Most countries in the world have adopted an animal to symbolise what their nations think of themselves.
Australia has the emu, South Africa the springbok. Canada has the beaver, China the panda. In Europe, the countries are almost equally divided between those – Germany, Poland, Albania and so on – which cherish the eagle as its national animal, often putting it on their coats-of-arms. Then there is Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Belgium and of course England which venerate the lion. Bulgaria belongs to the second group.
A symbol of bravery, the lion was featured on the Bulgarian coat-of-arms, pieces of jewellery and the clothes of aristocrats as early as the 13th century. Curiously, the animal was cemented as a part of Bulgarian heraldry after the country fell under the Ottomans. When the Bulgarians started their movement for national independence, the lion became not only a symbol of bravery and strength, but also of freedom. The Revolutionary Vasil Kunchev was dubbed Levski, or Lion-like, after a reputed brave jump over a moat, and a golden lion was embroidered on the green banner of the 1876 April Uprising.
When the Bulgarian independence was restored, in 1878, the lion became its official symbol. Even the country's currency, the lev, is named after the animal – like in Romania, Albania and a number of other.
Few people are aware that lions used to live in the Bulgarian lands. The European lion, with spotted fur and of a size comparable to that of the African lion, roamed the Mediterranean and the Balkans until the 1st century AD. Isolated lions may have survived in the mountains of the Balkans until the Middle Ages.
Today, Bulgaria is scattered with sculptures and reliefs of lions, old and new, made by artists and handymen, at important landmarks and on local monuments.
Lions Bridge, Sofia
A major and busy thoroughfare, Lions Bridge has one redeeming feature: the four bronze animals which give it its name. The bridge was constructed in 1889-1890 to replace an earlier structure on the outskirts of town. The project by Vaclav Prošek, a Czech entrepreneur, was an expensive enterprise and in the end only the bridge was built. The lions symbolise the four booksellers executed on this spot by the Ottomans because of their revolutionary activities during the 1876 April Uprising.
In spite of the lions' symbolism and beauty, the bridge has not had much luck. The area around has a reputation for crime and grime, and its most recent overhaul left the lions encircled and constricted by a forbidding roundabout. Even when the animals were still new, Sofianites made fun of them. Why did the lions on the bridge have no tongues? – went the popular joke. To keep quiet about all the money pilfered during construction.
Monument to the Unknown Soldier, Sofia
The Monument to the Unknown Solder near the church of St Sofia has arguably the best of all lion sculptures in Bulgaria. It was made by Andrey Nikolov, an artist who combined Rodin's Impressionism and Bulgarian tradition.
The monument and the lion were unveiled in 1941, after years of debate and procrastination. The decoration and concept were then quite different to what you see today. The Allied bombings of Sofia during the Second World War damaged the monument, and in 1949 the Communist authorities used its stones for Georgi Dimitrov's Mausoleum. The lion suffered, too, from the political change. As it looked too "bourgeois" to Communists (a standard slur of the time), it was taken away and moved around Sofia before it was stored in the National Military Museum.
The lion was returned to its former place in 1981, when the new Monument of the Unknown Soldier was dedicated. Today, it is a favourite climbing spot for children.
Palace of Justice, Sofia
When you pass by the Palace of Justice in Sofia today, you will often see a group of tourists eyeing the two lions on the entrance stairs. What are they looking at? They are trying to work out which of the lions has "wrong legs."
The Palace of Justice was finished in 1941, but the lions, by sculptor Velichko Minekov, were installed in 1985, while the building was the National History Museum. The animals represent Bulgaria and its heroic history. Soon, however, someone realised that one of the lions has an anatomically impossible gait. Ever since, people have had vivid disputes on whether it is the lefthand or righthand animal. In fact, both lions are correct. Lions move their legs differently, according to the speed that they walk or run.
In 2013, one of the lions became the target of political activity. An anonymous group painted it as a clown to protest against the lack of reform in the judicial system and in Bulgaria as a whole.
Soldiers Monument Lion, Sofia
In the summer of 2017 the 1,300 Years of Bulgaria monument, an eyesore that had stood by the NDK since 1981, was demolished. Soon afterwards, a statue of a lion appeared in its place.
This lion, however, is much older. Created by sculptor Mihail Mihaylov, it was a part of a memorial to the Sofia soldiers who died in the wars that Bulgaria fought in 1885, 1912-1913, and 1915-1918. The memorial was unveiled in 1934, but was dismantled in the 1970s to make space for the 1,300 Years of Bulgaria. Its remains, the lion included, were then transferred to the National History Museum.
The lion is now back in its erstwhile place, but it is the cause of some contention: the map of Bulgaria on its shield includes territories that now belong to other countries.
Tsarevets Fortress, Veliko Tarnovo
The lion that welcomes visitors entering the mediaeval Tsarevets Fortress in Veliko Tarnovo has a long and tormented history. In 1918, ten years after King Ferdinand proclaimed Bulgaria's full independence from the Ottoman Empire in Tarnovo, a statue of a lion was installed at Tsarevets to commemorate the event. The crouching lion by Dimitar Bagrilov, however, was made of cement. It deteriorated so badly and so fast, that in 1936 it was replaced with a stone replica.
The replacement did not last long either. Some time after 1944, the Communists took it down, probably because it looked too "nationalistic" for them. In times when everyone was raging about Socialist internationalism, patriotism was deemed a bad word.
The lion returned to the front of Tsarevets in 1998. It is another, slightly bigger replica of the 1918 original, by sculptor Nenko Marov.
Regional Court, Veliko Tarnovo
Not all lions in Bulgaria proclaim patriotism. The one in front of the Regional Court in Veliko Tarnovo, together with the reclining female figure next to him, symbolises justice. This message is made clear by the In jure veritas, or Truth Is in Law, a Latin quote on the pediment next to it. The Regional Court was built in 1977.
Located deep in Bulgaria's northwest, the most depressed region in the EU, the village of Barziya has a monument dedicated to 57 local men who died in the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 and the Great War of 1915-1918. A white stone lion tops the memorial.
Spread along the meandering Yantra River, Gabrovo is a town of many bridges. The most famous of them is Igoto, or The Yoke. Created in 1936 by Lyubomir Dalchev, a prominent sculptor of the period, it is dedicated to the struggle of Bulgarians under the Ottomans. Besides the figures of Racho the Smith, the semi-mythical founder of Gabrovo, and allegories of oppressed and struggling Bulgarians, there is a roaring lion, too. It represents Bulgaria's strive for freedom.
Aleksandar Bridge over the Yantra River
The first statue of a lion in Bulgaria appeared in a place known only to locals: a small stone bridge over the Yantra at Parvomaytsi Village, near Veliko Tarnovo. Built in 1880, the bridge was the first constructed in newly-liberated Bulgaria. Czech entrepreneur Jiří Prošek proposed the project, inspired by the Charles Bridge in Prague. A single statue decorated the bridge over the Yantra: a reclining lion over a bronze medallion of Alexander I Battenberg, Bulgaria's then ruler (hence the name of the bridge).
In 1979, however, a truck crossing the bridge hit the lion. The sculpture fell into the Yantra, never to be seen again. A not very accurate replica was made, but for some reason it stood in front of Parvomaytsi town hall until 2008, when it was installed on the bridge, which is still used by traffic.
The Freedom Monument on Shipka Peak in the Stara Planina mountains was dedicated in 1934 to commemorate the Russian soldiers and Bulgarian volunteers who held fast, although outnumbered by the attacking Ottoman troops during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878. The entrance to the 31.5 metre high granite pyramid is adorned with an 8- metre-long and 4-metre-high bronze lion, designed by Kiril Shivarov, in 1929. The statue was cast in Sofia's Military Arsenal and according to the initial design should be on top of the monument. It was moved above the entrance after it became evident that otherwise the lion would be barely visible.
The lion to the left in the picture belongs to the official staircase, built under Communism.
This sleepy town between the Stara Planina and the Sredna Gora mountains has several reasons to have lions. In 1837, the revolutionary, Vasil Kunchev, aka Levski, was born here. In 1904, a major military unit was stationed in the town, and in 1936 a munitions factory was opened there. Both the army unit and the factory are still there, providing a vital livelihood for the local population.
Accordingly, there are two lion statues in Karlovo. The most impressive of them belongs to the bronze monument to Levski in the centre of the town. It was unveiled in 1910, a fine classical statue by the sculptor Marin Vasilev. Karlovo's second lion is much more recent. It is in front of the local stadium. Its creator's enthusiasm clearly outshone his artistic skills.
An Italian sculptor was responsible for the lions adorning one of Ruse's symbols, the Freedom Monument. At the turn of the 19th century, Bulgaria was fertile ground for Arnaldo Zocchi who, over two decades, created a number of monuments throughout the country, including King Liberator in front of Parliament. A skilled follower of realism, in 1909 Zocchi created for Ruse a monument dedicated to the city's liberation from the Ottomans. Straight out of Central Europe, an elegant allegory of Freedom tops a central column, and two roaring lions lie beneath, heavy with symbolism. One breaks the chains of Ottoman subordination while the other guards Freedom's sword and shield.
This not very skilfully made lion adorns a monument to the border troops who died defending the Bulgarian border from Turkish incursion, in Malko Tarnovo. The spelling of the inscription and the cross on the pediment point to a date before 1944, but under Communism another inscription was added, a quote by the poet Ivan Vazov: "Bulgaria, they died for you." Border troops, particularly those protecting the borders with NATO enemies Turkey and Greece, were seen as national defenders and heroes.
Standing at the centre of Fakiya Village, on the border with Turkey, this lion tops a monument dedicated, at least in theory, to the dead in the Balkan and the Great wars. According to the inscription, it is to 10 men who died "in the struggle against Fascism and Capitalism, and also in the Patriotic War." The Patriotic War was how, under Communism and after the Soviet model, Bulgarians referred to their participation in the final stage of the Second World War. Under Communism, due to its proximity to NATO member Turkey, Fakiya was a place of stringent vigilance against "border violators," as the official term for refugees was at the time. Then the lion monument was part of the patriotic propaganda targeted at the villagers.
Not all lions in Bulgaria are produced by official sculptors. Some are crafted by ordinary people who want to grab some attention and make a statement. The builder of this, sadly abandoned, house in Gintsi Village in the Petrohan Pass, was one such person. The style and the architecture suggest the lions were made some time in the interwar period. Recently, the house collapsed and the lions are no more.
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.