Minorities in Bulgaria

THE GIRLS OF RIBNOVO

They call it the Valley of Pink Pants. But this affectionate nickname of a toponym refers to just one village, set inside a pocket of the western Rhodope: Ribnovo. Ribnovo sits at 1,152 metres above sea level, but this is not the only reason for its image as a bit of a fortress and a destination for the culturally curious. As a friend put it before we visited: Ribnovo is another planet. He was from Breznitsa, a toned-down version of Ribnovo, right across the Mesta Valley, so he should know.

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BULGARIA'S ONLY GERMAN VILLAGE

It starts in Byala Slatina and seems no different to any other road through the Bulgarian countryside. It meanders between fields and from time to time cows wander across it. Byala Slatina itself is not much more exciting. It is one of a series of dull towns north of the Stara Planina whose chief claim to fame is the extreme climate: sweltering hot in summer and freezing in winter. Year-round, you will likely perish of hunger, since only the locals seem to be able to find the restaurants.

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BULGARIA'S ABANDONED SYNAGOGUES

At the end of the Second World War, Bulgaria was the only European country whose Jewish population was bigger than before the war began. Still, by the early 1950s, Bulgaria's 49,000-strong Jewish population has shrunk to about 8,000. Fearful of their future under the new Communist regime, with its repression and nationalisation of businesses and properties, the majority of the Bulgarian Jews decided that they would rather live in the nascent State of Israel.

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ARMENIAN BULGARIA

In the colourful ethnic and cultural mosaic that is Bulgaria, the Armenians occupy a special place. As inhabitants of the larger cities, they have given to this country a number of prominent entrepreneurs, intellectuals and people of arts and letters. Unlike other minorities, Armenians are considered almost as brothers by Bulgarians, because of common traits in their history, particularly under the Ottomans. Armenian restaurants are never empty and many Bulgarians envy the supposed proverbial entrepreneurship of the Armenian.

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OTTOMAN BULGARIA

As you travel through Bulgaria you will inevitably be confronted by remnants of its Ottoman past: mosques, water fountains, bridges, forts, baths and public buildings. It would be strange if you were not – Bulgaria spent 500 years under Ottoman domination. It began with the invasion at the end of the 14th Century, which brought chaos to the Balkans and destroyed the Second Bulgarian Kingdom, and ended for the different parts of the Balkans inhabited by Bulgarians between the 1878 San Stefano Peace Treaty and the 1912-1913 Balkan Wars.

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GYPSY BRIDES MARKET

Socialising with strangers in bars, hanging out with friends and colleagues, going on blind dates, having a dating site account: finding a partner in modern Bulgaria is like anywhere else in the West, but there is a community where people meet prospective spouses in a much more traditional way.

Every year, the Kalaydzhii, a distinct group of Bulgaria Gypsies, organise a Brides Fair.

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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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BRIDES FOR SALE

The moveable feast of Todorovden, or St Todor’s Day, is big in Bulgaria's countryside. The saint is considered the patron of horses, so many villages organise horse races, invariably jolly and colourful events.

For the Gypsies of the Kalaydzhii clan, however, Todorovden means more than just a horse ride. On that day, they come from far and wide to the village of Mogila, near Stara Zagora, to marry off their young sons and daughters.

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NOT IN BLACK-AND-WHITE

There were two reasons for starting on The Turks of Bulgaria, the logical follow-up to A Guide to Ottoman Bulgaria (Vagabond Media, Sofia, 2012 & 2012), and both are personal.

Firstly, there was the naivety with which I, along with many Bulgarians of my generation, perceived what was going on around us in the 1970s and 1980s.

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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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DIVERSE BULGARIA

Exploring the monotonous streets of Bulgarian towns where the overwhelming majority of people are obviously Bulgarian, it may be hard to believe that multiculturalism existed in the Bulgarian lands a long time before the very term was coined in the West. Situated on what used to be a busy crossroads between Europe, Asia and the Mediterranean, Bulgaria attracted settlers, traders and invaders for centuries if not millennia.

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BUYING BRIDES

From a politically correct standpoint, the whole idea of having to sell and buy girls and women is of course completely unacceptable. However, the Brides' Fair at Mogila rarely results in an actual "deal" of this sort. It is nevertheless very colourful, a lot of fun and a must-see for visitors and residents of southern Bulgaria.

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GYPSY PUZZLE

Marching youths are chanting racist slogans while edgy riot police with Darth Vader-like helmets block the streets. Armed with spades, poles and other makeshift means of self-protection, worried residents of Gypsy areas are on the alert, anticipating attacks on their property.

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ANTISEMITISM IN BULGARIA

Unfortunately, Bulgaria has never eschewed the sort of antisemitism prevalent in the rest of Europe in general and Eastern Europe in particular. That said, over the centuries antisemitic sentiments have rarely turned violent. Bulgaria has never witnessed Russian or German-style anti-Jewish pogroms, and even in the darkest years of the Defence of the Nation Act, the state’s enforcement of anti-Jewish regulations was at worst tepid.

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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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TOBACCO ROADS

Being overpowered by the heady aroma of tobacco while travelling through the Rhodope is as easy as buying contraband cigarettes in downtown Sofia. Pull over near a field. Step out of your car and face the endless rows of tall stalks undulating in the soft breeze. Can you feel it? They give off an intense odour that crowds out the usual aromas of thyme, yellowing grass and parched soil.

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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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