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The Best of Bulgaria

SHUMEN is Bulgaria’s tenth largest town. Or at least, that is what my guidebook says. It lists it as having a population of one hundred and seven thousand, six hundred and fifty. So. There are the bare bones for all of you who have never encountered the word ‘Shumen’ in your lives before. Now is the time to flesh it out.

Well, I say those are the bare bones, but of course I might be wrong. Towns, as we know, live and die, ever evolving through time. And alas, fair Shumen has done far more of the dying than the living in the years that have followed Bulgaria’s not-so-triumphant entry into the capitalist fold. The guidebook may state over a hundred thousand souls residing there, but to be honest, I for one very much doubt if her population is much over ninety thousand these days.

Dying or not however, Shumen does also happen to be one of my favourite destinations in all of Bulgaria and at just over an hour away from Varna by rail, countless were the times that I visited her for a day trip. Despite the air of despair and signs of dereliction, (or perhaps even because of them?), I have developed an enduring affection for Shumen, a small city that is both curious and unique, and somehow a symbol of Bulgaria as a whole more than any other of her towns.

I first decided to visit the town after passing through on the train en route to Varna from Sofia and before that, Moscow. In the dying light of a summer’s day, a city loomed up ahead of us, and beside that city, a long low hill. But it was what was perched atop that hill that caught my attention; a huge structure, an unbelievably enormous triangularly-shaped slab of concrete around ten storeys high. What the hell was it? As the train drew nearer, it became clear that it was in fact some sort of monument, but to what and depicting what I could not fathom out. All that I did know was that even in a land littered with large concrete monuments, this was something else, in a league of its own. It could be seen from over ten miles away. It warranted investigation.

And so later on I came to do just that. And upon coming I discovered a fascinating town. I arrived as always, by the iron road, and upon exiting the grand colonnaded precincts of the railway station, found myself heading towards the centre, a centre that is strung out for several kilometres along one cafée-lined street. Nick de Sausmarez, the Head of Varna’s tiny British Council, and a man with whom I have more than once shared an alcoholic beverage or two, told me that he had once known a British guy who’d spent two years teaching in Shumen. “He hated the place,” said Nick. “Despite it being the size of say, Colchester or Stafford, it was like one of those old Wild West towns. Everything happens on that street. To go anywhere or do anything you have to walk down it. And so everybody saw you, and as it was Shumen and no one was at work, ‘cos there is no work there, everybody got to know your business, and what’s more, to discuss it. Shumen, it’s a gossip’s paradise!” I could see what he meant, and I’ll admit now, perhaps my opinion of the place would be a little less enthusiastic if I was forced to spend two years in the place, but I have to say, as I walked down that shady, tree-lined and cafée-inundated boulevard, where ageing Ladas sit and young couples cavort, I found it all rather pleasant.

After the cafes however, that infamous street widens out into a large triangular square named Ploshtad Osvobozhdenie. Here is where the town’s decline can truly be experienced. Whilst the square, and the buildings that line two sides of it, are pleasant enough, the third must be seen to be believed. One feature of the old communist town planners seems to be that they had a certain affection for monolithic projects, complexes so huge that one wonders what use was ever envisioned for them. Perhaps the most famous of these wonders is to be seen, almost completed, not two hundred kilometres away from Shumen, across the Danube in Bucharest. There, the infamous dictator Nicholae Ceacescu decided to build a Palace of the People, a Stalinist pile so huge that reputedly only the Pentagon is bigger. It sits at the end of an equally enormous boulevard and dominates the entire city with its bulk. It also sits however, largely empty and mostly purposeless, for except as a home for the country’s parliament, no other uses have been found for its countless rooms.

Perhaps Shumen’s city fathers once paid a visit to their northern neighbour and came away inspired? I know not. All that I do know is that they too decided to modernise their town in one big fat mega-project. There were to be underground shopping arcades and car parks, a huge cultural centre and a thirteen-storey high, (should they not have spotted the unlucky omen there?), hotel and wide, fast roads with swish pedestrian underpasses.

Problem was, they’d only just got stuck into this Project of Projects when the regime fell and the money abruptly dried up. The roads are there, but largely without cars, and the underpasses, (unused as it is much easier to cross an empty highway), have become stinking rubbish dumps. The unfinished underground mall has steel gates across its entrance, the hotel is over-priced and empty and the cultural centre-cum-car park is an enormous, fenced-off hole with the eerie concrete skeleton of a skyscraper rising up out of the site to complete and dominate the sad scene. It is dereliction, despair, downfall and doomed mega-project at its most awe-inspiring. Walking around it, one feels more like on of the few survivors in those films depicting the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, who pick their way through the ruins of a modern metropolis.

But Shumen is not all doom and gloom, and proceed past the Square of Unrealised Ambitions and one reaches my favourite part of the town; the old bit. There’s crumbling Ottoman houses, a sixteenth century Turkish bazaar and the fine Tomboul Mosque, reputedly the second-largest in the Balkans.  This area is magical for me, as nowhere else in Bulgaria does one get such a truly Balkan feel to the locality, with the evidence of centuries all around you and a mixture of ethnicities and cultures all against a backdrop of wooded and dwelling-smattered hillsides.

Whilst the Bezisten, (the Ottoman covered-market), is unfortunately closed for restoration, (or so they say, I couldn’t see a lot of restoring being done), at present, the Tomboul Mosque is thankfully open to the general public. Bulgaria these days, is not a country blessed with an inordinate number of mosques, but it was not always so. Look at any photograph of any of her major towns in or around 1900 and you will witness a sea of minarets thrusting towards the heavens. Sofia alone boasted around thirty. Nowadays, there is but one in the capital, and although in the predominately Muslim areas such as the Rodopi Mountains, they are fairly numerous, alas, in most other places such is not the case. Nonetheless, some fine examples of Islamic religious architecture do remain; the Banya Bashi in Sofia, the Eski Jamiya in Stara Zagora and most notably the Jumaya Camii in Plovdiv, but in my humble opinion, it is Shumen’s Tomboul that tops them all.

The Sherif Haili Pasha Camii, (to give it its proper name – ‘Tomboul’ just means ‘plump’- a reference to the shape of its dome), was built in 1744 under the auspices of, (surprise, surprise), Sherif Haili Pasha, Turkish general with some money to spare, as a gift to the people of Shumen. It was a generous gift indeed; the mosque boasts a forty metre high minaret, a twenty-five metre wide dome and an attached Medrassah  making it something of a monster mosque by Balkan standards. The gift was probably most appreciated too. From the early days of the Ottoman occupation, the town has always had a large Turkish minority, according to my guide who was a local Muslim himself. This minority did decrease somewhat however, during the infamous Golyamata Ekskursiya of 1989  and although many did return at a later date, this event has no doubt contributed enormously to the town’s present downbeat and half-empty aura. Indeed, even today, there are still close ties with the Mother Country to the south where many of Shumen’s Muslim inhabitants have relatives. I stayed with one family from the town whilst I was in Istanbul and when trying to book a bus back to Bulgaria, I discovered that most of the services headed not to the major population centres of Burgas, Varna, Sofia and Plovdiv, but instead to Shumen and Razgrad, the two Bulgarian cities with the largest Turkish minorities.

However, the presence of a large Muslim minority or not, the Tomboul Mosque, is sadly not all that alive these days. There’s purportedly around twenty thousand Muslims in the city, but only twenty to thirty in the congregation our guide continued, despite the lifting of all government restrictions on religion. As with the followers of the Orthodox Church, most Bulgarians seem to have found little solace in faith since the end of socialism. Like with most of the continent that she sits on, the biggest problem for Bulgarian spirituality is not fear dictated from the top, but apathy dictated from below. And that’s a shame, since the Tomboul would be a fine place to worship. Its floor is covered with beautifully woven carpets from ages past, a stupendous chandelier hangs from the ceiling and some fine paintings adorn the walls. Inside this lofty building, there truly is an atmosphere, though for me, the real beauty lay outside, in the small courtyard of the medrassah. This shady and sheltered spot, with a fine fountain of holy water in its centre, is Ottoman elegance and meditative tranquility itself, a perfect place to sit for hours on end and ponder the Almighty.

After the mosque, the valley in which the town is situated, and thus the town itself, narrows down into virtually nothing, until eventually there is room only for a lane and the premises of the Shumensko Brewery, (alas, not one of Bulgaria’s finest ales in my opinion, the aftertaste is quite shocking). And that lane soon starts to twist and turn its way up the hillside, through the magnificent Pripoden or Kyoshkovete Park up to the Shumen Fortress, a magnificent set of ruins that were once one of the finest castles in the Balkans. Started in the Iron Age, the Thracians later built some walls, and between the Second and Fourth centuries, the Romans then added some more. The Byzantines were the next to leave their mark and during the Second Bulgarian Empire it became one of the country’s greatest military strongholds. That importance however, ended in the Fourteenth Century when the Ottomans came, laid siege to it, burnt it down and then stole half the stones, though it seems that that was not the end of the saga, as any visitor to the ruins soon becomes aware that the communists too did some work on the site. Entering the only extant tower, a landmark that can be seen for miles around, we were surprised to find the interior to be made entirely of reinforced concrete! Hmm… Perhaps the ancient Bulgarian builders were more advanced than we thought?

Great as plump mosques, unfinished cultural centres and concrete castles are though, all pale in the shadow, (literally), of Shumen’s biggest, (again, literally), tourist drawcard. The Monument to the Creators of the Bulgarian State was built in time for the celebrations commemorating the 1,300the Anniversary of the State of Bulgaria held throughout 1981. Not that there had been a continuous Bulgarian State for 1,300 years in 1981 mind. In fact, for most of those thirteen centuries, Bulgaria has been under the domination of one foreign power or another. 1981 was however, the 1,300th anniversary of the establishment of the first ever Bulgarian State which occurred when Khan Asparukh established his kingdom in 681AD. Erm, except that his kingdom was not established then, or at least, it might have been established then, though to be honest, no one really knows. Old Asparukh never thought to record for prosperity when exactly it was that he set up his little realm, so all that the Bulgarian historians have to go on are the chronicles of neighbouring Byzantium. And they first mention a Bulgarian entity in 681AD, which I suppose is as good a date as any.

Or at least that is what the communist leader Todor Zhivkov thought as the 1,300th anniversary to that date in the Byzantine chronicles approached. And to mark that notable occasion, (nothing to do with taking the populace’s minds off a rapidly stagnating economy I’m sure you’ll understand), he decided to indulge in an orgy of patriotic celebration, with parties being thrown and monuments being thrown up across the length and breadth of Bulgaria.

And the big daddy of all those monuments was the Monument to the Founders of the Bulgarian State in Shumen, placed there as the modern city lies roughly midway between the country’s two ancient capitals, Pliska and Preslav. It stands there, on a ridge above the town, a gigantic, modernist concrete wedge that apparently represents a leaping lion, the symbol of the Bulgarian State.  Well, that’s what the artist reckoned anyway. Problem was, so modern and abstract was his design, that no one else could see it. He was ordered to change it twice, yet even today’s finished article is barely recognisable to be what it is supposed to be.

But if the overall shape impresses us not, then the size surely does. And the approach too. Starting from the city centre, one climbs up one thousand three hundred steps, one for each year,  up towards the gigantic edifice, an edifice easily twenty metres high.

And once ‘in’ the monument, (it’s not actually an enclosed space, but it feels like one), that gruelling climb of over a millennium seems worth it. Gigantic, modernistic stone statues of ancient kings glower down upon the modern mortal, whilst massive gold, white and black mosaics depict Christian kings, warriors and sages, whilst all around are immortal quotes from the men who built Bulgaria.

But who are those men, the actual Founders of the Bulgarian State? Well, first and foremost there’s Khan Asparukh, the first official king of Bulgaria. He was the middle son of Kobrat, a man who had been brought up as a Christian in the palace at Constantinople along with a young boy who was to become the famed Emperor Justinian, the builder of Aga Sofia. Kobrat ruled a Bulgar Kingdom named Fangoria which was located in and around the Volga Region of modern-day Russia, (‘Bulgar’ = ‘Volga’, think about it…). It was he who united the Bulgar tribes with a famous yet simple display. After some dissent in the ranks, he took a stick, placed it over his knee and snapped it in two with ease. Then he took a bundle of sticks, placed them over his knee and tried to do the same, and of course, failed. “Divided we are weak,” he declared, “But united we are strong!”

His three sons were entrusted with furthering the Bulgar cause. The eldest, Bagbayan, stayed behind to rule Fangoria in his father’s place, whilst the other two journeyed south and west in search of new lands. Asparukh stopped at Pliska, thrust his sword into the ground and announced to all that that was to be the centre of his new country. The youngest, Kuber, continued onwards, onto what is today’s Macedonia and established a Bulgar kingdom there which was to last until the Eleventh Century.

So it was Asparukh who became the first King of Bulgaria. After establishing his capital in Pliska in 681, (as I said before, the date now recognised as the establishment of the kingdom), he concluded a treaty with Byzantine and later an alliance with the local Slavs.  His son Tervel, (ruled 701-718), who succeeded him, continued to deepen these ties, and thus Bulgaria was here to stay.

Three other ‘Founders’ are celebrated at Shumen however. The first of these three kings is Khan Krum, (ruled 803-814), who defeated an invading Byzantine army by retreating before them and then ambushing them in a mountain pass called Tsarigrad, and then going on to reverse the direction of the fighting until he was besieging Constantinople itself. Krum however, is equally known in Bulgaria as a lawmaker and a strict one at that. Many of the punishments that he decreed, such as chopping off of an arm for thievery have been likened to the Sha’aria Law of Islam.

Secondly, there is Tsar Boris (853-889), who in 865 attempted to further strengthen his empire and people by converting to Christianity. This was not the first time that a Bulgarian king had flirted with the faith – when the grave of Kobrat was unearthed in the Soviet Union, Christian artifacts including a cross-embellished sword were found with his remains – but this time it was official, and for better or worse, the inhabitants of Bulgaria have been largely Christian ever since.

And lastly we have Tsar Simeon (893-927), who moved the capital from Pliska to nearby Preslav. He gave Bulgaria it’s Golden Era, when her borders stretched from the Adriatic to the Aegean and her culture flourished. It was not to last however. In less than a hundred years after his death, the empire had been wholly subjugated by the Byzantines, but he was not to know that and the monument builders of 1981 didn’t bother mentioning it either.

Stood by that edifice, with grim kings of yore looking down upon you and the heartland of that ancient empire laid out like a tablecloth all around, one feels that despite its totalitarian overtones, the Monument to the Founders of the Bulgarian State was worth building after all. Detractors lament that eight kindergartens could have been constructed with the money, but they fail to mention that they could never have been staffed and equipped with it once built. And at least now Shumen does have something rather special, something that even though it doesn’t look much like the leaping lion that it’s meant to be, might, along with the glorious Tomboul Mosque and the majestic fortress, bring the tourists flocking to that city one day in the future and give it a future to equal its past and eclipse the sad and weary present.

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