Sunday, 12 April 2015

Bulgarian Jottings IV: Razgrad and Isperikh

world-map varna


And welcome to what will probably be my last post before heading off on my trip of a lifetime, to the most political of all destinations: North Korea.

Why, you may ask, am I so eager to hang out with Comrade Kim and friends? Well, because I can mostly, but also because for much of my travelling life, I’ve explored destinations affected by the ideologies of communism and socialism. From Vietnam, to Albania, Uzbekistan to Chernobyl, Cambodia to this week’s destination, Bulgaria, I’ve been travelling red. But always, even when in a country like China which is still communist, I’ve had the feeling of having missed the boat. “You should have been here twenty years ago, man, that it was the real deal!” Well, for good or ill, there probably is only one real deal left, and that is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and so that is why I’m headed there. Can’t wait!

KOREA-NORTH/A country where women fawn over the chubby guy: now that must be a place worth visiting…

But that is tomorrow and one should always live in the now and so before my Long March, I’ve been seeing a bit more of my own beloved country. Yes, the camping season has started again and so last week we were off to Wales and this week I have finally managed, after 37 years, to see England’s most famous and spectacular structure: Stonehenge. Was it worth it? You bet it was!

DSC00606It’s all about the stones, man…

But back in cyber-world, let me take you on another trip to Bulgaria, to one of my favourite kind of places wherever it is to be found in the world, the sleepy provincial town. This one is Razgrad, and afterwards I head up to Demir Baba which you can also read all about here when I revisited in 2011.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all my Bulgarian Jottings

I: In the Beginning…

II: Shumen

III: Nazdravei!

IV: Razgrad and Isperikh

and remember, you can also read about my 2011 travels around Bulgaria!


I’d expected a lot from Razgrad. I’d first heard of the town months before when we’d been having a discussion in one of my adult conversation classes about the Great Excursion.[1]

“Well you know,” Yavor, an advocate for the Solvey Sodi Company had said, “there’s a whole story about that, that hasn’t been told yet. Why did Zhivkov throw them all out, eh? Because there was a secret organization, a group, that wanted to create an autonomous Muslim state, similar to Kosova, in North Eastern Bulgaria, with Razgrad as its capital.” The other students nodded sagely. I however, was skeptical. This sounded like another Balkan tall story, an excuse for Zhivkov’s actions, not a real reason for them. Nowhere that had I been in Bulgaria, were there enough Turks, or indeed Muslims of any kind, to warrant even thinking about autonomy, even in these times and that region of nationalism gone crazy. But there again, I’d not travelled much in North Eastern Bulgaria at that time, only to the town of Tutrakan. Perhaps the region was full of Turks. After all, in Tutrakan, the family that I’d stayed with had been Turkish, and so had a good percentage of their neighbours.

“Where is this Razgrad then?” I asked as I’d never even heard of the place.

“In between Ruse and Shumen,” replied Yavor.

“And are there many Turks there?” asked I.

“It’s full of them. Gypsies too.”

My next encounter with the town came, strangely enough, in the Cotswolds.

“I travelled through Bulgaria in a Bedford van during my student days,” recalled my uncle, as we sipped some of the red wine that I’d brought back. “I’ll get out the slides.” When he did, to my dismay, we found that he’d travelled through few of the places that I was familiar with. “Where’s this?” I asked, as he got out one slide showing a magnificent Ottoman mosque.

“Let’s take a look,” he said, turning it over and then checking his directory. “Razgrad,” he announced.

“That explains the mosque,” said I, recalling Yavor’s words. “Razgrad’s full of Turks.”

Next up was Istanbul. Dzhilbert’s Uncle Ahmed, my host, announced that he was from the town originally. He’d moved, (or had been moved), during the Great Excursion, but seemed to bear no hard feelings and instead talked warmly of his former homeland and her people, talking of his fond memories of both Razgrad and Shumen, (where his wife originated from). And when it came time for me to get a bus back to Bulgaristan, I had a harder time of it that I’d expected. Virtually every coach between Turkey and its former colony headed not to Sofia or Varna as one might expect, but instead to (you’ve guessed it) Razgrad. Perhaps the town really was a mini Turkey after all?

It took a conversation with Fatme Muktar to finally convince me to go. She visited Varna and we got talk about Muslim sites in Bulgaria.

“Well, if you’re interested in that sort of thing, then you really must go to Isperikh,” she said. “There’s the shrine of a Shiite saint there. It’s called Demir Baba and it’s very beautiful.”

A Shiite saint?! I was surprised. Bulgaria’s Muslims are by and large Sunnis, and the Shiites aren’t to be found in large numbers outside of Persia. A Shiite shrine in the Balkans, now that would be a sight to see!

“Where is Isperikh?” I asked.

“Near Razgrad,” came the reply.

So, as I said, I had high hopes for Razgrad as the train rolled into the station and a gazed at the town nestled in the bottom of the valley. It certainly looked interesting from a distance. It wasn’t very big – about the size of a market town – yet there in the centre there appeared to be a skyscraper of around fifteen stories in height. Communist urban planning gone overboard a la Shumen, I assumed.

razgrad skyscraperRazgrad… or Dubai?

I was right. As we entered the town in the grumbling Chavdar bus, it became clear that the Reds had gone to work on this place on an almost unprecedented scale. It was a wasteland of decaying apartment blocks and drab administrative buildings, with overgrown parks and intriguing statues. As I got off the bus and strolled through the streets, it soon became obvious that whatever wealth and talent this town had ever possessed, (and judging by the architecture at least, that was never a great deal), it had picked up and left town, most probably heading towards Istanbul. Few towns in Bulgaria look as sorry for themselves as Razgrad, and trust me, that is saying something. Decay sometimes has an atmospheric air to it, as in Shumen for example, but alas Razgrad is just plain miserable. Only Dobrich has less charm. Everyone said how Turkish the town is? Well, I’m sorry, but if that is provincial Turkey, then remind me never to go there.

The town did however, have one redeeming feature. A very big one in fact. Smack in the centre, opposite the steps that lead up to the huge skyscraper, (whose purpose alas, I never learnt), stood the mosque that I’d seen on my uncle’s slides. It was a beauty, graceful with a slender minaret and plaque declaring that it dated from 1616. It was also large, easily bigger in my estimation than Shumen’s Tomboul Mosque, which claims to be the biggest in the Balkans, let alone Bulgaria. Sadly however, it was also shut. One assumes for repairs.

razgrad mosqueMega mosque!

Razgrad’s bus station was on the edge of town, past a rather funky statue of a crouching panther. From a distance it looked like any other of Bulgaria’s communist-era bus stations. Closer up however, I got a shock.

It was nice! Not beautiful or elegant mind, (after all, it is a bus station that we’re talking about here), but clean, well kept and renovated. The toilet even had flowers and air-freshener and the waiting room was UPVC double-glazed. That any Bulgarian bus station should be remotely the sort of place in which you’d want to wait for a bus, was unbelievable. That such a bus station should exist in a dead-end hole like Razgrad was something else entirely. Perhaps here, was where I had truly found the Turkish influence, (or at least the money from the Turkish bus companies). Turkey is probably the only country on earth with pleasant bus stations. And most of the writing on the timetables and advertisements there, was definitely not Bulgarian.

I met a young man named Bili on the bus who at first tried to speak to me in German. He informed me that Isperikh was very nice, and quiet too. Not like Razgrad, which was a dump with horrible people. I agreed about the dump part but said that I couldn’t comment about the people as I’d only spent three hours in the place. He told me to trust him on that one, and then went on to tell me about his auto selling business. “If you ever need an Audi,” said he, “Come to me!” I told him that I would bear it in mind.

isperikhWelcome to Isperikh!

Isperikh had a different air to Razgrad. It was a backwater, yes, and somewhat decayed, but in a slumbering fashion as opposed to a going mouldy one. What the two towns did share however, was a Turkishness. My new friend Bili started chattering to a taxi driver in the tongue of Anatolia and I got a reasonable price. We chugged through the sun-drenched fields towards the Shiite shrine whilst my even newer friend, the taxi driver, told me of government and school parties that come to view the place, how nice it was, and how he normally charges fifteen leva for tourists, but as I was a friend he’d reduced that to eight, (we’d agreed five).

Demir Baba was not what I’d expected. The question I suppose is, what had I anticipated finding? A small tomb in the middle of a field I suppose, with a man sat in a ticket booth trying to charge more than he legally should.

Instead what we came upon was a wooded glade full of picnickers. Whole families with women wearing headscarves and locked Turkish trousers sat around blankets whilst chorba[2] simmered in large iron pots. At one end of the glade was a drinking fountain in which crates of Kamenitsa[3] sat cooling. The faithful however, sat in a circle chanting passages from the Koran, before washing their hands and feet in the fountain and then descending down the pathway that led to the shrine itself. It was all completely unlike anything that I had ever come across before in Bulgaria. And that’s because it was wholly Muslim.

I too started to descend the rocky pathway that led downhill to the shrine of Demir Baba. It was unlike the route to any holy site that I had previously trodden, but instead akin to a magical trail through an enchanted forest such as Jo or Bessie would follow Moon Face through in an Enid Blyton novel of my youth.[4] The sunlight flickered through the foliage and I expected fairies, pixies or imps to jump out and greet me. However, it were the Faithful who made the track even more mesmerising. For some reason, (I think to symbolise a prayer to the saint, though I’m not sure of this), each pilgrim had torn a small scrap of cloth and tied it to the branch of a tree, so that the way to the tomb was lined with thousands upon thousands of tiny bows, like spring flowers of faith that added to the atmosphere of that mystical green corridor that I walked through.

BK026Into the Enchanted Wood…

Demir Baba’s tomb was in the bottom of a gully with sheer cliff faces behind it. When one first enters the tiny walled compound through a stone gateway, one finds a trough of the clearest spring water in which to perform the ablutions stipulated before prayer in the Koran. Then the visitor passes a traditional-style Ottoman house of wood and wattle, through another stone gateway, into the inner sanctum of this fortress of faith. The air was hot and stifling, but as I entered the hexagonal structure that houses the tomb itself, a cool chill spread over me. It was a moving place, that lofty chamber with its decorated roof and chanting grandmothers, and despite being no Muslim I was touched by the aura. Above the cloth-covered tomb itself were hung pictures and tapestries of Koranic verses, the Kaba’ah at Mecca and, taking pride of place at the head of the tomb, Ali, the martyred hero of the Shiites.

I was surprised when Fatme told me that there were Shiites in Bulgaria, as I’d thought that adherents of that particular branch of the faith were to be found only in Iran, Iraq and parts of Afghanistan. However, during the early years of the Ottoman occupation of Bulgaria, followers had moved there from Turkey proper and found much acceptance amongst the local population. Pavel Marinov explained why. “Those Turks that worship at Demir Baba, we call them the Kazalbashi. Well, they’re something different from the others, and are not particularly liked by them. However, they are much more open-minded, for example sharing each other. There’s none of ‘This is my wife and that is your wife’ stuff, and locking their women away like you get with most Turks. And well, in my mind, you’ve gotta respect that.”

It all sounded a bit like the Free Love of the Sixties to me. Groovy! Yet Shiites do not usually have such a hip and cool image. Quite the opposite in fact, as normally they are thought of as harsh, puritanical and mystical, (ok, so the latter is a bit funky), and what’s more, eternally devastated at the death of Ali, grandson of Mohammed and in Shiite eyes, the only true heir of the Prophet. If one were to compare Islam with Christianity, the majority Sunnis are the Catholics and the Shiites, the mysterious Orthodox. And the Protestants? Islam hasn’t had its Reformation… yet.

I examined the wall of the compound when I came out. Carved onto several of the stones were bas-reliefs of mosques and holy places that were exquisite. The whole place was extraordinary and a holy air seemed to hang over it. I embarked on the steep climb back to the picnic ground glad that I’d made the trip.

Demir_Baba_tekkesi_Razgrad_isperihDemir Baba

It’s not just Shiite saints however, who are interred near to Isperikh. Several kilometres away, across beautiful rolling countryside, one finds the Thracian Royal Tombs; large humps with spectacular interiors dating from the Third Century BC.

The Thracians were one of the earliest civilizations to dwell in the land that is now Bulgaria. Originally a group of wandering tribes, they first settled in the area around 2000BC, gradually progressing from dwelling in caves, to villages with fortresses. Their most famous remains are perhaps the ruins of Nebet Tepe, the fortress in the heart of Plovdiv’s Old City. The Thracians gradually developed quite a sophisticated civilization before eventually becoming assimilated by the Greeks, Macedonians and Slavs.

The tombs at Isperikh represent the zenith of Thracian civilization, intricately and exquisitely decorated in a Hellenic style, which suggests that those two ancient peoples had close ties with each other. Although the tombs are numerous, it is the Royal Tomb, recently restored by Britain’s Sainsbury Trust and the EU, that holds the spectator in awe; a magnificent chamber whose walls are supported by finely-carved statues of comely maidens. It is not known exactly who the ancient ruler once sealed in the chamber was, although records tell us that Dromichait, the leader of the Getaes, was engaged in a heavy battle during which he captured Lisimach, the heir to Alexander the Great. After the battle, he then took his hostage to his capital Helis, which has subsequently been identified as being the Thracian town near to the tombs. Therefore, is the Royal Tomb that of this famed Dromichait? Perhaps future investigations will shed more light on the matter?

thracian tombInside the Thracian Tomb

Sat on Isperikh’s railway station in the sweltering sun, I was reminded of Yordan Yovkov’s tale ‘Hot Noon’, written about an equally hot and equally quiet provincial railway station somewhere nearby in the North Eastern Bulgaria that he loved. I was tired, yet relaxed by my small expedition to this region of Turks and tombs. Too much history and holiness for one day me reckons, but this pocket of Bulgaria, for some reason completely ignored by all the guidebooks, is one of Bulgaria’s most intriguing. I recommend searching it out.

Copyright © 2003, Matthew E. Pointon

Written in Druzhba, Bulgaria, June 2003

[1] For more information on that, see ‘In a Minority’.

[2] Chorba: literally ‘soup’. The word is both Bulgarian and Turkish, the Bulgars having borrowed it, (as they did many words), off their former colonizers.

[3] Kamenitsa: For my assessment of this popular brand of beer, please consult ‘Nazdravei!’ Incidentally, what crates of beer were doing in a Muslim holy place, makes one wonder and demonstrates admirably the flexible approach to their faith that most Balkan Muslims demonstrate.

[4] Completely unrelated to Bulgaria, but the novels referred to are Ms. Blyton’s Faraway Tree novels, written between 1939 and 1951.

No comments:

Post a Comment