by Dimana Trankova

Words and images for times long gone by


Overcrowded, overdeveloped, simply put overwhelming: in summertime, Sozopol is the definition of a place you must avoid if you are looking for some semblance of tranquillity at the Bulgarian Black Sea coast. Off season, the town is more bearable, but reminders of the tourist industry are everywhere. In the picturesque old quarter, clinging to a narrow rocky peninsula, there is hardly a lane free from signs advertising rooms to let, or restaurants with plastic window frames closed for winter, or hip art galleries. The new quarter and Sozopol's environs are even more depressing – there is barely a cliff or a cove that has been spared the construction of new holiday properties, many of which obscenely ugly.

A new book, Sozopol in Words and Images, is a surprising look back at the town before tourism and overdevelopment. Its author, photographer and writer Michael Zaimov, has collected detailed, intriguing and often moving photographs of 20th century Sozopol. Together with the short accompanying texts, they paint a vivid picture of a town and a community that are no more, and that even the current residents scarcely remember.

Traditional houses

By the early 20th century the descendant of a thriving ancient Greek colony, Apollonia Pontica (established in the 6th century BC), Sozopol showed little material evidence of its glorious past. Gone was the splendid temple of Apollo, a building so distinguished that the invading Romans eagerly plundered it. What remained were the Sozopolians, a community of poor Greek fishermen and net-weavers, and the Greek toponyms that brought name and character to even the tiniest rocks and coves of the rugged coastline.

King Boris III gives a speech during the laying of the foundation stone of the Fishermen School, 1925. Nine years later the school had to close down due to "insufficient fish resources in the Black Sea"

The old photos show the life of this vibrant community with its own festivals and rites, its dialect and livelihoods, its culture and education. Life revolved around the seasonal migrations of Black Sea mackerel, now vanished from the sea, and of bonito and sprat. Women were skillful net-weavers while men sailed elegant vessels that have now also disappeared, replaced by motor boats. Travellers to and from Burgas would travel by ship instead of by road, and lush vineyards surrounded the town, producing delicious wine. These vineyards are no more as well, and in their place are now hotels. Over a dozen windmills – crooked and rickety, stood on the shores, filling the air with the creaking of their sails.

Electricity poles and the Fishermen's School: two signs of modernity in Old Sozopol

The emblematic Sozopol houses were far from the romantic image of idyllic residences with projecting bay windows looking towards the sea. The reality was harsher, and smellier. There was no sanitation. The owners often kept their livestock, their wine barrels and even their boats in their ground-floor rooms. The wooden second floors often look uncomfortable and constricted, and even dangerous to live in. Their charm was, in fact, the book's author informs us, the product of the nascent tourist industry in the early 20th century.

Today, Sozopol has sanitation, but only two of its old houses have been preserved in a state to qualify as monuments of culture.

One of Sozopol's many windmills

The Greeks are no more. They were forced to leave after a set of post-1918 treaties between Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey provided for the so-called exchange of populations. Bulgarians living outside Bulgaria had to abandon their property and relocate to their ethnic homeland, and Greeks and Turks had to do likewise. This was a brutal but efficient way to stop the three countries from starting yet another war. It was masterminded by the Norwegian explorer and statesman, Fridtjof Nansen. But it also bore a great human cost.

As a result of the exchange of populations, Sozopol suddenly lost residents who had lived there for almost 100 generations. The government replaced them with Bulgarians from the interior, people who had little or no connection with the sea and maritime culture, rites and habits. They had to adapt to the new environment, and so they did. To some extent.

Net-weaving was a complicated craft – some nets are good for garfish and others for turbot

A building on St Kirik islet, in the Sozopol harbour, symbolises this change. The Fishermen School was built in the 1920s to provide a vocational education to young Bulgarians. Under the patronage of the Bulgarian king, and with no fees, it taught modern seafaring methods and technologies.

This school was not just a school, however. It was a covert operation by the Bulgarian government to bypass one of the most humiliating stipulations imposed on defeated Bulgaria by the Neuilly Treaty of 1919. According to its terms, Bulgaria had to completely demilitarise. It had to decommission its naval and air forces, and was banned from acquiring modern weapons. Compulsory military service was to be abolished and the armed forces of the entire country were not to exceed 33,000 men, including the police.

Both before and during Communism, local fishermen would hunt dolphins and kill them en masse. Some groups even specialised in catching them. Dolphins were literally hunted to oblivion until 1965, when shooting them was banned and they were listed as an endangered species

Bulgaria complied, but secretly began a series of initiatives to ensure that it would not completely lose its military tradition. The Sozopol school was one of these. It provided not only a seafaring education, but also hosted the cadets of the officially discontinued Navy Academy in Varna.

In 1927, a quay was built, connecting St Kirik to the mainland. The school opened in 1930, but a couple of years later a media outcry that the Black Sea did not have enough fish to sustain a fishing industry forced its closure. In 1934, the Marine Engineering School (the former Navy Academy) moved into the complex on St Kirik island, but just seven years later the Navy Academy reopened in Varna.

Under Communism, it was easier to travel from Burgas to Sozopol with the regular hydrofoil boat, called kometa, or comet, rather than by car. The service was discontinued after the collapse of Communism 

After 1944, the island became a military base, and remained off-limits to civilians until 2007, when the Ministry of Defence closed the Navy base. So far, however, the island continues to be forbidden to the general public. The building of the old Fishermen School, a magnificent example of 1920s architecture, stands abandoned, exposed to the elements and crumbling.

Communism changed life in Sozopol as much as anywhere else in Bulgaria. Fishermen were organised into state-run companies and started to compete to catch more fish than that envisaged in the so-called Five-Year Plans. These pillars of the Communist economy aimed, and usually failed, to predict how much fish, needles, tractors, toilet paper, children's clothing and so on the Bulgarian economy, its citizens and its trade partners would need.

The first organised holidaymakers arrived in Sozopol in the 1920s, when the fashion for sunbathing and swimming reached Bulgaria

Has Sozopol changed for the better? When looking at the photographs selected for Sozopol in Words and Images, you are free to make up your own mind.

Sozopol in Words and Images can be ordered from the publisher, Paradox, here


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