Behind the glossy image of a merry rose picker lies back-breaking toil for a pittance
Issue 43-44, April-May 2010
by Violeta Rozova; photography by Anthony Georgieff, BTA
The Austro-Hungarian archaeologist, geographer and ethnographer Felix Kanitz, who visited Bulgarian lands 18 times between 1860 and 1883, could not complain of a lack of gratitude. His detailed map of Bulgaria was used by the Russian army in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 and won him a medal from the emperor. It was also used at the Congress of Berlin in June 1878. Present-day Bulgarian history books and academic works still quote Kanitz's accounts of the Bulgarian way of life and traditions at that time. There is a street in Sofia named after him.
One of Kanitz's engravings, however, has had a destiny of its own. It became a cornerstone of the modern Bulgarian tourist industry.
The engraving, which was made in 1870 in the area of Kazanlak, depicts a man and two beautiful Bulgarian women dressed in traditional costumes picking roses.
The image of the pretty rose picker has been reproduced thousands of times over the years. It appeared both in illustrated cards in the early 20th Century and propaganda photos of the 1950s. The rose picker adorned both Turkish delight boxes in Communist Bulgaria and the two-leva banknotes. Today you can hardly find a website, brochure or magazine promoting Bulgaria as a cheap and friendly tourist destination that does not feature rose pickers or just roses. Oil-bearing roses are grown on only a small slice of its territory but nevertheless the flower is on the tourist logo of Bulgaria, which is advertised as the "Country of Roses." In 2008, the rose was chosen as one of the country's symbols in a widely publicised campaign, and the Rose Festivals in Karlovo and Kazanlak on 30 May and 1 June attract thousands of tourists. The programme includes a Rose Queen contest, the boiling of roses, an international folk festival, a photo competition, tasting of rose rakiya and rose jam, and re-creations of ancient Thracian rituals (according to Herodotus, the roses grown by the Thracians were unsurpassed in their splendour).
The plant now used to extract attar of roses from actually arrived in the Bulgarian lands much later. The Kazanlak rose, which is the main variety in Bulgaria, is a descendant of the rose-bearing Rosa damascena. The Ottoman Turks introduced it from the Near East at the beginning of the 18th Century. The only place where the plant would grow was the fields around the towns of Kazanlak, Karlovo and Strelcha, on the southern foothill of the Balkan mountains. Today, this area is known as Rose Valley.
The history of rose oil production in Bulgaria is a rare example of the combination of favourable conditions, a viable market and enterprising people. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Europe became addicted to perfumes. The Bulgarians from the Rose Valley area responded to the increased demand with an increased supply of attar of roses, which is the basic ingredient in many perfumes. By the mid-19th Century they were already among the wealthiest Bulgarians. They had another stroke of luck at the end of that century, when Bulgaria's independence from the Ottoman Empire had unfortunate consequences for the country's Revival Period bourgeoisie. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the towns in the Balkan Mountains and in the valleys south of them had become rich by sheep breeding and the weaving of woollen braid, which they sold to the Ottoman army. With liberation, they lost this lucrative market and the import of cheap manufactured goods from the West was the final nail in the handicrafts coffin.
Only the production of rose oil remained unaffected by the changes. Today Bulgaria is among the world's largest producers of attar of roses, along with Turkey and France.
Years have gone by but the image of the rose picker has remained the same. Just as in Kanitz's time, during the Rose Festival you will see fields full of young beauties in traditional costumes nimbly picking the flowers in the bright sun. Everything gives the impression that this occupation ought to be included in the world's 10 Best Jobs list.
But real-life rose picking has nothing to do with this idealised picture.
The rose is a delicate plant. Its essential oils begin to evaporate when the sun is hot and for this reason, rose pickers – the real ones and not those from the postcards – are in the fields at five in the morning. The bushes are wet with dew, the thorns pierce even the strongest clothes and your feet get stuck in the cold mud. No rose picker is clad in traditional costume – they all wear their oldest clothes.
70 years ago, on 10 March 1943, Bulgaria's pro-Nazi government decided to defy Berlin and halt the deportation of Bulgaria's 50.000 Jews. This was down to the actions of one man - Dimitar Peshev. Just two years later he faced Communist justice and found himself on trial for his life. His niece Kaluda Kiradjieva remembers