by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Shumen's Tombul Cami, largest in Bulgaria, holds many untold stories

tombul mosque shumen dome.jpg

Bulgaria's Ottoman heritage is the most neglected part of the rich past of this nation. This is a result of the trauma of five centuries spent under Ottoman domination additionally fanned up under Communism and up until this day. From the 1390s to the 1870s, Bulgarians were subjects of an empire that, at the height of its power, stretched over three continents. Many of those years were peaceful and allowed Bulgarians to look after their families, flocks and fields, to build businesses and to carve a place, however limited, in a Muslim-dominated society. Sometimes, however, things did not run smoothly. As the might of the empire began to decline, in the 18th century, it was hard to say what was worse: the rampant bands of bandits raiding towns and villages, the rabid tax collectors who pestered the helpless population, or the government's inability – and often unwillingness – to part with the feudal ways of the past and to modernise. There were uprisings and wars, and in each case Bulgarians rebels and innocent citizens were brutally massacred. The emerging Bulgarian nationalism of the 19th century was built in direct opposition to the Ottomans. Increasingly, the occupied nation defined itself as consisting of Bulgarian-speaking Eastern Orthodox Christians.

Subsequently, as soon as Bulgaria reemerged as a political entity in 1878, Bulgarians began to perceive anything the Ottomans had built on their lands as redundant, pointless, even ugly. As the nation rapidly modernised following a central and western European model, mosques, bridges, public baths, inns, houses and other buildings that once gave the Bulgarian lands a rather Middle Eastern feel (to Western travellers, at least) were razed to the ground. They were seen not only as old-fashioned, but were considered a symbol of the oppressor who for centuries had prevented Bulgarians from realising their own potential as a nation.

Tombul Mosque is the focus of a larger compound of buildings used for religious, educational and intellectual activities in Ottoman Shumen

A few grand monuments built in the Ottoman times still survive in Bulgaria, mainly in places with a significant Turkish or Muslim presence.

One of those is in Shumen, a major town in the northeast where one of the largest Turkish communities in this country lives. Tombul Mosque is Bulgaria's largest and arguably most beautiful mosque, but its size and appearance are not the only things that make it special.

Tombul Mosque is the only example of Ottoman architecture preserved in the Bulgarian lands in the coquettish, decorative, Baroque-influenced architecture of the Tulip Era. This period in the history of the Ottoman Empire lasted for just a couple of decades in the 18th century. It was a time of tentative attempts at modernisation by an empire that was quickly losing influence under the growing power of early industrial Europe of the Enlightenment. The Tulip era in the Ottoman Empire, just like the flower it was named after, did not last long. The only significant effect it had was this specific artistic and architectural style.

A large and expensive building, Tombul Mosque was most probably designed by architects from Constantinople. It was built in 1740-1744 as a gift by one Sherif Halil Pasha. He was a local man who had a successful administrative career in Constantinople. At a certain point he decided to give something back to the community that had raised him, in Shumen. The mosque officially still bears his name, but is better known by the moniker Tombul, after its bulbous dome. The cupola is 25 metres high and the minaret reaches up to 40 metres.

The mosque is the focal point of a larger compound of religious and educational buildings. Beside it stands an exquisite water fountain. The rooms on the first floor of the building that forms the inner court were used to accommodate students of the religious school. The teaching staff included an expert in calligraphy. Over the years some of the most skilled calligraphers in this part of the empire were educated at Tombul Mosque school.

The second floor of the building housed a rich library with more than 5,000 volumes in Arabic and Persian on theology, geography, mathematics and medicine. One of the most important was a 16th-century manuscript of The Book of Pleasant Journeys Into Faraway Lands, a seminal geography work by the 12th century Arabian scholar and traveller Muhammad al-Idrisi. Today the precious volume is in the National Library in Sofia.

Like many other outstanding buildings, Tombul Mosque has become the subject of legends. An old one is a reiteration of the popular Balkan tale of a builder who was killed so that he would never be able to build anything rivalling this building. Another is about Sherif Halil Pasha himself. As a teenager, the story goes, he was such a rascal that his father banished him from the family, saying "You will never become a proper man." Time passed and the wayward son became a high-ranking Ottoman official. He then ordered his father to be brought before him. "So, did your son become a proper man?," the son asked. "I see that you have become a pasha. But you are still not a proper man," the old man replied and died of a broken heart. Saddened, and suddenly wiser, the wayward son ordered the construction of a mosque that would rival the beauty of those built by the sultans in Istanbul. Thus, he hoped, his prayers would reach Heaven more quickly and would appease his father's soul.

Stories continue to accumulate around Tombul Mosque. One claims that parts of the pillars and many of the stones used in the construction of the mosque were purloined from the ruins of the medieval Bulgarian capitals, Pliska and Preslav, a few miles out of Shumen. Another states that the rusty marks that used to be visible on the ceiling were bullet marks from shots fired by Bulgarian policemen during the forced Bulgarisation campaign of Turks in 1984-1985. The building's columns were actually custom-made, and the "bullet holes" are tacks fastening the plaster to the ceiling.

The most recent myth about the mosque is a result of the fad for seeking hidden messages in buildings. According to it, the stone decorations in one of the corners of the mosque represent the secret symbol of a society of mystical initiates.

For years, Tombul Mosque's beauty was partially obscured by the scaffolding needed for renovation and restoration. The works have recently finished and now you can freely marvel at this beautiful building – and take in its legends.


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