Religions in Bulgaria

14 FEBURARY DILEMMA

The question "What to do on St Valentine's Day?" can be frustrating. For those in a relationship, there is the what-to-buy-this-year horror, while for some singles there is the feeling of loneliness. The anti-globalists become incensed at the heart-shaped mania that is taking over the world and the cynics point to the billions of dollars generated by the sales of romantic lingerie, chocolate and holidays. It is hard to deny that most of the red or pink trivia sold everywhere before 14 February – plus the music on the radio and the movies on the TV – are outrageously kitschy.

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RIBNOVO WEDDINGS

Muddy streets, soulless buildings and stunning Rhodope landscapes: at first glance, Ribnovo is like every other Pomak village in the western part of the mountains. However, Ribnovo is like no other village in the Rhodope, or indeed in Bulgaria. What gives the village vitality and a sense of colour, even in the dullest months of the year, are its people.

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PLOVDIV TEMPLES PART 3

Strolling through the maze of cobbled streets and old buildings on the three hills that comprise the historical core of Plovdiv is an easy way to experience the long and at times turbulent past of the city. The stones under your feet are slippery and worn out by generations of citizens. Grander and smaller ancient Thracian and Roman buildings appear here and there, rubbing stones with medieval fortifications and the grand mansions of the 18-19th centuries with their bay windows, bent eaves and colourful walls.

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PLOVDIV TEMPLES PART 2

Plovdiv's claim to be the Bulgaria's most diverse and cosmopolitan city can be spread not only over the peoples who used to live, or are still living, in it. The diversity covers also the heavens above. A short walk round the historical core of the city leads you to temples of many different religions and denominations.

Some of them have been here for centuries, other have resurfaced after long periods of sometimes forced hibernation. And, of course, there are the recent "immigrants."

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PLOVDIV TEMPLES PART 1

Inhabited since Neolithic times, Plovdiv claims to be one of Europe's oldest cities. As the millennia passed, people were not the only inhabitants of the seven hills by the Maritsa River and their environs. Gods also lived here, brought and nurtured by generations of worshipers. Among them are the long forgotten deities of long forgotten Neolithic peoples, the enigmatic Thracian Rider and a local deity with the name of Kendrisos, plus a host of divine immigrants, including the Greek Apollo and Asclepius, the deified emperors of Rome, and the Semitic Baal and Sabazios of Asia Minor.

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THE RED CHURCH

Leaving aside St Sofia in the capital and what has remained of the metropolitan church in Nesebar, traces from the early Byzantine era in Bulgaria are scarce and little known. They do exist, however: forgotten remnants of the time when the Eastern Roman Empire was trying to hold back the invasions of the Barbarians in the Balkans. Most are nothing more than low crumbling walls, almost invisible in the undergrowth and interesting only to archaeologists. Others, however, despite time, neglect and the depredations of those seeking second-hand building materials still pose a striking sight.

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DEMIR BABA TEKKE

If you are looking for a place in Bulgaria that combines nature, architecture and spirituality, Demir Baba's tekke will be among your top choices.

The saint's stone tekke, or shrine, lies at the foot of the cliffs of Kamenen Rid. Dense woods rustle around Demir Baba's tomb, an object so exquisite that from afar it looks like a toy that you could hold in your hand.

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BOYANA CHURCH

Shivering in the biting cold of the Boyana Church, you look at the 13th Century portrait of Desislava and you wonder if this image, painted 100 years before Giotto revolutionised medieval art, is truly the earliest Renaissance portrait in the world, or has Desislava (and the tourists around you) fallen victim of hype?

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SOFIA'S TEMPLES PART 4

Religion is part of everyday life in the capital city of Bulgaria – and part of the city landscape. Sometimes it stands apart in the impressive bodies of cathedrals or tall minarets. Other times it blends in with the surroundings in an inconspicuous gray building, with small notices inviting passers-by to come in and listen to an Evangelist sermon or get some White Brotherhood literature. Diversity is just below the surface in a complex mix of cultural and ethnic influences. To get to know Sofia's temples is to dip into the millennia-old history of Bulgarian lands.

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SOFIA'S TEMPLES, PART 3

They are all over Sofia; some with shining domes, some old and crumbling, and some housed in inconspicuous grey buildings. Through the many places of worship in Sofia you can trace back the history of the city for nearly two millennia, although many were only built during the last 150 years and bear the marks of wars and Communism.

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SOFIA'S TEMPLES PART 2

They are all over Sofia; some with shining domes, some old and crumbling, and some housed in inconspicuous grey buildings. Through the many places of worship in Sofia you can trace back the history of the city for nearly two millennia, although many were only built during the last 150 years and bear the marks of wars and Communism.

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SOFIA'S TEMPLES, PART 1

They are all over Sofia; some with shining domes, some old and crumbling, and some housed in inconspicuous grey buildings. Through the many places of worship in Sofia you can trace back the history of the city for nearly two millennia, although many were only built during the last 150 years and bear the marks of wars and Communism.

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BULGARIAN EASTER

"We are Christians and we have to obey our Boss's orders," Prime Minister Boyko Borisov said in his unique style at the end of last year, while doing something that had not happened in this country for decades. He made Good Friday an official bank holiday.

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WHO ARE THE POMAKS?

The wind of change does not blow with equal force everywhere. When you replace your old Walkman with the latest iPod, you make a small change in your standard of living. When someone who is not Spanish or Greek begins using Mañana or σιγά σιγά when talking business, this is a change in their way of thinking. However, when you change your religion, this fundamentally alters your whole life – the new religion is a new way of viewing the world.

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FAITH AND ROSES

You can almost feel the sap rising in the grass, flowers and foliage in the meadow. Spring is at its height and summer is just around the corner. The crust of the spit-roasted lamb is brown. The fat dripping onto the flames returns to the air as aromatic smoke, which mixes with the hubbub produced by the crowd who have gathered in the open to celebrate 6 May in the same way as their ancestors did – with songs, dancing and roast lamb.

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SAINT TRIFON WHO?

No matter where you are – Los Angeles, London, Paris, Moscow, Bangkok or Tokyo – 14 February is celebrated in the same way. Crossing cultural and religious boundaries, Valentine's Day everywhere includes red hearts, chocolate, champagne and Mariah Carey singing "Without You."

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WANTING TO DO THE HAJJ, BUT ENDING UP WITH A HADZH INSTEAD

A cross from Jerusalem or a phial of water from the Jordan: these are the most likely souvenirs from the Holy Land that you will get if a Bulgarian friend of yours goes to Jerusalem for Easter. Whatever feelings you may have about such kinds of presents, bear in mind that you should congratulate the one who gives them to you with Chestito hadzhiystvo and address him at least once with "hadzhi".

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MERRY CHRISTMAS

The Bulgarian name for Christmas, Koleda, still bears traces of the holiday's pagan origin: the Roman festival Kalendae, celebrated on 25 December, the day when the new sun was born. Despite some minor differences, both Anglican and Orthodox Christmases have gradually lost their religious significance. They have been commercialised and, for many, are now just another excuse for a shopping binge.

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TO VEIL OR NOT TO VEIL

"She probably studies medicine," a young man says to his friend as their eyes appreciatively follow the pretty girl in a headscarf as she crosses Dzhumayata, Plovdiv's central square.

This presumption is probably correct as the Medical University in Plovdiv attracts students from Turkey who don't feel they can comply with the ban on wearing headscarves in educational establishments in their native country.

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