Ottoman heritage

MOSQUE OF LEGENDS

Bulgaria's Ottoman heritage is the most neglected part of the rich past of this nation. This is a result of the trauma of five centuries spent under Ottoman domination additionally fanned up under Communism and up until this day. From the 1390s to the 1870s, Bulgarians were subjects of an empire that, at the height of its power, stretched over three continents. Many of those years were peaceful and allowed Bulgarians to look after their families, flocks and fields, to build businesses and to carve a place, however limited, in a Muslim-dominated society.

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'ALLO 'ALLO?

Today Bulgaria, reportedly, has one of the best Internet networks in the world. This may be hard to believe because the country connected to the World Wide Web rather late, in 1989, and only got its first website in 1993.

When you look back in time to see how Bulgaria adopted other means of modern communication technology, you will recognise a pattern – after a reluctant adoption, an innovation quickly becomes ubiquitous, mastered by an enthusiastic younger generation. The story of how electric telegraphy arrived in the Bulgarian lands is a case in point.

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BULGARIA'S TOP MOSQUES

Sunni Islam is Bulgaria's second largest religion after Eastern Orthodoxy. In the centuries that have passed since its arrival with the Ottoman Turks in the second half of the 14th century its adherents have created some stunning and impressive mosques – though many have been lost to time, dereliction or active destruction, particularly after Bulgaria was liberated from the Ottomans in 1878.

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SHABLA: HIDDEN GEM TUCKED BETWEEN SEA AND LAND

Some cannot get enough of its beaches, beauty spots and tourist amenities, while others lament that much of its calm and pristine nature has been lost to overdevelopment. History lovers point out that the ancient Thracians, listed among the forefathers of modern Bulgarians, were masters of the choppy waters of the Black Sea long before the Greeks arrived and settled along its coastline, in the 7th-5th centuries BC. Foodies can talk at length about the superior taste of its bonito, turbot and sprat.

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BULGARIA'S WONDROUS BRIDGES

With their ingenuity, some bridges puzzle, and those you will find in Bulgaria are no exception. Some of them are centuries-old, while others are relatively new. What unites them is their beauty and their strength to withstand the passage of time, the burden of traffic and the power of swollen rivers. Many of them also come with a gloomy legend or two. Here is a selection of some of the bridges in Bulgaria that merit more than a single visit and an Instagram post.

DEVIL'S BRIDGE

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THE DANUBE

Hiding in plain sight is one of the best ways to avoid attention. There is a region in Bulgaria that has achieved that, although not quite intentionally. The Danube region is a treasure trove for visitors, yet few travellers venture along the 470-kilometre stretch from Vidin to Silistra that defines the greater part of Bulgaria's border with Romania. This is in sharp contrast to the popularity of the Danube as a tourist destination in Central Europe.

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RAIDERS OF TREASURE MOUND

Large and small, isolated or in groups, you will see mounds all over Bulgaria: atop rolling hills and amid farming fields, by old village graveyards and motorways, even on the outskirts of Sofia. The ancient Thracians who lived in the Bulgarian lands between the 1st millennium BC and the 6th century AD created most of them. They buried their dead there, interring noblemen and women with expensive personal possessions. In many cases the tombs were very impressive, such as those in Kazanlak, Aleksandrovo and Sboryanovo.

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FORTIFIED BULGARIA, PART 2

Such examples are the fortification structures excavated at a salt-producing town near Provadiya and a fortified settlement now in Ticha Dam, near Shumen, both belonging to the 5th millennium BC. Archaeologists interpret these two sites as early evidence for a stratified society whose wealth and resources attracted incursions and invasions.

Discovering new fortifications sounds great, but most of the fortresses in the Bulgarian lands are in a condition that can excite only an archaeologist. Few have survived in a state fit for Instagrammable photos.

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FORTIFIED BULGARIA, PART 1

Why there are no old forts and fortresses in Bulgaria on the scale of Romania, Greece, Italy or the Western Balkans is a controversial issue. The sort of answers you will be getting will depend on who does the talking. Some will assert the "Turks" destroyed everything when they ruled over these territories in the 14-19th centuries. Others will, more level-headedly, point out that when the Ottomans were in control the Bulgarians lands were no longer a border zone and consequently forts and fortresses were no longer needed for defence purposes.

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BRIDGE OF LEGENDS

Bridges are both feats of engineering and important gateways, and as such they have always attracted the human imagination. Since times immemorial, legends have been told of how the construction of a particular bridge is to be attributed to the Devil, or that evil spirits lived in it.

In the Balkans, there is a different legend about some old bridges such as those at Acra in Greece and on the Drina in Višegrad, Bosnia and Herzegovina. It attributes their durability and strength to a human sacrifice that the master builder had to make.

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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. When they could not explain the origins of a majestic church, a massive earth bank or even a whole city in ruins, they invented legends about supernatural creatures whom they held responsible. For some reason, predominantly Christian Europe often saw the Devil as the most probable builder of certain churches, and particularly of bridges. There is the Devil's Footstep in Frauenkirche in Munich.

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BRIDGE THAT MADE CITY

One of Bulgaria's most impressive off-the-beaten-track treasures lies hidden in plain sight. In the town of Svilengrad, on the borders with Turkey and Greece, cars and pedestrians still cross the River Maritsa by a bride that is six centuries old.

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STARA ZAGORA'  S MUSEUM OF RELIGIONS

The Romans believed that some places are inhabited and protected by their own spirit, a Genius loci, and consequently filled all the corners of their empire with altars and reliefs dedicated to these entities. The belief in Genii loci is no more, but if these spirits were real, one of them would definitely call a certain location in central Stara Zagora its own. For millennia, nations and religious have come and gone, and yet generations of people have continuously used a particular place as a sacred location.

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AGUSHEV KONAK

Between 1825 and 1842, the local Muslim lord Aguş Aga built a sumptuous konak, or residence, for himself and his three sons. High whitewashed walls protected the aga's greatest treasures: his peace, his money and his family.

The building and its three yards, 221 windows, 86 doors and 24 chimneys occupied an acre of land by the Arda River.

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KADIN BRIDGE

Despite this, the stories that locals have told about the construction of the bridge over the ages have no reference to the name of the man who did this good deed.

The elegant structure in Nevestino village, near Kyustendil, is known by two names. One is Kadin Bridge, the other Nevestin Bridge and, although the root of the former is a Turkish word and the latter a Bulgarian, both words mean the same: a married woman.

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SVILENGRAD; THE ETERNAL BRIDGE

The Mustafa Pasha Bridge in Svilengrad was a piece of engineering that impressed even Western travellers in the 15th-17th centuries, who were generally disappointed by the very ordinary appearance of towns and villages in the Ottoman Empire. Built in 1529 by Mustafa Pasha, a vizier of the sultans Selim I and Süleyman the Magnificent, the bridge was a part of a complex consisting of a kervansaray, or roadside inn, a hamam, or public bath, and various other buildings. At 295m it is the longest Ottoman bridge in Bulgaria, with 21 arches, the widest of which is 18 metres.

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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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