Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Belogradchik: What Rocks May Come

Text by Albena Shkodrova | Photographs by Anthony Georgieff   
Belogradchik, in Northwestern Bulgaria, is a stone field inhabited by collective dreams.

You would not drop by Belogradchik on your way to somewhere else. Beyond the town, both the road, and Bulgaria itself, come to an end.

Though it is situated in the midst of the country’s poorest region, in the past there used to be a flourishing city culture here. Now, this can only be proven by a chemical analysis of its crumbling façades.

The general sense it brings over you is that nature has managed to reclaim itself from man. Kerbs, water fountains, squares, and lanes are practically invisible beneath the triumphant weed, and the once-luxurious Socialist-era hotel in the town centre has succumbed to the processes of natural dilapidation. The erstwhile museum amid the forest at the town's end appears to have given up the fight completely. Lianas have sprung open the window bars, moss has spread over the roofs and stairs, and the light-coloured plaster shows through the undergrowth only in a few isolated spots.

Belogradchik’s current appearance epitomises the paradoxes of Bulgaria's transition from Communism. This de-urbanised town is immersed into the surreal landscape of one of the Europe’s most fantastical natural landmarks – the Belogradchik Rocks, which are also one of the continent's least known and least
accessible places.

"... The Alps, the Pyrenees, the most breathtaking of Tyrolean mountains, and Switzerland, cannot offer such a sight. The giant red pillars rising on both sides of a carved roadway under which a bubbly stream leaps in tiny waterfalls, the trees hanging at great height as if ready to fall at any moment, the endless seclusion only broken by the flight of eagles and vultures: all this would impress even the most hardened of souls ... ," wrote the French traveller Adolph Blanqui in 1841. What he saw were the remains of a Roman road that linked the imperial capital with the Danube (then called Istrum), and the province of Moesia with the Adriatic. Less than 2.5 kilometres from the centre of today's Belogradchik, the rocks cradle a Roman fortress that used to guard the roadway during the first centuries AD. Along with the Empire's free men, the road also conveyed files of slaves guarded by legionnaires.

Though small and rebuilt several times over by the Ottomans, the Belogradchik Fortress was the sole Roman fortification in Bulgaria that remained active until the dawn of modern history. Its highest vantage point offers a breath-taking view over the rocks, frozen still for eternity, on the background of the Sveti Nikola Mountain and the wilderness of southeastern Serbia.

Once through the gates, the steep path veers up to the inner fortress wall. Another wall, and another tunnel beneath it, and you are in the inner courtyard. A steep stairway leads to a small stone plateau at the top, which reveals a view to the surreal field strewn with red rocks – a landscape resembling a trip into someone else's dream. It is a dream of history and its protagonists, struck still in all their multiple identities. Their red bodies are strewn across several kilometres of surrounding field. The movement of the sun and clouds constantly changes their faces, appearing to free them for a few fleeting and awkward moments before the enforced stillness returns.

The red rocks of Belogradchik were formed some 200 million years ago. This makes them about the same age as two of the world's largest mountain ranges: the Alps and the Himalayas. The pressure of the tectonic processes that gave rise to the mountains pushed residues from the sea bottom, bringing the red sandstone from the depths to the surface. The landscape was completed by erosion which has, over the millennia, insistently carved faces, ears, chins, and noses onto endearingly named personages – the Schoolgirl, the Monks, the Hare and the Bear.

By the time the cave men came along, the Belogradchik Rocks had acquired their current look – up to 200 metres tall, with spindly, emaciated shapes.

The place spawned dozens of legends in more recent times, thus turning into a workshop for collective dreaming. Stories and characters crowd the medieval history of the fortress. Many of the rocks were named after the folk heroes of the time.

Despite the dramatic beauty of Belogradchik’s rock-strewn field, people tried – through imagination, to inject the rocks with life and create a colourful crowd, dominated by villains: samodivi, a kind of female forest elves, passionate nuns, wistful beauties and their sensitive admirers rub shoulders with witches, assassins, cursed nuns and monks, and jealous spouses. The rocks bear either moments of searing passion or triumphs of revenge. It is dubious whether the place would be at all nice were the characters to come to life.

A witch named Bela appears to have been at the bottom of most of this. Legends depict her as having a blindingly white face. She had a dog named Skala who could turn living things to stone by a touch of his paws.

Bela's extraordinary ability to influence Skala put her at the top of the Belogradchik stone pantheon as the creator of most of the figures there. The denouement came as Bela bade her dog to turn her into stone, to put an end to her yearning for her lost beloved Midzhur. And, being a true friend to the end, Skala turned his mistress to stone before following suit himself.

A more humane legend altogether concerns the Commandant, the tall rock to the right of the fortress gates. A story of friendship between Bulgarians and Turks despite the hostile relationship between victors and vanquished during the Ottoman conquest, it tells of the last fortress commandant, Ali. He saved the life of a Bulgarian boy and raised it. Yet the boy fled to the hills, became a hayduk, or bandit, and met his death. Ali successfully prevented violence against the Bulgarians a few times, before fleeing into Turkey after the Russian advance in 1878. Years later, he returned as a well-to-do but eccentric stranger to die in the town he had come to love.

The Ottoman conquerors were not always kind to their hosts. After a failed rebellion in 1850, the fortress witnessed a mass execution. A none-too-pleasant story tells how Turks made Bulgarians crawl through a tiny gate, on whose other side awaited a sharpened yatağan, a type of Turkish sword.

Perhaps out of convenience, as it is visible from many spots around the town, Belogradchik’s people usually point to the Schoolgirl first. Her story would scandalise any modern feminist. According to legend, she turned to stone after being first seduced and then abandoned.

Another dramatic personage punished for daring to love is the Nun. A nun fell for the icon painter Skalin when he was restoring icons in the nunnery. Bewitched by her beauty, the master decided to paint the nun’s eyes in place of the faded eyes of the Virgin Mary. The nun went blind, and followed the painter, deciding to abandon her monastic seclusion. This angered her fellow sisters who, in a plot with some evil priests, sentenced her to a whipping. The evil abbess was first to raise her arm, but she turned to stone before delivering the punishment. The same happened to Skalin, who had run to his beloved's rescue, and also to the clerical judges. For reasons unknown, this story punishes good and evil, innocent and guilty alike.

The story of the Good Villain is equally confusing. An evil dissolute who killed for pleasure, he grew old and was shunned by all. He secluded himself by a water fountain from which poison flowed. Yet grace descended upon him once he killed a man more evil than even himself: an unknown horseman who had abducted a child. Pure water then sprang from the poisoned fountain and the villain's soul was saved – through the typically Balkan device of washing away guilt from violence with yet more violence.

It is doubtful whether Mother Nature had had this in mind when creating the Red Rocks 200 million years ago. Yet it cannot be denied that their legends reflect an inventive way for people to translate eternity into their fleeting language. So far, they have only managed to cover several dozens of stones. Hundreds of others rise challengingly from the ground, inviting fresh interpretations of their fates.





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