WHAT HAPPENED AT PETROVA NIVA?

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Historical site in the Strandzha attracts crowds in late summer

The monument at Petrova Niva area is the focal point of the August commemorations of the 1903 uprising

Men dressed in early 20th century military uniforms, patriotic songs and speeches, lots of banners and grilled meat stalls: if you crave attending a mass event after the end of the Covid-19 travel restrictions, consider visiting Petrova Niva in the third weekend of August.

Marked with a sombre stone monument at a picturesque bend of the Veleka river, Petrova Niva is connected to a heroic and traumatic event in Bulgarian history, the St Elijah-Transfiguration Uprising.

To understand what the St Elijah-Transfiguration Uprising of 1903 was about one needs a more general look at the wider Balkans context at the end of the 19th century.

The 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War resulted in a part of the Bulgarian lands being liberated from 500 years of Ottoman domination. A new statelet appeared on the map of Europe: the Principality of Bulgaria. Its boundaries were roughly today's northern Bulgaria, including the Plain of Sofia. However, the remainder of the territories inhabited by ethnic Bulgarians remained subordinate to the High Porte. This was the autonomous province of Eastern Roumelia – roughly today's southern Bulgaria centred on Plovdiv. Macedonia, Aegean and Eastern Thrace, large parts of the Rhodope and the Strandzha mountains remained within the Ottoman Empire. In 1885 the Principality of Bulgaria and Eastern Rumelia united without a war.

The area teems with greenery and wildlife

The area teems with greenery and wildlife

The unification of the two signalled to all those Bulgarians outside of Bulgaria proper that the new state would continue to expand. In 1893 in Salonika, or today's Thessaloniki in Greece, where a significant number of ethnic Bulgarians lived, an organisation calling itself VMORO, or Internal Macedonian-Adrianopolitan Revolutionary Organisation, was set up. Its purpose was to engage in combat with the Ottomans, liberate Macedonia and Eastern Thrace, and join Bulgaria.

Ten years later the repercussions in the wake of a failed uprising in Gorna Dzhumaya, today's Blagoevgrad, ignited the ethnic Bulgarians in Macedonia and Eastern Thrace. At the beginning of 1903 the VMORO decided to start an uprising on 20 July, or 2 August in the Gregorian calendar: the high day of St Elijah. At the end of June 1903 VMORO's activists from the area of Adrianople, today's Edirne in Turkey, met in the Strandzha and decided to start their part of the uprising on the high day of the Transfiguration: 6 August, or 19 August in the Gregorian calendar. Hence the St Elijah-Transfiguration name.

Importantly, the meeting in the Strandzha occurred at Petrova Niva.

In the course of about 20 days the rebels from the Strandzha gained the upper hand. They declared a Strandzha republic, spanning from Malko Tarnovo to Tsarevo.

A battle in the St Elijah-Transfiguration Uprising of 1903 took place in Brashlyan Village

A battle in the St Elijah-Transfiguration Uprising of 1903 took place in Brashlyan Village

It did not take long for the Ottomans to return with a vengeance. The rebels were heavily outnumbered by Ottoman forces. They were defeated by the autumn of 1903. Dozens of villages were torched, hundreds of houses were destroyed and thousands of people lost their lives. About 30,000 refugees arrived in Bulgaria.

From today's standpoint the St Elijah-Transfiguration Uprising started too early, was not well-conceived and failed to inspire a massive turnout. Yet the collective memory of the failed uprising continues to live on in the Strandzha and is an important part of the local identity. There is a song, which starts with the words "A clear moon is now rising..." It describes the last battle of a few rebels besieged near the village of Brashlyan. It is now the self-styled anthem of the Strandzha. Ironically, the melody had been borrowed from a popular Ottoman song which was in fact... a love song.

Petrova Niva with its monument to the St Elijah-Transfiguration Uprising of 1903 has been a place for veneration for generations. The monument was erected in 1953.

When travelling to Petrova Niva, you will first encounter a stunning meander of the Veleka River

When travelling to Petrova Niva, you will first encounter a stunning meander of the Veleka River

The August commemorations at Petrova Niva usually attract huge crowds. The Bulgarian President often attends. The spirit is unmistakably patriotic and with recent events concerning North Macedonia's EU membership, can even turn revisionist. However, the event is a good time to mingle with Bulgarians you will hardly meet at the cafés and bars in Sofia and Plovdiv.

If you are not into local politics or history, Petrova Niva deserves a visit anytime in the year for its location in a pristine corner of the Strandzha, in a maze of quiet meadows, thick oak forests and Veleka's beautiful meanders. 

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