WHAT IS DZHULAYA?

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Bulgarians greet sun on 1 July in celebration that is more hippy than pagan

dzhulaya bulgaria rising sun.jpg

How often do you hum, while driving or doing chores, Uriah Heep's song July Morning? Is it on your Spotify? The answers are probably "never" and "no." Uriah Heep was an English rock band that was formed in 1969, named after Charles Dickens's infamous character. It did make a name for itself in the 1970s, but remained largely unknown.

Not in this country, however. The band was one of the relatively few 1970s groups from the West that penetrated Communist Bulgaria and found an audience hungry for pop and alternative culture. While its fame in the West declined, it turned into a staple for Bulgarians.

As a result, something unforeseen happened: Uriah Heep's hit July Morning inspired a tradition unique to the country, Dzhulay or Dzhulaya. For about 40 years now, Bulgarians have gathered by the sea on the night of 30 June to drink, chat and listen to music with friends until they see the first rays of the sun emerging over the horizon. Then, they greet the sun with... July Morning, of course.

Dzhulay is the feast for what in Bulgaria passes for hippies, and symbolises freedom, spirituality and the beginning of summer.

Who was the first celebrate Dzhulay, and when, is open to speculation . At least two theories circulate, being told and retold by self-proclaimed participants in the original event. What unites them is the location: the waterfront at Varna.

According to one of the accounts, the first Dzhulay was celebrated in 1980 by a bunch of friends who were about to begin their two-year compulsory military service. Hippies to the bottom of their souls, they combined the symbolic beginning of their last "summer of freedom" with a song that seemed quite topical. In the following couple of years no celebrations were held, as most of those involved were in the army. The tradition was revived in 1984.

The second account is also connected with the Bulgarian army. During his military service, a hippie from Varna was on duty the night of 30 June. While he watched the sunrise on the morning of 1 July, Uriah Heep's song was in his head. Overwhelmed with loneliness, both physical and spiritual, the man promised himself that from now on nobody would have to be alone at sunrise on 1 July. After he was discharged, back in Varna, he introduced the idea to some friends who were enthusiastic. The year was 1985. The following 1 July, they replayed the event, and soon the word of Dzhulay spread and dozens of similar-minded people started flocking to Varna.

In both cases Dzhulay appeared as a subtle protest against the Communist regime. How subtle a protest it was is evident by the fact that the authorities did not ban it.

As the popularity of the event grew, the sun revellers diversified and other subcultures joined the hippies. Inevitably, the hippies felt disillusioned. In the early 1990s they moved to an alternative place on the southern Black Sea coast, near the village of Varvara, on the rocks by the so-called Iron Tree, an abandoned movie prop.

This did not stop the mainstream-isation of Dzhulay. The feast attracted more and more people and it gradually moved from Varna to a more picturesque place: the cliffs at Kamen Bryag. In 2004, the rock music-loving, young and ambitious mayor of the nearby town of Kavarna, Tsonko Tsonev, invited John Lawton, Uriah Heep's frontman, to perform the band's emblematic (at least in Bulgaria) song during the sunrise. People were ecstatic. Lawton became a fixture in the "official" celebrations of Dzhulay at Kamen Bryag. His name and the growing popularity of the event turned it into a kind of music festival, attracting a motley crew of rock and hard rock fans, hipsters and people who cannot tell Led Zeppelin from Creedence Clearwater Revival.

As with all new traditions, Dzhulay is still evolving.

Due to friction between the former mayor of Kavarna and his successor, in 2016 the "official" celebration of Dzhulay was moved to Tutrakan, on the Danube River. John Lawton performed there until 2018. In 2021, he died. The following year, his ashes were scattered at sea off Kamen Bryag.

For a number of people, the true spirit of Dzhulay is not in any particular place. The sunrise, they claim, can be celebrated everywhere in the open, if the eastern horizon is clearly visible. You only need stamina, a few drinks and plenty of good company to last through the wee hours, until the sun rises. Playing July Morning is recommended, but not obligatory.

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