Friday, 28 July 2017

Kurdzhali: Where Men Trade in their Uniforms for Cassocks and the Town Clock Sings

Text by Ekaterina Petrova   
At first sight, Kurdzhali is just like many other provincial towns in Bulgaria: it seems to stand still in time, its communist-style buildings lining the quiet streets and boulevards. But, upon closer inspection, the town’s peculiar history and little quirks, many of them unintentional, charm its visitors.

Here, the housing blocs bear names instead of numbers, army men are driven to give up their uniforms and become God’s servants, the town clock sings patriotic songs, Islamic schools become Russian military barracks and then museums, and gigantic Black Sea ships cross the mountains so as to sail in a man-made lake.

Christians, Muslims, Bulgarians and Turks – or all of the above?
Kurdzhali's history
Mosques and monasteries
The town's museum and gallery
The dam and the ship

Kurdzhali – located in the south-central Bulgaria, may not be the country’s most beautiful or important town, but it is nevertheless worth a visit. Far from being a mandatory, not-to-be-missed Bulgarian destination, Kurdzhali’s provincial sleepiness gives it a cosy feel; its open spaces, rolling hills and large water dams allow for a breath of fresh air and a nice change from the congestion and dust of the big cities, and its well-maintained tourist sites, churches, mosques and monasteries promise to fill several days with sightseeing.

Though it boasts several well-preserved and quite interesting tourist attractions, some of Kurdzhali’s most impressive sights are unintentional and one comes upon them by chance: the municipality building bears the name of a gynaecologist, spelled with large metal letters mounted on its marble façade, their permanence fit for something no less grand than the municipality itself; one of the local clubs, called Ultra whose outdoor sign is an exact replica of the cover of the Depeche Mode album by the same name, even though the music booming from within is pop-folk; the cheery to the point of nationalistic paranoia billboard, placed in the central square, with which the municipality wishes the Christian half of its residents a happy Easter.

And if that’s not enough, the town lies in the middle of a region rich in natural and archaeological attractions so it could also serve as a basis from which to explore them.

Religion: Christians, Muslims, Bulgarians and Turks – or all of the above?

Kurdzhali’s population is split down the middle between Eastern Orthodox Christians and Muslims, or as they are commonly referred to ‘Bulgarians’ and ‘Turks’, although those terms are misleading because the ‘Turks’ in question include both Bulgarian citizens of Turkish descent and Pomaks – ethnic Bulgarians who converted to Islam during Ottoman rule.

For that reason, many visitors have preconceived notions of the town as a place of ethnic tensions. But, despite what nationalistic assertions or tourist brochures would have you believe, Kurdzhali is neither a place where ethnic conflict is likely to blow up at any given moment, nor “an example of ethnic and religious tolerance.”

It is precisely the fact that Christianity and Islam co-exist in the town, sometimes peacefully and sometimes confrontationally, which gives rise to some of the peculiarities that make it an interesting and worthwhile place to visit.

While in other places the passing of time may be marked by bell tolls, for example, here the clock tower plays an excerpt from a patriotic song on the dot of every hour. Each song, dating from the National Revival period, which led to Bulgaria’s independence from Ottoman rule, is then followed by bell tolls numbering the hour of the day.

So, when the melody of “Rise up, rise up Balkan hero” sounds, people know it is 10 o’clock, either in the morning or at night. And although only instrumental versions of the songs are played, if you’re Bulgarian, it is difficult not to recite the song’s lyrics in your head – appealing to the Balkan hero to rise up, wake up from a deep sleep and lead the Bulgarians against the Ottoman nation. It makes one wonder how this constant reminder affects Kurdzhali’s contemporary population – the descendants of the erstwhile conquerors and their subjects.

History: Ancient and Recent, in Which Uniforms Get Traded in for Cassocks

The first written evidence of the town is in a Turkish register from 1607. Legend has it that the town was named after Kurdzha Ali, who in the fourteenth century led the Ottoman Army of Murad I in its conquest of the Rodopi Mountains. Later, he settled in the area and spent his old days preaching to the Turkish settlers around the villages.

This story of a military man-turned God’s servant is again repeated in the town’s recent history.

Boyan Saraev was born in the 1950s to a Muslim family in a village near Kurdzhali. During communist times, he served as a sergeant and graduated from the Police Academy in Sofia but later converted to Christianity and was ordained as a Christian deacon in 1990.

Mosques and Monasteries

Saraev was the central figure behind the construction of the town's newest religious site – the monastery complex Uspenie Bogorodichno, meaning ‘The Ascension,’ built between 2000 and 2003. Too new to be truly charming, the compound nevertheless impresses with its orderliness. The immaculately kept gardens within its walls give it an air of peace and quaintness. The mural paintings of saints which cover virtually every wall of every building within the complex, although bordering on kitsch, show a great intent and dedication. Beside a church, a library and even a dentist (!!!), the complex offers rooms to tourists, which have all the basic amenities of a decent hotel.

Another Christian site of importance is the Saint John Prodromus Monastery, which dates back to the ninth century, though it was reconstructed in its present shape in the eleventh century. A tenth-century tomb, elaborately embroidered liturgical garments and beautiful frescos – both dating from the thirteenth century, are a few of the monastery’s belongings that can be seen.

There are over 300 mosques in Kurdzhali and the region around it, some dating back 200 years. Though the town’s central mosque is not especially impressive, some of the older mosques contain unique murals and ancient hand-written copies of the Qur’an.

The Town’s Museum and Gallery: Impressive from Both the Outside and the Inside

A more secular look into the town and region’s history is made possible by a visit to the regional history museum, one of the largest museums in southern Bulgaria. Both the building that houses it and its collections are worth a stop.

The museum’s building, surrounded by a large and well-kept garden, is reminiscent of Islamic architecture with its pointy arches and windows.

According to the museum’s staff – who are remarkably friendly and willing to share their knowledge, the building’s construction began during the 1920s. Meant to house an Islamic school, it was not completed until after the Second World War, when Russians finished its second wing and used it as a military building. It later served as a vocational school before becoming a museum in the mid-1980s.

Its collection is spread thematically over three floors: the first one houses artefacts and smaller objects from the nearby ancient sites of Perperikon and Tatul, found by archaeologists or confiscated from treasure-hunters; the second floor showcases a selection of rocks, minerals and dried plants found in the region; the third level contains ethnographic displays of national costumes, jewellery and trades typical of the area, such as tobacco-growing and shoe-making.

The town’s art gallery is another recommended stop in the town. Its building, which dates from the mid-nineteenth century, stands out with its surprising blast of pink. Initially having served as a Turkish administrative building, it was later used by the police, the army and the government before becoming a gallery.

Its permanent collection contains works by many Bulgarian and some foreign artists while in a crypt on the ground floor, there are displayed Eastern Orthodox icons and documents from the Bulgarian national revival.

The Kurdzhali Dam and the Anchored Ship Emona

And if the open space and greenery within the town’s confines are not enough, its two dams, among the largest in the country, are just a short car drive away. In addition to being the town’s chief water sources, the dams also provide ample opportunity for recreational activities.

The Kurdzhali Dam is accessible from several sides. A walk on top of its wall, which stands at over 100 metres in height, is exhilarating – on account of both the large expanse visible in both directions and the dizzying view down towards the water.

From another side, its banks near the villages of Glavatartsi and Enchets boast several restaurants, both ashore and on the water. The ones on rafts tied to the bottom offer quite tasty, freshly caught carp and other fish, though the wind and waves that hit the rafts may make for a queasy experience for those prone to sea-sickness.

The Emona ship, which is now anchored to the shore, functions as a restaurant as well. And though – judging from the amount of clientele, it is not the most popular one, the story of how the Black Sea vessel ended up on a man-made lake in Bulgaria’s eastern Rodopi Mountains is a fascinating one.

Built in 1945 with a displacement of 215 tons, the ship initially transported passengers between the Black Sea port town of Burgas and the seaside villages of Nesebar and Tsarevo. However, after Captain Georgi Georgiev, a native of Kurdzhali, came back from his Guinness-record sailing trip around the globe, the idea to bring the Emona ship – the largest Bulgarian tourist vessel, to the town's dam was born.

The nearly 40 metre-long ship began its land-journey from Burgas in May of 1979, pulled by a special tow-truck. After a month of ‘sailing’ on dry land, which included cutting and reconnecting all the electricity cables along the way, and just a few kilometres before reaching its final destination, the ship tipped over on a turn, crashing atop of a road-side house. It took 42 days to raise the ship back up and bring it to the dam.

For many years afterwards, it transported passengers and tourists before being anchored to the shore. And though it is an unlikely site, it has become one of local famous attractions. Like many other of the town’s charms, it may be a slightly unexpected sight that takes the visitor by surprise but makes the trip all the more interesting and worthwhile.

So, next time you’re in the Rodopi region, don’t skip Kurdzhali or simply use it as a base for visits to the nearby ancient sites. Take a stroll on its streets, read its sighs, peek into its museum, have a meal abroad the Emona, and let the town surprise you.

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