Sun, May 19 2013
RECENTLY I took a four-hour bus ride southeast from Sofia to Kurdjali. I had not been there in eight years. Bulgarian friends told me the city had changed, that I might not recognise it. I remembered how beautiful Kurdjali sat among the Eastern Rhodope Mountains and, now that I was back in Bulgaria, I wanted to return and spend a day exploring its tourist sites. When I arrived, I called the number of a travel agency and spoke with an agent in Bulgarian.
He suggested meeting me on a corner near the main boulevard. I headed off and, to my surprise, met a friend on the way. He had participated in an outdoor camp I had organised years ago as a Peace Corps volunteer. We shook hands and laughed. It was amazing to see him again. I was in a hurry to make my meeting and suggested we talk on the way. "I'm probably that person you're meeting", he said, "I must have spoken with you on the phone."
Kurdjali is quaint yet diverse. In the past four elections, the mayors have come from Muslim Bulgarian, ethnic Turk, ethnic Bulgarian and ethnic Turk backgrounds, in that order. Demographic records indicate that of about 70 000 people in the city, 62 per cent are ethnic Turks, 31 per cent are ethnic Bulgarians and three per cent are Roma. Included in the municipality of Kurdjali are small towns and villages where agriculture (primarily tobacco farming), forestry and mining are the main professions.
Outside influences have always affected culture in Kurdjali. Muslim Bulgarians living in isolated mountain villages southwest of Kurdjali are colloquially referred to as "Pomaks." The term loosely translates to mean "collaborator," referring to people who were coerced or voluntarily accepted Islam during the Ottoman occupation (mainly from the 16th to 18th century). More appropriately called Muslim Bulgarians, these people retained most of their Bulgarian customs.
More recently, beginning in 1984 under the government of Todor Zhivkov, Muslims were forced to adopt traditionally Slavic names and renounce Muslim customs. The programme continued until 1989, when , according to various estimates, about 300 000 ethnic Turks left Bulgaria for Turkey, many from the Kurdjali region. Since that time, the Bulgarian National Assembly has taken measures to restore the Pomaks' civil rights. For instance, a 1991 law allows people to remove name endings like "ov" and "ova". This includes Muslim Bulgarians and Roma people subjected to name changes before or during the 1984-89 campaign.
Today, the ethnicity of Kurdjali is changing once again. The induction of Bulgaria into the European Union in 2007 will open borders to Europe and, more locally, to Greece, a distance of only 40km from Kurdjali. The result is a booming real estate industry for the region. Many ethnic Turks from Bulgaria are returning from Turkey to buy and build properties. Prices in the city centre are about 500 euro a square metre. A friend of mine living in a block said the value of his apartment increased by four times over the past three years.
Europeans, particularly the English and Scots, are buying properties as well. Bulgarian real estate firms advertise over the internet and at fairs throughout Europe. There is good reason to buy around Kurdjali. Homebuyers can choose properties along the Arda River near the Kurdjali, Studen Kladenits (meaning "cold well") and Evailovgrad reservoirs. Perhaps more popular are the abandoned stone villages that overlook forested mountains at elevations up to 2000m. These are the same lands that were depopulated during the name-change campaigns.
In one mountain village I visited, 60km from Kurdjali, I spoke with a retired woman selling her property. She had worked in a bread factory for 30 years and now had a pension of 55 leva a month. She was happy with her life, but she was starting to become concerned about her health. As with most people in the area, her hospitality was splendid, a part of her nature. She insisted I take some chocolate candies before our chat was over and said goodbye with the common phrase in Bulgarian, "vasitchko hubavo" or "all the best." I turned to go and she added blessings from both "Allah" and "Gospodi".
In addition to the natural wonders of the area, the historical site of Perperikon has become an international attraction. I went there with friends and our driver by way of back roads. In between dodging potholes, our driver beeped his horn at acquaintances along the way. He called out to me in Turkish as I sat in the back seat, "Ben borda, sen corckmu," meaning, "When I am here, don't worry." On the way he described tobacco farming. According to him, farming 1000 to 2000 square metres was not serious work. Three thousand to 4000 square metres of fields are a good start for tobacco farming, he said. He referred to the tobacco fields as the "Zeleno More" or "Green Sea."
The significance of Perperikon did not strike me until I arrived. Situated on an elevated rock outcropping 15km from Kurdjali, it has been regarded as a sacred site for thousands of years. Following renewed media and fundraising efforts and archeological studies over the past few years, Perperikon's story is now being told. The earliest signs of ritual activity there have been found in pottery pieces dating from the sixth to the fifth millennium BCE. Archeologists believe that later, from the 18th to 12th century BCE, the site emerged as a sacred centre.
Perperikon is widely known as the site of a temple for the oracle of Dionysus. Visitors can see the remains of the temple, an oval hall open to the sky with a round alter in the middle. Ancient texts from the Greek historian Herodotus describe the Thracian tribe that guarded the temple as mountain people resistant to outside authority. According to Herodotus, they refused to meet with the Persian King Xerxes during his campaign against Greece in the fifth century BC.
Ancient authors also point to Perperikon as the site where Alexander the Great received a prophecy that he would rule the world. The site has been further connected with Rome, Byzantium and the two original Bulgarian kingdoms. In various power struggles, the sacred structures of Perperikon were damaged and subsequently rebuilt. Then, during the decline of the Byzantine Empire from the early to mid-14th century, the structures were nearly destroyed and the site practically forgotten. For centuries, the local people simply referred to it as a ghost hill. Indeed it might have seemed that way, an overgrown stone staircase leading to the top of a rocky peak.
Much has changed in the Kurdjali region since my last stay. In 1996, I remember super-inflation, a failing bank system, strikes and political struggles. On this most recent visit, I had the fortune of arriving for the Eastern Orthodox Easter Holiday. Many young people had returned from other countries and were driving quickly up and down the streets with new cars and motorcycles. When I talked with young friends about entrance into the EU, many were cautiously optimistic. Older people expressed their doubts. One woman wondered what the EU could offer when, in her words, "Democracy has lied to us for 15 years."
Indeed, there are many questions to be answered in the future. More certain is the continued role of Kurdjali as a cultural mixing bowl and as a passage to Bulgaria.
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