UP AT SHIPKA

UP AT SHIPKA

Tue, 09/05/2017 - 13:32

For the modern traveller, the Stara Planina is probably Bulgaria's greatest geographical obstacle: a massive mountain range, crossed by narrow passes which are slow, full of bends, and often closed in winter.

shipka monument.jpg
As many as 894 stairs lead to the Freedom Monument on Shipka. If you want it to go the easy way, there is also a paved road up to the peak

In the past, however, the Stara Planina was an effective natural protection against enemies. One of its major passes, by the 1,326-metre Shipka Peak, is one of the best examples.

The defence of the Shipka Pass was one of the crucial points in the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish war, the conflict which eventually led to Bulgarian independence. Here, between July and December 1877, the outnumbered Russian soldiers and Bulgarian volunteers faced up to the Ottoman forces.

The conflict is little known outside Bulgaria, but it is at the very pith of what contemporary Bulgarians consider a source of both national pride and love for Russia.

What really happened? The Russians crossed the Danube at the end of June 1877 at Svishtov, outsmarting the Ottomans, who were expecting a landing farther east. The Russians then marched south, besieging Pleven, and pushing through the Stara Planina with the aim of reaching the Thracian Plain. From there, the advance towards Constantinople should have been easy.

The Ottomans, however, did not allow this to happen, and blocked the mountain passes.

The two sides clashed at Shipka in July. A small detachment of 5,000 Russians and Bulgarian volunteers, led by General Iosif Gurko, captured the peak and the pass. They faced 30,000 Ottomans, led by General Süleyman Pasha, trying to cross to the north, in a bid to relieve Pleven, join up with the forces which were trapped in the northeast, and ultimately win the war.

Shipka monument

The Freedom Monument is instantly recognisable for any Bulgarian, and both the government and private companies have used it for their means. It was on the one-lev banknotes of Communist Bulgaria, and now it can be seen on both souvenirs and goods, including a brand of toilet paper

 

Outnumbered as they were, the defenders stood their ground. The clashes between the two sides peaked in August, when the slightly increased defenders (5,500 Bulgarians and 2,000 Russians), led by General Nikolai Stoletov, faced 38,000 enemy troops. The defenders also suffered from water and munition shortages; when the Bulgarians run out of bullets at the height of the battles, they hurled rocks, tree trunks and even the bodies of their dead comrades at their attackers. The August clashes were followed by the final Ottoman attempt to take the peak, in September. Following this, the defenders finally got reinforcements, reaching 66,000 men (against 40,000 Ottomans), and the so-called Shipka Waiting began. The two sides held their positions and stalled, even when a harsh winter befell them, claiming the health and the lives of hundreds.

In December Pleven surrendered, and the Russian armies headed towards Sofia. At the end of the month, the defenders of Shipka attacked the Ottomans, and won. Two months later, on 3 March 1878, an armistice was signed between the two empires. The war was over.

During the battles for the Shipka Pass, about 13,500 defenders (who included Russians, Bulgarians, Ukrainians, Poles, Finns) were killed or wounded. The victims on the Ottoman side included 24,000 killed or wounded, and 36,000 captured.

The defence of the Shipka Pass quickly became a foundation stone in the Bulgarian national consciousness, and for a reason. It was an epic encounter, a David against Goliath type of clash – and Bulgarian men played a crucial role in it. The Opalchentsi, or Bulgarian volunteers, were a force of 10,000 men attached to the Russian army during the war, serving under Russian officers. Initially, the Russian military was sceptical about the Bulgarians' capabilities, as their enthusiasm outshone their military expertise. However, their bravery proved crucial for the successful defence of the Shipka Pass and demonstrated that the Bulgarians were more than passive victims of Ottoman cruelty waiting for the Russians to liberate them. The Opalchentsi had actively fought for Bulgaria's liberty, and had prevailed against all odds.

Shipka monument

The Russian monastery near Shipka village was built in memory of the fallen for the defence of the pass

 

Soon after the battles for the Shipka Pass, the Opchentsi at Shipka entered national lore. Poet Ivan Vazov penned an ode, "The Opalchentsi on the Shipka", where he compared their bravery and sacrifice to that of the 300 Spartans at the Thermopylae Pass. Dimitar Gyudzhenov, an artist who specialised in historical paintings, created A Battle for Shipka. Both pieces focused on the moment when defenders, in their desperate aim to push back the attackers, used as weapons whatever was around. Both the painting and the poem are a regular feature in text books. Bulgarian children also have to learn the long ode by heart, although few adults remember more than the most significant lines.

The reverence, however, sometimes turns to kitsch. In 2007, during President Georgi Parvanov's official reception for 3 March, Bulgaria's national holiday, a cake replica of A Battle for Shipka – with dead bodies and all – was served.
The first monuments to the defenders of the Shipka Pass appeared as soon as the war was over. They were humble and were erected at the sites of particularly fierce clashes.

In 1920, the surviving Opalchentsi decided that a larger, unifying monument to freedom should be erected on Shipka Peak. A nation-wide fundraising campaign began. The first stone of the monument was laid in 1922, and construction ended in 1930. Thousands, King Boris III included, attended the official inauguration in 1934.

The Shipka Monument is still there, a 31.5-metre stone pyramid with a massive bronze lion: one of the most recognisable sights in Bulgaria. A marble sarcophagus in the monument preserves the remains of some Bulgarian and Russian soldiers. The floors above are used as an exhibition area.

Shipka monument

The stairs, with reliefs added for propaganda effect during Communism

 

The complex was enlarged under Communism. Reliefs and poems were added, promoting the perceived continuity between the Russian Imperial Army, which liberated Bulgaria from the Ottomans, and the Red Army, who entered Bulgaria in 1944, prompting the Communist coup.

The Shipka Monument is the centre of commemorative events, historical reenactment shows included, on 3 March and on 25-26 August, the day of the fiercest battle. Bulgarian politicians are a regular feature at these gatherings, and in 2003 Russian president Vladimir Putin attended.

The memorials on and around the main peak cover several localities and 120 hectares, and number 26 monuments, as well as restored artillery batteries and positions, and huts used by the defenders.

Another monument to those who died in the defence of the pass is a monastery by Shipka village, south of the pass. It was built on the cusp of the 20th century, with Russian and Bulgarian donations, and is the final resting place for about 9,000 men who died in the 1877-1878 war. Its beautiful, Russian-style church was consecrated in 1902. Until 1934, the monastery was a Russian property. Stalin gave it to the Bulgarians on condition that… no Russian emigre would be allowed to sit on its board. 

Shipka monument

 A number of smaller memorials dot the area around the Shipka Peak. They are dedicated to different regiments or defence positions

 

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.

Issue 131-132 America for Bulgaria Foundation The Stara Planina Bulgarian history
0 comments

Add new comment

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.
CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
7 + 2 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.

Discover More

lyudmila-zhivkova-mural.jpg
WHO WAS LYUDMILA ZHIVKOVA?
Her father's daughter who imposed her own mediocrity on Bulgaria's culture? Or a forbearing politician who revived interest in Bulgaria's past and placed the country on the world map? Or a quirky mystic? Or a benefactor to the arts?

68dbb6f574e242b2efdd826937d384dd_XL.jpg
CATHOLIC BULGARIA
In 1199, Pope Innocent III wrote a letter to Bulgarian King Kaloyan to offer an union.

8f4f3ce603e0a9c7daf6b5c891a6b7b3_XL.jpg
RHODOPE IN FULL BLOSSOM
The Rhodope mountains have an aura of an enchanted place no matter whether you visit in summer, autumn or winter. But in springtime there is something in the Bulgarian south that makes you feel more relaxed, almost above the ground.

76a362b0e635f2bd7b84d5e7290d087b_XL.jpg
BIZARRE BULGARIA
There are many ways to categorise and promote Bulgaria's heritage: traditional towns and villages, Thracian rock sanctuaries, nature, sun and fun on the seaside, and so on and so forth.

8972e86d8b8aa9ca49225ef0904974cc_XL.jpg
KARLOVO
Karlovo is one of those places where size does not equal importance.

cba2911ca1c40028fa90545f6470ee1a_XL.jpg
SILENCE OF SHARDS
Pavlikeni, a town in north-central Bulgaria, is hardly famous for its attractions, and yet this small, quiet place is the home of one of the most interesting ancient Roman sites in Bulgaria: a villa rustica, or a rural villa, with an incredibly well-preserv

d888bb3ac0932627f0b18f6b52f06d68_XL.jpg
BULGARIAN EASTER
How to celebrate like locals without getting lost in complex traditions

tryavna.jpg
BULGARIA'S TOP 10 SMALL TOWNS
Small-town Bulgaria is a diverse place. Some of the towns are well known to tourists while others are largely neglected by outsiders.

matochina fotress.jpg
BORDER ZONE VILLAGE
Of the many villages in Bulgaria that can be labeled "a hidden treasure," few can compete with Matochina. Its old houses are scattered on the rolling hills of Bulgaria's southeast, overlooked by a mediaeval fortress.

342d45fc5f9732a0c3c741db143757a7_L_0.jpg
WHO WAS GEO MILEV?
Poet who lost an eye in the Great War, changed Bulgarian literature - and was assassinated for his beliefs

devils bridge.jpg
SEEING DEVIL IN DEVIL'S BRIDGE
In previous times, when information signs of who had built what were yet to appear on buildings of interest, people liberally filled the gaps with their imagination.

Kremikovtsi Metallurgy Plant.jpg
URBEX BG, PART 2
If anything defines the modern Bulgarian landscape, it is the abundance of recent ruins left from the time when Communism collapsed and the free market filled the void left by planned economy.