Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Along Suleiman the Magnificent's Bridge in Svilengrad

Text by Kalina Yankova   
The Ottoman bridge over the Maritsa River is not only a predecessor (and maybe even a prototype) of the famous bridge on the Drina, but it is also superior to it in terms of scale and splendour. The legend about its origins is as dramatic as that of the Drina Bridge, although it did not win the Nobel Prize like Ivo Andrić’s novel that recounted it.

Ivan Vazov, the "patriarch" of modern Bulgarian literature, wrote in his most famous novel Under the Yoke: "A flask of wine drunk under the cool shade of the willows by the rippling crystal-clear brook makes you forget slavery; a hotchpotch with scarlet aubergines, baked with fragrant parsley and chilli peppers, eaten on the grass under the drooping branches through which you can see the blue sky high above is a royal delight; and if there are also fiddlers playing, you are on top of the world... Because, alongside its setbacks, the yoke also has a virtue: it makes people merry."

The lively and optimistic spirit of the poet, peppered with a dash of irony, has managed to see some advantages of the Ottoman rule in Bulgaria. Although the Bulgarians generally have a negative attitude to the five-century-long foreign reign, which delayed the European Renaissance’s arrival, it has nevertheless enriched their life in a number of undisputable ways, in areas such as cuisine, language and some perfect specimens of unique architecture.

A good example is the stone bridge over the Maritsa River in Svilengrad (in the picture above). Made out of large white stone blocks, it has 21 arches and stretches out over nearly 295 metres in length. As a comparison, Višegrad’s bridge on the Drina (in the picture below)– the focal point of Ivo Andrić’s novel by the same name and one of the best known structures on the Balkans, has 11 arches and is only 180 metres long.

The two bridges were built roughly in the same period – the first half of the sixteenth century, but the one on the Maritsa River precedes the one on the Drina by 10 to 20 years.

Five centuries after it was built, the bridge in Svilengrad still puzzles with its scale, which visually surpasses that of the contemporary architecture in the Bulgarian town, located in south-eastern Bulgaria on the border with Turkey.

According to the inscription on the bridge, it was built in 1529 by Sultan Suleiman I.

A popular legend, however, attributes its construction to Vizier Mustafa. Claiming that he risked his life for the well-being of his Bulgarian subjects, this version somehow contradicts the general perception of the Turkish reign as having been entirely bloody and tyrannical.

Story has it that Mustafa Pasha commissioned a master mason from Epirus to build a bridge for the good of the people. The construction proved so magnificent that the sultan himself demanded to buy it: not only for aesthetic reasons, but also in hopes of making a good profit from the toll.

Pressed with an ultimatum and threatened with dismissal, the vizier decided that the only way not to lose face and at the same time keep the bridge for his subjects was to commit suicide. Which he did, leaving Suleiman furious but helpless.

In adding a final touch to his abominable image, the sultan put a curse on the first man who was to walk across the bridge. The superstitious Bulgarians grew scared and reached a tacit consensus not to set foot onto the construction. The situation was saved by the vizier's father, who decided to sacrifice himself so that his son's suicide would not be in vain. The legend ends with his spectacular stroll across the bridge.

It is worth noting that this tale’s object of intrigue is not the tension between the two ethnic groups but rather the conflict between the central and local authorities.

Nowadays, on the one hand, the bridge of Svilengrad has fallen into oblivion – because of its geographical location in the unpopular border region with Turkey, and because of the lack of a Bulgarian Ivo Andrić-type writer to unfold a historical epic on it and turn it into an icon.

On the other hand, however, to this day there has not been a single building in Svilengrad to outshine the bridge over the Maritsa. Even though it is located about 30 kilometres up the river, it was conceived in unison with the Ottoman bridges of Edirne, in present-day Turkey. There, the several constructions over the Tundzha and the Maritsa Rivers are the city's trademark. Their solid splendour shows that the Bulgarians should feel sorry not only about the Renaissance thay missed out on, but also that they happened to inhabit such a peripheral province of the remarkable Ottoman Empire.

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