by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff, BTA

Much ado about some emblems

Horsemen gallop through the thick grass. Turf flies up from their horses' hooves, their manes stream in the wind, the faces of the horsemen radiate grandeur. In the distance is a rocky plateau. Zoom in. On the sheer cliff appears a relief of… a horseman.

An off-screen voice booms: "Come to Bulgaria, home of the Madara Horseman!" It's only now you realise that you're not watching a tourism advert for Mongolia, or a trailer for a new western by Clint Eastwood.

Presiden Georgi Parvanov announcing Madara Horseman as symbol of Bulgaria

For a moment you might have thought it was a cigarette commercial, but then you realise that can't be possible in this tobacco-hostile 21st Century. No, you're watching a tourism clip starring the new symbol that Bulgarians selected to represent their country in the much-celebrated Symbols of Bulgaria campaign.

Of course, this advert doesn't exist yet. But I wouldn't be surprised if one appears soon. The Madara Horseman ‒ a relief carved into a cliff, most likely from the early 8th Century ‒ won the most votes from Bulgarians who cast their ballots in the Symbols of Bulgaria campaign, which closed on 29 June. The Bulgarian Association for Business and Tourist Information (BABTI) organised the initiative. On its site, you can find a long list of sponsors and partners. Almost the entire government, many national media organisations, advertisers and President Georgi Parvanov also supported it.

The initiative began last year with a call for Bulgarians to submit nominations. At the end of this initial phase, the organisers announced that they had collected nearly 20,000 suggestions. However, they left the creation of a list of 33 basic symbols to a so-called Public Council. It included the sort of intellectuals you usually find in every public initiative supported by Parvanov ‒ historian Bozhidar Dimitrov, archaeologist Nikolay Ovcharov and choreographer Neshka Robeva, who directs "Lord of the Dance" style shows using Bulgarian folklore.

The 33 symbols selected included the Seven Rila Lakes, a survaknitsa, or decorated branch used in a traditional New Year's ritual, the St Aleksandr Nevskiy Cathedral, shopska salata, the kebapche, yoghurt, and Melnik wine. After several months of voting, Bulgarians finally had to choose one from a shortlist of the five most popular nominations. The Madara Horseman won by a nose over the Cyrillic alphabet, the oil-producing rose, Tsarevets, and Rila Monastery. According to the organisers, 1,058,473 people cast their votes. Will Bulgaria become really recognisable now?

At first glance, there seems to be a practical reason for holding the vote. Bulgaria still doesn't know what symbol to put on the flip side of the euro. The catch is that the country will (perhaps) enter the Eurozone in 2012 at the earliest. Besides, the country already has an institution responsible for deciding what its money should look like, but it's not BABTI ‒ it's the BNB, the Bulgarian National Bank.

The practical arguments go beyond the euro coin. Bulgaria is going through a classic example of an identity crisis. It considers itself one of the oldest countries in Europe, yet in the 1,300 years that have passed since Han Asparuh's Bulgars settled in the Balkans, nothing has been created that unequivocally represents Bulgaria. Even the Cyrillic alphabet, which was developed by intellectuals from the First Bulgarian Kingdom, is internationally associated with Russia - for obvious reasons. In the past decades Bulgaria became infamous abroad ‒ among those few foreigners who even knew it existed ‒ for the "Bulgarian umbrella". This ingenious deadly weapon, which injects deadly ricin, was used to murder dissident Georgi Markov in London in 1979.

Even more depressing for the Bulgarians, the country was also associated with the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II. On the up side, Bulgaria has gained a bit more positive notoriety recently, thanks to the footballers Hristo Stoytchkov and Dimitar Berbatov.

Bulgaria's image problem became especially obvious last year when the State Tourism Agency released an advertising clip for Bulgaria. For 45 seconds it showed wine cellars, spa procedures in bathtubs full of rose petals, parties on the beach, ski runs and golf courses. These things are so devoid of character that if it hadn't been for the shots of Rila Monastery at the beginning and Cape Kaliakra at the end, even a Bulgarian might think they were watching a commercial for the United Arab Emirates, especially as they've started building artificial ski runs there, too.

The discovery of an adequate and objective symbol for Bulgaria would help considerably to present the country abroad. Yet, how wise was it to conduct the search via a national survey of Bulgarians themselves? The question raises philosophical conundrums. Making a nation choose a symbol to represent itself objectively is like trying to do psychoanalysis on yourself. Of course, for an outside observer, the suggestions Bulgarians offered revealed a whole lot about themselves rather than the flip-side of the euro coins.

Bulgarians don't have a realistic idea of what's important.

Locked up for 45 years in that open-air prison known as Socialism, they were deprived of the right to travel abroad and visit foreign tourist attractions. The transition to democracy with its economic crises has also prevented many Bulgarians from going abroad ‒ it is precisely these homebodies who participated in the Symbols of Bulgaria campaign. They were the ones who came up with nominations like the Erma River Gorge. It's near Tran, almost on the border with Serbia, and is quite picturesque. But what is it doing among the candidates for the symbol of Bulgaria?

Bulgarians don't know who they are.

They're proud of the golden treasures and tombs of Thracian kings and hence nominated the Thracian city of Perperikon. Yet no one knows what percentage of contemporary Bulgarian genes is made up of Thracian DNA.

Bulgarians don't know their neighbours.

Otherwise they wouldn't have nominated the kebapche, which is being enjoyed in Romania, Serbia, the Republic of Macedonia, Greece and Turkey. The same goes for hot peppers.

Bulgarians live in the past.

They know perfectly well that in recent years nothing has happened in their country that deserves to be immortalised on a coin. John Atanasoff invented the first computer in the United States. Elias Canetti was born in Ruse, but worked in Europe. The artist Christo refuses to speak Bulgarian! For that reason, they chose things that were at least 200 years old for their cultural-historical symbols ‒ monasteries, ruins, medieval capitals ‒ everything that reminds them of their glorious past.

The organisers of the Symbols of Bulgaria campaign were satisfied, however. "We haven't seen this kind of mobilisation for a long time, this kind of enthusiasm, especially for a noble cause," said President Parvanov. "The campaign achieved several very important goals. It reaffirms the self-esteem and identity of Bulgarians in a very positive way. It has had an educational effect. Many people have learnt facts about Bulgarian history and have become more familiar with our natural environment. We have five, and perhaps an additional 50 Bulgarian symbols that are generally accepted here in Bulgaria, as well as being recognisable abroad.”

The campaign continues. Now it's time for wonders of nature to compete. The candidates include the Balkan Mountains, the edelweiss (no one has seen edelweiss in its natural habitat for many, many years), mineral water, the Seven Rila Lakes and the Wondrous Bridges in the Rhodope. There's also work to be done on the initiative's other goals, which BABTI announced on its website ‒ just below the bank account number where patriotic Bulgarians can assist the campaign financially. The campaign committee has vowed to build a park dedicated to Bulgarian symbols in Sofia; to organise a competition based on the Bulgarian symbols theme, complete with prizes; to establish a travelling exhibition-presentation of Bulgarian symbols; and to create and distribute products carrying the Bulgarian symbols theme around the world, via the Foreign Ministry.

Nowhere is it mentioned how much money has been collected from advertisers and donors. We at least hope to find out whether there will indeed be an advert starring the Madara Horseman.

Where Near Madara, between the former capital cities of Pliska and Preslav
When Most probably the beginning of the 8th Century Why The only monumental relief of a hunting horseman in Europe
Why The only monumental relief of a hunting horseman in Europe. The Madara Horseman would've been a good choice - if Bulgarians knew exactly what it represented. However, he relief is equally as likely to be an image of the proto-Bulgarian god Tangra, or a portrait of Han Tervel, who carved an inscription (in Greek) next to the horseman. Some even suspect that the horseman has nothing to do with the proto-Bulgarians. The most extravagant theory claims it is a portrait of the Persian King Darius I the Great who lived during the 6th and 5th centuries BC. The most worrying thing, however, is the lion, which the rider is stabbing with a spear. The Bulgarian coat of arms currently features three lions - just like Denmark's.


Where The valley near Kazanlak
When Imported from the Middle East during the 18th Century
Why Inertia. The romantic image of a young girl gathering roses was established in the Bulgarian collective consciousness as a sure-fire tourist attraction as early as the beginning of the 20th Century. Local self-esteem continued to grow, thanks to the fact that in the past
Bulgaria was one of the world's largest producers of rose oil. Herodotus was summoned up to support the candidacy of the rose. In his History, he writes that the Thracians cultivated "roses, each of which had 60 petals and whose scent surpassed all other kinds" (The History, VIII, 138). The current oil-producing rose from Kazanlak is an entirely different plant, however. It is a subspecies of the Syrian Rosa Damascena, which was brought to Europe during the Crusades. It arrived in Bulgaria after the Ottoman conquest. Other countries that produce roses include Turkey and France.


Where Veliko Tarnovo
When 1185-1393
Why The capital of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom had a rich treasury and a flourishing literary school. The Ottoman siege and capture of the city is still considered a national tragedy. However, the walls now rising on the hill above the Yantra River are a free interpretation, built during the 1930s on the scanty medieval ruins. The murals in the Patriarchal Church are in typical 1980s Socialist Expressionism style. Lyudmila Zhivkova, daughter of the former Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov, commissioned them and financed them using the hard-earned cash of Socialist taxpayers. Besides that, Tarnovo - at least according to legend - fell into Ottoman hands due to treachery. Isn't that a little too compromising?


Where In Preslav and Ohrid
When In the second half of the 9th Century

Why Poet Ivan Vazov gives the answer in his poem "We, Too, Have Given Something to the World": "To all the Slavs, books to read". However, since Russia is a much larger and more visible nation than Bulgaria, the whole world associates Cyrillic with that country instead. Even if this wasn't the case, Bulgarians would still have to admit that most of the Cyrillic letters were taken from the Latin and Greek alphabets. In fact, Cyrillic was not the first Slavic alphabet. It is the heir to Glagolithic, which was created in the middle of the 9th Century by the brothers Cyril and Methodius upon orders from the Byzantine emperor. He believed that he could increase his political influence among the Slavs in the Balkans and Central Europe if he "gave" them their own alphabet. Catholic priests, however, ruined the attempt to impose Glagolithic in Great Moravia (the present day Czech Republic and Slovakia). Some of Cyril and Methodius' students found refuge in Bulgaria, where Prince Boris I had just forcibly converted the population to Christianity. Within a few decades, Glagolithic was abandoned, however, since it was too complicated. Currently, Cyrillic is used not only in Russia and Bulgaria, but also in Serbia, Macedonia, Ukraine, Mongolia, and Azerbaijan.


Where Rila, near the upper course of the Rila River
When 10th Century

Why It has existed almost without interruption and preserved Bulgarian culture during the five centuries of Ottoman rule. Its picturesque location is also a plus. The monastery, which has a website complete with an English version, looks like a tempting symbol. But, its fresco-rich walls and striped arches hide terrifying stories. The founder, St John of Rila, decided to embalm himself while still alive by following a strict diet of herbs. Ten centuries later a woman tried to bite one of the fingers off his relics. The monk Rafail went blind carving the miniature figures into the wooden cross that is now in the monastery museum. In 1943 King Boris III was buried there. Two years later the Communists exhumed him but the whereabouts of his body remain unknown. In 1990 the king's preserved heart was discovered and reburied in the monastery.


    Commenting on

    Vagabond Media Ltd requires you to submit a valid email to comment on to secure that you are not a bot or a spammer. Learn more on how the company manages your personal information on our Privacy Policy. By filling the comment form you declare that you will not use for the purpose of violating the laws of the Republic of Bulgaria. When commenting on please observe some simple rules. You must avoid sexually explicit language and racist, vulgar, religiously intolerant or obscene comments aiming to insult Vagabond Media Ltd, other companies, countries, nationalities, confessions or authors of postings and/or other comments. Do not post spam. Write in English. Unsolicited commercial messages, obscene postings and personal attacks will be removed without notice. The comments will be moderated and may take some time to appear on

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.