refinement. Early monuments such as the single-domed Eski Jamiya in Stara Zagora, built in 1409, testify to the dynamism and expansiveness of Muslim Bulgaria, as do the nine-domed Jumaya Jamiya of Plovdiv and later works like the 18th-century Sherif Halil Pasha or Tomboul Jamiya in Shumen, until recent years the largest mosque in Europe north of Edirne.

Much of Bulgaria's Ottoman architectural heritage disappeared in the hundred years between the end of Ottoman rule and the excesses of prekrustvane. In Shumen alone, more than 40 mosques were mentioned in mid-19th-century records; only eight remained in 1980 and three in 1989.

Those Ottoman monuments that still grace the towns and countryside of Bulgaria reveal the glory of the country's Muslim past and the ways in which Muslim and Christian traditions once touched and blended. The openness of Bulgarian Christianity to a pantheon of local customs also influenced Bulgarian Muslims, generating in both religions a singular lack of fanaticism and acceptance of diversity. From the outset of Ottoman rule, Muslim life in Bulgaria was concentrated in and around military and mercantile towns such as Sofia, Vidin, Shumen, and Plovdiv. In rural Bulgaria, Muslim and Christian traditions overlapped. Village mosques looked to Bulgarian churches as their architectural models. To this day, many rural Muslim and Christian places of worship look uncannily alike in their shape and the rugged masonry of their basilica-like exteriors. Their richly decorated interiors reflect the openness of all Bulgarians to the motifs and colors of nature.

In Bulgaria's larger cities and towns, the religious architecture of Muslims and Christians remained divergent, but their secular architecture—like their daily lives—became indistinguishable. The 19th-century residences of the hilltop old-town of Plovdiv, the merchant estates of the picturesque Christian town of Koprivshtitsa, and the konaks, or walled compounds, of the great Rhodope Mountain Muslim commercial dynasties provide examples of typically Balkan styles that both Bulgarians and Turks claim as their own.

In the closing years of Ottoman rule, Muslims turned increasingly to Bulgarian Christian architects and craftsmen to design and build their civil and religious works. The magnificent 19th-century Bayrakh Mosque (today a museum) in the industrial town of Samokov—once one of the richest trading centers in the Balkans—was decorated in Bulgarian folk style by local artists, providing a curious example of the fusion of two cultures. The ceiling of the Çarşı Jamiya in Ardino—a Rhodope Mountain town half of whose population fled Bulgaria during the 1980's—boasts spectacular carpet-like floral frescos painted long ago by Christian craftsmen from Plovdiv.

Bulgaria's capital, Sofia, is a sprawling city of one million inhabitants, picturesquely set at the foot of snow-topped Mt. Vitosha. At the center of the city—only a few hundred meters from the neo-Stalinist "wedding-cake" facades of the country's center of government and the palatial former headquarters of the Bulgarian Communist Party—a trio of domed sanctuaries almost identical in height, but dramatically different in style, face each other: the 19th-century rotunda-domed Church of St. Nedelya, the neo-Moorish Sephardic synagogue, and the 400-year-old Banya Bashi Mosque, fully restored during the 1970's.

The Banya Bashi is the only one of Sofia's historic mosques still open for prayer. Fridays at noon, it is packed with Muslims from Bulgaria, Turkey, the Middle East, Asia and Africa. The city's other remaining Ottoman mosques now serve different functions. The former Büyük Jamiya is now the country's National Archeological Museum. The handsome Bosnalı Mehmet Pasha Jamiya or Black Mosque—built during the reign of Süleyman the Magnificent by the great Sinan, the Michelangelo of the Muslim world—was deprived of its black granite minaret in 1905, when it was converted into a church and dedicated to the followers of Cyril and Methodius, patron saints of Bulgarian literacy.

Not surprisingly, the names of Cyril and Methodius adorn the facade of Bulgaria's National Library, whose Oriental Department comprises one of the most important collections of Ottoman manuscripts outside Turkey. At the core of the collection are archives abandoned by retreating Ottoman authorities during the 1870's and the contents of Bulgaria's great Ottoman libraries, such as the one founded in Vidin by Pasvanoğlu Osman Pasha, supporter of the Janissary movement and opponent of the 19th-century reforms of Sultan Selim III.

This September, the National Library will exhibit 23 volumes selected from the Oriental Department's precious collection of copies of the Qur'an used or transcribed in Bulgaria during the Ottoman period. The oldest volume dates from 1271. It was acquired by Ivan Dimitrov, an accomplished linguist and scholar and the department's first director. As an officer in the Bulgarian Army during the Second Balkan War of 1912-1913, Dimitrov is said to have visited a mosque in Edirne during the fighting in that city. Muslims there, amazed to find a Christian who was conversant with Islam and could read the Qur'an, presented the volume to him as a gift. Some days later, Dimitrov was wounded in battle and died on his way back to Bulgaria. That copy of the Qur'an arrived in Sofia with his body.

Today, another generation of Bulgarian scholars—at the National Library, the University of St. Clement of Ochrid, the Institute of Ethnology, the National Monuments Authority and other institutions—continues to master the languages and traditions of their Muslim compatriots and of the long-vanished Ottoman Empire, whose history is so inextricably linked with their own. Sadly, they appear to be atypical of the majority of Bulgarians.

Physically, Bulgaria's Christians and Muslims have moved apart. Although many Bulgarian Christians nostalgically reminisce about how their parents or grandparents lived next to and knew the languages of Muslim Turks and Romanies, few have such first-hand knowledge today. As Margarita Karamikhova of Bulgaria's Institute of Ethnology explains, for more than a century Christians have migrated from the mountains to the low-lands and from rural Bulgaria to the growing towns and cities, a tendency far less pronounced among Muslims.

Muslims and Christians have also moved apart economically. Ethnic-Turkish regions have been devastated by the recent collapse of export markets for Bulgarian tobacco, and unemployment among Romany Muslims in some places approaches 90 percent.

Politically, Bulgaria's Muslims are in an ambiguous position. The country's two major parties—the formerly communist Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and the rightward-drifting Union of Democratic Forces (UDF)—largely ignore the interests of ethnic and religious minorities, and Bulgaria's new constitution forbids political parties based on ethnicity or religion. However, it is no secret that the country's third-largest party, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), headed by former human-rights activist and political prisoner Ahmed Dogan, attracts the support of the majority of the country's ethnic Turks and other Muslims. Its demonstrated ability to pull voters has made the MRF a coveted coalition partner courted by the BSP and UDF alike.

At this moment, the future of Islamic life in Bulgaria is uncertain. Extreme pessimists, like the Muslims of one village in southwest Bulgaria who stockpile food and blankets in their mosque "just in case of war," fear the eruption of hostilities like those destroying Bosnia. Others fear the rise of a xenophobic, anti-Romany, anti-Turkish, anti-Muslim cross-party coalition of ultra-nationalists. But such fears are far from universal. Many Bulgarians—Christians and Muslims—believe that their country is incapable of mustering the fanaticism that has turned their western neighbor, the former Yugoslavia, into a battlefield.

Dr. Ibrahim Tatarh, an MRF member of parliament and a scholar whose pioneering works on the history of Bulgaria's Muslim religious shrines were banned during the 1970's, believes that the future of Muslim Bulgaria is linked to the re-establishment of Turkish and Islamic cultural and university-level educational institutions, such as existed up to the second decade of communist rule. Tatarh is concerned that a clause in Bulgaria's constitution declaring Orthodox Christianity to be the country's "traditional" religion could provide potential legal barriers to the full revival of Muslim life. However, he tempers his concern by explaining to guests that Bulgaria has only just begun its transition away from a half-century of totalitarian rule and more than two decades of efforts to eject or force the assimilation of its Muslim minority.

Perhaps the surest sign that Bulgaria's Muslims and Christians have the will to transcend the inheritance of the recent past and to continue their six-centuries-long history of mutual respect and acceptance can be found in the sentiments underlying the words of farewell this writer heard from both Muslims and Christians in a score of towns and villages across Bulgaria. Unsure of his nationality and religion, they took his hand and blessed him with the words, "May God protect you and keep you ... by whatever name you know Him."

Stephen Lewis is a New York- and Netherlands-based writer and photographer who makes frequent visits to Bulgaria, where he has participated in documentary film projects.

This article appeared on pages 20-29 of the May/June 1994 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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