FROM GHOST TO LOUVRE

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Can abandoned naval base in Sozopol become an international art hot spot?

st kirik island.jpg

Whenever the Louvre is mentioned, most people think of tourists elbowing their way for a selfie with the Mona Lisa, the once controversial glass pyramid and the protagonist of a thriller searching for (spoiler alert) Jesus Christ's bloodline. In 2017, the number of Louvres in the world doubled with the opening of Louvre Abu Dhabi, an UAE-French partnership with ambitious architecture and an even more ambitious, multimillion-dollar programme for purchasing and loaning items of art.

In late 2020 (an eventful year by any standard), Bulgaria was thrown into the mix when the Culture Ministry announced that the French and UAE governments were interested in expanding the Louvre brand to a former isle off the Black Sea coast. The Bulgarian Louvre, as the project was dubbed, would have archaeology and underwater archaeology museums, galleries, cinemas and research facilities.

Fit for the third Louvre in the world?

Fit for the third Louvre in the world?

At first glance, St Kirik Isle, in the harbour at Sozopol, is an unlikely place for a Louvre. The 20-acre piece of land, connected to the mainland with a concrete pier, has been off limits for years; a dystopian spectre of trees gone wild around the crumbling skeleton of an art nouveau building. Critics of the Bulgarian Louvre have already pointed out that Sozopol might be a busy summer destination but is empty of visitors most of the year. Investing so much money in a cultural institution few people would visit does not make sense, they say. Others remembered a scandal that broke out in early 2020. A long-planned Louvre exhibition of Bulgarian artefacts from the time of the Ottoman domination was cancelled after Bulgarian nationalists joined by the Holy Synod objected against exhibiting 16th-18th century Eastern Orthodox icons at the museum's Islamic art section.

On closer examination, both Sozopol and St Kirik have a historical connection to both art and radical transformation. Sozopol's decades-long Apolonia art festival and its fading reputation as a refuge for artists are just the most recent examples.

When ancient Greek colonists established Sozopol, in the 7th century BC, they chose Apollo, the patron of the arts, as their official deity. According to archaeologists, a 13-metre bronze statue of the god adorned the isle of St Kirik, where the earliest Greek settlement was also located. Over time, most inhabitants moved to the mainland. The statue was lost in 72BC, when the invading Romans took it to Rome as war booty.

Sozopol seen from St Kirik isle

Sozopol seen from St Kirik isle

Archaeologists are yet to discover how life on St Kirik Isle went on from then, but the history of Sozopol is pretty clear. The city remained an important and prosperous Greek trading post throughout Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Its decline began in the 19th century, when nearby Burgas emerged as the main transportation and trading hub of the region. By the early 20th century, Sozopol had become a sleepy town of fishermen who inhabited beautiful but ageing wooden houses scattered among ancient and medieval ruins.

Then disaster struck. With tensions running high between Bulgarians and Greeks in the early 20th century, the brutalities of the two Balkan wars and the Great War in 1912-1918 proved too contentious for both countries. In 1924-1925, Bulgaria and Greece agreed to de-escalate with a mutual exchange of populations. In this way neither country could later become embroiled in property claims relating to its citizens. The political decision came at great human cost, as thousands of Greeks and Bulgarians had to leave their ancestral homes. Local communities and economies changed for ever as well. The Greek fishermen of Sozopol and all around the Bulgarian Black Sea coast were replaced by former shepherds and farmers, who had no idea how to make a living from the sea.

This was how the idea for a special fishing school in Sozopol came about in 1924. The school would be under the patronage of the Bulgarian king, and would instruct boys from the Black Sea settlements free of charge, while introducing modern seafaring methods and technologies.

Communist era mural extols the benefits of cooperation between science and military for the defence of the People's Republic of Bulgaria

Communist era mural extols the benefits of cooperation between science and military for the defence of the People's Republic of Bulgaria

In 1925, the construction of a school on St Kirik started. Laying the foundation stone was a huge public event, attended by a number of officials and King Boris III himself.

If you are wondering why the opening of a school for fishermen attracted such attention, you have a point. The crème de la crème of Bulgarian political life was assembled in Sozopol because the school was more than what appeared on the surface.

It was a covert operation by the Bulgarian government to navigate around one of the most humiliating stipulations of the Treaty of Neuilly of 1919, imposed by the Entente on defeated Bulgaria. Under its terms, Bulgaria had to completely demilitarise, dissolve its Navy and Air Force and not acquire modern weapons. Compulsory military service was to be abolished and the armed forces of the entire country were not to exceed 33,000 men, including the police.

Today, the ruins at St Kirik are of interest mainly to urbex explorers

Today, the ruins at St Kirik are of interest mainly to urbex explorers 

Outwardly Bulgaria complied, but secretly began a series of initiatives to ensure that it would not completely lose its military tradition. The St Kirik school was one of them. It provided not only fishing education but also hosted the cadets of the officially discontinued Naval Academy in Varna. As early as 1920, the academy had been removed from the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defence and its navigation unit was officially renamed as a unit of fishermen.

In 1927, a quay was built, connecting St Kirik to the mainland. The school opened in 1930, but a couple of years later there was a media outcry that the Black Sea did not have enough fish to sustain a fishing industry. Subsequently, the government was forced to close it. In 1934, the Marine Engineering School (the former Naval Academy) moved into the compound on St Kirik island.

The Second World War loomed on the horizon, and in 1940 the political climate was so different that the Naval Academy reopened in Varna. The building on St Kirik was abandoned.

The ruins of the fishermen's school. The isle has already been the home of an ambitious project that eventually failed

The ruins of the fishermen's school. The isle has already been the home of an ambitious project that eventually failed

After 1944, the Navy took over the island, turning it into a military base that was home to two naval divisions and a maintenance unit. More buildings were constructed, together with three underground depots. In 2007, when the Ministry of Defence closed the Navy base and transferred its property to the Ministry of Regional Development.

In the following years, ideas for turning the isle into a tourist attraction appeared on a regular basis, but nothing happened. It remains to be seen whether the Bulgarian Louvre will join that crowd. Meanwhile, lack of maintenance has taken its toll, turning the empty school into a melancholy ruin, captivating the imagination with its strange beauty.

The Isle of Kirik remains off-limits for visitors to this day. 

The actual Louvre

The actual Louvre

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