Religions in Bulgaria

MOSQUE OF LEGENDS

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.

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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. You will mostly see them in moralistic murals painted on the exterior walls of churches.

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RILA MONASTERY MAGIC

Bulgarians are proud of the period of their national revival, in the late 18th and 19th centuries. It established the country as a young and energetic nation eager to restore its statehood after five centuries of Ottoman domination. Personalities such as the revolutionaries, Vasil Levski and Hristo Botev, are the poster boys of the era, but the whole revival period, which spans a century, was more complex. Violent revolution against the Sultan was only a part of it and would have been impossible if Bulgarians had not already emancipated themselves culturally, economically and politically.

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BULGARIA'S TRADITIONS

When Bulgarians worry about the influence of globalisation on their culture, the preservation of their traditions is one of their main concerns. While it is true that some of the rites that are a part of life in Bulgaria have been affected by globalisation and mass culture, this is hardly the first time when they have been threatened with extinction. 

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ST NICHOLAS DAY, SOZOPOL STYLE

In Western Europe, the 6th of December, or St Nicholas Day, is a time where the first whiff of Christmas gets felt. After all, the saint with his white beard and penchant for bringing gifts to good children is the draft of the modern Santa Claus. 

In Bulgaria, St Nicholas Day is equally important although in a different manner. Seen as the patron saint of sailors, fishermen, merchants and bankers, the saint is celebrated by many people who carry the different iterations of the name Nicholas and their families. A particular food is also associated with this day. 

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ALL AROUND KARDZHALI

When you have a long weekend ahead and the weather looks good for a trip, heading to Kardzhali is a great option. The Rhodope mountains are beautiful – pleasant and refreshing in all seasons – and this city is the perfect base to explore some interesting sites.

Kardzhali itself is hardly an attraction. It is a relatively new city dominated by faceless Communist and post-Communist architecture. Besides its Regional History Museum, located in a beautiful building initially constructed in the 1920s for a Muslim religious school, there is nothing more to see.

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FAIRYTALE CHURCH

When travelling near Kazanlak in the Valley of Roses (also known as the Valley of Thracian Kings), your attention will be drawn to three monuments on the slopes of the Stara Planina mountain range. The first is the silhouette of the crumbling concrete "flying saucer" of the Communist Party Buzludzha House. The second is the bulwark-ish monument to the 1877-1878 defenders of the Shipka Pass. The third is the golden domes of a Russian-style church that gleam amid the forest above the town of Shipka.

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THE MYSTIC POWER OF ZLATOLIST

Born in 1883 near Serres, which was then in the Ottoman Empire and today is in Greece, Stoyna Dimitrova was seven years old when she experienced something extraordinary. While she was ill with smallpox, a strange storm engulfed her home and tried to push the door open. Her parents attempted to keep out the elements, but Stoyna told them not to – the storm was actually St George, who wanted to enter the house. Her parents complied and a strange light filled the room. When it all ended, Stoyna had become blind.

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BULGARIA'S TOP MOSQUES

Sunni Islam is Bulgaria's second largest religion after Eastern Orthodoxy. In the centuries that have passed since its arrival with the Ottoman Turks in the second half of the 14th century its adherents have created some stunning and impressive mosques – though many have been lost to time, dereliction or active destruction, particularly after Bulgaria was liberated from the Ottomans in 1878.

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THE DEVIL IN THE DETAILS

Guidebooks boast about the beauty and artistic importance of the murals in Bulgaria's churches that date from the later centuries of Ottoman domination. Created by a society that was still deeply rooted in medieval tradition, but which was beginning to look towards and absorb Western European influences, this style of decoration sometimes charms but is sometimes hard to stomach. To the enthusiastic art lover, it embodies the search for new artistic means that defined the work of Bulgarian painters in the late 18th and 19th century.

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WINTER IN RILA MONASTERY

As the largest and most famous monastery in Bulgaria, and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Rila Monastery can appear a little overwhelming if you visit in high season or during major Christian festivals. The crowds that gather in the picturesque yard, with its toy-like painted church and the striped arches of the galleries, can obliterate any feeling of holiness, or the tranquility that is usually associated with a monastic institution of such fame.

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DAY OF ST GEORGE BULGARIAN STYLE

Bulgarians celebrate St George's Day, or Gergyovden, with enormous enthusiasm, both officially and in private. A bank holiday dedicated to valour, the Bulgarian аrmy and shepherds, 6 May is when some priests bless military banners while others in churches and monasteries consecrate lambs to be slaughtered and eaten communally. The army stages a parade in central Sofia and Bulgarian families gather to feast on lamb and celebrate the name-day of the ubiquitous Georgis and Gerganas among their ranks, all named after St George.

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BULGARIAN EASTER EATING

In 1956, Chudomir, one of Bulgaria's finest satirists, wrote in his diary: "Sunday, 6 May. Both Easter and St George's Day, but there are neither roast lamb nor red eggs at home. Traditions are fading away, the nice old feasts are being forgotten, disappearing with our generation." Just a few days before this entry, a young and seemingly harmless politician, Todor Zhivkov, had replaced Stalinist dictator Valko Chervenkov as the head of the Communist Party. The years of Stalinism, with its disregard for traditions and religion, were over, but people had yet to feel the change.

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WITNESS OF TIME

The largest Sephardic temple in Europe is situated in a central Sofia street, in an area where a mosque and several churches of various denominations "rub shoulders" with each other.

The story of how Sofia Central Synagogue appeared is a fascinating one, as it encapsulates the history of Bulgaria in the past century.

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POSTCARD FROM ELENA

"First we waited for the British tourists, then we waited for the Russians and now we are waiting for the Romanians." This was how, a decade ago, a guesthouse owner summed up the hopes and disappointments of small-time entrepreneurs in Elena, a town in the Stara Planina mountain range, about 40 kms from Veliko Tarnovo. Back in those days, EU-funded development of "green" initiatives and rural tourism was all the rage in Bulgaria, especially in economically struggling areas.

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BULGARIA'S FIREWALKERS

Police checkpoints, scores of cars parked along the roadside and throngs of people crowding between stalls selling candyfloss, kepabcheta and cheap Made-in-China toys: on 3 June, the village of Balgari looks much like any Bulgarian village during a country fair.

Balgari's fair, however, is unlike any other. When darkness falls over the village square, barefoot men and women will dance on live coals.

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EASTER IN RILA MONASTERY

The chatter of the small group of people at the gate of Rila Monastery in the cold spring evening is of the sort you can hear anywhere and anytime: hellos, how-do-you-dos, smalltalk, but neither the place, nor the people nor the occasion are ordinary. Monks in habits, practicing Eastern Orthodox Christians and a couple of clueless foreign tourists are gathered at the gate of Bulgaria's most revered monastery and most visited UNESCO-site long after business hours to wait for a car to arrive.

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