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.

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