Religions in Bulgaria

RHODOPE'S 'SACRED TRIANGLE'

Triangles fascinate the imagination. Throughout history, the geometric shape defined by Euclides as three points that do not lie on the same line has been laden with religious and spiritual symbolism. It has also been connected to topography, such as the Egyptians pyramids, the so-called ley lines, and the Bermuda triangle, supposedly marking energy vortices.

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ONE TEMPLE, THREE RELIGIONS

Religion has been with humans since the dawn of Homo Sapiens, an evolutionary trait that appeared with the emergence of developed brains and language, tool use, morality and group living. Gods and deities changed, of course, through the millennia, constantly appearing and disappearing, transforming, adapting and beating the competition.

The constant change of gods and deities does not mean that sacred places changed with the same pace. A single place can be sacred to different faiths.

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CATHOLIC BULGARIA

In 1199, Pope Innocent III wrote a letter to Bulgarian King Kaloyan to offer an union. Bulgaria had just freed itself from two centuries of Byzantine domination and actively sought international recognition of its political and religious independence. Even by the standards of medieval communications Kaloyan was slow to respond. He wrote back to the pope three years later, when it emerged that the Byzantine emperor would not recognise him as king.

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MONASTERY IN THE SKY

Seen from afar, St George's Monastery near Glozhene, by the Hemus highway, appears to challenge the laws of both physics and common sense. The compact monastic complex of wooden residential buildings with drooping eaves stands on the top of a narrow rock pillar.

Reaching the monastery is also a challenge. Signage in Yablanitsa, the nearest town, is non-existent and the GPS will send you to a dead-end. The road itself is a narrow band of crumbling asphalt clinging on to the steep slopes. Pray that you do not meet an oncoming car. In snow, it is impassable.

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FORGOTTEN GLORY OF RED CHURCH

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, are still striking, despite time, neglect and the depredations of those seeking second-hand building materials.

One of them is near Perushtitsa, a town at the northern foot of the Rhodope, more famous as the scene of intense fighting and a massacre during the 1876 April Uprising.

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PREOBRAZHENSKI MONASTERY

The Wheel of Life scene, on the southern wall of the main church, is self-explanatory. Here unfolds the human cycle, the eternal flux mirroring the passing of the seasons. The naivety of the child in spring blends into the confidence of the adult in summer, before settling into the wisdom of the ageing man in his autumn, until it reaches the despair and demise of the old man in his winter; a never-ending cycle put into motion by Death itself.

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CHRIST IN SPACE?

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

If you believe the hype, evidence that aliens visited us in the past, probably inspiring Christianity, exists hidden in plain sight. In a church. In Bulgaria.

A fresco in a 17th century church in Dobarsko village, near Bansko, is said to represent Christ in a space rocket, in the Transfiguration scene.

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BULGARIA'S RUSSIAN CHURCHES

The impact of the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish war in what is now Bulgaria is hard to exaggerate. The nation regained its independence after five centuries of Ottoman domination, and established strong, but often troubled, relations with first imperial and then Soviet Russia, mingling the inevitable gratitude for those who died in the war with the need to have independent foreign, economic and social policy.

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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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PROTESTANT PLOVDIV

Plovdiv is famed for its Roman remains, its old mosques and colourful 19th century Revival Period houses, its tasty food and modern vibe. Yet, there is more of interest in the city, a pleasant surprise that at a first glance seems out of place: a Gothic-style church rising from one of Plovdiv's hills, Sahat Tepe.

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VOODOO CHRISTIANITY

Our sin? We had not lit candles when we entered the church. He, however, did not see any contradiction in the fact that the veneration of "healing" springs is a tradition that Eastern Orthodoxy in Bulgaria has inherited from paganism.

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DAY OF FLOWERS

Palm Sunday in Bulgaria, which is on 24 April this year according to the Eastern Orthodox Church, is an event that offers a glimpse of yet another contradiction in society, between half-forgotten traditions, religion and pure joie de vivre.

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WHAT IS SAMOKOV?

Lined with advertisements for winter sports and down-at-heel sellers of local potatoes, the road to Samokov, about 70 km from Sofia, does not promise much excitement in the town itself, but Samokov is a surprise. The town is much more than the producer of famous potatoes, a gateway to the Borovets ski resort or the starting point for a number of treks in the Rila mountains.

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DECYPHERING RILA MONASTERY

Black-and-white striped arches, technicolor murals of saints and sinners and high mountain peaks filling the horizon: a visit to Rila Monastery is one of Bulgaria's most memorable experiences, and not only because of its UNESCO World Heritage Site status. This place unites stunning landscapes, spirituality, formidable art and architecture, and some interesting stories. It is hardly a surprise that both Bulgarian King Boris III and Irish journalist James Bourchier wished to be buried here, in 1943 and 1920 respectively.

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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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WILLOW SUNDAY OR FLOWER DAY

If your first visit to Bulgaria happens during the Sunday before Easter, a curious sight will attract your attention: long, patient queues form in front of churches in busy cities, quiet villages and popular monasteries. People wait until they eventually reach a table where a priest – sometimes solemn, but usually indifferent – distributes bunches of willow twigs.

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CHURCHES OF ARBANASI

Comfortably spread out on a narrow plateau overlooking the dramatic landscape of Veliko Tarnovo, the traditional village of Arbanasi is something of a conundrum. It is an architectural heritage site, yet it is filled with mansions and hotels in dubious "traditional" style, all built in the past 15 years.

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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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ST GEORGE'S DAY IN POMORIE

Small, insignificant, yet packed with tourists in summer but empty in winter, Pomorie changes completely on 6 May. Then, the townsfolk flock to St George's Monastery, on the outskirts of town, to celebrate the feast of its patron saint.

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