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Bulgaria - Background information
Abridged from the History section in Bulgaria: the Bradt Guide
National Revival period
One of the triggers for the eventual National Revival did indeed come from the church, as in 1762 the monk Paisii wrote and circulated a history of the Bulgarian people, which was a reminder of their past glories. By the 1840s the provision of education was spreading and in 1870 the Bulgarian Exarchate was granted, allowing an autonomous church. This encouraged the hope of eventual political freedom, too. Throughout the 19th century there was a gradual weakening of central control in the empire.
You can still see the architecture of the National Revival period in many Bulgarian towns, such as here at Koprivshtitsa © Nikolay Dimitrov, Dreamstime
After the Crimean War, the French and British extracted promises from the Turks that the Ottoman Empire would be opened up to European trade. The new Bulgarian middle classes who benefited from this trade, led the movement for religious freedom, endowed schools and sponsored the architects and the artists who built the beautiful houses and churches of the National Revival. In the 19th century there was a movement known as Panslavism, which Russians perceived as a natural empathy between fellow Slavs and a willingness by them to protect their oppressed brothers, particularly those in the Ottoman Empire. Other great powers were suspicious of this altruism, imagining Panslavism to be a sort of Trojan horse through which Russia would extend its influence in the Balkans. When the Turks refused to allow Russia to protect Christians in the Ottoman Empire the Crimean War was sparked off. Britain, France and Austria supported Turkey, now universally known as the ‘Sick Man of Europe’. Russia’s defeat in the war did not slow Bulgarian aspirations and, urged on by an increasingly active group of revolutionaries, they finally rose in rebellion in 1876.
Bulgaria has one of the richest ranges of birdlife in Europe. Occupying only 1.1% of the territory of the continent, it is home to about 47% of its bird species. One reason for this is the special geographical position of Bulgaria at the crossroads of Europe and Asia Minor and at the joining point of the continental, steppe and Mediterranean biomes. Also important is the presence of a large internal sea, putting the country on one of the major migratory flyways on the continent. The landscape richness, including habitats from sea dunes to alpine rocky peaks of almost 3,000m, is also a contributory factor. Last, but by no means least, the weak economic development of the country during the second half of the 20th century allowed the self-preservation of wildlife on most of the territory, but especially in the mountains. Most of the country’s territory remains unspoiled even at the beginning of the 21st century, in spite of the rapid development of the country during recent years.
One of the things that quickly strikes you when travelling about Bulgaria is the variety of its beautiful landscape and the abundance of seminatural habitats. There are high mountain peaks, forest-covered hills which stretch across the horizon, mile after mile of rocky scrubby hillsides, rocky gorges, smooth grassy (almost steppe-like) hills and lowland wetlands. During the spring and summer, the flower-rich meadows are stunning, and they are everywhere – and buzzing with insects! If it were in Britain, it would be like stepping back in time a hundred years or more, except for the general lack of hedgerows. Bulgaria is a country that has so far largely escaped the excesses of modern intensive agriculture and its damaging effects on wildlife. Traditional farming methods, such as scything, hand-hoeing and extensive grazing, have maintained species-rich habitats. However, much of this is changing now that Bulgaria is part of the European Union and funds are made available for large-scale modern agriculture. Rural communities are becoming depleted of their young people, as they move away to towns and cities, or even emigrate, seeking a different life. Agricultural land is now either abandoned or more intensively farmed.
About 100 species of wild mammals are known to inhabit Bulgaria, some of which are not native, but have adapted well to live here. For example, the racoon dog (which has been observed along the Danube River and the Black Sea coast since the 1970s), the muskrat (along the Danube River) and coypu (most numerous on the Black Sea coast and the Maritza and Tundzha rivers). Other mammals, such as the fallow deer and the mufflon, have been introduced into the country, but their existence here depends on human help.
The insectivores are represented by the eastern hedgehog (widely distributed in Bulgaria, often being the main food of the eagle owl), and two species of moles, common and Black Sea. Of the six species of shrew, the most interesting, and also one of the smallest mammals in the country, is the pygmy white-toothed, which occurs in the southeast. With 32 bat species, Bulgaria is one of the richest countries in Europe. Very stable populations consisting of thousands of bats live in the caves of the Rhodope and Balkan mountains.
The Bulgarian lands have been inhabited by a variety of peoples, and those of today are descended from Thracians, Slavs and Bulgars. They are often dark-haired and dark-eyed, but some are fair and blue-eyed. They are generally peaceful and tolerant, though there is visible discrimination against Roma or gypsies, who are blamed for most petty crimes. There are very few people of African or Asian origin here and so some racial intolerance may be experienced. Overtly gay people are still something of a novelty even in Sofia, and will be treated with some suspicion outside the capital. Relations with the Turkish minority are generally harmonious.
Women sing folk songs whilst making handicrafts © Jaroslav Moravcik, Shutterstock
Traditional folk music
Bulgaria is a country with an ancient, rich musical tradition which was sheltered during the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Since 1945 it has gradually been exposed to pervasive Western influences to the extent that now the only pure folk culture on show for tourists is at festivals such as Koprivshtitsa (every five years), Pirin Sings and Rozhen (annually). In the past the chain dance, horo, led by a dancer waving a cloth or other object, was purely a social village-bonding activity usually related to rituals like sowing in spring, when fertility was invoked, or at harvest time, and was often where matches were made – hence the showing-off element. Some dances were in an open crescent, others were performed in a straight line or a closed circle. Many were danced to sung accompaniment, often with the mysterious unique harmonies found in Bulgarian choral work.
Embroidery and national costume
Bulgarian embroidery is an intrinsic part of the national costume. It is one of the most significant and brilliant expressions of folk art in the world, striking in its detail, richness of pattern and numerous colour combinations. These skills have been handed down from mother to daughter for many generations. From the age of about six years old a girl was expected to start preparing her trousseau: embroidered dresses, woven blankets, a chemise for her future husband, all to demonstrate her potential as a good wife. From Thracian times examples can be found in wall paintings of women dressed in exquisitely embroidered gowns. Contemporary Bulgarian embroidery is the result of a long and complicated process, enriched to some extent by other, outside influences over the centuries, and reaching its highest point during the National Revival in the 18th and 19th centuries. The borrowed elements and patterns have always been interpreted in a particular Bulgarian way.