Letter from Sofia, Bulgaria, September 30, 2011

By Myrna Kostash | October 25, 2011


When I travelled in the 1980s through eastern/south-eastern Europe – this would result in the book Bloodlines in 1993 –  I did not go to Bulgaria, quite deliberately. Among other things at the time, I was trying to situate my Slavic origins in Slavic histories in Europe, especially in those places as in Ukraine that were Orthodox and used the Cyrillic alphabet. Bulgaria should have been an obvious destination – Cyrillic and Orthodox with a vengeance, although this wasn’t so obvious during the Communist period – but I didn’t go because, in my mind, Bulgarians weren’t Slavs. I’m not sure what I thought they were – Bulgars, I suppose, and hailing from Central Asia in the 8th century.

Well, I have since stood corrected. Bulgarians speak a Slavic language, so culturally that includes them with the Macedonians, Serbs, etc. But as for their racial/ethnic origins, the account changes with the political winds. During the socialist years, their Slavic identity was promoted, linking them with that Great Brother People, the Russians. Nationalists have since downplayed Slavic for Thracian identity (it helps their cause that stupendous hoards of Thracian artefacts of gold have been unearthed in great burial mounds in the Thracian Plains: I saw some of these in Sofia’s Archaeological Museum, some predating the Egyptian dynasties, and I can appreciate why today’s Bulgarians would want to lay claim to such illustrious ancestors. (I noticed the preponderance, almost fetishistic, of a figure called the Thracian Horseman, whose iconography almost exactly prefigures that of the great Byzantine warrior saints, George, Theodore and Demetrius: seated militaristically on a horse with his cape blowing in a stiff wind.  More scientifically-inclined nationalists suggested that proto-Bulgarian was an acceptable source of the Bulgarian identity. And nowadays, I have been told, DNA evidence suggests that the Bulgarians have never had anything to do with Central Asian steppes and Turkic peoples but are rather descendents of Iranians, making them Aryans.

Whatever. Today Bulgaria is in the European Union and the distinctive blue flag with the circle of gold stars of the EU flies alongside the national flag. I arrived in Sofia September 21 just in time for a 3-day national holiday, one of several liberally distributed through the year that commemorate Bulgaria’s protracted and bloody liberation from what is called the Turkish Yoke. All of Sofia seemed either to be sleeping in late or hanging out day and night at the cafes or taking the air in the countryside. This tranquility during days of a late summer heat, the light filtered through the still-lush greenery of the many city parks, fountains splashing and old men playing chess, made Sofia even more attractive than usual.

As in Serbia, my purpose for revisiting Bulgaria was to meet again people who were terribly important as informants while I was pursuing St Demetrius in old Byzantine lands (I started eleven years ago!) and to give them a copy of my book, Prodigal Daughter: A Journey to Byzantium.  For example, Dr Ivan Biliarsky, a youthful Byzantinist when I first met him and picked his brains about the cult of St Demetrius and Byzantine spirituality. We set off on a slow stroll through the centre of Sofia which, besides being quiet for the holiday was also marking the European Day of No Traffic. We were able to walk in the middle of streets without fear of being slaughtered (Sofia drivers stop for no man or woman).

This being a national day of celebration, there were folk dancers in one of the main squares, and I made a bee-line for them. All male, they were splendid in tight white pants and embroidered shirts. It became clear that they were professional dancers – by the way they pointed their feet – and that they were acting out an insurgency: they shot pistols in the air and unsheathed their knives, flashing them around in sinister swerves, and paid a kind of obeisance to an older man who then led them in a very sexy kolo, or round dance. But Ivan found the whole thing distasteful. He said they were representing Macedonian insurgents; and Bulgaria had once had claims on what is now the Republic of Macedonia as Bulgarian land (so did the Greeks and Serbians in what are called the Balkan Wars before WW I: all this is in my book, if you are having trouble following this). Ivan is content to “let Macedonia be Macedonia now: their self-identity, their language and literature are now recognized as Macedonian, not Bulgarian, even though it is a ‘constructed; language – but aren’t they all?” (Another friend reminded me that Bulgaria was the first country to acknowledge the independent republic of Macedonia when it finally and somewhat reluctantly declared itself independent of Yugoslavia, and this in spite of the fact that a ‘constructed’ Macedonian history has appropriated a medieval Tsar the rest of the world knows as a Bulgarian, Samuel, he whose army was decisively overwhelmed by the Byzantine emperor Basil, known then and to us as the Bulgar-Slayer.)

Ivan and I settled into a terrace cafe called the Mausoleum – not as morbid as it sounds. In fact it’s a political joke, being laid out right alongside what is left (a cement pad) of the enormous gravesite or Mausoleum of Communist Bulgaria’s first leader, Georgi Dimitrov. A decade ago, the tomb was already gone, to be replaced by a mighty replica of a box of Johnny Walker Red. This too is now gone, thank heavens. On the other hand, one can now patronize Starbuck’s, KFC, Subway and – the latest shopping sensation – Ikea.

Ten years ago, when I thought my Demetrius Project was solely about the sufficiently exciting topics of Byzantine and Balkan history, I was bemused by the number of scholars I was meeting and interviewing who were Orthodox believers and unabashed to say so. Ivan was one of them. Now that I’ve made my own way back to the Orthodox Church, he and I talk as fellow adherents – and confess our respective frustrations about Orthodoxy. Ivan is disgusted by the recent decision of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church to canonize some souls murdered in one of the many atrocities (on all sides) in the aforementioned Balkan Wars: villagers of Batak, who took sanctuary in their church from the assault of Turkish soldiers (and some Bulgarian accomplices, in another version) and were burned to death there. Victims they certainly were – but saints? Ivan accuses the Church of exploiting a purely national/political agenda while it does very little of what it’s supposed to do: act as the Body of Christ. He does admit, though, that even this corrupted version of an Orthodox Church has not dared to canonize one of the truly revered, and doomed, revolutionary heroes, Vasil Levski, who was guilty of murdering a boy on grounds of “treachery,” although I haven’t been able to find this story via Google.

This theme of the “corrupted” Bulgarian Orthodox Church comes up again, vehemently, with a friend in Plovdiv, Br. Simeon, who is still in a rage about the Church’s decision a decade ago to withdraw from the World Council of Churches, to withdraw in fact from any kind of conversation with other faiths (“I’m all right, Jack!”) or even to “witness” to the many social and economic injustices that have befallen their flock of the faithful (mainly women, it must be said) who nevertheless in the gravest sincerity still come to church, light candles, kiss the icons and drop their meager coins into the collection boxes…

Caveat lector: my current visit to Bulgaria has had an awful lot of church content, which you may choose to skip for the next several paragraphs. But it was inevitable that this was a big theme of my conversations and wanderings: not only because I was “winding up” the Demetrius project but also because Bulgaria is the site of some of the earliest Christian events in the Roman Empire – persecutions of Christian martyrs in Plovdiv in 304, for instance, the same year as the martyrdom of St Demetrius in Thessalonica, and the building of a baptistery in the 4th century Rotunda of St George in Sofia – my favourite church –  when the city was known by its Roman name Serdica, described  as “my Rome” by none other than Constantine the Great himself.

I arrived at St George in time for Vespers, an hour-long version (preceding Sunday Mass) with all the Tropars, Kondaks and Irmoi [hymns] intact, apparently. Five cantors took turns at singing, including two young women whose voices considerably alleviated the intense Byzantine drone of the chants, while above us flew the faint 12th-century outlines of angels circling the base of the dome.

After the Bulgars settled these lands and became Christians via Constantinople, they built a great many more churches and filled them with the distinctive iconography of Byzantium and the peculiar calligraphy of  Old Slavonic letters known as the Cyrillic, so I had to (re)visit all these churches too. They are hard to miss, seemingly around every corner in downtown Sofia; or occupying an entire square to itself in the case of  the massive Byzantine-style Cathedral Church of St Alexander Nevsky (built in honour of the Russian soldiers who died during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, as a result of which Bulgaria was liberated from Ottoman rule). On my way one afternoon to hear Vespers in this church, I sat straight down on a cement wall to listen, heart-pounding, to the great peals of the Cathedral bells rolling out under the heavens. (It is to be noted that in Plovdiv, there are pious complaints about the muezzin calling the Muslim faithful to prayer on Fridays at the lovely 14th-century mosque in the heart of the city, just as there are atheists in the West who complain about their Sunday mornings being disturbed by the church bells plaintively calling the neighbourhood to worship.)

The Church of the Sedmochislenitsi, dedicated to Cyril and Methodius and their five disciples who brought Christianity to the Slavs, is described in my book as a dark and damp interior I took shelter in during a winter rain storm back in 2001. Now it is a glorious late summer morning and the church is a cheerful place to stop for a few minutes, light some candles for family and friends, and study the frescoes. A placard outside tells visitors that here once stood the Kodja Mehmed Dervis Djami called the Black Mosque because of its minaret strikingly tiled in black. It was built on a design of the genius architect Sinan Pasha in 1528 on the initiative of Mehmed Pasha, great Vizier of Suleiman the Magnificent. The caravanserai attached to it later served as a prison in liberated Bulgaria until the new state got around to building is own (every self-respecting nation state has to have its own prisons…) Speaking of the Ottomans, the proud new democratic states of eastern Europe may well regret the enthusiastic fervour  with which the nineteenth-century anti-Turkish liberators destroyed the Ottoman architectural legacy on these lands, leaving very little for the unaware visitor to appreciate of a 500-year-long Empire. Even Bulgarians flock to Istanbul to breathe in the atmosphere of a very particular Muslim civilization.

In conversation with my friend Ivan, I sincerely wanted to know if there have been intellectual currents to stir up Orthodoxy’s pot in the last, say one hundred, years? He mentioned the sainted Seraphim Sobolev, and I quote from an article online from Orthodox Russia Nos. 21 and 22, 1994 : “The spiritual founder of the Bulgarian Old-Calendarist Orthodox Church was Archbishop Seraphim (Sobolev)-the well-known theologian, profound expert on the works of the Holy Fathers, the fiery defender of holy Orthodoxy. People who knew well his struggle for the purity of the Orthodox faith called him ‘the conscience of Orthodoxy.’ Archbishop Seraphim lived in Bulgaria for thirty years.  By his righteous life, filled with deprivations, calamities and persecutions from the dark powers of evil, from the powers of this world, he drew to himself spiritual children. Seraphim began to nurture them in the strict Orthodox spirit. For example, he was able to introduce Confession before Holy Communion again into the life of the Bulgarian Church.  At that time, the Mystery of Confession was almost completely forgotten in Bulgaria.”

Well, not exactly what I had in mind as an “intellectual” current, but Ivan then whisked me off to visit Seraphim’s tomb, a place of great popular veneration in Sofia, in a little chapel in the gorgeous Baroque-style Russian Orthodox Church reached from a side door. In the antechamber, visitors – mostly women – sat writing prayer-petitions on the paper provided, while others stepped one by one into the chamber holding the sarcophagus to say their prayer. It was a homely scene and at least far removed from the dispiriting reputation of the official Church.

On Day Two of the national holiday  I met my friend Eta Mousakova, librarian in the National Library and a specialist in ancient documents (she’s in my book too, and the only person I know who can read Glagolitic). We met in front of the Library, named for the great saints Cyril and Methodius of Thessalonica (we’re talking 9th century here) who devised the Glagolitic for the newly-Christianised Slavs of Moravia, a lost cause as it turned out, when the Moravian prince switched to the Catholic Church. But Cyril and Methodius’s disciples would carry on, this time coming up with the Cyrillic script (in their mentors’ honour) for the Bulgarians, also newly-Christianized, and who remain eternally grateful, to judge by the many representations of this event – religion and alphabet delivered together – in public and sacred frescoes.

Over supper in a garden restaurant serving standard Bulgarian fare (roasted red peppers, grilled chicken, and pretty decent Merlot) Eta brings me up to date about her work, namely that the National Library like every other public institution is struggling to fund itself. Eta’s boss came up with the fund-raising idea of “adopt-a-book,” meant to raise funds for the restoration of old books and manuscripts, and dumped the file on Eta’s desk. As the filthy rich in this town are only interested in donating money to splashy popular projects like sports, Eta has so far managed to raise only 200 levas ($160) for adopt-a-book, all of it from one high school outside Sofia, enough to restore one small 17th century Polish school primer.

Plovdiv was founded as Philippopolis by Philip of Macedon whose triumphant statue has been newly-raised in the middle of the partially-excavated ruins of the Roman stadium, the rest being irretrievably covered by a pedestrian street full of shops and cafes. Br Simeon sarcastically points out that Philip was yet another conqueror of an indigenous people, in the case of Plovdiv, the Thracians. But the Hellenes and then the Romans stayed a very long time, and one of the most exquisite museums I’ve seen in this region is to be found in a pedestrian underpass at the level of a semi-excavated mosaic floor from a Roman villa, later an Episcopal palace. Along with the floor, many small objects of extraordinary craftsmanship in glass were uncovered and are now on display, their intense and unclouded colours and forms restored to something like their original beauty.

An ugly side of modern Plovdiv was on view the two days that I spent there: bawling mobs a thousand-strong of mainly very young men surging up and down the main pedestrian street waving flags and bellowing “Death to the Gypsies! Death to the Turks,” finally rallying at the mosque and setting off blasts of firecrackers, where they were finally pushed back by the police banging thunderously on their shields.

Emotions had been inflamed against the local Roma because of an incident a few days earlier in a neighbouring village: two young men, one Roma and one Bulgarian, got into an altercation, which ended in the death of the Bulgarian, run over (accidentally-on-purpose?) by the van of the Roma boy, who has been arrested. An angry crowd then set fire to several Roma homes. (I saw some of this on morning television, including images of young people holding up their cellphones and taking pictures of the fire.) Br Simeon told me that about half of the Roma women who work sweeping the streets of Plovdiv were too frightened to show up for work the next day. Indeed, aside from Br Simeon there was not a Bulgarian I spoke to who is in sympathy with the Roma Bulgarians (there follows a depressingly familiar list of grievances against them) but even the Roma can be their own worst enemies, as in the story Br Simeon told me of the luckless efforts of a young Roma man intent on cleaning up the votes-for-hire political culture of his community: he was assaulted by goons on behalf of the local Gypsy King (as he’s known) who feared the loss of a lucrative source of illegal lucre.

At the invitation of the Secretary of the Plovdiv Writers Association, I met with a group of high-school writers (mostly girls and mostly writing poetry) whom she has organized into a kind of creative writing club. We gathered in a room at the back of one of Plovdiv’s most famous old houses, the one in which the French poet Alphonse de Lamartine stayed a few days on his way to Constantinople in 1833, the guest of the Greek merchant Georgi Mavridi and which is mentioned in all the tourist guides as a must-see example of the urban architecture of this 19-th century Old Town linked with ideas of the Enlightenment. Even then-President Francois Mitterand of France had visited and left his signature in the visitors’ book (in 1989, to give local democrats a boost, presumably). Impressed by all these connotations, before I met with the students I rehearsed until I was mellifluous the few verses I remembered from high school French of Lamartine: Sois sage o ma douleur, et tiens-toi plus tranquille. Un atmosphere obscure enveloppe la ville, il descend, le voici, aux uns portant la paix, aux autres, le souci. It was all in vain: they had never heard of Lamartine.

But we had a lively talk together about Byzantium and martyrs, Bulgarians and Canadians and empires, about Cyrillic letters and cellphone publishing. And by the end of the evening the instructor had even come up with a Bulgarian equivalent for “creative nonfiction”:  beyond-fiction literature. I like it.

3071 words, October 25, 2011



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