BULGARIA - GEOGRAPHY
Bulgaria is a country in Southeastern Europe and is situated on the Balkan Peninsula. To the north the country borders Rumania, to the east - the Black Sea, to the south - Turkey and Greece, and to the west - Yugoslavia and Macedonia. The Republic of Bulgaria covers a territory of 110 993 square kilometres. The average altitude of the country is 470 metres above sea level.
The Stara Planina Mountain occupies central position and serves as a natural dividing line from the west to the east. It is a 750 km long mountain range stretching from the Vrushka Chuka Pass to Cape Emine and is part of the Alpine-Himalayan mountain range. It reaches the Black Sea to the east and turns to the north along the Bulgarian-Yugoslavian border.
A natural boundary with Romania is the Danube River, which is navigable all along for cargo and passenger vessels.
The Black Sea is the natural eastern border of Bulgaria and its coastline is 378 km long. There are clearly cut bays, the biggest two being those of Varna and Bourgas. About 25% of the coastline are covered with sand and hosts our seaside resorts.
The southern part of Bulgaria is mainly mountainous. The highest mountain is Rila with Mt. Moussala being the highest peak on the Balkan Peninsula (2925 m). The second highest and the mountain of most alpine character in Bulgaria is Pirin with its highest Mt. Vihren (2914 m), followed by the Rhodope Mountains and Vitosha.
The plains and the lowlands of Bulgaria cover large areas to the north and the south of the Stara Planina Mountain. The Danube Plain is the biggest, bordering Yugoslavia to the west, the Dobroudzha region and the Black Sea to the east, the river Danube to the north and the Balkan Mountains to the south. Its relef is noted for the numerous plateaus, hills and river valleys cutting through the mountain.
Dobroudzha is a hilly plain, situated in the north-eastern corner of Bulgaria. It is also referred to as " the granary of Bulgaria".
The Rose Valley is located to the north between Stara Planina - Bulgaria and the long and low mountain chain of Sredna Gora Mountain. Besides the widespread crops, the valley is typical for the oil-yielding rose grown there. It is one of the patents of the unique climate of Bulgaria. Another is the world-famous Bulgarian yogourt, made with the help of the yeast-type "bacillus Bulgaricum" (Lactobacterium Bulgaricum Grigoroff).
The Thracian Lowland is the second biggest in the country, starting from the mountains that surround Sofia to the west and reaching the Black Sea to the east. It stretches between the Sredna Gora to the north and Rila, the Rhodope Mountains and Strandzha to the south. Crops typical for the southern longitudes are grown there and sometimes two harvests are gathered.
Many European travellers claim that Bulgaria is Eden on Earth. It has everything: a sea; rivers and lakes, high mountains, virgin forests, plateaus and plains, hot and cold mineral springs.
BULGARIA - CULTURE
One can get acquainted with the pre-historic culture of Bulgaria mainly through the exhibitions displayed at the Archaeological Museum and the National Museum of History in Sofia and through the exhibits in the local museums in Plovdiv, Stara Zagora, Nova Zagora, Varna, Rousse, Veliko Tarnovo, Razgrad, Vidin, Bourgas, etc.
The sights of particular interest include the famous Karanovska Mound near Nova Zagora, as well as the incredible drawings on the walls of the Magoura Cave (the Rabisha Cave). There are remains from Palaeolithic cultures in several caves in the Stara Planina Mountain and the Rhodope Mountains, while traces of Neolithic and Palaeolithic cultures by the sea are preserved in the areas of Cape Kaliakra to the north along the coast to the southern town of Ahtopol. Most of the remains are indicative of high level masterful use materials such as clay, kaolin, stone, wood, bronze and iron. The remains of pottery and other household ware dating back to the late Palaeolithic and the early Neolithic Ages found near Nova Zagora are extremely interesting and unique. This is the reason why the Karanovska Mound was called "the Noah's Ark" of European civilisation as it exhibits seven consecutive archaeological cultural layers.
There are some of the first signs of the future archaic Mediterranean culture in it, which, along with the development of trade, became a model to whole Old World. The Hotnitsa treasure, which was found among the remains of a late Eneolithic building (2nd half of 5th millenium BC) and mostly the findings in the Necropolis of Varna (the late Eneolithic period) are indisputable evidence of the existence of well-developed civilisation in Southeastern Europe. Quite impressive are the settlement mounds (8th-6th centuries BC) in the Eastern Rhodopes, Strandzha and Sakar Mountains, which illustrate the construction mastership of the Thracians in the early Iron Age.
The culture of the Thracians is represented in some of the most brilliant examples of their applied arts. The ancient Thracians were unsurpassed in processing different kinds of metals. The pots made of different metals combined in one and skillfully decorated with filigree are a challenge for researchers and antique admirers from New York to Tokyo. Most famous are the Gold Treasure Collection from Panagyurishte, the Silver Treasure Collection from Rogozen, the Vulchitrun Treasure, the flying pegasus from Sveshtari and the burial urns from the Thracian tombs.
Despite being built under the strong influence of the Old Greek architecture, the thombs illustarte the passion of the Thracians for different architectural styles, their aesthetic and theological beliefs in those archaic and antique times. The racing chariots in the Kazanluk tomb and the caryatids in the tomb near Sveshtari are really very impressive. There have been discovered some new unique findings from Thracian times over the past few years thanks to the initiative and the organisational talent of a team of Bulgarian archaeologists with Professor Georgi Kitov at the head. The excavations they have made reveal some unknown aspects of the everyday life of the Thracians, as well as their burial customs and rituals. All of these have written new pages in our history books on the Thracians. About 100 mounds have been explored, more than 30 architectural constructions, and more than 5000 items of high scientific, artistic and museum value were found. Alexander Fol, Bogdan Bogdanov and Ivan Marazov with their intriguing research have contributed to our better understanding of the history of the Thracians. There already exists sufficient scientific material on the ancient Thracian and Hellenic traces on the Balkans.
According to Herodotus, the Thracians were second in number and cultural achievements in the world after the Indians. Throughout the country there are numerous remains from Thracian, Hellenic and Roman culture. Whole town sites have been preserved, restored and opened to public. Some of them are Augusta Trayana, Trimontsium, Nicopolis ad Istrum, Pautalia, Akre, Messembria, Apolonia and many others. Bulgarian museums abound in exhibits of the ancient everyday life, cult related and military items, statues, tombstones and monuments, masks, mosaics, statuettes of ancient gods, patrons of the home, and heroes. Under the capital city of Sofia have been excavated about 150, 000 square metres of ruins from the ancient city of Serdica. Almost every new building site in the centre of Sofia reveals some cultural layers from the Antiquity. Many scientists considered that the civilisation on the Balkans was secondary and a kind of satellite to the Greek civilisation. However, there are preserved remains and cultural evidence prove that it was actually a synthesis of the Thracian culture and the cultures of the tribes who later settled here. Increasing number of archaeological finds confirm the complete autonomy of Thracian culture as regards the Greek culture till the zenith of Aegean settlements (polisi) in the 5th century BC.
The famous Old Greek and Roman pantheon borrowed one third of the gods of the neighbouring Thracians neighbours - Dionisus - Ares (Mars), Zagrei become Zeus (Jupiter), Bendida became Hera (Yuniona), etc. The Thracians not only enriched Greek and Roman mythology but also the borrowings included some of their mysteries, cults and part of the holiday calendar of the Mediterranean and Black Sea regions, which is preserved, although somewhat reduced, to this day. All the town museums of history in Bulgaria have rich collections, consisting of antique cultural exhibits that reveal the town life of the people of that distant past, with their religious, cultural and daily needs. The amphitheatres and the spa in Plovdiv, Sofia and Varna are of great historical value.
A great number of scientists have written about the antiquity and Hellenic history of the Balkans; works on these topics in Bulgarian and in the most widespread European languages date back to the middle of the 19th century till today. The invasion of the Slavs and the ancient Bulgarians, alongside the foundation of Bulgaria, brought about some new tendencies in the cultural development of the country. The Bulgarians introduced a new symbol system of writing (tamgova). The Old Greek letters were rarely used, mainly in bilingual chronicles and texts concerning the wars between the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) and Bulgaria. These texts can be deciphered only partially because of the lack of sufficient lexical sources, bilingual texts and the lack of a good systematic order in the writings. Most of them are petroglyphs, preserved on stone. Part of the symbols may also be found on the bottoms of pottery and on terra cotta tiles, while others have been preserved on papyrus and parchment manuscripts from Byzantium, in Arabian scrolls, on cult plate and warriors' accoutrements. Numerous ceremonial and sanctuary accessories used by the ancient Bulgarians were found, as well as calendar devices. Many legends, songs and customs from that period are also preserved.
Some interesting finds of gold and bronze collections date back to that time, too, for example the treasure from Nagy St. Miklos, rings of Bulgarian rulers and nobility, burial sites of army leaders and khans, the sword of Khan Kubrat, the golden treasure accompanying his burial, etc. A number of scientists have devoted their lives and exerted a lot of effort to revealing this layer of our history of culture, about which very little is known. The pro-Soviet and pro-Slavic policy was a great obstacle in doing serious historic research. The names of Ivan Venedikov, Slavi Donchev, Peter Dobrev, Yordan Vulchev, and those of the late Stanishev and D. Sussulov are well known for their contribution to the world science with a number of hypotheses and facts about the original homeland of the so-called "horseback" tribes, their culture, religion, and language. The very fact that the name "Bulgaria" was preserved in the Balkans shows that the ethos from the steppes of Central Asia had a strong cultural identity.
Very little has reached our time from the Slavic culture as it served late kin-tribal relations. One can learn about it from Byzantine chronicles and some inscriptions in the Cyrillic alphabet. The adoption of Christianity marked a new epoch in Bulgarian history. Besides the pre-Christian monuments in the capital Pliska and the Madara Horseman (the biggest bas-relief in Europe) quite interesting are the early churches and buildings, which can be found in Veliki Preslav as well as in many early mediaeval towns along the Black Sea coast and in the country's inland.
The 9th century - called "Golden Age" of Bulgarian culture, is considered to mark the beginning of the Bulgarian literature as well. Besides the translations of Christian religious texts, apologies, prayers and church songs were created, too. Some of the names that are emblematic to national culture include Cherorizets Hrabur, identified by some scientists as Tsar Simeon I, Joan Kukuzel the Angel Voice - a singer and composer of many marvelous religious songs, the disciples of the brothers Cyril and Methodius - Kliment Ohridski (of Ohrid), Sava, Naum, Gorazd and Angelarii, canonised by the Orthodox Church for their spiritual contribution to their people.
The various ethnic groups that form the Bulgarian nation add to the richness of its culture. Many holidays, customs and songs, fairy tales, sayings and riddles have been preserved and are unique in Bulgarian and European culture as a whole. The early Christian monasteries are very interesting in cultural and architectural respect. The most imposing of them is the Rila Monastery dating back to the 10th century - a stronghold of Bulgarian spirit and literature. The combination of Central Asian, Thracian and Early Christian elements on the domes and the columns in the churches, in the construction of the buildings, and in the layout of the early fortresses and settlements is unique of its kind. All of them show the fine taste of the Bulgarian rulers, their profound knowledge and skills to intertwine elements from different cultures without showing any uncivilised eclecticism characteristic of countries at a low level of their civilisation. Some Roman buildings, mainly Christian Orthodox churches from the period of Byzantine domination (11th and 12th centuries) are also preserved. They are being used even today, after a certain cultural assimilation and with some new icon paintings.
The cultural development of the country after its liberation from Byzantine rule is overwhelmingly rich and shows the unique Bulgarian identity. The magnificent fortresses in Vidin, Cherven, Beroe, Sredets, Assenovgrad, Belogradchik and many other Mediaeval Bulgarian towns are still preserved and nowadays are being used as the settings for the shooting of historical films. University students, archaeologists and architects carry extensive research work there. They are remarkable not only for the scale of their construction but mainly for the extraordinary mastership of their builders and the strategic location chosen in such a way as to completely merge with the landscape. There are magnificent frescos in the churches and the monasteries from that period. The wall paintings in the Boyana Church near Sofia is compared to the best Renaissance models, though actually preceding them with a century and a half. The hesichastic monasteries, among which the Ivanovo, the Aladzha and the Bachkovo Monasteries, are stunning examples of the mastery of their builders, icon painters and wood carvers, of the brilliant combination of the surrounding landscape with the location of the religious building. The restored archaeological complex of the ancient capital Veliko Turnovo is very imposing, indeed. There is the Tsarevets Hill with the incredible town layout, the walls, churches, turrets and everyday life facilities. The churches and monasteries nearby the town, as well as the nearby village Arbanassi are stunning for their uniqueness and bespeak the erudition and mastery of the Bulgarian rulers, their intellectual superiority and Renaissance way of thinking.
Some of the frescos found in the Bulgarian churches and monasteries of that period depict diabolical, theatrical, dancing and Bogomil scenes. Considered a heresy, these frescos are material evidence of the cultural history of Bulgaria, an unwritten textbook about the unknown aspects of Orthodoxy. The literary work of this period is remarkable. Presviter Kozma and Patriarch Evtimii are two of the most prominent men of letters and clerical leaders of Bulgarian people. A great number of religious songs written in symbols (writing notes without the note lines), which now comprise part of the church choirs repertoire, have been preserved to this day and have made Bulgaria world famous. Some ancient marginalias (notes in the margins of old-printed books) and transcripts of the Holy Book are famous exhibits in museums all over the world, the most well known of which is the Tetraevangelia of Tzar Ivan Alexander exhibited in the British Museum in London. It is a real piece of art containing superb calligraphic letters, title letters with incredibly beautiful ornaments and drawings in the margins that equal the best of their kind in the world.
After the invasion of the Ottoman Turks Bulgaria's culture went on the decline. Many mosques and buildings in Oriental style were constructed then, part of which are still preserved. During the first decades of foreign domination the building of Orthodox churches was officially banned. Later it was permitted again but only if they were built under the ground so they would not be taller than a Turkish soldier on horseback would. The art of calligraphy and marginal drawing was developed only in monasteries far from the vigilant eyes of the Ottomans. The transcripts were scarce, at least during the first two centuries. The construction of new monasteries started only in the 17th and 18th centuries after the official permission of the Porte. Various schools in icon painting, wood carving of altars, and constructions of churches and monasteries were established.
Despite the official independence of the Bulgarian church, it was subordinate to the Greek Orthodox Church and had to observe the order of the Turkish Sultan, which stipulated that all the icon inscriptions were written and all the church services were conducted in Greek. The struggle for the freedom of the church lasted for more than a century and eventually finished with gaining total independence of Bulgarian church. This gave a new impetus to the development of the icon painting and woodcarving schools, the most famous of which were the ones in Tryavna, Debur and Bansko. Zahari Zograph is a name known to every Bulgarian as one of the greatest icon painters of the time. His disciples created a new style in icon painting by introducing the portraying of ordinary people, church donors and benefactors of the spiritual life in Bulgaria. The somewhat forgotten and banned holidays in the secular and religious calendar were revived and the Bulgarian customs and rituals, as well as the folk songs and dances started to thrive. Songs were sung about heroes, haiduti, work, love, battles, nature and God. It was then that the country entered its National Revival. Father Paisii of Hilendar wrote his "History of the Slavonic Bulgarian People" - reminding the Bulgarians of their historical origin and restoring their self-confidence, spirit of national belonging and freedom. This thin book had numerous rewritings and did what many fruitless uprisings could not have done. There were two other books on Bulgarian history written by Blazius Kleiner and Raino Popovich preceding it, but they were known only to a few Bulgarian intellectuals living in exile and were too incomplete. One of the re-writers of Paisii's history was Sofronii Vrachanski, himself a writer and spiritual leader.
The architecture during the Revival had very distinctive features. Today one can see many quarters and town centres as well as settlements perfectly accomplished by the constructors of the time. Cobbled streets, houses on sloping terrain, bow-window balconies, small windows, colour palmettes on the side walls, and especially the bright colours in which the houses, one close to another, were painted, are typical for that period. Wood, stone and limestone were the basic construction materials. The houses' interior is usually very intimate. The earthen floors, the little fireplaces, the wood-carved ceilings, the low doors and the window seats are characteristic for this new architectural style, later called "a la Franga". Some fine examples of it may be found in Koprivshtitsa, Veliko Turnovo, Plovdiv, Shiroka Luka, Tryavna, Gabrovo, Elena, Kotel, Bozhentzi, Melnik and many other places in the country. They are frequently visited by artists, poets and musicians as well as by many tourists from the five continents. Of particular interests are the crafts of that time best preserved and displayed in the Etura open-air museum of art crafts near the town of Gabrovo, in Dobrich, Plovdiv, Tryavna, etc. The original architecture of buildings and bridges created a unique atmosphere in the towns of the Revival. One of the most renowned masters of building from that period is Nikola Fichev (Usta Kolyo Ficheto) ("usta" meaning master), whose hands created masterpieces of churches and belfries, unique bridges, buildings and drinking-fountains.
The preservation of the unique Bulgarian culture is one of the problems of our times. Typical for Bulgarian folk music, for example, are the irregular rhythms, treble singing, two-part and three-part singing. The great task before the modern artists is to turn back to Bulgarian cultural roots, to study and re-create different themes from our over a thousand years old cultural treasury. This is the way to the Promised Land of the well-preserved national spirit, which to show the world the real Bulgaria - a land of an ancient, creative people of dignity.
BULGARIA - UNESCO sites
Nine national sites are included in UNESCO List of World Cultural and Nature Heritage:
The Boyana Church It is admired for the unique frescoes dating back to 1259, which are considered masterpieces of European Medieval art of painting. It is located in Boyana Quarter, 8 km from Sofia.
Ivanovski Rock Monasteries A monastery complex in the rocks with tens of well preserved inscriptions and wonderful wall paintings - an exceptional monument of Bulgarian Medieval art. It is located in the rocks above Roussenski Lom River, about 18 km from the town of Rousse.
Kazanluk Tomb Thracian tomb dating back to the end of the 4th- the beginning of the 3rd century BC. The frescoes in the burial
chamber and in the corridor are of extreme artistic value. It is situated on the Tyulbeto Hill nearby the town of Kazanluk.
Madara Horseman A bas-relief cut in Madara rocks. It is the most impressive piece of monumental art from the Early Medieval Epoch, evidencing that the Bulgarians are of Indo-European origin and culture and a highly civilised statehood people. This monument is the only of its type in European cultural history and is located nearby the village of Madara, about 16 km from the town of Shoumen.
Pirin National Park Being part of the beautiful Pirin Mountain, the National Park is noted for its specific relief and unique flora and fauna species. The Park includes the Bayuvi Doupki-Dzhindzhiritsa Biosphere Reserve, as well. The park occupies the highest ridges of Western Pirin.
Nessebur, the Old Town An architecture-historical and archaeological reserve with ancient archaeological remains of various periods, original churches from the 5th - 17th centuries and more than hundred authentic Revival houses.
Sreburna Reserve A biosphere reserve including the Sreburna Lake and the neighbouring areas. It is created to preserve rare flora and fauna species. The reserve is situated 16 km west of the town of Silistra.
The Rila Monastery The most monumental monastery complex in Bulgaria of extremely high architectural and artistic value. Founded in the 10th century, rebuilt and expanded in 13th - 14th centuries, centre of literature in the 15th century and completed in its present magnificent outlook in the 19th century. It is situated in Northwestern Rila, about 3 km from the town of Rila and about 120 km from the city of Sofia.
Sveshtari Tomb A Thracian tomb dating back to the first half of the 3rd century BC. The central burial chamber is heavily decorated and with imposing high relief of caryatids. It is located nearby the village of Sveshtari, 7m south-west of the town of Isperih. The first four sites were included in the list of world heritage in 1979, the next four - in 1983 and the last one - in 1985. The diverse natural, cultural and religious features of these venues make them attractive to visitors and at the same time offer excellent opportunities for having a walk, making observations and research, for taking photos, spending one's holidays, for sports and tourism. There are plenty of souvenirs sold in specialised shops in the parks and reserves, which in the greater part are hand-made and may be found decorating Bulgarian houses. They attract the foreign visitors with their craftsmanship and are taken abroad as a small piece of the spirit of Bulgaria.