100 years ago Tamrash was the centre of a semi-autonomous Pomak state in the Rhodope. Now the only traces of its former glory are two graveyards plundered by treasure hunters
"Tomrush is a picturesque village, with grey-roofed houses clustering on the side of a steep ravine; but its beauty has been marred by the wholesale destruction of the surrounding forest," James Bourchier, a reporter for The Times, wrote in the early 20th Century. The village is just a few kilometres from Plovdiv, in the northern Rhodope, but to get there Bourchier had to cross the border into the Ottoman Empire, escorted by Bulgarian soldiers.
When Bourchier reached Tamrash, he saw a lively village whose population were Pomaks (Slavs converted to Islam). But he never managed to meet the local leader, Ahmed Aga, the purpose of his visit. Rumour had it then that the Turkish chieftain and some of his kin were behind the brutal quashing of the 1876 April Uprising in the nearby village of Perushtitsa.
Back then the northern Rhodope regions were part of the so-called Pomak Republic, a semi-autonomous area within the Ottoman Empire, whose capital was Tamrash.
But 100 years later the republic is only a historical footnote, and if Bourchier could visit Tamrash today, he wouldn't recognise it.
The once-bare slopes around the village are now covered by thick pine forests, in total silence. The only inhabitants of Tamrash are the guards of the local game preserve and some itinerant Gypsies who, in the summer, make their camp in the former centre of the village, fell trees and subsist on a terrible soup made of boiled pig's lungs, the smell of which fills the entire area.
The village is no more. It's not even on the map. The only things that are left of it are several ivy-covered walls and two graveyards.
To find the graveyards, however, you'll need guidance from either the guards or the Gypsies.
The first graveyard is on a hill to the east of where the rivers Tamrashka and Lilkovska meet. You start climbing up the hill and when a panorama of Rhodope woodland opens up before you, you leave the road and enter the forest. One by one, among the thickets and the pine trees, you start spotting the tombstones.
The second burial ground is to the west of the Tamrashka River, at the end of a path that meanders around the ruined houses. You can only visit it in the company of a forest ranger, as the graveyard, the remains of an old road and two Ottoman bridges are within a doebreeding preserve.
The first graveyard is definitely more picturesque. But what the two sites have in common are the fresh traces of the treasure hunters who have been burrowing around the stones.
"Of course there are treasure hunters here, you can't stop them," says one of guards of the game preserve, while taking me to one of the bridges in the compound. He says the bridges are Roman, because "the Turks didn't know how to build bridges." My guide has no idea that 10 minutes before a colleague of his referred to him as a "treasure hunter." What do treasure hunters search for in the old cemeteries? Don't they know that Muslims bury their dead without any personal belongings? Here my guide starts telling me a long story about a colleague of his who, "while just digging around," found a gold ring "near a grave."
As is usual across Bulgaria, in Tamrash too the prospect of finding something precious fires the imagination of local treasure hunters and gives rise to legends. My guide points to the ford at the place where the Tamrashka and Lilkovska rivers meet. "There was a bridge there," he says. "When Ahmed Aga and his people started their flight to Turkey, the Aga buried his treasure there. After the war he came back with the Plovdiv governor. They dug up the gold and split it between them."
This story is perhaps the final touch to a long series of vicissitudes that have befallen the Rhodope, the mountain folk and Tamrash.
In the 14th Century the Rhodope area was conquered by the then young and aggressive Ottoman Empire. Three centuries later the Bulgarians who lived in the mountains and were Christians converted to Islam.
How and why these people made their fateful decision is a topic which even today can spark off heated arguments. Patriotically inclined historians contend that the conversion wasforced upon them by the state. In fact, just like some of the Greeks on Crete and the Aegean islands, a portion of the Bulgarians adopted the new faith for pragmatic reasons. Muslims paid lower taxes, had more rights and could rise in the hierarchy of the state administration.
The former Christian Bulgarians from the Rhodope – the so-called Pomaks – seized the opportunity which the new religion presented them. In the mountains they set up a semi-autonomous district, which did not have the formal recognition of the Ottoman authorities but whose influence was great enough to command the respect of the Sublime Porte in Istanbul. The village of Tamrash was its unofficial centre.
The relations between the Christian Bulgarians and the Muslim Bulgarians were difficult. The two communities spoke the same language, shared the same legends and celebrated the same holidays, such as Gergyovden, but nonetheless their religions erected an invisible divide between them.
The tension between the two groups came to a head when the Christian villages in the northern Rhodope mountains joined the April Uprising of 1876. The Pomaks chose to keep their privileges, joined the paramilitary forces and put to the sword the villages of Batak, Bratsigovo and Perushtitsa, eventually setting them on fire.
A year later the tables were turned. During the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78 Tamrashwas burned to the ground. Later, the Treaty of Berlin forever changed the region and the Pomak lands became part of Eastern Rumelia, whose capital city was Plovdiv, but everyone knew that it was only a matter of time before it joined the Principality of Bulgaria.
Ahmed Aga had no intention of waiting for these events to unfold. In 1879 the pomak villages refused to pay taxes to Eastern Rumelia and barred the authorities from entering the area. The Plovdiv governor didn't even try to restore his control over these parts and so the Tamrashka Republic was born. Life in it was said to have been peaceful and not only because of the lower taxes. Ahmed Aga managed to keep the peace with only 40 armed men.
The year 1885 saw the reunification of the Principality of Bulgaria and Eastern Rumelia. In the following year the pomak republic became part of the Ottoman Empire, but the territory still had some degree of independence. Such was the situation when Bourchier visited Tamrash and later wrote his "The Pomaks of Rhodope" feature. (This feature, as well as other articles by Bourchier, can be read on www.bourchier.info.)
Things changed radically in 1912, when Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece and Montenegro went to war against the Ottoman Empire. The first Bulgarian shots were fired from the hills around Tamrash. The Pomaks chose to flee, eventually settling in Asia Minor.
The revenge of the Christian Bulgarians followed swiftly, with the people of Perushtitsa being especially active. Tamrash was laid bare and its houses were looted. Nowadays the villagers from nearby Sitovo tell stories about the pogrom that drove the Turks away forever, both from their own village and from Tamrash.
In the 1920s and 1930s massive afforestation was begun in the area, turning the desolate Tamrash into a ghost village. During the Socialist era the Tamrash territory became a hunting ground with a luxury villa – a place of entertainment for the new elite and its foreign guests.
How To Get There
Tamrash is a three hours' drive from Sofia. After Plovdiv, go through the villages of Parvenets and Hrabrino and take the road to Sitovo. After the Boykovo junction, look carefully for an old wooden signpost. From the signpost a relatively good country road will take you down to the Tamrashka River. Take it and you will reach the barrier of the Tamrash game preserve, which is currently managed by a private company. The guards will ask you to leave your car there and continue on foot. Walk up the Tamrashka River for about three kilometres. After you pass the game preserve buildings, there's a 1.5 kilometre walk to a cattle-breeding farm; it is situated on the meeting point of the Tamrashka and Lilkovska rivers. One hundred years ago, this was the centre of Tamrash.
High Beam is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.