1,340 YEARS OF BULGARIA

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Creators of Bulgaria monument in Shumen continues to stun

creators_of_the_bulgarian_state_monument_2.jpg

When was Bulgaria founded? If you ask Google, be prepared for a travel through a rabbit hole of increasingly bizarre theories that use fanciful "evidence" to "disprove" the "ruling hypothesis" that Bulgaria came into being in 681. The most extravagant ones claim that Bulgarians are the oldest nation in the world, of course.

But let's concentrate on what actually happened, according to several generations of professional historians who have conscientiously and scientifically pored through the available sources. In the 5th century, a nomadic people called by historical convention Proto-Bulgarians settled north of the Black Sea. In the 7th century they even created a state, called Old Great Bulgaria. But it could not withstand the push of another nomadic people, the Khazars, and disintegrated. Some Proto-Bulgarians decided to stay. Others hopped on their horses and moved on.

The statue of Khan Asparuh, the founder of Bulgaria (left), and three prominent early rulers dominate the monument's "pagan" part

The statue of Khan Asparuh, the founder of Bulgaria (left), and three prominent early rulers dominate the monument's "pagan" part

One of these groups, led by Khan Asparuh, crossed the Danube, defeated the Byzantines and settled in what is now northeastern Bulgaria. In 681, the Bulgarians and the Byzantines signed a peace treaty. It was not to last, but nevertheless it is considered the first official document that recognises the existence of a political entity south of the Danube. It was called Bulgaria.

Unlike so many Barbarian states and statelets that appeared, wreaked havoc and then were quick to disappear, Bulgaria survived. In the first centuries of its existence, the so-called Proto-Bulgarians mingled with some other pagan peoples who already inhabited the newly conquered lands. The Slavs had arrived a couple of centuries earlier while the ancient Thracians had been around since the 2nd millennium BC. With time, these peoples mixed their cultures and genes to give birth to the modern Bulgarian nation.

Thirteen centuries after Asparuh signed that fateful treaty with the humiliated Emperor Constantine IV, Bulgaria was unrecognisable. It was a Communist state ruled by a single party that imposed its grip on all aspects of life: from economy to culture. At the top was a man with almost monarchic power, a dictator. Todor Zhivkov had ruled Bulgaria for more than two decades by this moment, and he eagerly placed his own family in government.

The mosaic in the Christian part of the monument extolls the Bulgarian Golden Age with its cultural and military achievements

The mosaic in the Christian part of the monument extolls the Bulgarian Golden Age with its cultural and military achievements

His daughter, Lyudmila, was a culture minister but her power went beyond the arts and crafts. In the 1960s Bulgaria had made a turn from Communist internationalism to nationalism. In the 1970s, young and ambitious Zhivkova went further. She turned the propaganda of nationalistic ideas and self-assuredness in Bulgaria's century-old history into a political tool. She used it both internationally, with travelling exhibitions of ancient Thracian gold treasures, for example, and domestically, where "patriotic" education and propaganda was everywhere – from the school curriculum to movie making.

Conveniently, 1981 – the 1,300th anniversary of Bulgaria's establishment – was approaching. Not to miss the opportunity, Lyudmila Zhivkova initiated a number of grand, expensive and, plainly put, megalomaniacal construction projects to commemorate the event. The purpose was to cement in both real and metaphorical concrete the idea of Bulgaria's glory and the inevitability of Communism as the apex of its national evolution.

The grandest of those monuments was the Creators of the Bulgarian State on a plateau overlooking Shumen, in northeastern Bulgaria.

The Creators of the Bulgarian State monument is particularly popular with... Japanese and Israeli tourists

The Creators of the Bulgarian State monument is particularly popular with... Japanese and Israeli tourists. The Israelis are stunned mainly owing to the monument's dimensions. Where in tiny Israel could you ever see anything like that?! 

Shumen was chosen because it was close to the ruins of Bulgaria's first capitals Pliska and Preslav and because of the plateau's domineering position that would make the future monument visible from miles around. The monument was dedicated to the First Bulgarian Kingdom, whose core was in this region between 681 and the late 10th century. The additional hitch was that it would send a unequivocal message to the ethnic Turks who made up a large proportion of the local population.

The idea for the construction was proposed in 1977 and the finished monument was inaugurated in November 1981. Unfortunately, Lyudmila Zhivkova did not live to see it, as she died a few months earlier.

The monument stunned. For the construction, which is 70 metres high and 140 metres long, 2,400 tonnes of reinforced steel and 50,000 cubic metres of concrete were used. Two rising structures symbolise the upward spiral of Bulgarian national evolution. 

The narrow passage between them is inhabited by statues of the most important rulers in early Bulgarian history.

The Japanese love it because its figures are like the real-life embodiment of the sci-fi super robots from anime classics

The Japanese love it because its figures are like the real-life embodiment of the sci-fi super robots from anime classics such as Voltron and Beast King GoLion, or the Transformers. What a surprise to go to Bulgaria, of all places, and find all your favourite characters sculpted in stone and concrete! 

The first part of the compound was dedicated to the pagan period and was dominated by the figures of Bulgaria's founder, Khan Asparuh, his son Tervel, and 9th century khans Krum and Omurtag. The theme of the compound's second part was Christianisation, the creation of the Slavonic alphabet and the state's military power in the 9th-10th centuries. It included statues of Prince Boris I and King Simeon the Great and a huge mosaic in white, black, red and gold. The symbolism was rich. Looking up in this part of the compound the two structures would be seen forming a cross.

The most imposing element of the Creators of the Bulgarian State (the monument is also known as 1,300 Years Bulgaria) is best seen from a distance. This is the 1,000-tonne lion made of 2,000 pieces of granite adorning the highest part of the structure. According to local lore, the lion is hollow, and can be accessed via a hidden elevator, which only top Bulgarian Communist Party leaders could have access to. One local man swears Leonid Brezhnev and Todor Zhivkov had a cup of coffee up there.

The monument's inauguration, attended by Todor Zhivkov, was the key event in the celebrations of Bulgaria's 1,300th anniversary, which for the locals also included additional benefits like an aluminium factory in Shumen and a new building for the history museum in Preslav.

Creators of the Bulgarian State monument

Not all were happy with the monument, however. Even today you can hear Shumen locals complaining that at the time of economic difficulties and lack of proper housing the state invested a huge amount of money and steel in a monument instead of building new housing projects. Others, of course, are proud with their monument, which today is a favourite location for wedding photos and early morning jogs.

After the collapse of Communism, the maintenance funds for the monument ran out. In 2006, one of the hooves of Khan Asparuh's horse fell off and was replaced with a replica of artificial stone.

For some time now the local city council, which considers the monument a unique work of art and a beacon of culture, charges an entrance fee for visitors. You can eschew it if you visit early enough.

There are two ways to reach the Creators of the Bulgarian State. One is to climb – you've guessed it – the 1,300 steps (!) of the grandiose staircase that starts at the theatre in Shumen. The other is to drive. The monument compound is about 6 km from Shumen.

  • COMMENTING RULES

    Commenting on www.vagabond.bg

    Vagabond Media Ltd requires you to submit a valid email to comment on www.vagabond.bg to secure that you are not a bot or a spammer. Learn more on how the company manages your personal information on our Privacy Policy. By filling the comment form you declare that you will not use www.vagabond.bg for the purpose of violating the laws of the Republic of Bulgaria. When commenting on www.vagabond.bg please observe some simple rules. You must avoid sexually explicit language and racist, vulgar, religiously intolerant or obscene comments aiming to insult Vagabond Media Ltd, other companies, countries, nationalities, confessions or authors of postings and/or other comments. Do not post spam. Write in English. Unsolicited commercial messages, obscene postings and personal attacks will be removed without notice. The comments will be moderated and may take some time to appear on www.vagabond.bg.

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.

Discover More

TOP MUST-SEES IN 2024
When wanderlust grabs you in 2024 but deciding on your next destination is hard, here is a list of places to whet your appetite. Some of them are millennia old and others are new, but they are all remarkable and most are one-of-a-kind.

BRUTALIST BULGARIA
A white mammoth dominates the upper part of Boulevard Todor Aleksandrov in central Sofia. Its massive, concrete surfaces are imposing.

LES FRANÇAIS EN BULGARIE
Before English took over in Bulgaria, in the 1990s, mastering French was obligatory for the local elite and those who aspired to join it.

WINTER NESEBAR
Winter is not only the time to head to Bulgaria's ski resorts. It is also the best time to enjoy some of this nation's most crowded tourist spots, such as Nesebar.

DEMON CHURCH
Crooked, horned and large-toothed, happily dragging sinners to Hell: demons make some of the most interesting, if slightly unrefined, characters of 19th century Bulgarian religious art.

DEAD POETS SOCIETY
It has become a commonplace that a nation can be understood best by the sort of treatment it give its poets rather by its military victories or GDP levels.

HISTORY, ROSES, AND WATER BUFFALOES
Years ago, if you'd asked me what I know about Bulgaria, I'd have said, "Not much. It's in Eastern Europe, behind the Iron Curtain, I think." Indeed, it was behind the Iron Curtain when that dark metaphor described a very real feature of the World Order.

DOORS WIDE SHUT
Ancient Thracian tombs, lighthouses, abandoned industrial facilities, Communist-era monuments... Bulgaria is crammed with sites of interest that ordinary travellers can marvel at only... from a distance.

WHAT WAS THE SEPTEMBER UPRISING?
Raised hands, bodies frozen in a pathos of tragic defiance: Bulgaria, especially its northwest, is littered with monuments to an event that was once glorified but is now mostly forgotten.

IVANOVO'S MEDIEVAL FACES
Churches and monasteries hewn into rocks at often precipitous heights were a clever solution that Christians from the Balkans and the Middle East employed for centuries to achieve a crucial goal: the creation of abodes far from the crowds in places where co

WHERE IS GOD'S BRIDGE?
Lilyashka Bara, the brook that flows near the village of Lilyache, a few kilometres from Vratsa, is a quiet and peaceful stream.

SOFIA'S TOP 10
Thanks to cheap flights or business travel, for many foreigners Sofia is their first, and last, glimpse of this country.