Bulgaria’s Bearings

By Jheri St. James

     “Bulgaria has changed swiftly over the last decade, though in the villages you can still find folk who ride the donkey to work, eat homegrown potatoes and make their own cheese. The difference now is that they wash it all down in front of a satellite TV. When Bulgaria ran away with the topsy-turvy capitalist circus, no one told its people they were swinging without a safety net. But what the visitor encounters now is a country struggling valiantly to adapt and people who remain remarkably hospitable in the face of social and economic chaos. Urban Bulgaria, especially Sofia, the capital, is much changed.” (www.lonelyplanet.com)

     Bulgaria, a Republic in the southeast of Europe, borders the Black Sea to the east, Greece and Turkey to the south, Serbia and Montenegro and the Republic of Macedonia to the west, and Romania to the north along the River Danube. It is one of Europe’s oldest countries. The territory is divided into 28 regions, each headed by a regional governor appointed by the government. In addition, there are 263 municipalities. The southwest of the country is mountainous, containing the highest point of the Balkan Peninsula, peak Musala at 2,925 m., and the range of the Balkan mountains runs west-east through the middle of the country, north of the famous Rose Valley. Hill country and plains are found in the southeast, along the Black Sea coast in the east, and along Bulgaria’s main river, the Danube in the north. The climate is temperate, with cold, damp winters and hot, dry summers.

     Most citizens of Bulgaria are at least nominally members of the Bulgarian Ortrhodox Church founded in 870 A.D., the independent national church of Bulgaria. Like the other national branches of Eastern Orthodoxy, it is considered an inseparable element of Bulgarian national consciousness. The church has been abolished, or rather reduced to a subordinate position within the Greek Orthodox Church, twice during the periods of Byzantine (1018-01185) and Ottoman (1396-1878) domination, but has been revived every time as a symbol of Bulgarian statehood. In 2001, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church had a total of 6,552,000 members in Bulgaria (82.6% of the population).

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     A coat of arms is, “a tabard or embroidered pennant attached to a trumpet blazoned with bearings, usually depicted on and around a shield that indicates ancestry and distinctions; a representation of bearings. A tabard is the “a short heavy cape, surcoat or tunic of coarse cloth formerly worn outdoors in the Middle Ages by a knight or herald over his armor.” Bearings are, “the manner in which one carries or conducts oneself; awareness of one’s position or situation relative to one’s surroundings.”

     One would not expect coats of arms to be an issue in this day and age, but in Bulgaria, President Zhelyu Zhelev officially abolished the emblem of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria in December 1990, making it the only country in the world without a coat of arms. For nearly five years and through five governments, the political and intellectual elite argued over the coat of arms, even as polls showed that much of the public was uninterested in the issue. The battle lines were drawn around the crown. One group favored Bulgaria’s historical coat of arms or a new design that incorporated the crowned lion within a crowned shield, found in the traditional coat of arms. The other argued that the crown was a symbol of monarchy and thus inappropriate to a republic.

     Bulgarian tsars had personal emblems depicting lions in the 14th century and, as early as the 15th century, a crowned lion on a shield was presented as the Bulgarian emblem throughout Europe. But the crowned lion was the center of much controversy. Neshka Robeva, a trainer of rhythmic gymnastics and former world champion, said that she, “wanted to feel like the citizen of a state and not of a zoo,” and favored a crowned lion. She added, however, that for her the most appropriate emblem for Bulgaria at that moment would be a donkey stumbling over a bridge.

     Finally in 1997, the coat of arms pictured here was adopted. This was the one first used by Bulgaria since Communist rule was ended in that nation in the early 1990’s. The emblem has two lions supporting a shield with a lion on it. It is topped by the crown of Bulgarian King Ivan Asen II. At the bottom of the shield is the Bulgarian national motto: “Uinity Makes Power” in Cryllian text. The three lions represent the three major portions of Bulgaria—Moesia, Thrace and Macedonia. The crown on top of the shield, and thus upon the shielded lion, is not that of the last Bulgarian monarchy, but that of the second Bulgarian monarchy (1185-1396). This monarchy, the second Bulgarian empire, was established by the brothers Peter and Asen, after it was freed from Byzantine control, and before it was subjugated by the Ottomans.

     A coat of arms such as Bulgaria’s is an important representation of a people, a country, and a culture, containing important and memorable iconography of the history of their bearings. Even the most cursory look at the history of Bulgaria indicates memories of bearing up under struggle. The Bulgars, a Central Asian Turkic tribe, merged with the local Slavic inhabitants in the late 7th century to form the first Bulgarian state. In succeeding centuries, Bulgaria fought with the Byzantine Empire to assert its place in the Balkans but, by the end of the 14th century, the country was over run by the Ottoman Turks. Northern Bulgaria attained autonomy in 1878 and all of Bulgaria became independent in 1908. Having fought on the losing side in both World Wars, Bulgaria fell within the Soviet sphere of influence and became a People’s Republic in 1946. Communist domination ended in 1990, when Bulgaria held its first multiparty election since World War II and began the contentious process of moving toward political democracy and a market economy while combating inflation, unemployment, corruption and crime. Today, reforms and democratization keep Bulgaria on a path toward eventual integration into the EU. The country joined NATO in 2004.

     Even as all this history was unfolding, in 1951 the “father of Bulgarian concert folk music”, Philip Koutev, established the Ensemble of the Bulgarian Republic. His goal was to join the rich heritage of his country’s solo folk songs with harmonies and arrangements that highlighted their beautiful timbres and irregular rhythms. One year later, the Bulgarian State Radio and Television Female Vocal Choir was founded. Then as now, its members are singers from the rural regions of Bulgaria, each an informal apprentice in the folk songs of her home. The ensemble, now under the direction of conductor Dora Hristova, has refined Koutev’s original idea into a fine art. The Choir’s imaginatively arranged songs join traditional folk melodies with sophisticated harmonies and compelling rhythms, performed in an exotic six-part vocal style. Repertoire is drawn from arrangements created by Bulgaria’s most esteemed composers, among them Mr. Koutev, Krasimir Kyurkchiyski, Nikolai Kaufman and Petar Lyondev.

     The distinctive sounds of Bulgarian folk singing come from the many cultural influences experienced under the rule of the Tartars from central Asia and the Ottoman Turks. Many Asian elements can be heard in the use of modal scales, dissonant harmonies and rhythmical and metrical variety. The diaphonic singing tradition of two voices moving in parallel seconds, sevenths or ninths along with the metallic vocal timbres is preserved in the many arrangements. To western ears, this style of singing seems very strange. The acappella singing is occasionally accompanied by traditional instruments, such as the kaval and the fiddle-like gadulka. Though the true folk style is dying out, these songs are preserved in modern versions, which combine folk with classical elements creating a new art form. Let us take note that in this enterprise Mr. Koutev and Ms. Hristova merged the music of their country’s oppressors and Bulgaria to create a new music, using female voices.

     This manner of strong traditions blended with evolving culture is reflected in many of Bulgaria’s festivals and celebratory events. Marked by ritual songs, dances and costumes, they offer visitors perhaps the best glimpse into the country’s folkways and customs. The traditions of the Thracians, Slavs and Bulgarians have been blended into a folklore and lifestyle variety that amazes experts. The world has started talking about the Mystery of Bulgarian songs and dances. A Bulgarian Rhodope folk song, together with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, traveling to the stars with Voyager spaceships is the Bulgarian message to alien civilizations. The world is discovering it again and again at major folklore and song contests in Italy, France, England, Ireland, etc., from which the Bulgarian music and dance ensembles invariably walk off with the first prizes.

     Landmarks in Bulgaria include many cathedrals and monasteries, and many tourists travel to Bulgaria to see and even stay at these cultural heritage locations. The short list of monasteries on a tour would include the Rila, Dragalevtsi, Etropole, Klisura, Kokalyane, Kremikovtsi, Osenovlak, Pravetz, Ruen, and Zemen monasteries, but there are many, many more. Other tourist destinations include the ancient town of Nicopolis, the tomb of Silistra, a Magoura cave with drawings from the bronze age, the rocks of Belogradchik, the town of Melnik, many parks and two Neolithic dwellings with interior and household furnishings and utensils completely preserved.

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     Vocally, in addition to singing and dancing, Bulgarians speak Bulgarian, and read and write Bulgarian, using the Cyrillic alphabet. Because it’s the official alphabet, most street signs, road names, etc. are written in Cyrillic, bearing absolutely no relation to how they would appear if written in the Roman alphabet.

     If you were to ask Greek men of letters, “Who created your letters or who translated your books and when was that?” it would seldom be that any of them knows. But if you ask a Slav child who is learning its ABC’s “Who created your alphabet?” or “Who translated your books?” all of them would know and they would answer “Saint Constantin, the Philosopher, called Cyril; he and his brother Methodius created the alphabet and translated the books.” And if you were to ask when it was, they would know and would say, “It was in the lifetime of the Greek King Michael, of the Bulgarian King Boris, of the Moravian Prince Rastitsa and of the Blatenian Prince Cotsel,” and they would say that it was in the year 6363 of the creation of the world (855 A.D.). That was when the brothers Cyril and Methodius of Thessaloniki (the largest city in Bysantium) retired to a monastery to dedicate themselves to evangelizing the Slavs. By 862, they had created an alphabet of Slavonic script and translated the fundamental liturgical books into Slavonic languages. Canonical recognition of the Slavonic alphabet came in 879 when the Slavonic books were sanctified by Pope Johann VIII. For many years, Europe had only one patron acknowledged by canon law—Saint Benedict. Then, in 1979, Pope John Paul II proclaimed the creators of the Slav alphabet, the Bulgarians Cyril and Methodius, to also be patrons of Europe.

     Until the invention of modern printing machines, books were copied by hand. In the Orthodox world the copying of manuscripts continued almost until modern times. The initial letters were an important element in the design of the medieval Bulgarian book. Their alphabet is also the Cyrillic, and still today most Slavic countries, including Russia, use an extension of that alphabet. In Bulgaria, you will find not a subset, or an extension, but the pure Cyrillic alphabet of the original 30 letters. The Old Bulgarian language is a basis for the creation of Russian, Serbian, Slovene, and Croatian variants and gained the significance of a universal literary Slavonic language. May 24 is celebrated throughout Bulgaria as “The Day of Slavic Alphabet, Bulgarian Enlightenment and Culture.” The enthusiastic celebrating of the day of the Saint brothers Kiril and Methody by all Bulgarian people is a positive proof of their thirst for enlightenment and science, for national self-defining and fast economical and cultural advancement, their bearings. It is a holiday that has no analogy among other nations—a holiday of spiritual rising, perfection striving for scientific and cultural achievements.

     In any country it is the religion, the music, the folk traditions, dancing, the literature that help the inhabitants keep their bearings in an increasingly complicated and shifting world. In some cases, like Orthodox religion, power must be wrested from others to maintain cultural faith. In some cases, as in the music of Bulgaria, the bearings shift as the music of others is fused with the traditional sounds. In still others, as in the Cryllic alphabet, a firm commitment is made to honor the history and maintain the historical heritage. In relation to the coat of arms of Bulgaria, compromises are made to incorporate the wishes of all the people. These human activities have in common the fact that they occur on the surface of the earth: power struggles, fusion, honor, compromise. And below these occurrences we find common ground, the place where all controversies and countries fuse into one planet, where the word “honor” is never heard, where compromise does not exist, because these are man’s issues and the soil of the earth is and always has been quietly existing beneath all man’s posturing and proclaiming.

     Bulgaria’s story is a good example of how the “dirt process” often goes in this project: Anastasia Chames, of Los Angeles, California, was the liaison between Common Ground 191 in Laguna Beach, California and Georgia Nelson, in Bulgaria, who works for the Peace Corps along the Turkish border. “Georgia, Thank you for your call. Hope you can bring some dirt from Bulgaria. See you in July. Leave the soil with Litsa, just in case I don’t make it to Athens when you’re there!”

     So, Georgia collected soil from Ludga, a village between Cverachi and Ivaylousrad--“beautiful black rich soil, from a village (where I’m living at this time) called Ivailovgrad (ancient Greek name Ortakio). I collected the soil here, placed it in the jar, as I was going to Athens. I left the jar with cousins in Athens, left Greece, and returned to Bulgaria.”

     Then Anastasia went to Georgia’s cousin’s in Athens, picked up the jar and delivered it to her cousin, Fanis. Anastasia is of Greek heritage; her father was born on Greek soil in Calabrica and her cousin, Fanis Lampropoulos lives there. It was Fanis who collected soil from Greece and then shipped both containers to Gary at Common Ground 191. Anastasia is currently working on finding volunteers for soil collections in Israel and Equador.

     As we at Common Ground 191 continually adjust our project’s bearings to adapt to these sometimes confusing pathways on the surface, it is people like Anastasia, Georgia and Fanis who are ultimately our guides, traveling the world, making friends, and generously sharing their time and good will to further the Common Ground 191 story by carrying these little jars of earth. Our gratitude goes out to all the friends of Common Ground 191 who are creating the new bearings for a unity of all soils of the planet.

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