East and south
June 14, 2012
The rains have stopped, the storms have died, and the heat is rising. The almost luminous greenness I saw in my first two weeks in Bulgaria is becoming ever so slightly duller and dustier. The leaves are slowly losing their shine, the mud in the fields is starting to crack, and the cherries and mulberries along country roads have just begun, in the last few days, to lose their deliciousness.
Give or take coming twists and turns, my journey is simple now. Only east and south remain. East will take me to the Black Sea, and I can almost feel its pull — in these climbing temperatures, when it’s too hot to walk at midday, the thought of water feels like a salvation. South will take me to the Turkish border, and to Istanbul.
Intimations of that city’s power — the lodestone of the east and south — are already becoming apparent. From Istanbul, the Ottoman Turks ruled these lands for five centuries, after defeating the Second Bulgarian Empire in 1396. And from Constantinople, its previous name, the Byzantines launched an invasion that brought down the First Bulgarian Empire in 1018. Bulgaria struggled against that city, in its various incarnations, for over a thousand years.
The more I look, the more I see clues of this ancient intermingling — and the more it reminds me how far I’ve travelled from Germanic lands. In the green Rodopi Mountains (the legendary birthplace of Orpheus), isolated villages are still inhabited by Bulgarian Muslims whose ancestors converted to Islam during Ottoman rule. In the city of Plovdiv, the remains of a Roman stadium lie underneath a fourteenth-century mosque, still used by the city’s Muslims. (In Sofia many of these mosques no longer function — the story goes that the communists hid dynamite in the minarets, and blew them up one night during a ‘thunderstorm.’) Turkish words have slipped into the language, the wheedling reel of Bulgarian bagpipes sounds like something from a bazaar, and people shake their heads to mean ‘yes’ — a sure sign that I’ve passed a significant cultural fault-line.