EAGLES BRIDGE

EAGLES BRIDGE

Thu, 09/03/2020 - 07:45

Sofia's non-political symbol turns into symbol of politics

eagles bridge.jpg

In the summer of 2020, a bridge in Sofia has persistently been in the news. Bulgarians demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev barricaded Eagles Bridge, disrupting traffic and attracting media attention.

Why this particular bridge?

To understand the significance of the location, one needs to go back to March 1878. The Russo-Turkish War, known as the Liberation War, had just concluded. Bulgarian participants in the 1876 April Uprising against the Ottomans were on their way back home from exile in faraway Diyarbakır, in Anatolia. When Sofianites heard that these martyrs of freedom were approaching the city, they rushed to greet them. The two groups met at the place where the millennia-old route connecting the Bosporus and Central Europe crossed the narrow Perlovska River. At that time that was Sofia's city limit.

The following year Sofia became the capital of reborn Bulgaria, and an ambitious programme to turn the city from an Ottoman backwater into a modern European town was set in motion. New streets, gardens, public buildings and infrastructure projects popped up as if overnight. The construction of a bridge at the place where the returning exiles were met was one of these projects.

A vintage postcard shows Eagles Bridge in the first decades of its existence, still in largely a undeveloped field

A vintage postcard shows Eagles Bridge in the first decades of its existence, still in largely a undeveloped field

Eagles Bridge was inaugurated in 1891. It was designed by two of the many expats that had arrived to Bulgaria to lend a hand and their expertise in the transition to modernity: Adolf Kolar, Sofia's chief architect, and entrepreneur Václav Prošek. The eagles symbolised the Bulgarians' struggle for freedom and were manufactured in Vienna by Philip Waagner-Biro, the same company that a century later created the tessellated roof of the Great Court of the British Museum.

Meanwhile, the area around Eagles Bridge changed rapidly. The city's population exploded with new arrivals, eager to grab the opportunities presented by the young Bulgarian capital. The rich and the influential favoured Eagles Bridge and its surroundings, because of its proximity to the city centre. Grand mansions for the elite and apartment buildings for the upper middle class sprang up around, and gardens appeared on the two banks of the Perlovska River, introducing Sofianites to European styles of garden design and urban leisure.

Under Communism, traffic across Eagles Bridge intensified as thousands of people now lived in the neighbourhoods built from scratch on former agricultural land along the road. The new elite flocked to detached houses and brutalist high-rises in the Iztok, or East, and Izgrev, or Sunrise, neighbourhoods while the masses were crammed into prefabricated blocks in Mladost, or Youth, and Druzhba, or Friendship. In 1954, the gigantic monument to the Red Army that, according to Communist propaganda, had liberated Bulgarians from fascism in 1944 arose opposite the bridge (today many see this very same army as an enslaver that "freed" Bulgarians not of fascism, but of democracy). Later, another towering silhouette appeared by the bridge: the Bulgarian National Television building.

Tthe roadblock, dubbed Eagles' Town, in the summer of 2020

The roadblock, dubbed Eagles' Town, in the summer of 2020

A joke from the times of Communism is a good representation of the symbolism of the bridge at the time. A passer-by sees a friend waiting at Eagles Bridge, a bouquet of roses in his hands. "Waiting for a date?," the man asks. "Nope. Waiting for the Americans to arrive and liberate us," the friend replies. "Wait, what? The Americans?! But I remember you at the same spot, roses in hand, before 1944, waiting for the Russians to arrive and liberate us!," the man exclaims. "Well, they certainly arrived, didn't they?," the friend responds.

Communism in Bulgaria eventually collapsed, in 1989, without the help of any foreign army. In the following decades, traffic through Eagles Bridge grew even heavier, and the prestige of the neighbourhood increased exponentially. Today, some of Sofia's most exclusive properties are located there.

The most astonishing post-1989 transformation of the bridge was political, probably because of its symbolism as a place dedicated to freedom. It could also be because of the open spaces around that can accommodate large crowds, or because it is a gateway into Sofia. Or it could be because of all three combined. Whatever the reason, the result is the same: Eagles Bridge has become the focal point of emblematic political rallies.

On 7 June 1990, days before the elections for a Grand National Assembly that would create the current Bulgarian Constitution, the pro-democracy opposition held a rally at Eagles Bridge. Organisers claimed that a million people attended and were bitterly disappointed when the elections were won by the Bulgarian Socialist Party, or BSP, the heir of the Bulgarian Communist Party. Many Bulgarians are still disappointed with these results. They often quote the huge crowd at the Eagles Bridge rally as evidence that the 1990 elections were "rigged" and that "democracy was abducted" from its cradle, resulting in the amalgamation of murky politics, corruption and organised crime that still define Bulgaria 30 years later.

The 1990 pro-democracy rally

The 1990 pro-democracy rally

In the 1990s and the 2000s Eagles Bridge was silent – if we do not count the increasing traffic. In 2012 it suddenly made news again when Bulgarian environmentalists protesting against overdevelopment at the Black Sea coast blocked it. The Occupy Eagles Bridge action politicised the location, and in the following year two separate protest movements claimed the bridge as their ground. In January 2013 people took to the bridge to protest about excessive utility bills and Boyko Borisov's government's austerity measures. Borisov resigned. In the summer of 2013, the government of Plamen Oresharski, too, faced protestors at Eagles Bridge, after the appointment of Delyan Peevski, then a young and inexperienced MP for the DPS with alleged links to organised crime, as the head of the National Security Agency. The two parties behind Oresharski's government, the BSP and the Movement for Rights and Freedom, or DPS, tried to fight fire with fire by organising their own rally at Eagles Bridge. They ultimately failed. Oresharski resigned in 2014.

In 2020, Bulgarians again flocked to Eagles Bridge, to protest against Boyko Borisov's increasingly corrupt regime.

Optimistically, the events of the 2010s show that Bulgarians have finally parted with the twisted wisdom of that Communist-era joke. Instead of carrying roses and cherishing the hope of yet another liberator from abroad, they gather at Eagles Bridge with the clear realisation that their fate is in their own hands. How successful they will be is an entirely different matter.

While Eagles Bridge has remained virtually unchanged, the names of the boulevards and gardens around it have fluctuated with the ebb and flow of Bulgarian political life in the past 130 years.

The road on which the bridge lies was known in the 19th century as Tsarigradski Road, or King's City Road. The king in question was the Ottoman sultan who ruled over Bulgarians at the time. For Bulgarians his capital, Constantinople, was Tsarigrad, or King's City.

In 1889, the part of Tsarigradski Road that connected Eagles Bridge to the centre of Sofia was renamed King Liberator. This was for the Russian Emperor Alexander II, who fought the 1877-1878 war with the Ottomans.

This was how a bridge to celebrate Bulgaria's freedom found itself as the location that divides a boulevard named after a foreign monarch and a boulevard that led to the capital of another foreign monarch.

After the 1944 Communist coup, Tsarigradski Road was renamed, again after a foreigner. For generations of Sofianites it was known as Lenin Boulevard. Its erstwhile name was restored, as Tsarigradsko Shose Boulevard, after Bulgaria replaced Communism with democracy.

The boulevard that runs along the Perlovska and intersects with King Liberator and Tsarigradsko Shose at Eagles Bridge also had its fair share of name changing. Initially, it was named after the Bulgarian philanthropist Evlogi Georgiev. In 1940, when Hitler convinced Romania to give Southern Dobrudzha to Bulgaria, thus luring Bulgaria into the Axis, grateful Sofia renamed the section of Evlogi Georgiev Boulevard that runs north of Eagles Bridge to Hitler Boulevard. The southbound section of the road was promptly named... Benito Mussolini.

Under Communism, street signs bearing the name of Hitler were replaced with ones that read Klement Gottwald. Who was he? The leader of the Czechoslovakian Communist Party. Mussolini Boulevard was renamed to Bulgaria Boulevard.

Today, the boulevard is named not only after Evlogi Georgiev, but also after his brother, Georgi.

The gardens by Eagles Bridge changed names, too. The one with the Red Army monument is officially called Knyazeska Gradina, or Prince's Garden, a return to its pre-1944 name. Many, however, still use its Communist-era name: Soviet Army Garden. In the 1880s, the garden on the other bank of the Perlovska was commonly known as the Pépinière, or Arboretum. After the birth of Boris, the heir of Bulgarian King Ferdinand I, in 1894, the Pépinière became Prince Boris's Garden. After 1944, the Communist government imposed on it a more politically correct name – Freedom Park. It reverted to Boris's Garden after 1989. 

Read the story of Sofia's other historic bridge, Lions Bridge, here.

NAME GAMES AROUND THE BRIDGE

While Eagles Bridge has remained virtually unchanged, the names of the boulevards and gardens around it have fluctuated with the ebb and flow of Bulgarian political life in the past 130 years.

eagles bridge in winter

The road on which the bridge lies was known in the 19th century as Tsarigradski Road, or King's City Road. The king in question was the Ottoman sultan who ruled over Bulgarians at the time. For Bulgarians his capital, Constantinople, was Tsarigrad, or King's City.

In 1889, the part of Tsarigradski Road that connected Eagles Bridge to the centre of Sofia was renamed King Liberator. This was for the Russian Emperor Alexander II, who fought the 1877-1878 war with the Ottomans.

This was how a bridge to celebrate Bulgaria's freedom found itself as the location that divides a boulevard named after a foreign monarch and a boulevard that led to the capital of another foreign monarch.

After the 1944 Communist coup, Tsarigradski Road was renamed, again after a foreigner. For generations of Sofianites it was known as Lenin Boulevard. Its erstwhile name was restored, as Tsarigradsko Shose Boulevard, after Bulgaria replaced Communism with democracy.

The boulevard that runs along the Perlovska and intersects with King Liberator and Tsarigradsko Shose at Eagles Bridge also had its fair share of name changing. Initially, it was named after the Bulgarian philanthropist Evlogi Georgiev. In 1940, when Hitler convinced Romania to give Southern Dobrudzha to Bulgaria, thus luring Bulgaria into the Axis, grateful Sofia renamed the section of Evlogi Georgiev Boulevard that runs north of Eagles Bridge to Hitler Boulevard. The southbound section of the road was promptly named... Benito Mussolini.

Under Communism, street signs bearing the name of Hitler were replaced with ones that read Klement Gottwald. Who was he? The leader of the Czechoslovakian Communist Party. Mussolini Boulevard was renamed to Bulgaria Boulevard.

Today, the boulevard is named not only after Evlogi Georgiev, but also after his brother, Georgi.

The gardens by Eagles Bridge changed names, too. The one with the Red Army monument is officially called Knyazeska Gradina, or Prince's Garden, a return to its pre-1944 name. Many, however, still use its Communist-era name: Soviet Army Garden. In the 1880s, the garden on the other bank of the Perlovska was commonly known as the Pépinière, or Arboretum. After the birth of Boris, the heir of Bulgarian King Ferdinand I, in 1894, the Pépinière became Prince Boris's Garden. After 1944, the Communist government imposed on it a more politically correct name – Freedom Park. It reverted to Boris's Garden after 1989. 


us4bg-logo-reversal.pngVibrant Communities: Spotlight on Bulgaria's Living Heritage 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


Issue 167-168 America for Bulgaria Foundation Sofia History
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