Thursday, 1 December 2011

Balkania Pt. 4: A Trip to Tutrakan: Tales of Devotion and Despair

Greetings Comrades!

Today's extract concerns a side trip I made from Varna to the town of Tutrakan stopping off at the Sufi shrine of Demir Baba en route.
Thanks awfully to Fatme Myuhtar-May who read through this, corrected any scholarly errors that I may have made and proferred suggestions for improvements. Thanks too to Stefano Culibrk for reading the section on Sufism and giving his thoughts, to Plamen Atanasov for letting me use his fine automobile and to the Fuchidji family for making me very welcome in Tutrakan.

All the best,

Uncle Travelling Matt

My Flickr album of this trip

Index and links to all the parts of Balkania:

Balkania Pt. 1: Sofia to Varna

Balkania Pt. 2: A Drink in Varna

Balkania Pt. 3: Wedding Bells in Varna (unpublished)

Balkania Pt. 4: A Trip to Tutrakan: Tales of Devotion and Despair

Balkania Pt. 5: Of Love, Lust and the Nation (unpublished)

Balkania Pt. 6: Back to School

Balkania Pt. 7: On a Mission

Balkania Pt. 8: The City of Wisdom?

Balkania Pt. 9: And the Tsar, he chose a heavenly kingdom…

Balkania Pt. 10: The Bridge over the Drina

Balkania Pt. 11: The Death-Drenched Drina

Balkania Pt. 12: Jerusalem of the Balkans

Balkania Pt. 13: A City Under Siege

Balkania Pt. 14: Austrian Influences

Balkania Pt. 15: Along the Bosna Valley

Balkania Pt. 16: Under the Airport and over the Mountains

Balkania Pt. 17: A Day Trip with Miran

Balkania Pt. 18: The City of the Broken Bridge

Balkania Pt. 19: Up the Black Mountain

Balkania Pt. 20: Worth the Bones of a Pomeranian Grenadier…?

Isperikh and Tutrakan

My day trip to Tutrakan started off badly. I woke up in horrendous pain. It was my stomach and I suspected a twisted muscle. From past, unpleasant, experiences, I knew that the best course of action was to lie still and let it pass, but instead it only got worse. When I could bear it no more I went downstairs to the Stanevs for help.

Only Svetlo was there and he didn’t know what to do. “I… need… an… ambulance… pain… big pain!” I stammered out in-between spasms.

“Ambulances cost money, very expensive,” he replied.

“No… problem… big… pain!”

“Hmm… I dunno. Are you sure you need one?”

“What… else… can… I… do?”

“Umm, let me think… hmm, I know! Yoghurt, I heard that yogurt is good for that kind of pain. Have you tried yogurt?”

“Gimme… yogurt… then… please!”

“Dunno if we’ve got any, let me have a look… yes, here you are!”

Eventually the pain did subside although whether the yoghurt was what cured it I’ll never know. All that I know if that I was grateful, very grateful. Not that my troubles were over mind.

“Oh dear, it doesn’t seem to work.”

Plamen’s car, a dusty, bird shit splattered Opel Astra was not responding to the ignition key in the slightest.

“To be fair, it hasn’t been used for about a year. Always used to start though. Let’s try pushing!”

Eventually it kicked into life and we tootled off to the petrol station to buy a sticker that allows one to drive outside of the city limits. “Are you sure it’s ok?” I asked Plamen.

“Yeah, I’m just glad it’s getting some use. Besides, this is the ideal car to take to Isperikh!”


“It’s a piece of shit; it’ll fit in!”
Plamen’s Astra: at home in Isperikh

Despite having lived in Bulgaria and visiting several times, I’d never before driven there. It was a surprisingly difficult experience. Despite there being little traffic to worry about, there was the bigger task of avoiding potholes. Even on the dual-carriageway – which runs from Varna to Shumen – there were some watch for, but as soon as I got onto the minor roads through the villages in-between Novi Pazar and Isperikh, it was a veritable slalom requiring every bit of nerve and driving skill that I possess, so bad was the road surface. And there was another hazard in those parts: horse-drawn carts. In a stretch of twenty or so miles, I passed only one car compared with about a dozen carts and those carts were lethal for the horse-drawn cart is both silent and slow; go over a crest of a hill and you have to slam on the brakes as you find one laden with Roma trundling along in your path.

Even though I consider myself something of a Bulgaria veteran, I must admit to being shocked by the region which I was passing through for the poverty was abject. It wasn’t just the awful roads and the lack of traffic on those roads; it was everything, from the ramshackle dwellings, dilapidated government buildings, uncultivated fields and general lack of any activity whatsoever. The whole place exuded an air of languidity in which the only one who was doing anything was me, (and all I was doing was rattling through at 50km/h, swerving potholes in a battered and barely roadworthy old Astra.

That region, where languidity and poverty reign supreme was the Shumen Oblast. Together with the Razgrad Oblast which I was soon to cross over into and which is little different), it is one of the poorest and most un-Bulgarian areas of the entire country. And that poverty and non-Bulgarianess are not unconnected. What do I mean by that? Well, let me present a few statistics.

Of a 2001 population of 204,378 in the Shumen Oblast, 59.1% of these are Orthodox Christian and 35.5% are Muslim. Nationally the Orthodox make up 82.6% and the Muslims but 12.2%. The figures are even more distinct in the Razgrad Oblast where 53.69% of the 2001 population of 152,417 were Muslim and only 42.96% Orthodox. And in Orthodox Christian Bulgaria, the Muslims tend to be far worse off.

It was figures like these that caused the communists, who were always wary of Fifth Columnists, concern which, in 1989, led to the greatest act of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans since World War II. Despite officially espousing socialist internationalism as its guiding dogma, the Bulgarian communist regime started using nationalism as a political tool as early as the 1950s to bolster its legitimacy by stressing the continuities between the People’s Republic and the ancient Bulgarian kingdoms. This strategy, however, spelt problems for the country’s minorities and in particular its largest minority, the Muslims who—to a greater or lesser extent, depending on which sector of the Muslim community they belong to—are seen to be connected with the former Ottoman occupiers. “So what!” you may ask? But the association is emotionally an important one, because the Balkans people have long memories, and Bulgarian history generally reads as a bloody tale of resistance to the Ottoman ‘yoke’. In the Bulgarian national epic the “righteous” Orthodox Slavs suffered and fought against their “evil” Turkish Muslim oppressors, which was problematic for a significant portion of the national population who clearly did not fit in. To help solve this problem, in 1956, the regime embarked upon a long-term assimilation programme which, among other things, encouraged Muslims to change their names to Slavic Bulgarian ones and prohibited Turkish dress and language.

In 1971, this campaign was ratcheted up and the group that bore the brunt of these new exertions were the Pomaks,[1] a Muslim people who live in the Rodopi Mountains of Southern Bulgaria, (not, it should be noted, the Muslims that we find around Razgrad and Shumen). The Pomaks were a natural target for the government since the accepted academic view is that these were Slavic Christian tribes who converted to Islam under significant Ottoman pressure in the period from 15th to 18th centuries. In the Bulgarian view, therefore, all the communist government was doing was helping them to reclaim their “real” identity.[2] This repression died down somewhat after 1974, when the names of all Pomaks had already been changed (and by which time the labour camps were full of Pomaks). Thereafter, the campaign shifted its attentions away from the Pomaks and onto the Bulgarian Turks.[3]

Quite separate from the Pomaks, the Bulgarian Turks are descended from Muslims who settled – or were deported to – Bulgaria during the Ottoman Era. During the five centuries under Ottoman rule these settlers arrived continually. By the 19th century most urban centres were majority Muslim and estimates put the Islamic population somewhere between 40-70% of the total number of urban residents. Those figures are quite astonishing considering that today the Muslims make up just over 12% of Razgrad and Haskovo, for instance, the only urban centres in Bulgaria with a Muslim majority. Therefore, one must begin to wonder as to where that other 30-60% has gone. One set of sources that certainly do not make matters any easier are the standard Bulgarian history texts, which describe Bulgaria as an Orthodox country that stayed Orthodox during the centuries of oppressive “Turkish yoke” and emerged still more Orthodox after independence.

History, of course, is always written by the victors and so that 40-70% that lost are simply not talked about in all the official accounts. Worryingly, it is as if they never existed, but since they did and people do not just disappear, then we must ask as to where they went. The truth is that most Muslims fled as the Turks retreated and the Russians advanced, but many were also killed. The descendents of the few that remained make up today’s 12%. In more recent history, there is the chilling episode of the Great Excursion.

When the Revival Process turned its attentions to the Bulgarian Turks, they –  like the Pomaks before them – resisted. There was violence, clashes with the police, and deaths. Then the retaliations started. On 9 March 1985, an explosion was detonated on a Sofia-Burgas train, which killed seven and wounded nine passengers. The perpetrators were members of an illegal organisation named the Turkish National Liberation Front (TNLF), which demanded more autonomy – or even independence – for the areas around Shumen and Razgrad with a Muslim majority population. This act of terrorism, however, had the opposite effect. Instead of autonomy, it gave the regime the public support it needed to implement the next stage of its assimilation plans. Thus, on the 20 May 1989, the communist leader Todor Zhivkov gave a speech in which he stated that all those who wished to leave Bulgaria would be free do so. Following Zhivkov’s announcement, there was an exodus of over three hundred thousand Bulgarian Muslims to Turkey. The communist-controlled Bulgarian press quickly dubbed this mass migration “The Great Excursion” as the official line was that they were all going on holiday to visit their relatives in Istanbul and elsewhere in Turkey.

The reality was far different. Whilst some Turks did leave voluntarily, most were forced out of the country. Dates were set and whole families had to leave in special police-escorted convoys carrying what few belongings they could.

The process did not last long. Within weeks it almost bought the country to economic ruin as the fields left by the Turks had no one to harvest them and the crop – particularly the lucrative tobacco harvest – was lost. Urban Bulgarians were drafted in to help and they, seeing the devastation first hand, began to criticise the policy. The regime, which was already struggling as did most communist governments in Eastern Europe in 1989, soon backed down. Ending the “Revival Process” did not help it mind. Within months the communist regime in Bulgaria fell.

Since the advent of democracy many Turks – around 150,000 or some 40% of the total who left – have returned, but nonetheless the “Great Excursion” left scars. The Razgrad and Shumen oblasts, the onetime candidates for an independent Turkish republic, remain among the most impoverished and depopulated regions of a not-so-well-to-do country. Bulgaria’s population has since dramatically dwindled, too. If in 1989 Bulgaria had a population of just under nine million, by 2011, the census has given a figure of 7,364,570. This is a net loss of around 18% of the total population. For the Shumen Oblast however—from a peak of 204,300 to the current 122,599 people--the loss is close to 40%. Whilst some of the decline could be attributed to low birth rates, much more is due to outward migration, especially of the young people. This also contributes to an increasingly ageing Bulgarian population.

Driving through these villages made the statistics seem all the more apparent. The high proportion of Muslims could be guessed by the headscarves and Turkish trousers of the women and by the number of tiny dilapidated mosques with their steel minaret. The lack of cars on the roads and untended fields, on the other hand, revealed an overwhelming atmosphere of stagnation. It was sad yet it was also fascinating: Before my eyes was the true cost of all those dreams of a new life in a better place. Such dreams are fine in the Kashmirs and Kurdistans, where high fertility rates quickly compensate for those who have left. But in a country where the average woman produces only 1.49 children, it leaves a wasteland behind.

Nonetheless, it is not all doom and gloom. As a citizen of an overcrowded nation – the UK – with villages and towns bloated beyond all capacity, the idea of losing a few people can be a positive as well as negative. For those that have remained in Bulgaria, there have undoubtedly been some improvements. The functioning mosques and Turkish dress in the streets symbolise a freedom previously unknown; but so do the Turkish language newspapers and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), Bulgaria’s Muslim political party which often holds the balance of power in politics. Plus, there has been a noticeable change in mentalities, too. The Christian Bulgarians seem to hate and fear their Muslim neighbours far less than before, while there are also signs of rapprochement. I remember staying in Istanbul in 2003 with a family who had been evicted during the “Great Excursion,” yet, to my surprise, none of them bore any grudge towards the homeland that had treated them so badly. Instead, they reminisced over her with dreamy eyes. This family were cousins of Hasan Rashidov, whose father I met on my visit to Tutrakan.  Then in 2010, when I travelled to Istanbul, I enquired about meeting up with them again. “Oh no, that’s not possible,” replied Hasan. “They’ve moved back to Bulgaria.”

It was not Hasan, but another Bulgarian Muslim who first told me about my next destination, the shrine of Demir Baba in the village of Sveshtari near to the town of Isperikh. Fatme Myuhtar, a Pomak from the Rodopi, had been there through her work with the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, (a Human Rights organisation based in Sofia), and found it remarkable. So it was that I too went along and was so bowled over by the place[4] that I’d been desperate to return ever since.

Back in 2003 I’d used public transport to get to Demir Baba and it had been difficult, not to mention expensive since it necessitated a train journey, two bus trips and then a taxi ride. Therefore, one of my main motives in choosing to drive this time around was to make it all a little easier. Leaving the town of Isperikh, however, I found myself with a different problem, for road signs are few and far between in Bulgaria and my map was a large-scale one. I hadn’t a clue where to go and after driving around aimlessly for a while I did something that I will rarely ever do; I swallowed my male pride and stopped to ask a passer-by for directions. Immediately, though, I realised that I had made a grave mistake.

My pedestrian of choice (i.e. the only one) was a gentleman as old as the Plain of Thrace walking with a stick and wearing a black Muslim skullcap. “Excuse me sir, can you tell me the way to Demir Baba?” I asked in my best Bulgarski. “Demir Baba? You wish to go to Demir Baba! Ahh, ‘tis a wonderful place, what a beautiful place that is! Well…”

And that was it for ten minutes or so as this venerable villager launched into a soliloquy of intense passion and depth. Unfortunately, despite having pretty good Bulgarian myself and that being the language (in the loosest possible sense of the word) he was conversing with me in, I understood virtually nothing.  This was heartbreaking; because the snatches that I did catch made it clear that he wanted me to understand and that what he had to say was well worth understanding. Here was a man who was lonely, who needed to get something off his chest, and whose mind was concerned with all the woes of the world. During his monologue he broke into tears twice whilst I caught glimpses into a world of pain and despair. “This place has so much history, so much has happened here” and “there aren’t many Bulgarians around here you know, not many at all” and “oh, you do not know how much the Mussulman has suffered here” as well as “democracy is so terrible, things have become impossible now!” I would have loved to comfort him, to have been able to help or just to console or listen, but alas, I could do none of those things. I would have loved to have been able to give him some false teeth, (at least then he would be more intelligible), but again, I was powerless. Most of all, though, I would have loved to receive the directions to Demir Baba but, again, this was not to be the case. Eventually, conscious of the time and also genuinely wishing to help this victim of both communism and capitalism, I gave him a 20 leva[5] note and bade him goodbye. This prompted a third eruption into tears, this time though of gratitude and happiness, and only then did I manage to drive off pleased to have done a little to help this most unfortunate of Bulgaria’s provinces. But I was also wary of stopping for directions ever again.

Demir Baba, when I eventually found it, was just as I remembered it. Crowds of Roma sat on blankets grilling meat and drinking beer or rakiya whilst several stalls sold cheap Chinese-made toys to keep the kids occupied. The most remarkable thing, though, was the walk down from the forest clearing that acts as a car park to the shrine itself, a descent of some three hundred and thirty-five steps through the trees. What made it so special, though, was that on the branches of these trees, pilgrims had tied thousands of tiny scraps of material, (‘partsalcheta’, in Bulgarian) each one symbolising a prayer and together creating an aura of powerful, heartfelt peasant devotion.

The steps down to Demir Baba

I have come across the practice of tying partsalcheti to branches in several places across the Balkans and beyond, and it is in no way a solely Muslim practice. In Georgia, for example, at the ancient cave city of Uplistsikhe, I came across a thorn bush, near a church dedicated to St. George, with hundreds of partsalcheti tied to its branches whilst one of Bulgaria’s more endearing national traditions is that of the martenitsa. It involves every year, on 1 March, people giving friends and family members a pair of red and white tassles (the martenitsa) along with the greeting ‘Chestita Baba Marta!’ (lit. ‘Congratulations Grandmother March!’). These martenitsi are then worn on the jacket until the first stork of the year is sighted, at which point they are then tied to the nearest tree.[6] Varying explanations are given for the tradition – the red and white representing the blood on the snow after some famous battle is one – but for me it is clear that the martenitsa and the partsalcheti stem from the same tradition, doubtlessly pagan in origin, celebrating the divine in creation and the passing of winter.

At the foot of the steps, by the entrance to the compound, is a pool of crystal clear water, said to be the result of the first miracle of Demir Baba. According to the legend, there was a drought in the region and the sheikh, moved by the prayers of the suffering people, put his hand in the rock and a spring gushed forth, the waters of which had magical properties. Accordingly, the spring was named Besh Parmak – the Five Fingers.[7] After conducting the ritual Islamic ablutions here, one enters the compound of the shrine itself, in the centre of which is a simple heptagonal structure in creamy sandstone that houses the final resting place of the Sufi holy man.

At the shrine of Demir Baba

The Sufis are an oft-misunderstood lot. I’ve heard them described as the third kind of Muslim after the Sunnis and the Shiites, but such a description is erroneous as Sufism is no third branch but instead a movement which appears within the other two. In essence, the Sufis are “Muslims who seek close, direct and personal experience of God, and who are often, therefore, described as mystics.”[8] This contrasts greatly with the more legalistic interpretations of the faith that hold precedence in the Muslim world today, (although not always; by the 18th to 19th centuries, between half and three-quarters of the male Muslim population were attached in some form to a Sufi order).[9]

In the Balkans, the first Sufi sheikhs appeared during the 14th century in advance of the Ottoman armies. They were of the Bektashi Order, a Shiite Sufi order originating from Turkey and closely related to the Alevi Order which still has around twenty million adherents in modern-day Turkey. In the centuries that followed, more and more Sufis came but the Bektashis remained one of the most popular and influential orders across the Balkans. It is especially so in Albania, where today a significant part of the Muslim population is Bektashi.[10]

Demir Baba was a Bektashi sheikhs. Little is known of his life, but it seems that he lived around the 16th century and, judging by his spring miracle and the partsalcheti on the branches, seems to have fitted the pattern of most Bektashi sheikhs. “The Bektashi Order formed the ‘left’ end of the Sufi spectrum in the Balkans. Avowedly Shi’ah (and often antinomian) in outlook, their shaykhs (known as babas) were able to gain sway over rural areas and villages… as their toleration and ability to absorb local custom provided this element of the population with a ‘folk’ Islam that they could easily relate to.”[11]

That “folk Islam” positively abounds at Demir Baba, which presents the visitor with a veritable mish-mash of all Bulgaria’s religious traditions since the dawn of time. There’s Islam, of course, but also Christianity, for in the small museum at the side I learnt that traditionally the biggest day of celebration at the shrine is Ilenden (St. Elijah’s Day), a big Orthodox feast, although the Orthodox Elijah is himself seen as a transmuted version of Perun, the pagan god of lightning and storms and to whom the pre-Christian Slavs sacrificed bulls and humans.[12] Christianity is evident too in the museum’s artwork. These are a series of pictures very much like icons in appearance--even executed by a Christian iconographer, and they depict scenes from the sheikh’s life and the Quran. Amazingly, this is all a part of a religion that forbids imagery, Islam!

Islamic “icons” at Demir Baba

But if there are traces of Christianity, there are lashings of paganism, too. The whole complex was built on top of the foundations of a 4th century BC Thracian temple. In addition, the pilgrims follow a number of pagan rituals, the most famous of which involves a stone set in the compound wall with two holes in it. I watched as a group of Roma took it in turns to stand several feet away from this stone, point their arms out in front of them, close their eyes and then walk towards the stone, the aim being to get their fingers in the holes so as to poke out the eyes of the devil to a chorus of laughing and merriment!

Poking out the eyes of the devil

Inside the shrine though, it was cool and silent. There was an earthy smell that reminded me of an ancient English parish church and the feeling of sanctity was similar also. The aura of a faith in touch with the land! In the centre stood the shrine itself, a simple monument covered in cloth and topped by a replica of the sheikh’s hat as is the Islamic custom. Above the tomb were pictures of the Ka’aba and of Ali, the martyr of the Shiites. I thought once again of the Islamic ban on depicting the human form, and smiled. This place was beyond such puritanical scruples.

I sat in a corner and meditated. It was easy to do so in such a peaceful, ancient, holy place, and so I stayed like that for some time. Then, I stayed seating and watched the other pilgrims as they came in and found that all followed the same ritual. After entering and bowing at the foot of the tomb, they then circled it three times, and every time they reached the head they would stop, don the hat and whisper ‘kuzmet’, (lit. ‘luck’, as in the English ‘kismet’). Then, after completing their three circuits, they would make their offering to the sheikh, always clothes--often children’s clothes--which they would lay reverently on the tomb before exiting. In the dark I wondered what was the significance of three, (another Christian borrowing perhaps?), and why give clothes?[13] I left none the wiser, but the serenity of the location and the presence of such simple, yet genuine folk devotion warmed my heart indeed. I was left with the words of the great sheikh himself ringing in my ears:

“If you seek God, go find him in man.”[14]

The tomb of Demir Baba

I mentioned earlier that Demir Baba’s shrine is built on the foundations of a much earlier pagan Thracian temple and the vicinity of Sveshtari was once a major centre of the Thracian culture. On my previous visit I’d sought out the tombs, beautiful burial chambers dating from the 4th century BC, and so this time I decided to seek out the site of the former Thracian city. I found it easily enough, but aside from an information board there was, alas, nothing to see, or at least, nothing that an eye as untrained as mine could discern. So I jumped back into the car and continued on my way to Tutrakan in the ancient Balkan region of Dobrudja.

Over the years Dobrudja[15] has been one of the most contested regions in all of the Balkans. Currently, its northern half is in Romania and the south in Bulgaria but that has not always been the case. Prior to 1940 it was all Romanian territory and at various times throughout its history it has been ruled by the Ottomans, the Wallachians, the Byzantines, the First and Second Bulgarian Empires, the Romans and the Thracians. Between 1325 and 1388 it was even its own autonomous region, the Principality of Kavarna. In reality though, it has never truly belonged to any single nation, having always been a borderland or crossing place, wild lands to be settled. Again, some statistics are helpful to us. In 1930, 44.2% of the population were Romanian, 22.7% Bulgarian, 18.7% Turkish and 15.8% a variety of other races from Roma to Tatar, Russian to German. Those are the figures for the whole province, but if we look at the south on its own, (i.e. the bit that was Romanian but is now Bulgarian), things were even more mixed. It has 37.9% Bulgarian, 34.1% Turkish, 20.6% Romanian and 7.4% other populations. In short, southern Dobrudja was one of the most ethnically mixed regions in the world, comparable with Bosnia-Herzegovina and Ossetia and far more of an ethnic cocktail than the more well-known tinderboxes of Macedonia and Kosova. That, however, was in 1930. By 1940, there had been big changes.

In 1940 Europe was at war. By the same year Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union had invaded Poland and the Germans had defeated the combined armies of France and Britain in mere six weeks. Mussolini was in Albania and the Germans were bombing London. Hitler’s eyes, however, had already turned to the east, toward the great Soviet empire, (still then his allies), the oilfields of Romania, and the Balkans where the British were openly supporting Greece.

Hitler wanted the Balkans, but he did not regard them as particularly important. So long as they were in his sphere of influence, he preferred to have someone else going to the trouble of policing them, thus, preserving his troops for the coming war with the Soviets. That’s why he was happy for Mussolini to play about in Albania and Greece, (well, until he started to lose, that is), and that is why he actively sought other allies in the region.

Romania was Germany’s ally, but she was a reluctant one and Hitler knew it. King Carol had recently had all the leaders of the Legionnaires of St. Michael,--the country’s fascist organisation, murdered which had angered Hitler, a man well known for holding grudges and meting out revenge. Bulgaria, on the other hand, was angry. Since her reconstitution as a state following the Russo-Turkish War in 1878, she had sought to regain those lands which she saw as hers; lands outside her borders but with Bulgarians living there. Foremost amongst these was Macedonia, the main reason behind Bulgaria fighting – and losing – the First and Second Balkan Wars and World War I. Secondary, though, was Dobrudja. So, to show the Bulgarians what they could achieve if they supported him – and to punish Carol after the murder of the Legionnaires of St. Michael – in the Treaty of Craiova of 1940, Hitler signed Southern Dobrudja over to Bulgaria, thereby gaining an ally and a watchdog over newly-invaded Macedonia. This, at least, is what history books record. But what history books fail to tell is the immense human cost that the Treaty of Craiova wrought on the Balkans.

Tutrakan is one of Bulgaria’s loveliest towns. It lies on the southern border of the mighty Danube, a sleepy town of nine thousand souls just inside the borders of Dobrudja. Strolling around its Ottoman-era Fishermen’s Quarter with its beautiful church dedicated to St. Nikolai, one finds it hard to imagine that anything ever happened here. A trip to the town’s museum, however, tells a different story. In amongst the displays of old fishing nets and ethnic costumes are some photos of cheering crowds celebrating the “Return of Dobrudja to the Motherland” and nearby a small table detailing the town’s demographic history. It makes shocking reading. In 1930, Tutrakan had 11,175 inhabitants and in 1941 it had 5,600. Put simply, sometime during that decade, over half the people in the town disappeared without trace.

Returning from the museum, I asked my host, Hasan Rashidov where all the people had gone. “They were the Romanians,” he replied. “They were moved. Before there were lots of Romanians here; my grandfather spoke Romanian, he learnt it at school. Everybody had to back then. Dobrudja was in Romania.”

“Are there any of them left now?”

“A couple of old women that were married to Bulgarians, that’s all.”

Finding anything out about the Treaty of Craiova and the events that followed is hard. Little seems to have been recorded, and what is generally presents nationalistic propaganda. Yet it should be talked about, for it is a story worth telling. A part of the treaty was a population exchange, modelled after the one between Greece and Turkey seventeen years earlier. All the Bulgarians in Northern Dobrudja would be moved to Bulgaria and all the Romanians in Southern Dobrudja would depart for Romania. In a matter of weeks, over 150,000 people were uprooted from their homes and forced to start a new life in a different country.

These days this tragedy is hardly ever mentioned.

One source that does have some good information is Vlachophiles, a website dedicated to promoting the history and culture of the Vlachs, an ethnic Romanian minority group scattered across the Balkans. Here, from the site, is a description by one Nicolae M. Nicolae of life in the city of Silistra (twenty kilometres east of Tutrakan) on the eve of the Treaty of Craiova:

Silistra, the capital of Durostor county, town where I was born in 1924 had always its life on the normal track: I would even say this was the place where various ethnicities set up a model of peaceful living. The inhabitants of Silistra, numbering 16,000 souls were Romanians, Bulgarians, Turks, Armenians and Jewish. All these ethnicities had their own primary -and even secondary- schools in their own language. The Romanian language was the lingua franca of this living together.

For the Romanians of Silistra, as for all the other Romanians, 1940 was the year of the great disillusion and despair. After the September 1940 Treaty of Vienna, the Romanians of Cadrilater began to feel deprived of the protection of the Romanian state. The appointing of General Gh. Argesanu as commander of the southern front of Dobrudja, with the concrete task of defending this region, had for a while cheered up the spirits and had an encouraging effect. Unfortunately, everything lasted just a while. By the direct orders of General Antonescu, the arrest of General Argesanu took place in Constanta.[16]

Here is another account, this time by one Matilda Marioteanu where she discusses, with somewhat rose-tinted spectacles, Christmases in the village of her childhood:

The Christmas of my childhood was an absolute fairytale; a fairy tale lived south of the Danube in the village of Sarsanlar of the Durostor county. This village had a special charm, it was situated, as most of the Vlach villages were, on the slopes of the hills. Several ethnicities lived in a perfect harmony in this village: Turks, Tartars, Bulgarians, Vlachs, Regateni Romanians, there was even an Armenian, Haic was his name, who kept a shop where fabrics and textiles were sold. It was a colourful world where each would celebrate his own festivities and everything was functioning at the right time. At that time, between 1928 and 1940, Sarsanlar was a village where all the gates of the houses were left open, nothing was ever locked, there were no keys, there were no thieves. This detail says a lot about the people living there. When I am thinking back to Sarsanlar I remember about the general feeling of security, about the peace and serenity of the place… The village was inhabited by rich small-holders. It was in fact a very prosperous village, because the people, no matter their nationality, were very hard working. It seems quite extraordinary for a village of the pre-war period to have looked like a small town: it had butcher shops, cafeterias, bakery stores, restaurants etc. It even had a 'convenience store' "La Boris", who was kept by a Bulgar. In Boris' store one could find everything: colonial wares, spices, fruits and sacks of unroasted green coffee, the one my mother liked, tools, railways for carriages and many, many other wares. In his huge yard, that amazed us children, the ploughman found whatever he needed, the butcher the same, it was, in a word, ware on everyone's liking. Well, this was the village were my family settled, having come from South, from the Pindus Mountains region[17]

After this, Nicolae goes on to describe the evacuation to Romania. It must be noted here that Nicolae’s family, as Mocani rather than Romanian settlers, did have the option to stay but after anti-Romanian measures by the Bulgarian government, they too left. Methods that were used again, almost fifty years later, against the Turks of the same region:

By October 1st, 1940 the evacuation of the Romanian population of Cadrilater was practically completed. Seven kilometres off Silistra was the village of Aidemir, inhabited principally by the Mocani, scions of the shepherds settled with their flocks of sheep from the Transylvania's Marginime of Sibiu. My father was part of that first generation of Mocani born in Cadrilater. These Mocani -stubbornly hoping the departed Romanian Armies would soon be back - refused to leave their place of birth and obey the agreement stipulating the exchange of population. In Aidemir, there was a Romanian language school – founded by the Eforia Scoalelor (the School Directorate) – already in place in 1880. My parents decided to join the inhabitants of Aidemir so we stayed behind in Silistra. The Bulgarian authorities, which took over Cadrilater after October the 1st, 1940, were informed of our decision, and apparently agreed to accept our choice.

The Bulgarians' very first move was, though, to forcibly change our surnames into Bulgarian ones. From Nicolae Marin, my father suddenly became Nicolaef. The second phase consisted in depriving us of the Romanian citizenship and exchanging it into Bulgarian one, measure that was not out of place considering the rules under which we lived in Bulgaria.

After consulting with lawyers, the Romanians of Aidemir decided they cannot accept the new citizenship hence decided to leave their homes in Cadrilater for good. We were given a deadline of three days to pack, and the right to fill a single carriage (two carriages for the inhabitants of the towns) with our possessions.

Thus, on December 15th, 1940, we all crossed the new Bulgarian-Romanian frontier at the Ostrov crossing point. It was a terrible frost outdoors. We still did not know where we will stop or settle. At the border, other miseries were awaiting us. We, as refugees, did not posses any legal authorisation to cross the border, so the Romanian sentinels would not permit us to enter the country. They thought that the action called "exchange of population" was completed. The whole convoy of refugees was forced to remain in limbo, in the neutral zone for the next eight hours. Finally, the luck smiled to us. From the fog of the Danube there appeared an officer riding a horse, who, after listening to our plea, ordered the sentinels to let us in… The convoy of carriages silently crossed the frontier and from here, each of us spread out according to his wish. Most of the villagers of Aidemir settled at Almalau, near Ostrov, village itself abandoned by the departure of the Bulgarians.[18]

I was visiting Ahmet and Emel Rashidovi, the parents of Hasan whom I have already mentioned. Ahmet, who is the very embodiment of a Balkan gentleman, lives with his wife in a house along Ahmed Street[19] where he grows his own vegetables and makes his own wine. Although I’d visited several times before, I actually drove past the house at first, (which necessitated a rather tricky eight-point turn further down the lane where the metalled road degenerated into a track), before returning and parking up outside.

The reason for my confusion was that the house had changed. It was now bright yellow and Ahmet was most proud indeed of the new paint job. He was even prouder, though, of the other improvements that he’d recently made which were far more than just cosmetic. They included a whole new bathroom downstairs, a new patio in the back garden, (soon to be graced by a Jacuzzi), and a new motor car in the car, a Suzuki 1.3 hatchback that Emel drives. The Rashidovis, it seemed, had gone up in the world.

The source, I suspect – although it was never specified by Ahmet himself – was their children, Hasan and Sibel, who both live overseas and send money to their parents. Having seen the negative impact of Bulgaria’s “brain drain” whilst driving through the provinces, it was nice to see a little of the positive as well, and what’s more, it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving couple. Ahmet and Emel worked hard to put both their son and daughter through university. Being from a group that is often berated within Bulgaria for not granting their daughters the same opportunities as their sons, marrying them off young instead, the Rashidovis stand as a shining example that this is not always the case. “Where is Sibel now?” I asked when we were sat on the balcony, partaking in a glass of Ahmet's home-made wine. “She is in America now, doing very well.”

“And is she married yet?”

“No, but she has a boyfriend and she’s very happy.”

Sat there with the town spread out before me, I mused on how the Rashidovis are as typical of Tutrakan as any of their neighbours, for although the majority of the Romanians departed in 1940, the town – like the entire Dobrudja region – is still extremely ethnically mixed. “That house there, they are Roma,” said Ahmet pointing out one red-roofed dwelling, whilst they are Bulgarians,” he added, pointing to another. But back in 1989, the Rashidovis, too, were almost forced to leave in the “Great Excursion.” “We had a reported date to leave on 21 August 1989, if I’m not mistaken,” explained Hasan. “However, we got the news that Turkey decided to close its borders on 15 - 20 August; hence we got the news exactly few days later.” Not that it meant they were completely unscathed by the Revival Process, for many of their extended family were deported, (including the Mutlus, Emel's sister and her family, whom I stayed with in Istanbul back in 2003).[20] They also had to change their names, “I was Alexander Ruschev,” said Hasan  “Ruschev means ‘from Ruse’, which, of course, I was, (Ruse is only 20km west of Tutrakan). Now, of course, they have all reverted back to their original names.

The view from the Rashdovi balcony

One always ends up sat on the balcony when at the Rashidovi house, looking out over the garden and beyond, and it is with good reason. That balcony commands a view that is hard to equal. Laid out before you are the red roofs of the town, then the Danube itself with Romania beyond. Using his high-quality binoculars, Ahmet points out things of interest in the scene before us. There are the barges traversing Europe’s greatest waterway, bathers on the far shore of the river where the Romanians like to go for a picnic or barbeque, and then the buildings of the town of Oltenita a little downstream. It is peaceful, beautiful scene that can fascinate for hours whilst one enjoys a glass of wine or rakiya and tucks into a freshly-prepared salad.

Mind you, things have not always been so tranquil out in the lands on view from the Rashidovi balcony. In the bad old days, the border between pro-Soviet Bulgaria and the more independently-minded Romania of Ceausescu was heavily monitored and those who tried to cross illegally were shot, whilst during the 1990 Revolution, Hasan recalls watching as tanks patrolled the far bank. The story that amuses me the most, though, is a joke dating from the time when Romanian radio could be picked up in the Danube border towns like Tutrakan.

The story goes that every morning Radio Bucharest would wake up its listeners with some stirring martial music and the word, “Good morning comrades! Comrade Ceausescu has just woken up! You should wake up too!” Then there’s a little bit more martial music before another announcement: “Good morning comrades! Comrade Ceausescu is cleaning his teeth! You should clean your teeth too!” More martial music and then:  “Good morning comrades! Comrade Ceausescu is coming downstairs! You should go downstairs too!” And then finally:  “Good morning comrades! Comrade Ceausescu is having his breakfast! And for you… light music!”[21]

The very first time I sat on the Rashidovi’s balcony I was most confused. Ahmet started then, as now, by offering me a choice of the alcoholic beverages that he had made from fruits grown in his garden. There was the grape rakiya, plum rakiya, apricot rakiya and white wine, whilst Emel provided delicious homemade food – salad, river fish, chicken, and pork dishes. Normally this would not have surprised me. Every Bulgarian man over the age makes his own rakiya and in every home you are offered delicious home-cooked food. No, what confused me was that they were offering that to me. “Is this ok?” I asked, concerned.

“Why? Do you not like these things?”

“No, I like them very much, but…”


“But there’s alcohol and pork, and you are Muslims!”

You must understand me here; I am British and in Britain we have a lot of Muslims. Some drink alcohol, but most don’t and the ones that do, would never offer it to guests; they know that they shouldn’t be drinking it. None of them will ever eat pork and yet here I was, in a Muslims household, being offered both. But then, as I was to learn, British Muslims and Balkan Muslims can be quite different. British Islam tends to come from Pakistan, particularly Punjab and Kashmir, where the faith is interpreted strictly in a rigid Sunni fashion. In Pakistan, the Muslims are used to being a majority and indeed, any deviation from the mainstream can be seen as heresy. In the Balkans though, the Muslims are well aware of being in a minority – even in the only majority-Muslim country, Albania, around 35% of the population are Christian, the Muslims themselves are fairly evenly divided between Sunni and Bektashi Shia, and for almost fifty years all religion was brutally suppressed – and the Muslims have always had to fit in a lot more with their Christian neighbours. They tend to have no scruples about drinking alcohol and, indeed, many make their own like Ahmet Rashidov does. Far fewer will eat pork, (even though alcohol and pork are forbidden equally in the same surah of the Quran), seeing it as the worse of the two evils, and most will not intermarry with Christians.[22] Generally, Bulgaria’s Muslims are – like the Rashidovis – indistinguishable from their Christian neighbours save for their names and although the Christian Bulgarians often criticise them for being ‘backward’ and ‘Oriental’, when compared to most Muslims in Europe, they appear Westernised indeed, particularly with regards to their attitudes to women and marriage. Also startling is a seeming lack of religious devotion and knowledge of the basic tenets of faith, but again this is largely mirrored in the country’s Christian communities as well. Although places such as Demir Baba and the famous Orthodox monasteries do attract significant numbers of devotees, Bulgaria is one of the most avowedly secular countries that I have ever set foot in.

Despite the protestations of my hosts that I stay the night, I left laden with gifts and greetings and drove back to Varna, not wishing to take advantage of Plamen’s kindness too much. When I returned I found his apartment full of revellers all celebrating Bulgaria’s volleyball victory over the Germans in the Sports Palace adjacent to the flat. With these wealthy, articulate and educated young folk, I was back firmly in the New Bulgaria, a million miles away culturally, economically and socially from the sleepy, half-deserted villages that I’d just driven through. Although not really in the mood for a third straight night of drinking, I joined them and soon the hair of the dog meant that I was in the party mood as much as all the others. Over large measures of rakiya, the evening quickly became one of those Bulgarian drinking sessions that I used to enjoy so much with the talk yo-yoing from volleyball to chalga to wind farms to Pippa Middleton’s derriere before returning back to chalga and ending with a decision by Plamen and myself to finish off the night at a chalga club. We found one that was open near to the university, but we were both very drunk by that stage and the chalga being played was all new stuff that I didn’t recognise whilst the crowd was very young. I sat there with a vodka and another new(ish) dad advancing quickly towards middle-age whilst nymphs in their late teens and early twenties danced all around us. Then I suddenly realised that eight long years had passed since I’d last been to a chalga club and I felt very old indeed.

[1] Or ‘Pomatsi’, the Bulgarian plural of the word ‘Pomak’. The word itself means ‘helper’, a none too complimentary reference to the relationship this group had with the former Ottoman conquerors.
[2] It should be noted that there are other theories as to where the Pomaks originate from. One is that they are descendents of an ancient Thracian tribe, another that they were Bogomils who converted freely to Islam after being persecuted by both the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. Even those scholars who accept the traditional view as to them being Islamised Christian Slavs, they disagree over the character of the conversion; that is, whether it was forced or voluntary. An increasingly prevalent view, even among Bulgarian scholars, is that the Pomak conversion to Islam was voluntary.
[3] An interesting footnote to this comes from the conversations I had with Neli on the train going to Varna. We were discussing Belogradchik, a small town in northwest Bulgaria that we both know and to which, she said, some Pomak families were sent so that they could assimilate properly with other Bulgarians. (That area of the country is virtually entirely Orthodox). Neli said there was one Pomak girl who fell in love with a Christian man much to the disgust of her parents who disowned her. When the Pomaks were allowed to return to the Rodopi, she stayed in Belogradchik, and still lives there. During 1999 when I went to stay in Bulgaria, I stayed with a boy called Sasho whose mother was Muslim and father Christian and who was very reticent to talk about his Muslim connections. I wonder if his mother was the girl that Neli was talking about!?
[4] See ‘Razgrad and Isperikh’
[5] About €10.
[6] I once visited Stara Zagora zoo with Pepi Mincheva in March and the tree next to the stork enclosure could not be seen for martenitsi. In my mind though, that’s cheating!
[7] Taken from the information board at the site.
[8] The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, p.925
[9] Ibid
[10] See ‘Albanian Excursions’. Also it should be noted that this community is often referred to as the Kazalbashi in Bulgaria. The word literally means ‘red heads’ and it comes from the twelve red bands that they wore around their heads when going into battle. The twelve bands symbolise the Twelve Shiite Imams. Another term used is Alian which comes from Ali. (Religious and Sociocultural Dimensions of the Kazalbashi Community in Bulgaria).
[12] Balkan Ghosts, p.61
[13] Later reading taught me that three is a sacred number for the Bektashi, it symbolises the trinity of Allah, Mohammed and Ali, although again I wonder if this itself was not influenced by Christian teaching. Information on Bektashi holy numbers garnered from Religious and Socio-cultural Dimensions of the Kazalbashi Community in Bulgaria.
[14] Taken from the information board at the site.
[15] The Romanian spelling is ‘Dobrogea’ whilst the Bulgarian is sometimes rendered ‘Dobrudzha’.
[19] Named after Mt. Musala, Bulgaria’s highest peak.
[20] See ‘Cold Turkey’.
[21] Thanks to Pavel Marinov who told me that one.
[22] Interestingly here, in a conversation with Fatme Myuhtar, she told me that whilst marrying with Christian Bulgarians is frowned upon by the Pomaks, so too is marrying Arabs who are seen as not treating their women with enough respect. Turks, however, are seen as a good marital choice and Turkey is seen as something of a second motherland for them, although that seems to be more cultural than religious. For example, the great seculariser Atatürk is seen as a hero despite the fact that he suppressed Islam and Islamic religious dress.


  1. Very interesting both from a human and cultural viewpoint. Thank you for caring enough to try to get the history accurately. Just a passer-by, I was looking up the Baha'i shrines in Haifa Israel and Google brought up the Sufi shrine you visited. Carry on!

    1. Brent, thanks for your comment. Sometimes random searching on the web can bring us to some interesting places. Regarding the Bahai Shrine in Haifa, I went there years ago but alas I didn't really know what I was looking at (I was 18...) so didn't fully appreciate it and can't remember a lot about ti. I did however, go to the Bahai Temple in Delhi a couple of years ago: