100 years ago Tamrash was the centre of a semi-autonomous Pomak state in the Rhodope. Now the only traces of its former glory are two graveyards plundered by treasure hunters
Issue 45-46, June-July 2010
by Bozhidara Georgieva; photography by Anthony Georgieff
"Tomrush is a picturesque village, with grey-roofed houses clustering on the side of a steep ravine; but its beauty has been marred by the wholesale destruction of the surrounding forest," James Bourchier, a reporter for The Times, wrote in the early 20th Century. The village is just a few kilometres from Plovdiv, in the northern Rhodope, but to get there Bourchier had to cross the border into the Ottoman Empire, escorted by Bulgarian soldiers.
When Bourchier reached Tamrash, he saw a lively village whose population were Pomaks (Slavs converted to Islam). But he never managed to meet the local leader, Ahmed Aga, the purpose of his visit. Rumour had it then that the Turkish chieftain and some of his kin were behind the brutal quashing of the 1876 April Uprising in the nearby village of Perushtitsa.
Back then the northern Rhodope regions were part of the so-called Pomak Republic, a semi-autonomous area within the Ottoman Empire, whose capital was Tamrash.
But 100 years later the republic is only a historical footnote, and if Bourchier could visit Tamrash today, he wouldn't recognise it.
The once-bare slopes around the village are now covered by thick pine forests, in total silence. The only inhabitants of Tamrash are the guards of the local game preserve and some itinerant Gypsies who, in the summer, make their camp in the former centre of the village, fell trees and subsist on a terrible soup made of boiled pig's lungs, the smell of which fills the entire area.
The village is no more. It's not even on the map. The only things that are left of it are several ivy-covered walls and two graveyards.
To find the graveyards, however, you'll need guidance from either the guards or the Gypsies.
The first graveyard is on a hill to the east of where the rivers Tamrashka and Lilkovska meet. You start climbing up the hill and when a panorama of Rhodope woodland opens up before you, you leave the road and enter the forest. One by one, among the thickets and the pine trees, you start spotting the tombstones.
The second burial ground is to the west of the Tamrashka River, at the end of a path that meanders around the ruined houses. You can only visit it in the company of a forest ranger, as the graveyard, the remains of an old road and two Ottoman bridges are within a doebreeding preserve.
The first graveyard is definitely more picturesque. But what the two sites have in common are the fresh traces of the treasure hunters who have been burrowing around the stones.
"Of course there are treasure hunters here, you can't stop them," says one of guards of the game preserve, while taking me to one of the bridges in the compound. He says the bridges are Roman, because "the Turks didn't know how to build bridges." My guide has no idea that 10 minutes before a colleague of his referred to him as a "treasure hunter." What do treasure hunters search for in the old cemeteries? Don't they know that Muslims bury their dead without any personal belongings? Here my guide starts telling me a long story about a colleague of his who, "while just digging around," found a gold ring "near a grave."
As is usual across Bulgaria, in Tamrash too the prospect of finding something precious fires the imagination of local treasure hunters and gives rise to legends. My guide points to the ford at the place where the Tamrashka and Lilkovska rivers meet. "There was a bridge there," he says. "When Ahmed Aga and his people started their flight to Turkey, the Aga buried his treasure there. After the war he came back with the Plovdiv governor. They dug up the gold and split it between them."
This story is perhaps the final touch to a long series of vicissitudes that have befallen the Rhodope, the mountain folk and Tamrash.
In the 14th Century the Rhodope area was conquered by the then young and aggressive Ottoman Empire. Three centuries later the Bulgarians who lived in the mountains and were Christians converted to Islam.
How and why these people made their fateful decision is a topic which even today can spark off heated arguments. Patriotically inclined historians contend that the conversion wasforced upon them by the state. In fact, just like some of the Greeks on Crete and the Aegean islands, a portion of the Bulgarians adopted the new faith for pragmatic reasons. Muslims paid lower taxes, had more rights and could rise in the hierarchy of the state administration.
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