by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Muslim trips to Mecca inspired Bulgarian Orthodox pilgrimages to Jerusalem, to bring on social prestige

Sunset over Jerusalem as seen from Mount Zion

A cross from Jerusalem or a phial of water from the Jordan: these are the most likely souvenirs from the Holy Land that you will get if a Bulgarian friend of yours goes to Jerusalem for Easter. Whatever feelings you may have about such kinds of presents, bear in mind that you should congratulate the one who gives them to you with Chestito hadzhiystvo and address him at least once with "hadzhi".

"Hadzhi"?! According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, the hajj is the pilgrimage to Mecca required of all Muslims and traditionally made in winter. What, therefore, could this have in common with the journey to Jerusalem undertaken in spring by a Bulgarian whose religious devotion amounts to two annual visits to church?

It may seem rather preposterous but the guidelines given by the Prophet Mohammed in the Qur'an are followed by the Orthodox Christians in the Balkans - with the explicit approval of the church. The explanation, however, is fairly simple.

When the Bulgarians fell under Ottoman rule in 1393, their aristocracy ceased to exist. They either emigrated or were slaughtered during the several uprisings against the Turkish conquerors, or were assimilated, thus becoming common subjects of the Sultan. Two centuries later, however, the Bulgarians had a new elite of rich stock-breeders, craftsmen and merchants. Like the nouveau riche of any age, they also needed something more to be perfectly complacent with life: a title showing their higher social status.

The Holy Fire emergence is the culmination of the Orthodox Easter

The Holy Fire emergence is the culmination of the Orthodox Easter

Unlike most other monarchies in history, the Ottoman Empire did not have an aristocracy which allowed for the intake of nouveau riche - either through marriage or by paying for the title. Apart from the Sultan's dynasty, which had existed for 700 years, the elite consisted largely of self-made men, who had acquired high standing due to their personal qualities.

The only choice the Bulgarians had was to adapt the Muslim title of hadzhi to their own religion. The change was quick and painless. The first Bulgarian hadzhi appeared in the 16th Century and shortly afterwards the Arabic word "hajj" became so popular that it literally ousted its Bulgarian synonym for pilgrimage.

The title of hadzhiya did carry social respect. "Hadzhiya and hadzhiyka were something like the English 'sir' and 'my lady'," said Mihail Madzharov from Koprivshtitsa, who visited the Holy Land with his family in 1868. "The Arabs in Cairo know nothing about my origin or nationality, but when they hear the word hadzhi, their attitude changes. The title is a kind of passport which helps to open doors for you," said Doncho Palaveev, a merchant who ran shops in Istanbul, Cairo and Alexandria.

This is why, from the 17th Century caravans of worshippers would set out from Bulgaria to Palestine each autumn. They carried rich Bulgarians and their families and were loaded with clothes, blankets, cooking utensils and food - unlike today's rich, they did not lay store by luxury, but rather by thrift. The would-be hadzhii were ready to undergo the perils of a long journey during which they could meet their death at the hands of brigands operating near Edirne or Jerusalem, or sink with the ship which was to take them to the stormy harbour of Jaffa. More often than not, they would spend several years' savings on the trip. But they knew that on their return home they would be welcomed with the sound of church bells, and they as well as their offspring would be treated with particular respect. Even today, the Bulgarians who have been on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land change their surnames by adding the prefix hadzhi.

The Holy Fire emergence is the culmination of the Orthodox Easter

19th century Bulgarians doing the hadzh liked to remember the experience by decorating their houses with sea voyage frescoes

The pilgrims started on their journey so early not just because of the long time it took back then. To get the title of hadzhi they had to be baptised a second time in the Jordan, attend the Easter service in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, light 33 candles from the Holy Fire, which supposedly descended from the sky into Christ's tomb, and get a certificate from the Patriarch of Jerusalem several days later. Most Bulgarians also thought that they should travel around the rest of the Holy Land to see every site related to the Bible: Nazareth, Bethlehem, the Sea of Galilee, Mount Tabor and all the monasteries they could reach.

Of course the Bulgarians were not the only Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land. The first religious travellers appeared there in the 2nd Century and when Empress Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, returned from Jerusalem in 326 with the news that she had found Calvary, the hill where Jesus Christ was presumably crucified, pilgrimage became a craze. It was additionally kindled by the discovery of the True Cross during the construction of the first church on the site of the Holy Sepulchre and reached its culmination with the Crusades, though their aim was not just to liberate Palestine, but to establish control over the trade routes to the Far and Middle East.

When this part of the Near East was permanently included in the Ottoman Empire, the struggle for control of Jerusalem changed: it was not between different irreconcilable religions but between Christians. The arguments between the Catholic, Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic churches led to the intervention of the official authorities, and in 1852 the Sultan issued a "firman", known as the Status Quo. It divided the custodianship of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre equally between the three denominations and gave access also to the Copts, Ethiopians and Syrians.

The journey from Bulgaria to the Holy Land sometimes took months

The journey from Bulgaria to the Holy Land sometimes took months

The Bulgarian pilgrims were, of course, on the side of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. Most of them told bitter stories about the conflicts between the different denominations during Easter Mass. "The Arab Christians were here as if not to pray to God, but to fight an enemy. They were shouting, laughing and clambering to higher places and even on the shoulders of their friends to get a better view," Madzharov remembered. This, however, did not prevent the Bulgarians from expressing their indignation at the high fees imposed by the patriarchate to allow them to see the Biblical sights. Petar Avramov from Kalofer noted in anger that he was charged 100 para for visiting the dungeon in Sebaste, where St John the Baptist had been imprisoned. But none of the pilgrims had any hesitation paying the then large amount of five Turkish lira to reserve a place for Easter Mass in the overcrowded galleries of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Most of the time, however, the Bulgarians were so impressed by the differences between their country and the Holy Land that they behaved more like present-day tourists rather than fervent believers. The only mention of Bethlehem that Avramov made follows: "It rains only three or four times a year here. Winds, snow, mud - none of these! Nor any fountains either." Of Mount Tabor, he only wrote that "it is not as high as Mount Vitosha". Sometimes their curiosity even got them in trouble. While looking for the Garden of Gethsemane and the Virgin's tomb in Jerusalem, Pandeli Kisimov chanced upon a mosque. He went inside enthusiastically to take a look oblivious of the fact that he was in one of the holiest Islamic shrines, the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The worshippers chased him and threw stones at him as far as the building of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, where pilgrims traditionally stayed, and only the Turkish soldiers managed to save him from their anger.

Waiting for the Orthodox Easter may mean spending the previous night in the streets of the Old City

Waiting for the Orthodox Easter may mean spending the previous night in the streets of the Old City

For the Bulgarian hadzhii even the second baptism in the Jordan was more of a duty than a strong religious experience. "We took off our clothes and donned the hadzhi shirts. We dipped three times and hurried back to our camp because we began shivering in the night air," Mihail Madzharov said. However, the pilgrims duly took water from the river to use as medicine. Over a hundred years later, taking home water from the Jordan has become an industry. At Erdemit, the site of Jesus' baptism, enterprising vendors would sell you various sizes of empty plastic bottles - at anything between $2 and $20 these are probably the most expensive storage jars in the world.

As well as for such exciting experiences, the Bulgarians used their time in the Holy Land to collect souvenirs too. The hadzhii left for home with an average of seven horseloads of presents to give to their friends. These would include prints of sights from Jerusalem, small crosses, large crosses, rings, icons, rosaries, coloured soap, coloured candles, Communion bread and, in the case of Petar Avramov, three dried fishes from the Sea of Galilee. The end of the Easter celebrations often brought a shock to the pilgrims as they realised that the prices of the souvenirs they'd spent a fortune on had dropped by half.

The gratification they got on their return as hadzhii was, however, worth it: their fellow citizens would often collect the water used to wash their dusty feet and sprinkle it in their gardens, to get "a rich crop".

After the reestablishment of an independent Bulgarian state in 1878, the hadzhiystvo gradually became an anachronism, but after half a century of Communist regime during which pilgrimage was banned, the Bulgarians have returned to it with renewed enthusiasm. If you read the legal advice columns of Bulgarian newspapers, you will certainly come across questions where readers enquire what they should do to include the hadzhi prefix in their surnames.

What is thought to be the remnants of Calvary has been encapsulated in glass with just a tiny opening to enable pilgims to touch the stone

What is thought to be the remnants of Calvary has been encapsulated in glass with just a tiny opening to enable pilgims to touch the stone

Getting the Title 100 Years later

Present-day pilgrims do not need to spend several years' savings to become hadzhii. Travel companies organise a trip for about 800 euros per person, which includes air fare and airport taxes, six nights bed and breakfast accommodation and sometimes a local guide.

What is more, you can return from Jerusalem with not one, but two certificates, even without attending Easter Mass. The Israeli Ministry of Tourism and the City Hall of Jerusalem issue free "pilgrimage to the Holy City" documents and give them to all tour operators. The Greek Patriarch of Jerusalem, on the other hand, signs an Orthodox certificate of "pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre", at a very reasonable price.

James Cameron and the True Tomb of Jesus

Nine years after his 11 Oscars for Titanic, James Cameron caused a sensation again, this time with a documentary. The Lost Tomb of Jesus, which he produced, claims that the true tomb of Jesus Christ was found in a cave during excavations in Jerusalem in 1980. It contained his ossuary as well as the ossuaries of his whole family, including those of Mary Magdalene, to whom he was married, and of their son Judah.

The reason for his interpretation of the find made in a burial cave in East Talpiot, on the West Bank, is the names inscribed on the limestone sarcophagi: Mary, Matthew, Jesua son of Joseph, Mary, Jofa (Joseph, Jesus' brother) and Judah son of Jesua, who lived 2,000 years ago.

Whereas archaeologists tried to explain that the quoted names were very common for that period and blamed Cameron of particularly improper publicity for his film, the Greek Orthodox Church took a more radical step. It accused the director of an attempt to damage the Christian faith.

Though there are disputes, it is generally held that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built on the spot of the Golgotha

Though there are disputes, it is generally held that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built on the spot of the Golgotha

Complex Calculations

It is extremely difficult to calculate the date of Easter and why Catholics and Orthodox Christians mark it on a different day. The issue is so complex that German mathematician Karl Friedrich Gauss developed an algorithm for solving it. The First Council of Nicaea decreed, in 325, that Easter was to be observed on the Sunday after the first full moon on or after the day of the vernal equinox, which in 325 was on 20 March, not on 21 March.

The real mess began in 1582, when Western Christianity adopted the Gregorian calendar while Eastern Orthodoxy continued using the Julian. Adding the 13-day antecedence to the strict Orthodox requirement that Easter must always fall after the Jewish Passover, you will get the present-day confusion when the holiday may be celebrated with a difference of one to five weeks. However, in 2007 there is not going to be any confusion. In a rare instance of synchronicity, both Catholics and Orthodox Christians observe Easter on 8 April.


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