PASS OF FREEDOM

PASS OF FREEDOM

Mon, 07/30/2018 - 12:56

For Bulgarians, Shipka Pass epitomises national liberation struggle

shipka pass.jpg

There are places in the history of each nation that represent a turning point of events. For the Americans, these are Liberty Bell and Gettysburg. For the British there are Stamford Bridge and Waterloo. For the French there is the Bastille, and for the Germans, the Brandenburg Gate and the Berlin Wall. The Greeks have the Thermopylae, and the Italians the Rubicon.

The Bulgarians have the Shipka Pass.

Located at an altitude of 1,326-metre, the Shipka Pass is a major route across the Stara Planina mountains. It is topped by a 31.5-metre stone monument with a massive bronze lion: one of the most recognisable sights from Bulgaria. The monument is there to remind of the fact that on the Shipka Pass, between July and December 1877, Russian army and Bulgarian volunteers stood up to outnumbering Ottoman forces.

The defence of the Shipka Pass was one of the crucial points of the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish war, the conflict which would eventually lead to the restoration of Bulgaria.

The Russians had crossed the Danube at the end of June 1877 and then forced their way south, besieging Pleven and pushing through the Stara Planina. Their aim was to reach the Thracian Plain. From there, the advance towards Constantinople should have been easy.

The Ottomans, however, blocked the mountain passes.

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

The outnumbered defenders stood their ground. The clashes peaked in August, when the slightly enlarged defence forces (5,500 Bulgarians and 2,000 Russians), led by General Nikolai Stoletov, faced 38,000 enemies. The defenders suffered from water and munition shortages. When Bulgarians ran out of bullets in the heist of the battles, they used rocks, tree trunks and even the bodies of their dead comrades.

Shipka Monument

Initially, the 8-metre statue of a lion was supposed to be on top of the Shipka monument

 

In September, the Ottomans made their final attempt to take the pass. But the drama on the Shipka Pass was far from over. The defenders were reinforced, reaching 66,000 men against 40,000 Ottomans, and then the so-called Shipka Waiting began. The two sides held their positions and waited, even while a harsh winter befell them, claiming hundreds of lives.

In December, Pleven surrendered and the Russian army headed to Sofia, securing another route to the Thracian Plain. At the end of the month, the defenders of Shipka attacked the Ottomans, and won.

On 3 March 1878, a peace treaty was signed. The war was over.

The casualties in the battles for the Shipka Pass number 13,500 killed or wounded defenders (Russians, Bulgarians, Ukrainians, Poles, Finns) and 24,000 killed or wounded Ottomans. An additional 36,000 Ottoman soldiers were taken prisoner.
In a matter of years after 1878 the defence of the Shipka Pass became a foundation stone for the Bulgarian national consciousness. It was epic, a David against Goliath type of clash – and Bulgarians played a crucial part of it. The Opalchentsi, or Bulgarian volunteers, were a force of about 10,000 men, who had joined the Russian army during the war. Initially, the Russian military was sceptical about the Opalchentsi as most of them were inexperienced. Their bravery, however, proved crucial in those first, hard months on the Shipka Pass. The Opalchentsi also proved that the Bulgarians were not meek victims of Ottoman cruelty who had waited for the Russians to liberate them. They actively fought for Bulgaria's liberty, prevailing against all odds.

The first monuments on the Shipka Pass appeared as soon as the war was over. They were humble and at places of particularly fierce battles.

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

Shipka Monument

19th century guns overlook the Lower Balkan Plain. Once at the peak, one begins to realise the strategic importance of the pass, and the difficulty  to take it and to defend it

 

Inside the stone pyramid, a marble sarcophagus preserves the remains of some Bulgarian and Russian soldiers.

The complex was enlarged under Communism. Reliefs and poems were added, promoting the continuity between the Russian imperial army, which liberated Bulgaria from the Ottomans, and the Red Army, which entered Bulgaria in 1944, leading to the 9 September Communist coup.

The 26 memorials as well as the restored artillery batteries and positions and huts used by the defenders at the Shipka Peak are in several localities on 300 acres.

The heroic stand of the Opalchentsi at Shipka also entered national art. Poet Ivan Vazov penned an ode where he compared their bravery and sacrifice to the 300 Spartans at the Thermopylae Pass. Even today Bulgarian children have to learn the long ode by heart, although few adults remember more than the most significant lines. Dimitar Gyudzhenov, an artist who specialised in historical paintings, created 

A Battle for Shipka, one of his most famous work.

The reverence, however, sometimes turns to kitsch. In 2007, at President Georgi Parvanov's official party for 3 March, the national holiday, a cake replica of Gyudzhenov's A Battle for Shipka – dead bodies and all – was prepared – and served to incredulous guests.

On 3 March and 11 August, the day of the most fierce battle, the Shipka Monument becomes the focal point of commemorative events and historical reenactment shows. Bulgarian politicians make sure to be seen there, and in 2003, Russian President Vladimir Putin attended.

Another monument to those who died at the pass is a monastery by Shipka village, south of the pass. It was built at the beginning of the 20th century with Russian and Bulgarian donations. About 9,000 men who died in the 1877-1878 war were buried there. Its beautiful, Russian style church was consecrated in 1902. Until 1934, the monastery was a Russian property. Then Stalin granted it to the Bulgarians on condition no Russian emigre would be included in its management.

Shipka Monument

A Bulgarian lion breaking the chains of slavery, a detail from the stairs to the Shipka monument, an add-on under Communism

 

Shipka Monument

Humbler monuments dot the environs of the major edifice

 

Shipka Monument

The Shipka monument is a stopover in the itinerary of every travelling Bulgarian

 

Shipka Monument

A detail from the bronze doors of the Shipka Monument

 

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 142 America for Bulgaria Foundation The Stara Planina Bulgarian history

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 https://vagabond.bg/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.

0 comments

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.
CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Image CAPTCHA
Enter the characters shown in the image.

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.