New book highlights significant Czech contributions to 19th century Bulgaria
The first historians and archaeologists to survey this nation's past. The builders of some of Sofia's most prominent landmarks. The creators of some of Bulgaria's finest gardens. Artists whose paintings captured the soul of Bulgaria. They defined Bulgaria's art, culture, industry and education at the turn of the 20th century, and what unites them is that they were all... Czech.
Soon after Bulgaria regained its statehood, in 1878, a number of Czech intellectuals, entrepreneurs and scientists arrived. Some recognised the new state's potential for business, others wanted to help a fellow Slav nation to break with its centuries-long Ottoman past and embrace a modern, European future. Many of them became an integral part of the history, art and urban landscape of the nation and have left traces still visible today.
A new book, The Bulgarian Czechs, is dedicated to them. This richly illustrated tome in Bulgarian, Czech and English was published in 2020 by the Cultural Institute of the Bulgarian Embassy in Prague, in cooperation with the Bulgarian State Archives, the Archaeology Institute at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, the Bulgarian Telegraph Agency and the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry.
This partnership created a rich tapestry of photographs, documents, maps, drawings and paintings. Dating from the first decades of post-1878 Bulgaria, they create a vivid picture of the lives and achievements of the "Czech Bulgarians."
Some of their names are well known: the industrialist Prošek family, the historian Konstantin Jireček, the artist Ivan Mrkvička. In The Bulgarian Czechs they share pages with lesser known but no less important people, such as the Škorpil Brothers and Václav Dobruský, who laid the foundations of Bulgarian archaeology; the architect Antonín Kolár; the garden designer Antonín Novák; and Franz Milde, whose brewery in Shumen still makes probably this country's best lager.
This book is a treasure for anyone interested in both Bulgarian and Czech history, and shows that no matter what your country of origin is you can always make a difference in your adopted homeland.
"We, the capable, led by the ignorant, do the impossible for the greater good of the ingrate. And we have achieved so much with so little in such a short time that we have learnt to make everything from nothing." This quote belongs to Konstantin Jireček, the Vienna-born Czech historian who dedicated his life and work to researching Bulgarian history, the establishment of a modern education system and much more.
Jireček became interested in Slav and Bulgarian history in his 20s, and published his History of the Bulgarians, the first complete scientific history of the nation, in 1876, two years before the Bulgarian state was restored. In 1879, he arrived in Sofia to work in the Education Ministry, which he headed in 1881-1882. He later became the director of the Bulgarian National Library but left the country for good in 1884. This did not mean his feelings for Bulgaria had cooled. He published his Travels in Bulgaria, a snapshot of its historical and cultural heritage, in 1888, followed by The Principality of Bulgaria in 1893.
The Prošek Family
Sofia owes much to the Prošek Family: the beginning of proper beer production in the city and two of Sofia's major landmarks, Lions Bridge and Eagles Bridge. The Prošek Brewery is no more. In the 2010s its abandoned ruins at a prime location in Central Sofia were replaced by a new development.
The bridges are still there. Lions Bridge was built in 1889-1890 after a design by Václav Prošek and another Czech, Antonín Kolár. In 1891, Eagles Bridge followed, created by the same team.
The Prošeks were also the founders of the Slavic Society and the Bulgarian Engineering Society, and were involved in the construction of the port of Varna.
Architect Antonín Kolár was one of the men who helped Sofia to reimagine itself as a new, European-looking capital. He developed the city's first urban plan, and designed emblematic buildings such as the Royal Palace, the Military Club, the old Railway Station (demolished in the 1970s), Grand Hotel Bulgaria, and the City Garden, Sofia's oldest public park. Kolár also designed the monument to revolutionary Vasil Levski, Bulgaria's greatest national hero.
The Škorpil Brothers
Karel and Hermengield Škorpil were among the first to discover and systematically survey Bulgaria's rich ancient and medieval archaeological heritage using scientific methods. Karel Škorpil established the Archaeology Association and Museum in Varna and focused on researching medieval Pliska, Bulgaria's first capital. His brother, Hermengield, was also interested in ornithology. Together, the brothers wrote a geographical and statistical survey on Bulgaria in the early 1890s.
Varna has arguably Bulgaria's most beautiful Maritime Garden. Its creator, the garden designer Antonín Novák, spared no effort planting both native trees, from the Strandzha and the Kamchiya River valley, and also rarer species from Istanbul and the Mediterranean. The result so impressed the initially sceptical citizens of Varna that they did two things: they built Novák a beautiful house at the entrance to the Maritime Garden (today it houses Radio Varna), and they commissioned him to design all the other gardens and parks in their city.
Plovdiv, Bulgaria's second largest city, had its "own" Czech architect, whose mark is visible in the urban fabric: Josef Schnitter. Besides the beautiful City Garden and buildings such as the churches of Ss Cyril and Methodius and St George, and the belfries of St Petka and St Holy Mother of Christ, he also developed Plovdiv's general urban plan. One of its most prominent features still flourishes today, the Main Street that runs from the City Garden to the banks of the Maritsa River.
Considered the founder of Bulgarian archaeology, Václav Dobruský became the first director of the National Archaeological Museum, in 1893. He modelled it on the Prague and Vienna museums, and he went on to conduct digs all around Bulgaria. Václav Dobruský was the first proper archaeologist to survey the ruins of the ancient Roman cities of Ulpia Oescus and Nicopolis ad Istrum. He had to leave Bulgaria in 1910 due to a combination of intrigues and scandals.
Artist Ivan Mrkvička was more than just the founder of academic art education in Bulgaria. He was fascinated by the Bulgarian traditional lifestyle, still largely untouched by modernity, and he painted it tirelessly. Beautiful women and weathered men in traditional attire, wedding celebrations and commemorations of All Souls Day, plus market scenes and the odd royal portrait: Mrkvička caught on canvas the spirit of a Bulgarian society on the brink of transition. His most famous work is seen as the epitome of Bulgarianness: a couple of men lost in the dance of rachenitsa. Curiously, it is possible that one of the men in the painting was another foreigner and great lover of Bulgaria, the Irish journalist James Bourchier.