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Bulgaria’s denial of its Ottoman past and Turkish identity

Despite more than five hundred years of Turkish rule, the majority of present-day Bulgarians demonise and reject “non-Bulgarian” – that is, Turkish, Muslim, or Roma – influences in their history and culture. While the Bulgarian government’s harshest policies of ethnic cleansing concluded with the fall of communism, this exclusivist narrative of Bulgarian national history nevertheless continues to discriminate against such communities.

March 24, 2019 - Tomasz Kamusella - Articles and Commentary

Weekly Medeniyet (Civilisation, 1933-1944) Source: islamansiklopedisi.org.tr

Bulgaria, since both its ancient and modern beginnings, has been invariably a multiethnic, mainly Slavic and Turkic, polity. School textbooks in Bulgaria lavish much attention on the ancient Bulgars, who in the Middle Ages founded several Bulgarias from the Volga to Italy, including the surviving one in the Balkans. However, the teaching materials employed in Bulgarian schools prefer to dub these Turkic-speaking Bulgars as “Bulgarians” (or sometimes “Proto-Bulgarians”), so that in Bulgarian vocabulary no distinction is maintained between Turkic Bulgars and Slavophone Bulgarians. In the Bulgarian language the same term “Bulgarians” (Българи Bılgari) is used for referring to these two different ethnic groups, thus suggesting – falsely – full historic and demographic continuity between both. Unsurprisingly after this kind of mis-education, most Bulgarians now see the ancient Bulgars as their “Slavic-speaking ancestors”.

In the late 14th century, the Ottomans conquered Bulgaria and made it into the core of Rumelia, or “Roman Province”, which encompassed the Balkan section of the Ottoman Empire. It was the richest Ottoman region, which was also the most ethnically and confessionally variegated in the sultan’s realm. Religious communities were organised into non-territorial autonomies, or millets, mainly for Armenian Monophysites, Judaists and Orthodox Christians. Muslims were also grouped into their own Millet of Islam. They were privileged over other ethnoreligious groups, since they paid lower taxes and had exclusive access to the highest offices across the empire. This was so because Islam was this polity’s ruling religion.

But little or no administrative pressure was applied to non-Muslims to convert to Islam, let alone any violence. The Ottomans would hate to see a significant drop in taxes collected from non-Muslims or their richest province engulfed in sectarian wars. Unlike in Europe – where religious wars fought between Protestants and Catholics raged from the burning of Jan Hus at the stake in 1415 to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 – there were no military conflicts of this kind in Ottoman Rumelia. Pax Ottomanica prevailed from Maghreb to the Middle East and from Rumelia (the Balkans) to Anatolia.

The present-day Bulgarian nation-state was created in 1878 as a result of numerous Russian forays into the Balkans aimed at securing the Ottoman capital of Kontsantinyya (قسطنطينيه, or today’s Istanbul) for the tsar (Цар). Accordingly, in Russian this city became widely known as Tsarigrad (Царьград), that is, “the Tsar’s City” or “the Imperial City”. St Petersburg wanted to have in Bulgaria a loyal Orthodox and Slavic ally, which would stand fast by Russian armies when it came to another reckoning with the sultan. Unsurprisingly, this imperialist origin of today’s Bulgaria translated into the nation-state’s anti-Muslim and anti-Turkish national master narrative, which prevails to this day. The half a millennium of cultural, social and economic symbiosis within the Ottoman Empire was immediately portrayed as the “long five centuries of the Turkish yoke”. The invention of the forced conversion of “Bulgarians” (namely Slavophone Orthodox Christians) to Islam was made into the founding myth of modern Bulgarian historiography. However, had Bulgarians been really forced by sword and fire to become Muslims for half a millennium, there would have been no Christians left in 1878 from which to build a Bulgarian nation.

In order to implement their plan of de-Islamising this new Bulgaria, the Russian occupying forces drew at the long-established imperial policy of expelling Muslims (or forcibly converting them to Christianity) and destroying “Muslim cities” to be rebuilt in a “modern” (Christian) and “progressive” (Western) fashion. Muscovy (Russia) had developed this colonisation technique over the course of the territorial expansion southward, from the seizure of the Khanate of Kazan in 1552 to the conquest of the Khanate of Crimea in 1783 and to the 1864 genocide of Circassians in what today are the North Caucasian regions of Krasnodar and Stavropol. The Habsburgs emulated the Russians when they took Ottoman Buda (part of today’s Budapest) in 1686. Muslims and Jews had been massacred, the city razed and rebuilt in the arch-Catholic architectonical style of Baroque.


Skyline of Sofya, with Vitosha Mountain in the background, during summer, in the 1860s; painting by Felix Kanitz. Source: wikimedia.org

At the moment of the Russian onslaught in 1877, in the lands later made into Bulgaria, half of the inhabitants were Muslims, 90 percent of whom spoke Turkish. They fled before the advancing armies, were massacred or were forced to leave. Subsequent peace allowed for the limited return of Muslim refugees and survivors, but by the turn of the 20th century the share of Muslims in the Bulgarian population had plummeted to one-tenth. In Sofia, transformed into the Bulgarian capital, the Russian military engineers immediately blew up nearly all the minarets of the city’s 40-something mosques. Later, these ruined mosques were either razed or converted into state offices, hospitals, libraries or Orthodox churches. Just a single mosque was preserved for Muslim worship and survives in Sofia to this day. (This is quite a “feat of tolerance”, given that no mosque was retained in the Greek capital of Athens. Even the 2004 Olympic Games held in this city in 2004 did not make the Greek government budge and erect a – however small – mosque for sportswomen and sportsmen from Muslim countries.) Over two decades Ottoman Sofya was overhauled beyond recognition into Bulgarian and Christian Sofia.

Skyline of present-day Sofia, with Vitosha mountain in the background, during winter, 2006. Source: wikimedia.org

The Bulgarian national revolution, or the quest for ethno-linguistic and ethno-religious homogeneity, was decisively launched. The Bulgarian political elite adopted this program of Central European nationalism as first formulated in Prussia in 1812 during the last – and this time victorious – war against Napoleon’s French Empire. In this ideology’s framework, language equals the nation, meaning that the all the speakers (the speech community) of a language are postulated to constitute an as yet somnolent nation that must be “reawakened”. In turn it is believed that such an ethno-linguistic nation enjoys the “natural” right to overhaul the lands inhabited by its members into an independent state. However the tradition of Ottoman millets, or ethno-confessional communities, weighed strongly on Bulgarian politics, leading to the tight amalgamation of language and religion as the “proper” basis of Bulgarian nationalism. From the Ottoman perspective, Bulgaria (like earlier Greece) was a strange example of the territorialisation of a non-territorial millet, to the exclusion of other millets from the territory of such a “modern” nation-state.

First of all, the national revolution of religious and linguistic homogenisation entailed the forced emigration, expulsion or (more rarely) forced conversion of non-Orthodox Christians. Second, non-Slavophone Christians (mainly those who spoke Greek and Aromanian) were pressed hard to either acquire Bulgarian or leave. But a certain degree of autonomy, including education, had to be preserved for Bulgaria’s Muslims (and Turks) due to international treaties, which overhauled the initial Bulgaria created by the Russian army into two autonomous polities: the Principality of Bulgaria and the Vilayet (Region) of Eastern Rumelia (or today’s southern Bulgaria). Both remained part of the Ottoman Empire, though the Principality conquered Eastern Rumelia in 1885, thus creating a single Bulgaria. This enlarged Principality gained independence in 1908, taking the opportunity of the near-collapse of the Ottoman central government in the wake of the Young Turk Revolution in Konstantiyya. The Bulgarian Prince Ferdinand (Saxe-Coburg-Gotha) was encouraged by the example of Austro-Hungary’s annexation of autonomous Bosnia (officially part of the Ottoman Empire, like Bulgaria), which did not trigger any Ottoman reaction.

For four decades between 1878 and 1908 in Bulgaria, Osmanlıca (Ottoman Turkish) was an official language, alongside the national tongue of Bulgarian. Numerous Bulgarian documents were written in Osmanlıca, and quite a few books and periodicals were published in this language in the Principality. And yet, although modern Bulgarian history is commonly defined as the post-1878 period, students and researchers of modern Bulgarian history do not acquire Osmanlıca, unless they specialise in “Oriental” or Turkish studies. It is as though Osmanlıca had never been an official language in modern Bulgaria.


Ottoman Sofya destroyed: The 1879 street map with the 1881 master plan of today’s Sofia superimposed. Source: wikimedia.org

Over the course of the partition and collapse of the Ottoman Empire, a Turkish nation-state emerged in Anatolia by 1923. Radical secularisation and westernisation (equated with “progress and modernisation”) entailed the 1928 switch from the Arabic script to the Latin alphabet for writing what rapidly became known as the “Turkish language”. Sofia was wary of the Turkish national revolution and wanted to isolate Bulgaria’s Turks from this unwanted influence. The Bulgarian government even offered safe haven to Muslim religious conservatives and leaders who stuck to the Arabic script-based Osmanlıca, while on the other hand put hurdles in the way of the use of Latin letters for writing and publishing in Turkish. After the 1934 authoritarian coup in Sofia, the new Bulgarian government banned the use of the Latin alphabet for Turkish. Hence, Osmanlıca in Arabic letters remained the language of publishing and education among Bulgaria’s Turkish minority until 1946. Thus, Osmanlıca remained a leading language of documents and publishing industry in modern Bulgaria for 68 years.

Weekly Rehber (Guide, 1928-1934) Source: bulgaristanalperenleri.blogspot.com

After the Second World War, Bulgaria found itself within the Soviet bloc. The Kremlin distrusted the country’s elite because Sofia had changed its alliance from the Third Reich to the Soviet Union in September 1944, and only after the Red Army entered Bulgarian territory. As a form of punishment and loyalty test in one, Moscow imposed on Sofia a broad system of rights for ethno-linguistic and ethno-religious minorities living in Bulgaria. This move stopped the homogenising “advances” of the ongoing national revolution. Bulgaria’s Turks were numerically the largest beneficiary of this policy, which came with the instantaneous switch from Arabic to Latin letters for writing and publishing in Turkish. However to isolate communist Bulgaria’s Turks from unwanted influences emanating from pro-American capitalist Turkey, Azeri specialists were sent from the Soviet Union to standardise Bulgarian Turkish in line with Soviet ideological needs. Communist Bulgaria became the second-largest center of Turkish-language literature and publishing after Turkey itself. Between 1959 and 1972 around 120 Turkish-language books were published in Bulgaria, along with a similar number of school textbooks in this language.

Frontispiece of Volume 1 of the first-ever collected works of the communist Turkish poet Nâzım Hikmet, Bütün eserleri (8 volumes, 1967-1972, Sofia; Volume 1 was published in 17,000 copies, while Volume 8 only in 5,000 copies). Source: wikimedia.org

Nevertheless in 1950 the national revolution resumed in the form of “voluntary” emigration to Turkey, a process that was concluded in 1978. Meanwhile, in 1963 and 1973, Bulgaria applied twice for membership in the Soviet Union. The Kremlin gently rejected both applications, which however made the country into the most loyal Soviet ally in the Soviet bloc. On this basis the Soviet leadership tacitly agreed to the termination of the Turkish-language minority educational system at the turn of the 1970s, although a bilingual Turkish-Bulgarian newspaper continued to publish until 1984, which otherwise proved a highly Orwellian year in communist Bulgaria. In the winter of 1984-85, the names of 800,000 Turks were Bulgarianised by force, so the last communist census, conducted in 1985, could “prove” that only ethnic Bulgarians lived in communist Bulgaria, and that no national or ethnic minorities remained. The national revolution’s ultimate goal of total homogeneity was achieved, at least at the rhetorical level of propaganda.

The Latin alphabet-based Turkish was an important language of culture, education, publishing and local politics in Bulgaria, first between 1929 and 1934 and then between 1946 and 1984 (hence, for 33 years). But students and researchers of modern and contemporary Bulgarian history do not acquire it. Turkish-language sources are customarily shunned. After 1985 Turkish-language books published in post-war Bulgaria were removed from the public libraries across the country and destroyed. Single copies are preserved in the Bulgarian National Library. The Bulgarian state security forces (known as the DS, or ‘State Security’) closely monitored Bulgaria’s “non-existent Turks”, making sure that they would not possess or read any Turkish books at home. Religious calendars were allowed to be published, but only in the Arabic script-based Osmanlıca because hardly anyone, apart from imams, was able to read them. Should the official or significant public use of Osmanlıca and Turkish be combined, their timespans extended from 1878 to 1984, thus lasting for 106 years – covering almost the entire duration of the national revolution and the processes of ethno-linguistic and ethno-confessional homogenisation.

However in today’s democratic Bulgaria, which is a member of both NATO and the European Union, bookstores do not stock any Turkish books. It is near-impossible to find a Turkish-language publication from the 1960s in a secondhand book shop. Queries about Turkish books produced in Bulgaria during the communist period are met with bafflement, with shop assistants politely replying that they do not deal in “Oriental” or “exotic” literature. Online more publications of this type are on offer in Turkey than in Bulgaria. Can modern Bulgarian history be sensibly researched and reasonably explained without referring to documents and books in Turkish and Osmanlıca? I intend such a statement as a rhetorical question, but unfortunately most scholars in Bulgaria would reply to it in the positive.

This willing neglect of, and forgetfulness about, Bulgaria’s Turkish-language culture translates into the continuing repression of the remembrance of Cold War Europe’s largest ethnic cleansing, in which 370,000 Turks were forcefully expelled from communist Bulgaria to Turkey in the summer of 1989. Although in 2012 the Bulgarian Parliament recognised this expulsion as an act of ethnic cleansing, most Bulgarian scholars tend to refer to it with the communist propaganda euphemism “Big Excursion” (Goliamata ekskurziia). Likewise the idea of founding a Turkish-medium university in Bulgaria, voiced in 2012, was met with derision and immediately rejected. Nowadays Bulgaria’s Muslims and Turks are permitted to worship and publish, but no viable Turkish-language minority educational system has been re-established and little publishing has resumed in this language, apart from some (mostly bilingual) periodicals. As a result, the country’s Turks and Muslims mostly rely on Bulgarian-language books and press. Those few who have the time and desire to actively recover their command of Turkish watch Turkish television via satellite or online. And even fewer make the point of going to Turkey in order to stock up on Turkish book and periodicals.

In January 2019 I visited some of the most popular museums in Sofia to see how extensively (or not) the Ottoman period or Turkish culture of Bulgaria is covered. The Museum of the History of Sofia, reopened in 2015, looked most promising with its immersive interactive exhibition of the city’s bustling center during the interwar period. But in the newspaper kiosk there was no periodical in Turkish or Osmanlıca exhibited, no mosque featured in the capital’s skyline of “modern” (Vienna-style) buildings and Orthodox churches. The only concession to Ottoman culture was a small exhibiting space in a walkway, tucked under the stairs, where in a Harry Potter-esque fashion, the living room of a rich Sofia family’s house from the mid-19th century was installed. The interior’s style was labelled as “Oriental” in order to avoid the unwanted adjectives “Ottoman” or “Turkish”.

The National Historical Museum is located in the (eminently unsuitable for this purpose) sprawling state residence of Bulgaria’s last communist dictator. The scattered exhibition heavy-handedly drives the national message, with the interior of a 19th-century rich merchant’s house standing tacitly for all things Ottoman. The household’s style is described as “typical of the revival period [of the Bulgarian nation]” (vızrazhdaneto) so as not to use any adjective that would refer to some events (that is, Ottoman history) or peoples (namely Turks or Muslims) outside the bounds of the Bulgarian national master narrative. In contrast the museum’s entire first floor, accounting for more than half of the exhibiting space, is devoted to the Antiquity and Middle Ages. Somehow Greek and Byzantine artifacts found in Bulgarian soil are more readily accepted as part of Bulgarian history than products of the Ottoman early-modern and modern periods in Rumelia, which decisively shaped Bulgarian culture until the interwar years.

In the National Archeological Museum, Prehistory, the Antiquity and Middle Ages – with thousands of objects – naturally take up the pride of the place. Early modernity is represented with Orthodox icons, jewelry and some household items. None of them smacks of any unwanted “Orientalism”, with the careless exception of a single glass cabinet that displays some brass tea-making utensils adorned with exquisite calligraphy in Arabic characters. However an observant visitor may notice that the museum is housed in a decommissioned mosque. The museum does not advertise this fact, but its building used to be the Great Mosque of Sofya (Sofya Büyük Camii).

In 2015 the National Gallery Square 500 opened as a combined exhibiting space for national and foreign art. Predictably many rooms feature Tibetan, Indian, Chinese, Japanese or African art, but none display any artifacts that could be qualified as Islamic, let alone Turkish. Quite endearingly I found a hidden snippet of Bulgaria’s Ottoman past in the ecclesiastical painter Zahari Zograf’s portrait of his wife. Unlike his predecessors who did not sign their icons or frescoes, Zograf is the first Bulgarian artist to do so, hence works are readily identifiable. In the portrait, his wife’s neckline is adorned with a gold necklace made of high-value Ottoman coins with lettering in Arabic characters.

Khristiianiia Zografska painted by Zahari Zograf. Source wikimedia.org

I did not find any obvious Turkish or Islamic artifacts in the National Ethnographic Museum, apart from some that are shared by villagers of all the Balkan ethnic groups. However, the circle loaf of ritual bread with an ample lump of lard or bacon slapped in its middle could in no way be mistaken as belonging to Muslim or Jewish culture. Upon leaving, I chanced upon a nice box of Turkish delight in the museum shop. I remarked to the young shop assistant that it was the only item that was in some way “Turkish” in the entire museum. She replied that the sweets were produced in Bulgaria, and that in her country there is no place for any things Turkish, as they “properly belong” in Turkey. I disagreed and noticed that Turks and Roma each add up to a tenth of Bulgaria’s population, so the past and present of a fifth of the country’s inhabitants should not be disregarded. Because earlier I had visited the Jewish History Museum located in Sofia’s beautiful Sephardic Synagogue, I asked whether similar museums were founded for celebrating the history and culture of Bulgaria’s Turks and Roma. She looked at me strangely. In my defense, I added that if a museum may be maintained for documenting the past of the 2,000 or so Jews living in today’s Bulgaria, perhaps the communities of Bulgaria’s Turks and Roma, numbering hundreds of thousands of members, could count on a similar treatment. She cut our conversation short by concluding that I knew “too much” about Bulgarian history.

The country’s education system has instilled the Bulgarian national master narrative across its population quite deeply and thoroughly. However this narrative maintains little-to- no concern of how such a “history” looks like to Bulgaria’s Turks or Muslim Roma, who are cast in the collective role of “oppressors and enemies of the Bulgarian nation”. The myth of the “long five centuries of the Turkish yoke” is identified with them. Three decades ago the national revolution came to an end in Bulgaria with the stopping of the 1989 ethnic cleansing, followed by the return of human and political rights to the country’s Turks and Muslims. No further acts of ethnic cleansing have been perpetrated in Bulgaria since the fall of communism. But this exclusivist narrative of Bulgarian national history continues to divide and prevents any meaningful integration of the country’s citizenry. It draws a thin red line between “Us”, the “real” Bulgarians, and “Them”, the “foreign” Turks and Roma. In no time this cleavage may be reactivated by a nationalist and populist government. Under such circumstances nothing guarantees that the end of the national revolution of “national purification” is permanent or that it will never be resumed. Fear of exactly such a backlash keeps Bulgaria’s Turks and Roma “in their place”, so “they do not get any ideas”.

At present, when Bulgarian schoolchildren start learning about history in the fifth grade, they are handed their first school atlas of history, such as Atlas za 5 klas: Istoria (Fifth Grade Atlas: History, Sofia: Kartografiia EOOD, 1995). The atlas’s first map depicts the “Ottoman Turks’ Conquest of Bulgaria”. Maps 2, 3 and 4 portray seemingly incessant anti-Ottoman uprisings of the “Bulgarian liberation movement” between the 15th to 17th centuries. Maps 7, 12, 13, 14 and 15 show Russians and Romanians helping or inspiring Bulgarians in their struggle for independence. The Greeks do not make to the foreground of any map, because the influence of Greek language and culture in what became Bulgaria was retroactively assessed as “anti-Bulgarian”. It is now consigned to oblivion, though through the interwar period the Greeks were presented as a more dangerous enemy of the Bulgarian nation than the Turks. Finally, Maps 16 and 17 narrate the “Bulgarian War of Liberation”, otherwise known as the Russo-Ottoman War of 1877-78. Then Modern Bulgaria was founded. The other maps (apart from those depicting the political situation in Europe, namely maps 6, 11a and 16) give a simplistic glimpse of economic and cultural life in the “Bulgarian lands” (maps 8, 9, 10 and 11b) but with a clear focus on the “revival” (or “reawakening”) of the Bulgarian nation, as achieved through education and book publishing. The concept of “Bulgarian lands” tacitly puts the Bulgarians at loggerheads with the Macedonians and Greeks because it encompasses all of present-day North Macedonia, alongside northeastern Greece. Maps of “Greater Bulgaria” are a ubiquitous political-cum-cartographic genre in its own right in contemporary Bulgaria. They feature prominently in the display windows of bookshops and press kiosks. When in mid-January 2019 I was leaving a metro station in Sofia I saw a patriot distributing free maps of Greater Bulgaria to passers-by on the 141st anniversary of the “Russian liberation of Bulgaria”. In order to prevent such explicit nationalism and the more general tacit intolerance embedded in Bulgarian society, and to then foster genuine reconciliation, school curricula need to change. The Ottoman past must be covered in depth and dispassionately, while the story of Bulgaria’s Turks, Roma and Muslims ought to be incorporated into the mainstream of Bulgarian history as imparted through the educational system.

Without changes to school curricula, no potential for a meaningful reconciliation with Bulgaria’s Turks, Muslims or Roma will be created anytime soon. So far the traditional master narrative continues to function as the “true national history” among the majority of Bulgarians. I ran an experiment to check the hold of this narrative on the Bulgarian mind. On March 2nd 2019, in the Anglophone Wikipedia’s article on Sofia, I added the images of Sofia’s Mosque and Synagogue to the text’s showcase box, which features the Bulgarian capital’s iconic sights and buildings. Twelve hours later, the watchful user Tourbillon removed both images with the following comment: “Enough with these mosques, wrong historical period on top of that”. A clear desire for restarting the national revolution is still out there. The current surge in populism, authoritarianism and exclusivist nationalism across Europe encourages this previously latent desire. Even more worryingly, in Bulgaria itself, the growing public and political acceptance for anti-Turkish, anti-Roma and anti-Muslim hate speech adds to this explosive mix.

Sofia Synagogue. Source: wikimedia.org
Sofia Mosque. Source: wikimedia.org

Tomasz Kamusella is a Reader in Modern Central and Eastern European History at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. His latest monograph Ethnic Cleansing during the Cold War: The Forgotten 1989 Expulsion of Turks from Communist Bulgaria was published by Routledge in July 2018.

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