by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Historical site in the Strandzha attracts crowds in late summer

The monument at Petrova Niva area is the focal point of the August commemorations of the 1903 uprising

Men dressed in early 20th century military uniforms, patriotic songs and speeches, lots of banners and grilled meat stalls: if you crave attending a mass event after the end of the Covid-19 travel restrictions, consider visiting Petrova Niva in the third weekend of August.

Marked with a sombre stone monument at a picturesque bend of the Veleka river, Petrova Niva is connected to a heroic and traumatic event in Bulgarian history, the St Elijah-Transfiguration Uprising.

To understand what the St Elijah-Transfiguration Uprising of 1903 was about one needs a more general look at the wider Balkans context at the end of the 19th century.

The 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War resulted in a part of the Bulgarian lands being liberated from 500 years of Ottoman domination. A new statelet appeared on the map of Europe: the Principality of Bulgaria. Its boundaries were roughly today's northern Bulgaria, including the Plain of Sofia. However, the remainder of the territories inhabited by ethnic Bulgarians remained subordinate to the High Porte. This was the autonomous province of Eastern Roumelia – roughly today's southern Bulgaria centred on Plovdiv. Macedonia, Aegean and Eastern Thrace, large parts of the Rhodope and the Strandzha mountains remained within the Ottoman Empire. In 1885 the Principality of Bulgaria and Eastern Rumelia united without a war.

The area teems with greenery and wildlife

The area teems with greenery and wildlife

The unification of the two signalled to all those Bulgarians outside of Bulgaria proper that the new state would continue to expand. In 1893 in Salonika, or today's Thessaloniki in Greece, where a significant number of ethnic Bulgarians lived, an organisation calling itself VMORO, or Internal Macedonian-Adrianopolitan Revolutionary Organisation, was set up. Its purpose was to engage in combat with the Ottomans, liberate Macedonia and Eastern Thrace, and join Bulgaria.

Ten years later the repercussions in the wake of a failed uprising in Gorna Dzhumaya, today's Blagoevgrad, ignited the ethnic Bulgarians in Macedonia and Eastern Thrace. At the beginning of 1903 the VMORO decided to start an uprising on 20 July, or 2 August in the Gregorian calendar: the high day of St Elijah. At the end of June 1903 VMORO's activists from the area of Adrianople, today's Edirne in Turkey, met in the Strandzha and decided to start their part of the uprising on the high day of the Transfiguration: 6 August, or 19 August in the Gregorian calendar. Hence the St Elijah-Transfiguration name.

Importantly, the meeting in the Strandzha occurred at Petrova Niva.

In the course of about 20 days the rebels from the Strandzha gained the upper hand. They declared a Strandzha republic, spanning from Malko Tarnovo to Tsarevo.

A battle in the St Elijah-Transfiguration Uprising of 1903 took place in Brashlyan Village

A battle in the St Elijah-Transfiguration Uprising of 1903 took place in Brashlyan Village

It did not take long for the Ottomans to return with a vengeance. The rebels were heavily outnumbered by Ottoman forces. They were defeated by the autumn of 1903. Dozens of villages were torched, hundreds of houses were destroyed and thousands of people lost their lives. About 30,000 refugees arrived in Bulgaria.

From today's standpoint the St Elijah-Transfiguration Uprising started too early, was not well-conceived and failed to inspire a massive turnout. Yet the collective memory of the failed uprising continues to live on in the Strandzha and is an important part of the local identity. There is a song, which starts with the words "A clear moon is now rising..." It describes the last battle of a few rebels besieged near the village of Brashlyan. It is now the self-styled anthem of the Strandzha. Ironically, the melody had been borrowed from a popular Ottoman song which was in fact... a love song.

Petrova Niva with its monument to the St Elijah-Transfiguration Uprising of 1903 has been a place for veneration for generations. The monument was erected in 1953.

When travelling to Petrova Niva, you will first encounter a stunning meander of the Veleka River

When travelling to Petrova Niva, you will first encounter a stunning meander of the Veleka River

The August commemorations at Petrova Niva usually attract huge crowds. The Bulgarian President often attends. The spirit is unmistakably patriotic and with recent events concerning North Macedonia's EU membership, can even turn revisionist. However, the event is a good time to mingle with Bulgarians you will hardly meet at the cafés and bars in Sofia and Plovdiv.

If you are not into local politics or history, Petrova Niva deserves a visit anytime in the year for its location in a pristine corner of the Strandzha, in a maze of quiet meadows, thick oak forests and Veleka's beautiful meanders. 


    Commenting on www.vagabond.bg

    Vagabond Media Ltd requires you to submit a valid email to comment on www.vagabond.bg to secure that you are not a bot or a spammer. Learn more on how the company manages your personal information on our Privacy Policy. By filling the comment form you declare that you will not use www.vagabond.bg for the purpose of violating the laws of the Republic of Bulgaria. When commenting on www.vagabond.bg please observe some simple rules. You must avoid sexually explicit language and racist, vulgar, religiously intolerant or obscene comments aiming to insult Vagabond Media Ltd, other companies, countries, nationalities, confessions or authors of postings and/or other comments. Do not post spam. Write in English. Unsolicited commercial messages, obscene postings and personal attacks will be removed without notice. The comments will be moderated and may take some time to appear on www.vagabond.bg.

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

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.

Discover More

Squirrels and small children frequent unkempt alleys under towering oak and beech trees; а romantic wooden gazebo is often decorated with balloons forgotten after some openair birthday party; melancholic weeping willows hang over an empty artif

In 1965, Dimitar Kovachev, a biology teacher from the town of Asenovgrad, was on a field trip to Ezerovo village.

How often do you hum, while driving or doing chores, Uriah Heep's song July Morning? Is it on your Spotify?

Bulgaria has its fair share of intriguing caves, from the Devil's Throat underground waterfall to Prohodna's eyes-like openings and the Magura's prehistoric rock art.

Owing to its geological history, the Rhodope mountain range – in contrast to the nearby Rila and Pirin – lacks any impressive Alpine-style lakes. However, where nature erred, man stepped in.

"We are fascists, we burn Arabs": the youngsters start chanting as soon as they emerge from the metro station and leave the perimeter of its security cameras.

The names of foreigners, mainly Russians, are common across the map of Sofia – from Alexandr Dondukov and Count Ignatieff to Alexey Tolstoy (a Communist-era Soviet writer not to be confused with Leo Tolstoy) who has a whole housing estate named after him.

Picturesque old houses lining a narrow river and tiny shops selling hand-made sweets, knives and fabrics: The Etara open air museum recreates a charming, idealised version of mid-19th century Bulgaria.

Christ was an alien. Or if He was not, then four centuries ago there were UFOs hovering over what is now southwestern Bulgaria.

Unlike other countries in Central and Eastern Europe, which removed, stashed away or demolished most remnants of their Communist past as early as the 1990s, Bulgaria is a curiosity.

Agroup of friends meet each summer at the seaside, a small community who know one another so well that boredom becomes inevitable, and so do internal conflicts. And death.

Descendants of millennia-old rites, the scary kukeri, or mummers, are the best known face of Bulgarian carnival tradition. Gabrovo's carnival is its modern face: fun, critical, and colourful.