Heritage Crossroads in Bulgaria

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Arriving in Bulgaria, after a sleep-deprived day of flights via Paris and some so-so airline food, I had no real idea or picture of what awaited me in the week ahead. Would there really be rural peasants on a horse and cart? Would it be full of decaying Communist tower blocks? Would the food consist only of grilled meat? Well, after a week’s relentless tour through Bulgaria’s cultural heritage being led by our indefatigable guide Velislava Chilingirova (known as Velis), I can say quite definitively that, whilst all these stereotypes are there if you look for them, they are really not the story. Whilst Bulgaria is not a wealthy country by any means, the strong impression you get as a visitor is of quiet civility: culture here appears to be less of a luxury and more a part of daily life.
I was travelling with five other people from across Scotland, who all had experience in different aspects of cultural heritage, from conserving and interpreting the historic environment to promoting cultural tourism and developing community craft skills. We were taking part in a programme entitled “Cultural Heritage Interpretation and Sustainable Tourism”, organised by ARCH (an independent Perthshire-based NGO) and funded by the Leonardo da Vinci programme of the European Union. The programme was designed as a tour through Bulgaria, visiting a wide range of cultural sites covering the full spectrum of cultural heritage: historic buildings and towns; archaeological sites; museums; traditional crafts and skills; and intangible heritage and traditions. Our route took us from Sofia on a loop through the centre of the country, passing through Plovdiv and Hissarya over the Shipka Pass to the Devetaki Plateau. On the way we were informed, entertained, at times challenged and provoked, and left Bulgaria with a real sense that there remained plenty to be seen and experienced in the areas we visited, never mind the rest of the country. There were so many highlights and different experiences during our week that it would be impossible to try to summarise it all, but I would like to share some of my thoughts about how what I saw relates to the work I and my colleagues do at home in Orkney, covering the various key aspects of the trip.

Historic buildings & towns:
As architectural conservation is my job and passion, I paid close attention to the historic buildings and towns we visited on our trip, comparing them to the situation in which I work in Orkney.
One aspect of this which made a strong impression on me was the way in which, in both places, attention is concentrated on a few closely defined periods of history, which overshadow significant remains from other periods. Whereas in Orkney the Cathedral and the Neolithic archaeology are the star attractions, in Bulgaria ‘heritage sites’ (marketed as such) are almost all either classical archaeology or from the Bulgarian National Revival, the folk-nationalist arts and crafts movement which swept the nation during the nineteenth century. The two situations are not directly comparable, but some parallels can be drawn between the challenges which face them both: in both areas the remains of a given period are not necessarily considered heritage, and there is work to be done to fully realise the potential of the historic environment. In Orkney agricultural and commercial heritage from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, whilst incredibly rich and diverse, fails to attract the same public or academic interest as prehistoric remains. In Bulgaria Ottoman heritage, such as mosques and Turkish artefacts, is not promoted as heritage in the same way as that of other periods: in the National Museum of Archaeology in Sofia, I only found one object of Turkish manufacture on display. The influence of Ottoman culture on Bulgaria remains strong and readily evident in the music, food and place-names, and in mosques and other Turkish architecture which still play a significant role in Bulgarian cities. Situated at the crossroads of the Western Mediterranean, Eastern Mediterranean and Slavic worlds, Bulgaria has the potential to present itself as a fascinatingly complex and rich cultural landscape, but can only do so with when all periods of its history are recognised and presented as part of this story. Such an approach would definitely help foreign visitors to make sense of Bulgaria’s history, by communicating an overall narrative into which individual sites can easily be placed. In Orkney this does happen to an extent, but is skewed by the differential survival of remains from different periods, and does not always make coherent connections between the various cultures which inhabited the islands. Nonetheless this may be an area of future research and collaboration, working towards shared standards and approaches.

A Turkish helmet on display in the National Museum of Archaeology in Sofia

Detail of a mosque, Plovdiv

Reconstructed Bulgarian National Revival houses at Etar Ethnographic Open Air Museum
Another aspect of my trip which relates to my experience in Orkney, and similarly concerns the question of defining heritage, is the attitude to modern built heritage in Bulgaria. In Orkney, as across the world, the idea that modernist, industrial or military structures are not generally considered ‘heritage’ is increasingly being questioned. The concrete and steel remains of First and Second World War fortifications around Scapa Flow attract increasing interest amongst historians, artists, and the general public, and will inevitably be a focus for increased conservation and interpretation over the coming years. With this in mind, I took an interest in the modern built heritage of Bulgaria, even though it did not form an intended part of our itinerary.
The end of Communist rule, and the attendant shift to a free-market economy and eventual membership of the European Union, precipitated a sudden collapse in Bulgaria’s industry and a dramatic reorganisation of its defence infrastructure, the legacy of which can be seen today. The question of how to deal with this physical legacy was particularly clear when visiting the Devetashka cave, a colossal series of limestone caverns which is now a locally significant tourist attraction. Whilst the cave attracts visitors for its scenic qualities, and its importance as a breeding centre for bats, it also has a significant amount of history associated with it, particularly from the prehistoric and post-war periods. The question of how to present this site, and which aspects to concentrate on, is therefore a complex one. The Devetaki Plateau Association, for which our guide Velis works, has erected some discreet interpretation panels which briefly discuss some of the key aspects of the cave in English and Bulgarian, with discussion of its history focusing on the cave’s prehistoric inhabitation. This is of course highly valuable interpretation, as no obvious trace of this early inhabitation remains in the cave (the discoveries from the excavations having long since been removed for safe-keeping). However, it struck me that another interesting story could be told about the cave’s use as a military fuel storage facility in the post-war period. As I happen to be working on an underground military fuel storage facility in Orkney, this aspect of the cave obviously caught my attention, but even a casual visitor cannot help but notice the surviving railway embankments, guard house, tank bases and bunds; indeed these dominate the cave at ground level. In Orkney another part of the fuel storage facility is now a very popular museum, giving an opportunity for interpretation about the underground parts of the complex; at Devetashka the site is much more isolated, but would also benefit from an opportunity to tell this part of the cave’s story to visitors. One of the great advantages of recent history from the point of view of engaging the public is that it allows visitors, through interviews and guided tours, to directly engage and empathise with the human experience of that period, to a far greater extent than is possible through documents and objects. Research is currently underway in Orkney on the best ways to do this; working collaboratively between Orkney, Bulgaria and elsewhere on how to address this shared challenge could be a great opportunity in the future.

Devetashka Cave

Bund and bases of fuel storage tanks in Devetashka Cave
Beyond the Devetashka cave, Bulgaria possesses many modern buildings with heritage potential. Whether in isolated self-contained compounds, or on the outskirts of major towns and cities, abandoned factory buildings are a regular feature in the Bulgarian landscape. This is of course a familiar feature of many British cities, but where Bulgaria differs is in the age and construction of these ruins, which have important implications for their re-use. As Bulgaria largely industrialised only in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and this industry’s dramatic collapse occurred only in the late 1980s and early 1990s (rather than the 1970s and 1980s as in Britain), the surviving buildings are on the whole much more intact, and much more modern than former factories in Britain. As a consequence, their potential for adaptive re-use is much larger, and could be explored and developed to a much greater extent.

Ruin in the landscape, near Krushuna waterfalls
One type of modernist heritage in Bulgaria which remains very much in use, and occurs in far greater numbers than in Britain, is public architecture. As we travelled through the landscape it seemed every town and village had a central building surrounded by a large public square, into which effort had been made to create an architecturally distinctive and pleasant heart of the settlement. In that sense, what Bulgaria may lack in grand nineteenth-century buildings (compared to Western Europe) it makes up for with its extensive collection of town halls, post offices and museums. Modernist architecture is rapidly gaining appreciation across Britain, both amongst policymakers and the general public, and is increasingly becoming an asset. It would be a shame therefore, in this context, for Bulgaria’s twentieth-century built heritage to be lost or undervalued over the coming decades, and it may represent a growth area for tourism (even if only as part of city tours).

Tourist information office, Hissarya

Kazanlak Museum of History

Kazanlak Museum of History

Kazanlak Museum of History
The presentation of archaeology, specifically how it relates to its urban or rural context, was a topic I had great opportunity to consider in Bulgaria. My key areas of interest were the relationship between Thracian archaeology and its landscape, and the presentation of fragments of classical archaeology in historic cities, both of which were situations we encountered a number of times, and have relevance to Orkney.
The Thracians were a classical people based in what is now Bulgaria around 2000 years ago, who left a great legacy of tombs and temples, often subterranean, throughout the country’s landscape. Many of the sites we visited had only been discovered and excavated in the past 10-15 years, so were still in the process of developing their visitor interpretation. I was particularly interested in the underground temple near the town of Starosel which we visited, and in the archaeological landscape it lies within. Living in Orkney, and having grown up on Salisbury Plain, I often take it for granted that landscapes show evidence of thousands of years of inhabitation, but this is of course the exception rather than the rule. At Starosel the temple is buried within an artificial mound on top of a peak in a mountain range (known as Sashtinska Sredna Gora); higher up in the range more and larger Thracian sites have been found, and the whole landscape is full of archaeological interest. Heritage walks in Orkney are common, but are typically short, rarely taking more than a few hours. In contrast, the area around Starosel struck me as having great potential to become a significant centre for long-distance archaeological trails, using the existing hiking lodges to the west to explore the archaeological sites whilst also soaking up the landscape and natural environment. Elsewhere walking routes such as those along Hadrian’s Wall are very popular, and provide the infrastructure to enable public access to remote archaeological sites in a coherent manner. Reflecting back on the situation in Orkney, there does seem to be obvious potential to establish long-distance walking routes between key sites, such as the component monuments of the World Heritage Site, or indeed inter-island routes for sailors and kayakers. Experiencing sites through such frameworks underlines the importance of the landscape context to sites such as Starosel, and helps to make evident the connections between sites, which are so often crucial to understanding them.

The entrance to Starosel temple

The archaeological landscape around Starosel temple
Whilst walking through Bulgarian towns you often find yourself stumbling across classical remains, typically Roman. This is a legacy of the extensive Roman presence in this area, and of the way classical settlements remain in use to this day. This was most evident in the spa town of Hissarya (Roman Diocletianopolis) which retains its Roman town walls to a height of several metres along most of their length. In addition, excavated Roman remains within the city are also displayed for public view, notably within public parks. The total extent of these ruins is such that the overall impression is of scattered, fragmentary modern development secondary to its classical context. However, for remains to survive on the surface to this extent is unusual even in Bulgaria, and in many cities archaeology comes to light as the result of excavations for development, often during major infrastructure projects. In Sofia, for example, the construction of metro tunnels and underpasses has uncovered extensive areas of the Roman town of Serdica, now displayed for passers-by. Classical remains are even more extensive in the town of Plovdiv, classical Philippopolis, which boasts a Roman theatre, now excavated and brought back into use, and the remains of a vast Roman hippodrome running underneath the town centre. I was particularly struck by the interpretation available at the largest excavated part of the hippodrome, which today forms part of a busy square at one end of the main street. The provision of interpretation boards and a model, in addition to opening the ruins to public view (but not access) not only communicates well the history and extent of the hippodrome, but also embeds the remains into the daily life of the city. This is a valuable example for us to learn from in Kirkwall, as we embark on a five-year Townscape Heritage Initiative aimed at stimulating the town’s development by promoting its heritage. There are several ruins within the town (not on the same scale as those in Bulgaria) which currently lack any form of conservation or interpretation, and Plovdiv shows that effective treatment of them need not be complicated or impede the daily life of the modern city.

Roman ruins exposed in an underpass in central Sofia

The Roman theatre in Plovdiv, now restored to use

Remains of the Roman hippodrome exposed in central Plovdiv; scale model

Roman ruins displayed in a park in Hissarya

We visited several museums during our visit, of many different kinds (the House of Humour and Satire in Gabrovo was particularly interesting). Several displayed archaeological remains, and the approach shown in these made for an interesting contrast with those in Orkney. Whilst in Orkney an academic approach is generally taken, which uses exhibits as ways of explaining narratives of settlement, population change etc. In Bulgaria however, perhaps due to the small amount of display space available for their extensive collections, objects tend to be shown, not quite in isolation, but certainly with a much greater emphasis on individual exhibits. This approach, very much evident at the National Museum of Archaeology in Sofia, favours art treasures: the museum essentially displays art and decorative objects from the prehistoric, classical and medieval periods. Whilst the coherence of a narrative approach is largely lost (although works from each period are grouped together) a much stronger relationship between the visitor and the object is formed, as an appreciation of beauty and craftsmanship creates a much stronger emotional response, cutting across distances in space and time, than a purely academic understanding can. Of course, both approaches are necessary to fully appreciate a collection, but seeing the beauty of the objects on display in museums such as the Museum of History in Kazanlak reinforced to me the importance of high-quality artistic exhibits to the experience of a museum, and made me wonder whether we in Orkney could do more in this regard.

Thracian bronze head in the National Museum of Archaeology in Sofia
Traditional crafts & skills:
One of the recurrent themes of our trip was the prominent role played by traditional craft skills in Bulgaria, and the close relationship between modern craft techniques and styles and their historic precedents. We saw these traditional crafts in a museum setting (at the Etar Ethnographic Open Air Museum and the Daskalov House woodcarving museum in Tryavna), in a modern practitioner’s workshop (pottery at the Eco-ART guesthouse where we stayed in Drashkova Polyana) and in an exhibition setting (at the National Exhibition of Crafts and Arts, Oreshak). In all of these cases modern traditions never seemed that far removed from traditional practices, giving the strong implication of a continuity of traditions. Many of the craft traditions in Orkney, by contrast, are very modern, and constitute a new direction for the local economy rather than a continuity of historic traditions. The local jewellery industry, for example, which is now one of the largest in the UK, only dates from the 1960s. One historic craft tradition which is still thriving is the manufacture of Orkney chairs, which have distinctive curved straw backs designed to minimise the use of wood, then a scarce commodity. The nature of this survival is rather different from that of craft skills in Bulgaria however, as Orkney chairs, historically created from cheap materials by ordinary crofters in their spare time, are now built by highly-skilled craftsmen from purpose-grown straw and can sell for over £1000 each. This specialisation of the tradition has ensured that it continues and thrives, and may well be an example of what will happen to Bulgarian craft traditions in years to come.

Traditional crafts being practised at Etar Ethnographic Open Air Museum
Intangible heritage & traditions:
One of the most enjoyable moments on our trip was visiting the St Enyo’s day celebrations in a small village near Hissarya, which consisted of various rituals involving herbs. The singing, dancing, and ceremonial presentation of herbs felt like a glimpse into a bygone age, unaltered by centuries of industrialisation or globalisation. Judging by the ages of those taking part, however, the future survival of such traditions may be difficult: there were very few younger girls taking part, and they will have far greater opportunities for leaving the village than any generation before them . Traditions in Orkney have been heavily affected by emigration and modernisation over the twentieth century, and many old beliefs and customs survive only as memories or recorded in compendia of folklore. Some traditions do survive however, and those which do, such as the Ba’ in Kirkwall or the Boys’ Ploughing Match in South Ronaldsay, appear to be stable for the foreseeable future, without being commercialised in any way (although they still face the demographic pressures common to all rural communities). The key to the survival of these traditions is that they continue to fulfil the practical purpose for which they were created, whether to air old rivalries as festive entertainment or to train young boys in ploughing. It would be interesting to explore more of Bulgaria’s folk traditions on a return trip, particularly those which enjoy popularity amongst younger generations, and to see which will continue to thrive as the country continues to open up and modernise.

The welcoming bread and salt at St Enyo’s day celebrations

The St Enyo’s day procession

Passing through a garland at the St Enyo’s day celebrations
I found the CHIST trip an eye-opening experience, which gave me very useful insights not only into Bulgaria’s built heritage and archaeology, but also into many other aspects of its traditions and crafts. I am extremely grateful to Sheila Roberts at ARCH for inviting me on the trip, and to Velis for being such a welcoming, knowledgeable and helpful host. I would definitely be keen to develop future collaboration and discussions on shared issues in built heritage and archaeology with counterparts in Bulgaria (and indeed elsewhere), as it seems these would be to mutual benefit. Similar discussions with my colleagues working in museums would doubtless also be fruitful. I would also be keen to host an incoming CHIST group in the future, as I feel it would be a very worthwhile exercise to get a different view on the issues we face here in Orkney, and to share our experiences with the wider world.

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