Sunday, 20 August 2017

Plovdiv: A Felicitous Stop on the Orient Express Route

During the Ottoman Empire’s decline, merchants of rose oil, silk and linen built one of Bulgaria’s most impressive urban centres

In the middle of Djumaya – the square that marks the historical centre of Plovdiv, stands a high pillar topped with the bronze, gold-wreathed figure of Philip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great. Plovdiv’s inhabitants believe they owe their city to him.
Had they been less filled with historical romanticism, in his place there would have been a statue of the founder of Compagnie Internationale des Wagons Lits. The international rail company’s decision in the mid-nineteenth century to build a rail line from Europe to Istanbul through Plovdiv was the event that made the city what it is today.

As part of the Ottoman Empire, Bulgaria had the advantage being of geographically located near Central Europe. During the sixteenth century many trade fairs took place on its territory, with the Uzundzhovo Fair being the most significant among them.

“Uzundzhovo? Where is that?” – every other Bulgarian would ask today, and had it not been for the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons Lits, the question would have been “Plovdiv? Where is that?” The rail link to the city was the reason why, in the mid-nineteenth century, the Turkish city administration ceased bothering with the hassle of maintaining the cobblestone road to Uzundzhovo near Haskovo, and moved the fair to Plovdiv.

The city, rebuilt as Philippopolis in the fourth century BC, was completely demolished several times during the following centuries. According to historical accounts, when it was incorporated into the Ottoman Empire in the fourteenth century, in was in pretty bad shape. The cohabitation of a number of ethnic groups, including the influential Muslim community, brought it back to life and gradually turned it into a local trade centre. But it was the rail connection and the fair’s relocation that transformed Plovdiv into a regional centre, quickly modernised it and added larger amounts of European splendour to its previously Oriental existence.

In the following decades, the residential quarter built atop one of Plovdiv’s hills transformed into a complex that was wealthy compared to Balkan standards. Today, the area is under UNESCO’s protection as a world architectural heritage site. The quarter’s houses, almost to the last one, belonged to merchant families that managed to significantly increase their fortune over a few decades. Moreover, they successfully created one of the most progressive urban communities that served as a stepping stone to Bulgaria’s independence in the 1880s.

Ekaterina Terzieva, a Bulgarian journalist from Plovdiv, takes a peek into the history of some of these houses, where human fates unfolded simultaneously with melodrama characteristic of an opera libretto but also with the flourish of a national epic.


The Balabanova House: Empire Style and à la frangi

One of the most famous houses in Plovdiv’s Old Town – the Balabanova House, was built at the beginning of the nineteenth century by Panayot Lampsha, a merchant and moneylender. In style, it imitates the wealthy Ottoman estates lining the Bosphorus’s banks in Istanbul.

Its generous living space is divided in a manner common to the nineteenth-century homes of the merchant class: the first floor is dedicated to the family’s private life, while the second, ceremonial floor was occupied by a spacious social salon, surrounded by a series of rooms of various designs.

In the Balabanova House, the official salon has views to the yard and the street and it is accessible through an internal staircase. Glassed-in like a winter garden, the airy room is similar to the „divanhane”, the formal hall for public gatherings in Turkish architecture.

But that’s about it when it comes to nods to the Orient. When Luka Balabanov bought the house at the end of the nineteenth century, he renewed its entire interior with objects imported from Europe: the walnut table and Viennese, green-upholsered furniture in the salon, the study’s Austro-Hungarian fittings in the Empire style, the two “gold” rooms with French furniture. The dining room, as an exception, is filled with pieces from Sofia.

The fake windows in the four rooms, known as à la frangi, literally meaning ‘according to the European way’ are decorated with landscapes, scenes and paintings that Balabanov had seen during his trips to Western Europe, where he traded grain, textiles, and the exotic but key for that-time Bulgaria rose oil.

There is no historical record of the reasons why the Balabanov family left the house, but it was completely demolished in the 1930s. The building that stands in its place now is a copy of the original house, built in 1971.

The Kuyumdzhioglu House: Plovdiv’s Baroque

Also known as the King’s House, the house of Kuyumdzhioglu had a fate filled with many twists and turns, before in 1938 hosting the town’s ethnographic museum.

It was built in 1847 for rich merchant Argir Kuyumdzhioglu.

Two-stories tall on its western side and four-stories tall on its eastern side, the house is spread over 570 square metres and it is one of the most splendid examples of that period’s local urban architecture.

Twelve rooms are arranged around its airy salons, one of which reaches more than 18 metres in length. The official three-winged staircase connecting to it serves as a great lead into the salon’s massive, wood-carved ceiling. Bulgarian architects say that its style can be described as a local version of the Baroque Style.

After Bulgaria became independent, Argir Kuyumdzhioglu decided to move to Istanbul. After he left, his home was first used as a girls’ boarding house (1989-1202), then it became Garabet Karagyozian’s hat factory, then a warehouse for storing flour and even a vinegar factory. In 1930, it was bough by the tobacco merchant Antonio Kolaro.

The Hindilyanova House: A Rose Water Fountain

One of the most magnificently furnished houses in Plovdiv’s Old Town belonged to Stepan Manug, a merchant of Armenian decent, who lived during the Revival Period. Known for his trade contacts in India, the city’s Muslim community referred to him as Hindioglu.

During the house’s 1834 construction, two painters from the town of Chirpan – Moka and Mavrudi, painted its inside and outside over a period of six months.

According to historians, when they painted the first floor, they applied an innovative technique of using a pre-made paper mould. The decoration of the second storey was more reminiscent of the Sisyphean labour exerted in the Sistine Chapel – all the walls were painted by hand.

The colouring followed the Oriental example and there was so much creativity invested in the each of the ornaments that – according to researchers, not one appears more than once.

Similarly to the Balabanova house, Hindioglu also had his à la frangi painted with scenes of places he visited: from Alexandria in the East to Venice in the West.

One of the impressive parts of the house is the marble-and-plaster bathroom that is Bulgaria’s only preserved city bathroom with running hot and cold water from the time. It was made on the same principle as the Roman hypocaust system – heating was provided by clay pipes that were built into the floor and filled with hot air.

But the house’s essence is contained in the second-floor marble fountain. Placed in the midst of the domestic social life, it circulated rose water – its smell dispersed around the neighbouring yards and brought pleasure to the urban community.

Hindioglu left his house in 1915, when the Armenian population began to be prosecuted by the Turks. His home became a shelter for Armenian refugees. Because of that, the Taviani brothers recently used the house as a shooting location for their film The Lark Farm[ital], dedicated to the Armenian genocide at the beginning of the last century.

The Nedkovich House: Plovdiv’s Classicism

The house of Nikola Nedkovich, a textile merchant from Karlovo, was considered as one of the strangest and most modern revivalist houses at the time.

Built in the 1860s, it is also known as the House with the Medallions – because of the three bas reliefs on its façade, crafted with the delicacy of a cameo work. One is of the Nedkovich house itself, the second is of a typical Balkan house and the third – an example of the West European architecture at the time.

The three panels could be interpreted as the epitome of Plovdiv’s entire urban architecture: having its origins in the Orient, but headed towards Europe, it developed mid-way between the East and West.

From a contemporary point of view, however, it is the Oriental elements that contribute to Old Plovdiv’s local colour. For example, the so-called klyukarnik, or ‘gossip room’, in the Nedkovich and other houses served to bring pleasure to the female household members. Its size was unimportant, judging from the mere two square metres of space provided by the architects. They must have though that, as long as there was a good view of the street, the women gathered in the gossip room would not mind the fact that they were rubbing elbows and sweating in the stuffy space while commenting on the fates, hair and clothes of their neighbours, passing below on the street.

Another eastern pleasure in the official salon on the second floor is the so-called köşk, a platform raised over the floor level, where musicians would stand to perform.

If there is any doubt regarding the kinds of interactions they played along to, it quickly vanishes with a look at the well-preserved tête-à-tête – the special sofa accommodating only two occupants who could sit to face each other.




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