Plovdiv: Granada of the East

Nine caravansarays serviced the abundant trade which Muslim rule had brought to the city; in fact, it offered a picture of Islamic prosperity, a formerly insignificant town which had flowered under the aegis of the Sultan and the Islamic economic system.

Today, it is hard to make out even the outlines of this magnificent Muslim past. Attacked by Russia in 1878, amputated from Turkey and awarded to the new state of Bulgaria, most of its Muslim and Jewish population fled to what remained of the Ottoman lands. Horrific massacres claimed the lives of thousands, while many refugees who arrived in Istanbul bore signs of torture and mutilation, or carried harrowing tales of the slaughter of their families. The population dropped from 125,000 to less than 30,000. Today, the story of Plovdiv, or, as the Ottomans once called it, Filibe, evokes a shake of the head even among the most secularised Turks.

Approaching the modern city does little to dispel this dismal image. For mile after mile, the empty shells of Communist-era factories which crumbled along with the ideology that created them, line the pot-holed surfaces of Leningrad Avenue and Industriyalna Road. Men squat in the shade, smoking, watching the traffic go by. Unemployment in parts of Bulgaria stands at well over fifty percent, even in places where many young men have left to work abroad. European Union scientists are struggling to deal with the soil and water pollution bequeathed by Communist neglect. Crime is rife, with mafia-style gangs operating with impunity, and a new elite of dubious entrepreneurs is building garish villas on the city’s northern side. Pockets of Western-style rebuilding have replaced the grey Stalin-era tenements around the new Novotel and a few other landmarks; elsewhere, however, grim poverty is the norm.

In few countries did the dead hand of Communism fall more heavily than it did on Bulgaria. Under the thirty-five year rule of Theodor Zhivkov, parents whose children refused pork at school faced imprisonment or worse. Belief in God was considered a form of mental illness. Only Communist Party members could hope for a professional career, and membership was restricted to atheists alone. Christians, of course, faced numerous handicaps, but an enduring Islamophobia deeper than Communism ensured that it was the Muslim minority which felt the secularist yoke most heavily. During the Zhivkov years, most of the country’s remaining mosques were closed or demolished. Speaking Turkish in public incurred an automatic fine. All Muslim names were forcibly exchanged for Christian ones, while the circumcision of boys was criminalised. Over a thousand Muslim protesters died trying to resist this erasure of their identity, many of them perishing in the terrible conditions of Zhivkov’s forced labour camps.

In the end, the Bulgarian regime proved no more sturdy than the other Warsaw Pact dominoes that toppled in the wake of Gorbachev’s perestroika. The prayers of the suffering believers were dramatically answered when Zhivkov was forced out of office in 1989. Yet the scars of the Bulgarian Inquisition are still everywhere to be seen.

An effective, if sobering, means of surveying the damage is to sit at the summit of Plovdiv’s Bunarchik Hill. Like Istanbul, the city is built on seven hills (Taksim, Nebet, Janbaz, Sahat, Jendem, Bunarchik, and Markovo). During Ottoman times several of these were places of public recreation, and Eid picnics on Bunarchik were particularly popular. From the summit, over the plane and chestnut trees, one enjoys a panoramic view of the city, which extends beyond the great Meritch River, whose Ottoman bridge did much to galvanise the city’s prosperity. Nineteenth-century buildings are prominent in the city centre, and all around stand gaunt Soviet-style apartment blocks. Yet it is impossible to discern the Muslim city. Of the former forest of minarets, not one seems to have survived.

To track down signs of Muslim life, it is necessary to walk down to the river. Here one finds no sign of the creaking Turkish water-mills which once lined the Meritch, nor of the picturesque shuttered houses, cantilevered over the waters, which Victorian travellers admired. The riverfront is derelict, its potential entirely ignored. Yet after a mile of walking beside the Meritch, on an overgrown and rat-infested path, one comes across a miracle. The Imaret Mosque, dating from 1444, has somehow managed to survive, together with the tomb of its founder, Shihabeddin Pasha. The building is a jewel-like example of the Bursa school of Ottoman building. Unlike so many mosques in Bulgaria, it retains its minaret, which is decorated with a fine spiral pattern set into the brickwork. The cemetery is now only a garden, but the broken pieces of the gravestones, smashed in 1985, may still be seen, stacked forlornly to one side. There is no trace of the charitable building which gave the structure its name (an imaret is a public soup kitchen, where the poor of all religions could come for a free meal at Muslim expense). It stood, apparently, between the mosque and the river. The pasha’s madrasa, the Kara Shahin, was also close at hand. Here the focus was on hadith: one of the college’s most illustrious directors was the great Muhaddith Çelik Yahya Efendi (d.1567), who later taught at the Darul Hadith in Edirne, before going on to become the chief qadi of Baghdad.

Nearby is the public bath (hammam) built by the same pasha. One of only two which seem to have survived in the city, it is now an art gallery, housing conceptual art installations of indifferent quality. The mouldering rooms are suffused with the spirit the Turks call hüzün, a sense of loss and melancholy. It is hard to picture the scene as it would have been a hundred and thirty years ago: soft bodies, masseurs, the scent of Balkan tobacco, hammam picnics for idle ladies, and Sephardic Jewish visitors. Now only dust and peeling paint remain; a vibrant life of the flesh has vanished, to be replaced by echoes and a sense of mortality. Muslim Plovdiv here feels as distant and unretrievable as ancient Egypt.

One might try to escape the hüzün by visiting Da Lino’s Italian restaurant for lunch. Here, however, another tragedy oppresses the Muslim visitor. Occupying a prime spot on 6 September Boulevard, Da Lino’s was until twenty-five years ago the city’s much-loved Tashkˆpr¸ Mosque. The Mufti of Plovdiv, Hasan Ali, recalls how it was seized by the Communists in 1983. The cemetery was smashed, and the minaret torn down. Little use was made of the building until the fall of Communism, when, amid the usual chaotic processes of rushed privatisation, it came into private ownership. Six years ago, Da Lino opened its doors, to the anguish of the Muslim population. And as if to add a very deliberate insult to the injury, the restaurant is decorated with frankly obscene frescoes, scenes, perhaps, from Boccaccio. Nude women ride donkeys across the mosque ceiling; drunken priapic men seem on the point of vomiting on the diners; a wild, Bacchanalian riot is in progress. Above the mihrab, a Roman god waves his trident. To the left, where the wa’z chair and a shelf for Qur’ans would have been, stand a glass case of Parma ham and a cabinet of wine.

Christians in Plovdiv seem not to be bothered by Da Lino’s. But the extremity of the provocation has not gone unnoticed internationally. On a recent visit to Bulgaria, the Turkish prime minister Tayyib Erdogan seemed to refer to it when he listed the historic Bulgarian churches in Turkey, such as St George’s in Edirne, which his government has paid to be restored. It would be a splendid gesture of mutuality, he added, were Bulgaria to consider supporting the return to Muslim worship of some well-known historic mosques. His comments were met with suspicion by the Bulgarian press, and as yet, the government and municipalities still seem to continue with ancient Islamophobic policies. Perhaps they fear opening the floodgates? If Da Lino’s reopens as a mosque, then what about the neighbouring Shukur Mosque, also a licensed restaurant? What about the buildings constructed on the sites of the Kadi Seyfullah Mosque, the Yesiloglu Mosque, the Anber Kadi Mosque, the Karagoz Pasha Madrasa? Fully aware that most of its cities were once primarily Muslim, the Bulgarian government is perhaps reluctant to set a precedent.

So one pays one’s bill at Da Lino’s, and thanks the perfectly amiable couple who run it, and sets off in search of something less depressing. It is best not to pause by the site of the Mevlevihane, the lodge of the Whirling Dervishes, built originally by Muslim refugees from Hungary at the end of the seventeenth century, and lovingly restored in 1849. It has vanished without trace, together with its tombs and its library. The street where, in the nineteenth century, some of Plovdiv’s forty Turkish newspapers and magazines were published, offers a no less desolate and anonymous prospect. Rather different is the old district near the Hisar Kapi, which turns out, in fact, to be an excellently-preserved ensemble of Ottoman houses. To stroll these narrow streets, strongly reminiscent of the Albaicin district in old Granada, is to be reminded of the comfort and prosperity which Bulgarian Christians could achieve under the sultans. Plovdiv Christians controlled a trading web that included merchant outposts in far-off Dhaka and Jakarta. Once the threat of an anti-Orthodox Crusade by the Pope was removed by Turkish rule, Orthodoxy flourished here; with new churches and monasteries outclassing in size and beauty those present before the Ottoman period. As the art historian Machiel Kiel comments: ‘If we remember the tragic fate of some of the most brilliant Islamic civilisations of medieval Europe, such as those of Spain and Sicily, wilfully destroyed by an aggressive Christianity, the existence of Christian art in Muslim controlled South-East Europe is incomprehensible.’ Yet he records the flourishing of Christian culture under Ottoman rule, made possible by the tolerance of the ulema. ‘In the Ottoman Empire,’ he concludes,’ it was the high Muslim ‘clergy’ that stopped overzealous rulers. In Spain it was the exact opposite.’

There are several substantial Ottoman churches in the Hisar Kapi district, and yet the gem of the neighbourhood is neither a church nor a mosque, but a house. This was built in 1848 for a Muslim family, the Kurumjioglus, and is truly splendid: dignified and aristocratic, yet charming in the vernacular Ottoman way. Typically, the official guides call it ‘A Fine Example of the Bulgarian Baroque Architecture’, despite its quintessentially Ottoman quality. It now houses the Ethnographic Museum, which, despite the demographic preponderance of rich Muslim cultures in the region, manages entirely to ignore the existence of non-Christian communities.

The house of the unfortunate Kurumjioglus thus provides yet another reason to be annoyed, and one is not sorry to walk outside, and head down towards the city centre. Here it is worth pausing at the site of the bedestan, the old covered bazaar pointlessly destroyed by the Bulgarians, to talk to Demir, owner of one of the city’s only two Halal cafes. Demir is a splendid man, a true believer and a lover of the city, who is a mine of information about the current situation of Muslims in the region. There are sixty thousand Turks here, plus thirty thousand Tziganes (Muslim gypsies), forming around ten percent of Plovdiv’s population. Discrimination is rife, it seems, but Demir is fond of reminding everyone of how much worse everything was under Zhivkov, when Ramadan was a closely-guarded family secret, and prayers could only be held in private homes.

A few paces beyond Demir’s shop, one beholds the great wonder of Plovdiv, the Hüdavendigar Mosque. Despite its forlorn surroundings, this is without question one of the most important of all early Ottoman buildings. Completed in the early fifteenth century, it has long since been stripped of its annexes, including its madrasa, cemetery, and wudu fountain (shadirvan). The outside walls are used as a urinal by Bulgarian drunks, and generally the exterior of the mosque is nothing much to look at. Within, however, it is a different story.

The mosque is approached by a steep flight of stairs, something not uncommon in this city of hills. Reaching the top, one sees an indoor fountain, recalling the marvellous marble cascade which tinkles away inside the Great Mosque of Bursa, some of whose architects may, in fact, have worked here. It is said that when Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent passed through the city, he ensured secrecy during discussions with his generals by sitting beside the fountain, whose sound would make eavesdropping impossible. The mosque has three great domes leading towards the mihrab, and apses provided by four immense central pilasters. As with the Bursa mosque, the walls are rich with calligraphy. Much of this is by the master-calligrapher Ulu Arif Mehmed Efendi, and dates from the restoration by Sultan Abdulhamit I in 1785. Following an earthquake, a further renovation in 1819 allowed the builders to add extravagant Baroque flourishes to the underside of the domes. Here and there may be seen fine calligraphy by the great Sayyid Naqshbandi Mustafa Çelebi of Edirne, mostly in the thuluth style. On the qibla wall, there is the famous prayer, ‘O Allah, Changer of Years and Conditions: Change our Condition to the Best of Conditions!’ A close inspection reveals that the strokes of the brush are in fact made up of tiny Qur’anic verses written in Jali Divani script. Another monumental piece to the right of the mihrab, in ta’liq script, is by the local calligrapher Ali Haydar, completed in the early nineteenth century.

In this mosque, great preachers once held forth to immense crowds. Here, for instance, Molla Khayali, the leading commentator on Khidr Bey’s Qasida Nuniyya would teach theology. Qadi Abdullah Efendi, the great Hanafi faqih taught here, when in the bitter winter weather great charcoal braziers would be carried in for the benefit of those students who could not afford to wear fur. It is said that Ibn Kemal, greatest of Ottoman theologians, repented here of his former military career and decided to dedicate himself to scholarship, a decision that would one day make him Shaykh al-Islam of the entire Ottoman world. Mehmet Izzati, the preacher who could make even slave-dealers cry, taught from the eastern preaching-platform of the mosque. So did Kör Hasan, the city’s much-loved qadi, who founded a madrasa in Istanbul before he died, blind but content, in 1580. The Plovdiv poets Rawnaq and Jefa’i declaimed their verse in the mosque, before going on to make names for themselves in the capital. The hadith scholar and Sufi Nureddin Muslihuddin (d.1573), the greatest student of Bali Efendi of Sofya, travelled from here to the Zeyrek Mosque in Istanbul, where he was greatly revered by Shaykh al-Islam Ebu-s-Suud. Late one night, he made his way to Topkapi Palace, where he insisted on waking the sultan. Suleiman the Magnificent duly appeared, and asked what had brought him. Nureddin told him that he had just seen the Blessed Prophet in a dream, who told him that the Sultan could not expect his intercession if he abandoned the Jihad. The Sultan wept, and took his army to Hungary to counter the Hapsburg threat. There he died, to be reckoned as a martyr.

The last great imam of the mosque, Filibeli Hajji Hafiz Tevfiq Efendi (d.1929), who led the prayers here for fifty years, emigrated to the still-Ottoman city of Mudurnu, where thousands repented at his hands; the mountain where he is buried bears the name Sheykhulimran Hill in his honour. The politician, playwright and theologian Filibeli Ahmed Hilmi worshipped here as a child. Ali Suavi, the turbulent defender of Islamic law, recruited students here in the mid-nineteenth century.

Sadly, the days when the Hüdavendigar was one of the great mosques of Islam are long gone. Today, only a thousand people attend Friday prayers here, despite the building’s immensity. There are two imams, one of whom, Nurettin, in his early twenties, has a superb voice, having trained in the maqam systems in Istanbul. He is working hard to bring life to this holy place, but he points out that not everyone is happy praying in a building where huge cracks are spreading over the ceiling. Some of these are several inches wide, and local engineers have been shaking their heads. Despite the end of the Communist inquisition, the future of this magnificent structure is not assured.

Nurettin is a native of Filibe, and intensely proud of his city. He recalls the desire of the Muslim minority to live in peace and respect with its Christian neighbours, despite all the difficulties which have damaged relationships in recent years. He is delighted that in the year 2002 permission was granted to open a madrasa again in the city. Located in the suburb of Ustina, this now has forty students, some of whom have formed a singing group which is famous throughout Muslim Bulgaria. Slowly, as he points out, the country is emerging from the Communist nightmare. An Islamic university staffed by Turkish scholars has opened in Sofia. Bulgarian ulema such as Ahmad Davudoglu, who was forced to work as a slave labourer under the Communists, are establishing cultural foundations that serve the Muslim communities. Scholars who have converted to Islam, most notably Professor Tsvetan Theophanov in Sofia, are helping the traditional ulema to reach out to the new generation. An older suspiciousness towards the Bulgarian language is now giving way to an acceptance of the idea that young Muslims can and should speak Bulgarian, and an increasing amount of material is being translated. Most effective has been the Sira book of Shaykh Osman Nuri Topbas, a work which has already had a very positive impact in Bulgarian, as it has in English and several other languages.

The Muslim community has one further asset, which is also a hazard. Bulgaria is experiencing a demographic crisis. Due to a negative birthrate, the national population halves every generation. Because of the poverty of the Muslim community, and its reluctance to send women to work, although only twelve percent of the population is Muslim, over sixty percent of babies are born to Muslim families. Both Muslim and non-Muslim communities recognise, now that Bulgaria is part of the European Union, that this reality will have to be accommodated through cast-iron constitutional guarantees, and a relationship based on mutual respect.

Sadly, many in Bulgarian society are frightened by the growing Muslim presence, reflecting insecurities over the identity of a Christian country created when most of its population was Muslim. A far-right party is increasingly popular. Last year, a Muslim cemetery was vandalised; only the tip of the iceberg, according to human rights activists. The Bulgarian Church, although weak on the ground, still harbours strongly anti-Muslim sentiments, and has sponsored the construction of churches in Muslim villages, even where these churches are locked and never used. It has even sponsored the construction of the world’s largest statue of the Virgin Mary, which stands on a hill overlooking Haskovo, the country’s main Muslim-majority town. The sites of destroyed mosques are often marked by large crucifixes, recalling the ‘blood shrines’ built by Croat radicals on former Muslim sites in Herzegovina.

A Serbian-style alliance of churchmen, ex-Communists and nationalists is, in the eyes of some Muslim observers, not impossible. Bulgaria’s peaceful Muslim minority points out that while monasteries and churches survived six centuries of Ottoman rule, and Christians lived as an often wealthy elite under the sultans, life has been less kind to Muslims in cities like Plovdiv following the carving-out of a Bulgarian national state from a former ethnic mosaic in 1878. Whether traditional Bulgarian Christian nationalism, or some more tolerant ideology, wins the day, is a matter which is likely to determine Plovdiv’s fate as either a flourishing centre of European Islam, or as the scene for yet another outbreak of Islamophobic violence and inquisition.

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