by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Meet Bulgaria's many ethnic minorities, from Turks to Russians and from Armenians to Jews

pomaks bulgaria.jpg

Exploring the monotonous streets of Bulgarian towns where the overwhelming majority of people are obviously Bulgarian, it may be hard to believe that multiculturalism existed in the Bulgarian lands a long time before the very term was coined in the West. Situated on what used to be a busy crossroads between Europe, Asia and the Mediterranean, Bulgaria attracted settlers, traders and invaders for centuries if not millennia. Its long history of local wars, migrations and – in later times – constant changes of national borders has complicated the picture further, turning what is now called Bulgaria into a place where a significant number of diverse minority groups live.

Distinguishing between them is sometimes a strenuous task. Some of them are ethnic, others – religious. Yet a third is a combination. The origins of most are obscure and often disputed.

This truly Balkan hodgepodge is best illustrated with the case of the Pomaks. They speak Bulgarian and share many culture characteristics with the Eastern Orthodox, but are in fact Muslim. In Bulgaria they are traditionally put into the group of ethnic Bulgarians, but because they are distinctive enough owing to their religion and lifestyle they deserve to be represented separately.

The number of Bulgaria's minority populations are difficult to obtain, even when using the 2011 census results. Its data is unreliable because 683,590 of the 7,364,570 Bulgarians citizens refused to specify their ethnicity. The National Statistical Institute did correlate the ethnicity and the so-called mother language of respondents but did not compare religion and mother tongue. The final problem is that some minor groups were collectively put in the Others section. Thus, about 20,000 people are in it.

All the groups presented here are united by one thing – they have lived in Bulgaria for generations and they call it their home.


How many: 588,318 (2011 census)

Where: Kardzhali area in the Rhodope, the Ludogorie and the Silistra areas in the North East; pockets in the Stara Planina

Language: Turkish, visibly archaic compared to that spoken in Turkey

Religion: Sunni Islam, Shia Islam

A Turk, Bulgaria

Who are they?

The biggest ethnic minority in Bulgaria is the descendant of the Turks who settled here during the Ottoman Empire and decided to stay in spite of the political changes introduced by independent Bulgaria in 1878 and the wars that followed. Until 1944 their rights – as well as the rights of other minorities – were theoretically protected by law and were more or less not violated. However, few Turks held any position in the civil service and the army, and the great majority remained uneducated. After the Communists seized power in 1944, plenty of state money was poured into Turkish communities and schools in order to make them exemplary Communists. However, soon the Communist state saw the Turkish element as a menace to national security. In 1950-1951 about 150,000 Bulgarian Turks left the country in a carefully staged "spontaneous emigration." In the following decades the policy of the Communist government was at best inconsistent. Turkish-speaking schools and theatres were opened and then closed, Turkish-language literature was encouraged and later banned. In 1968-1978 Bulgaria and Turkey agreed to help reuniting families divided by the previous migration. About 114,000 Turks left Bulgaria as a result.

Nothing compares with the events of the late 1980s. Following the successful renaming of the Pomaks, the government decided to proceed with the Turks and proclaimed that they were Bulgarians who had "forgotten" their origins. In the winter of 1984-1985 the state forced 850,000 Turks to change their names with Bulgarian ones. Speaking Turkish and wearing traditional clothes was banned. Tensions, however, started to mount, erupting in civil disobedience and several terrorist acts by clandestine organisations. In 1989 the government realised that the so-called Revival Process had failed. Trying to let some steam off, it opened the border with Turkey. Between 3 June and 21 August about 350,000 Bulgarian Turks left the country, often forcibly, and carrying few belongings with them. Many of them returned to Bulgaria afterwards.

In 1990, after the collapse of Communism, the Turks were allowed to get their names back. The political scene saw the emergence of Movement for Rights and Freedoms, or DPS. Led by former State Security agent Ahmed Dogan, the party soon turned into the major representative of Muslims in Bulgaria, which it still is to this day.


How many: About 150,000 (estimated)

Where: The Rhodope, pockets in the Stara Planina. Outside Bulgaria significant numbers in Greece, Turkey, former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina

Language: Bulgarian

Religion: Sunni Islam

Who are they?

Religion is the major dividing line between Muslim Pomaks and Christian Bulgarians, and language – between them and the Turks. This peculiarity has troubled both the group and its neighbours as in in the past religion was often associated with ethnicity. Today some Pomaks believe that they have descended from Turkic or Arab tribes, who had settled in the Balkans long before the Ottomans arrived. Others claim ancient Thracian origins.

The more plausible explanation is that Pomaks are descendant of Bulgarians who, like fellow Christians in Bosnia and in Crete, converted to Islam under the Ottomans. Their reasons were purely practical, Muslims in the empire were exempt from a number of heavy taxes. Since the 19th Century, however, nationalist propaganda pushed with the opinion that Christians in Bulgaria were forcibly Islamised by the Ottomans in the middle of the 17th Century. The theory still lingers although no evidence has been discovered.

Religion, however, proved to be a great obstacle between Christian and Muslim Bulgarians. Pomak regiments did the massacres that ended the April Uprising of 1876. In 1879 Pomaks created the independent Tamrash Republic in the Rhodope because they did not want to be governed by the Christian governor of the Eastern Rumelia province. The young Bulgarian state reciprocated. In 1912, the 1930s and the 1970s Pomaks went trough campaigns of sometimes forcible Christianisation and Bulgarisation. In recent years nationalist propaganda and spectacular but arbitrary police action have represented the more conservative Pomaks communities as "nests" of "radical" Islam.

Ambiguous relations between the Pomaks and the Bulgarians are clearly visible in the popular explanation of the etymology of the word. According to one, the root of Pomak is pomachen, or repressed. According to another, it is pomagach, or helper, collaborator.

The use of the word "Pomak" can be sensitive. Some Pomaks prefer to be called balgaro-mohamedani, or Bulgarian Muslims.


How many: 325,343 (2011 census)

Where: Virtually everywhere, big communities in Sofia, Plovdiv, Sliven, Montana

Language: Roma, Bulgarian, Turkish

Religion: Islam, Eastern Orthodox, Evangelical denominations

Who are they?

A Gypsy woman, Bulgaria

The first Gypsies appeared in the Balkans in the 11-12th centuries and spent the next centuries as itinerant craftsmen. That came to an end in the 1950s, when the Communists forced all nomadic groups in Bulgaria (Gypsies were not the only ones) to settle in villages and towns. Traditionally poor and with lower levels of literacy, the Gypsies suffered the transitional period after the collapse of Communism more than other citizens in Bulgaria. Many of them lost their low-paid but guaranteed jobs in agriculture and industry, and found themselves stuck in the downward spiral of crime, Third World living conditions, early marriage and high birth rate. Traditionally negative, the general notion toward Gypsies turned openly hostile and whole parties, like Ataka, won thousands of votes on an anti-Gypsy agenda.

Gypsies are divided in three major groups. Each has specific customs, crafts and position in the greater hierarchy, and people from different clans rarely intermarry. On the top of the pyramid are the Christian Kalderashi. The Yerlii are divided on two subgroups, a Christian and a Muslim one. The Ludari are thought to be of Romanian origin and are the ones that until recently roared the roads with their dancing bears and trained monkeys.

One peculiar Gypsy social structure, formed in the Middle Ages, is still surviving into the modern times. The Meshere court is formed by an odd number of respected male Gypsies who judge on intergroup problems, most often on divorces or for which political party will the clan vote in next elections.

A note on the term Gypsy. Gypsy sounds perfectly OK in English, but in Bulgaria post-1989 the new, supposedly political correct term "Roma" was coined. Exercise common sense – it may be best to use the two interchangeably.


How many: 1,162 (2011 census), about 6,000 members of the Shalom Organisation of Bulgarian Jews

Where: Communities in Sofia, Plovdiv, Varna, Burgas, Ruse

Language: Bulgarian, Ladino

Who are they?

Jews in Sofia Central Synagogue

Jews have lived in what would become Bulgaria since at least the 2nd Century. Today's Bulgarian Jews, however, are predominantly descendants of the Sephardim, who were expelled from Portugal and Spain in 1492 and were invited to come by the Ottoman Empire for their skills as bankers and merchants. After 1878, Jews did fairly well in Bulgaria although many were impoverished after losing the Ottoman market.

Zionism was very popular and in 1909 the king and the prime minister attended the opening of the grand synagogue in Sofia. In 1941 Bulgaria allied with the Third Reich, having adopted draconian antisemitic laws. After a hectic public campaign, however, none of the 48,000 Jews in Bulgaria proper was deported to the extermination camps. Sadly, the 11,343 Jews from Bulgaria-administered Aegean Thrace and Vardar Macedonia were sent to death.

After 1944 an active campaign for the integration of the Jews into Communist Bulgaria began. The effort failed, as in 1949-1951 the great majority of Bulgarian Jews left for Palestine and many formed the backbone of the state of Israel. Soon after that, the Communist government suppressed religious or community life outside controlled cultural centres. The synagogues were closed, many were destroyed or turned into sports halls and warehouses. After the collapse of Communism another migration wave to Israel followed, but with the help of foreign organisations the community restored its religious, cultural and social life. The Sofia synagogue was restored in 2009.


How many: 6,652 (2011 census)

Where: Communities in Sofia, Plovdiv, Ruse, Varna, Burgas

Language: Bulgarian, Armenian

Religion: Armenian Orthodox

Who are they?

Plovdiv Armenians, Bulgaria

The first Armenians left Asia Minor for the Balkans in the 5th Century, but they really started to arrive en masse in 8-10th centuries, when the Byzantine emperors organised mass migration of hundreds of thousands. The reason? They were "heretics." What happened to these Paulicians is not clear. Later waves occurred at the time of the Ottoman invasion of the 14-17th centuries. In 1894-1896 another 20,000 Armenians arrived, escaping hostilities in the Ottoman Empire. About 20 years later about 35,000 Armenians were living in Bulgaria. The number rose considerably when 22,000 refugees arrived after atrocities committed in the Ottoman Empire in 1915-1922. Under Communism, the Armenian and the Jewish minorities were considered "model" in that they were well-integrated into the Communist system and never caused any trouble.


How many: 9,978 (2011 census)

Where: Throughout Bulgaria, Old Believers villages around Varna and Silistra

Language: Russian, Old Russian

Religion: Russian Orthodox Christian, Old Believers

Who are they?

Traditional Russian community, Bulgaria
© Tsvetomir Trankov

It is logical to surmise that about 10,000 Russians in modern Bulgaria are the descendants of the White Russian supporters who fled their country after the 1918-1921 Civil War, plus those who married Bulgarian in the post-1944 era and settled here. You will be right, to an extent.

In the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution Bulgaria did welcome about 35,000 White Russian military officers and many more civilians. Some of them left the country and continued West. Many, however, stayed and when the Red Army invaded Bulgaria in 1944 many of them were forcibly sent to the Gulags. During Socialism, some Bulgarians went to work in the wood-cutting industry of the former USSR. Some returned with their Russian wives.

However, the first Russians, or Cossacks, appeared in Bulgaria much earlier. They were, and still are, Old Believers, followers of a conservative branch of Russian Orthodoxy that opposed the religion reforms of Tsar Peter the Great at the beginning of the 18th Century. These reforms were meant to make the church subservient to the state, so the Old Believers were considered an arch enemy and were forced to leave. Many of them sought refugee in the tolerant Ottoman Empire. In 1753, several thousand Cossack families settled around Silistra. Of that huge group about 200 Old Believers, known also as Lipovans, remain today. They live in one of the neighbourhoods of the village of Aidemir. Another pocket of about 300 Old Believers inhabit the village of Kazashko, near Varna. They arrived in 1905 from Romania, escaping "ungodly" modernisation such as obligatory vaccination.

At the beginning the Old Believers in Bulgaria would not marry locals and strictly followed their tradition. Today, however, intermarriage is common and few of the old traditions are being observed. Many of the elders, though, are still vehement non-smokers. The taboo does not apply to alcohol.


How many: 540 (2001 census, no data in 2011)

Where: Villages around Varna and Dobrich

Language: Turkish

Religion: Eastern Orthodox Christianity

Who are they?

A Gagauz woman, Bulgaria

Bulgaria has only a chunk of this interesting group, the Turkish-speaking Eastern Orthodox Christian who left the Ottoman Empire after the wars of the first half of the 19th Century and settled in Moldova and Ukraine. However, before that time what is now Bulgaria's North East was the cradle of the Gagauz.

How did the Gagauz appear and who they are is a mystery. The name Gagauz pops into history for the first time as late as the 19th Century. The theories, however, about the origin of the Gagauz, claim much older roots. Some believes that the Gagauz are the only pure-blood heirs of one-time Proto-Bulgarians. Others seek their DNA in later invaders of Turkic origins who had long disappear from history like the Cumans, the Pechenegs, the Oguz Turks or the Seljuk Turks.


How many: 1,379 (2011 census)

Where: Varna, Pomorie, Sozopol, Burgas, Ahtopol, Plovdiv, Asenovgrad

Language: Greek

Religion: Greek Orthodox

Who are they?

A member of Varna's Greek community
© Tsvetomir Trankov

Greeks have lived in Bulgaria long before it was set up as a state. The earliest Greeks were colonists in the 7th Century BC who founded flourishing trade outposts that still exist, Varna (formerly Odessos), Sozopol (formerly Appolonia) and Nesebar (formerly Mesemvria) being the most famous. The groups in the interior of Thrace appeared in cities like Plovdiv (Greek name Philippopolis) after 1st Century BC – 1st Century AD, when the Balkans became the part of the Roman Empire and later the Byzantine Empire.

Through the centuries, the Greeks formed prosperous communities and mixed with Bulgarians, Turks, Jews and Armenians in cosmopolitan hubs like Plovdiv and Varna. In the 19th century tension with the Bulgarians escalated. An emerging nation, Bulgaria wanted to emancipate itself from Greek domination in ecclesiastical and educational matters. After 1878, another discord between the two communities appeared – both Bulgaria and Greece struggled for control of Macedonia and Aegean Thrace, resulting in waves of violence towards respective minorities on both sides. In 1906, for example, in Pomorie (formerly Anhialo) local Greeks and Bulgarians clashed, the battle lasted for a day and left a dozen dead and the city in flames.

The number of Greeks in Bulgaria – similarly to that of Bulgarians in Greece – dropped sharply after the exchange of populations, enforced by Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria in the 1920s. In 1920 the Greeks in Bulgaria were 46,759, six years later they were just 10,564.


How many: 2,556 (2011 census)

Where: Sliven and the area, also central and western Stara Planina

Language: Greek

Religion: Eastern Orthodox

Who are they?

Karakachans, Bulgaria
© Dragomir Ushev

Nomadic sheep-tending had been big in the Balkans for millennia. Generations of shepherds have pastured their flock in the warm Aegean during the winter and in the cool Rhodope in summertime. The tradition continued under the Ottomans, practised by ethnic Bulgarians, Greek-speaking Karakachans and Turkic Yuruks. The creation of state borders at the turn of the 20th Century put this livelihood to an end. A considerable number of Karakachans was stuck in Bulgaria and the state, in the spirit of the time, did its best to assimilate them. In 1936 the Karakachans were forced to abandon the Greek suffixes in their names, in 1954 they were forced to settle down and for their refusal to do so were punished severely. In 1958 their most precious possession, the sheep flocks, was nationalised. After the collapse of Communism the Karakachans returned to their roots with the help of a cultural organisation and were compensated for their nationalised sheep.

The best time to meet Karakachans is their annual fair in Karandila, near Sliven, held in the first weekend of July.

America for Bulgaria FoundationHigh Beam is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.


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