Bulgaria's significant Muslim population keeps its Ottoman roots well-tended.
Bulgaria’s significant Muslim population keeps its Ottoman roots well-tended, Robin Gauldie writes
In the capital of a country that – more than 20 years after the fall of the Soviet imperium – is still reinventing itself, it still came as a surprise to see, only a couple of hundred metres from the Sheraton Balkan, Sofia’s poshest hotel, the graceful minaret and three grey lead-sheathed domes of an age old mosque.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been taken aback: Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire for almost five centuries, and elements of its Islamic heritage crop up everywhere. On the Black Sea coast, I found the architecture of towns like Sozopol and Nessebar, where the balconies of old wooden houses overhang steep, narrow cobbled lanes, irresistibly reminiscent of the old quarters of Istanbul. Around 15 per cent of Bulgaria’s seven million people are Muslims – the highest proportion of any EU country. The Muslim population includes around 750,000 ethnic Turkish people, as well as around 200,000 Bulgarian Muslims who are descended from Bulgarians who found Islam some 500 years ago.
Built in 1576, Sofia’s Kadi Seyfullah Efendi Cami is a powerful reminder of Bulgaria’s Ottoman links. It is lovingly preserved by Sofia’s Muslim community. Within, its walls are embellished with Islamic calligraphy, and next to it is part of the eight-sided bath complex that surrounded it and gave the mosque its nickname: the Banya Bashi.
And it is the work of no less a builder than Kodja Mimar Sinan, the greatest architect of the Ottoman Empire’s golden age and the designer of two of the Islamic world’s most magnificent places of worship: the Suleimaniye Mosque, dominating the skyline of old Istanbul, and the Selimiye, in Edirne, which, according to his own autobiography, he regarded as his greatest achievement.
Sinan served three great Ottoman sultans – Suleiman the Magnificent, Selim II and Murad III – as a military engineer and architect of great religious buildings in a career that spanned almost 70 years. According to official sources, he was born in Kayseri in Anatolia in 1491. But Bulgaria claims him as its own. According to a plaque outside the Kadi Seyfullah Efendi Cami, he was born, not in Anatolia, but in the village of Shiroka Luka, in the Rodopi Mountains. This rugged territory, bordering Turkey and Greece, is Bulgaria’s Muslim heartland. I decided to find out more.
The road to the Rodopi Mountains took me first to Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second city where, after penetrating an outer ring of shabby, Cold War era apartment buildings and 21st-century construction sites, I discovered another historic mosque. The minaret of the Djumaya or Ulu Mosque is a landmark in Plovdiv’s charming historic centre, a 23-metre spire strikingly patterned with red and white diamonds. It soars above a solidly built, four-square mosque with massive stone walls that support nine great vaulted domes suspended above a light-filled, pale blue interior. Built during the reign of Sultan Murad II in the second half of the 14th century, it has twice been restored, after being damaged by earthquakes in the 18th and 19th centuries. More restoration is being carried out thanks to gifts from Turkish donors.
Plovdiv’s other great mosque has been less fortunate. Derelict since 1928, the Taskopru Mosque, built in the 16th century, was handed over to private ownership in the early 1990s after the fall of Bulgaria’s communist regime. Since then, it has been used as a bar and restaurant, outraging local Muslims. Ahmed Mersin, Plovdiv’s mufti, says it is “unbearable” that the mosque is no longer a place of worship – but its current owners want €600,000 (Dh2.9 million) to return it to Islamic ownership, and the office of the Mufti can only raise €300,000.
From Plovdiv, I headed into the mountains. The Rodopi range rises sharply from the plains on either side of the Maritsa River, and as I followed the steep, winding highway the temperature dropped from a toasty 30°C to just 16°C – only to rise again as I crested the hills and swooped down, through valleys surrounded by pine-covered slopes, to the little spa town of Devin, famous for its mineral springs and natural hot baths. It still has a sizeable Bulgarian Muslim community, and its mosque, though nothing like as grand as those in Sofia and Plovdiv, sits among neatly tended rose gardens and is clearly a social hub for older villagers as well as a place of worship.
After a swim in Devin’s famous mineral pool to get the kinks out of my back after the long drive, I took time out to seek out some of the Rodopi’s rich wildlife, guided by Vlado, a local wildlife expert, who whetted my appetite with a slide show of his. Bulgaria is said to be among the most biodiverse countries in western Europe, and the mountain forests and high meadows of the Rodopi are home to a myriad species of butterflies and wild flowers, birds, reptiles and Europe’s largest predator, the brown bear. The hill pastures in the valleys above Devin are also at the centre of a government-funded effort to build up breeding stocks of one of Europe’s oldest domestic breeds, the Karatchan horse. But after four moonlit hours in a cramped hide in the hills above Devin not a single bear showed up, though I did see chamois, roe deer, wild boar and foxes that same evening. “Sorry,” said Vlado. “Maybe you’ll see bears next time.”
In Skiroka Luka, an hour’s drive through the mountains from Devin, my quest for Sinan’s Bulgarian roots also ran out of luck. The village’s steep streets are lined with pretty wood and stone “Bulgarian Revival” houses built in the 19th century, and the local ethnographic museum stresses its Bulgarian heritage and has little to say about the region’s Ottoman past. The only possible connection with the great architect seemed to be the three graceful, arched bridges that cross the Shirokolushka River. According to official accounts, Sinan was the son of a stonemason, and his father’s apprentice. Later, as well as designing mosques, he built elegant bridges all over the Ottoman domain. If he really did come to Shiroka Luka, might he not have acquired some of his skills while working here? I like to think so.
In the western part of the Rodopi range, villages are thin on the ground. But heading eastward, past the starkly modern winter sports resort at Pamporovo, I found myself in more thickly settled country, where rolling hills are dotted with hundreds of tiny villages. Many seemed half-deserted. Others were no more than ghost towns. In the shadow of small village mosques many older men chatted and drank coffee. In many places, there was little sign of younger people. Most, I learnt, had left for Bulgaria’s big cities, or for Turkey, where job opportunities beckoned.
This part of the world is well off the beaten track. The few current guidebooks to Bulgaria hardly mention it, and most hikers and wildlife enthusiasts bypass it in favour of the more spectacular landscapes of the western Rodopi. You’ll search in vain for reviews of its towns and villages on sites like TripAdvisor. The few foreigners who make their way here are keen birders, hoping for a sight of the eagles and vultures which soar over the region’s limestone crags. But for those willing to take the rough with the smooth, it has its high points. In spring and early summer, pastures and river banks blaze with swathes of red, yellow, white and purples wild flowers. Although unaccustomed to foreign visitors, villagers welcome strangers – if you can overcome the not inconsiderable language barrier. That proved easier in towns like Madan, a thriving district capital, than in the sleepy surrounding villages. Most of Madan’s 6,000 people are Bulgarian Muslims, and its well-kept mosques are in sharp contrast to the sometimes dilapidated village mosques elsewhere. It’s a pleasant, green little place, surrounded by pine-covered hills.
I was tempted to carry on across the Turkish border to Edirne, to marvel at Sinan’s great Selimiye mosque. It would have been a fitting end to my journey. But border formalities in this part of the world are notoriously time-consuming. Instead, I turned back towards Sofia. The Selimiye – and the bears of the Rodopi – must wait for another visit.