All About Bulgaria

About Bulgaria

by Evgenia Angelova

The Madara Rider

The Madara Rider (710 AD), Photo by Nikola Gruev
Bulgaria is situated in the middle of the Balkan Peninsula in Southeast Europe. The population of the country is about 7.6 million people, but a considerable number of Bulgarians also live abroad. The country ranks sixteenth-largest in Europe.  On a major crossroads between Europe, Asia, and Africa, Bulgaria has five of the ten Trans-European corridors running through its territory.
Politically, Bulgaria functions as a constitutional republic with a parliamentary democracy.  The country is a member of the European Union, the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, and NATO.  Since the political changes in 1989, Bulgaria has developed a free-market economy.
Nevsky Orthodox Cathedral

Alexander Nevsky Orthodox Cathedral, Sofia, photo by Alexander Varbenov
The capital of Bulgaria and its biggest city isSofia. It is among the three capitals in Europe that has existed from antiquity until the present day.  It is Bulgaria’s major political, economic, and cultural hub but also a vibrant city with a unique flavor. The second biggest city in the country is Plovdiv. As modern and eclectic as it is today, Plovdiv is the third-oldest city in Europe (6000 BC), and its continuous inhabitation since 4000 BC to the present makes it the sixth oldest settlement in the world.
The primary religion in Bulgaria is Eastern Orthodox Christianity, accepted in the 9thcentury AD. Independent since the 10thcentury, the Bulgarian Orthodox Churchbecame the earliest Slavic Orthodox Church in the world. Along with Orthodoxy, the Constitution guarantees free exercise of religious practice for all other groups in the country.
The official language is Bulgarian. It is transcribed through the Cyrillic alphabet, which was created in the 9th century AD in the First Bulgarian Empire, and it is still used in most Slavic as well as some non-Slavic languages.
 Bulgarian Alphabet
Geographically, the landscape of Bulgaria ranges from high-peaked mountains and hilly plateaus to fertile plains, then to the Danube River and the 235 miles of Black Sea coast. Bulgaria also hosts the highest peak on the Balkans – Musala (9,596 ft.) 


by Evgenia Angelova

Due to its favorable geographic location and temperate climate, Bulgaria has been home to civilizations since the 6th millennia B.C.E. The modern Bulgarian state came into being in 681 AD with a union between the three major ancestral groups of modern Bulgarians – Thracians, Slavs and Bulgars, and with a peace treaty with Byzantium.
During the First Bulgarian Empire (681-1018), the country established itself as a major military, political, economic and cultural power in Europe. During the 9th and 10th centuries, Bulgaria accepted Eastern Orthodox Christianity and gained independence for the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. It also saw the creation of the Cyrillic alphabet, developed literary schools and fostered written works in the Old Bulgarian (Church Slavonic) language becoming the intellectual center of the Eastern European Christian Slavonic culture. In the 10th century, Bulgaria saw its biggest territorial expansion between the Aegean, the Adriatic and the Black Seas and became one of the three most powerful empires in Europe.
At the beginning of the 11th century, Bulgaria fell under Byzantine rule for 167 years. In 1185 after a major uprising, the Bulgarian state was reestablished. The revival of the Bulgarian royal tradition once again transformed Bulgaria into a powerful European empire. During the Second Bulgarian Empire, the country experienced another territorial expansion along with marked economic and cultural growth. During this time, signs of the Renaissance appeared in the works of Bulgarian artists. In 1396, the Second Bulgarian Empire succumbed to the powerful Ottoman Empire for the next five centuries.
By the late 19th century the tides began to turn. In the Liberation War (1877-78) the Russian Army, supported by Bulgarian volunteer forces, defeated the Ottoman Empire and reestablished Bulgaria as an autonomous principality. The other great European powers saw such a large Balkan country as a threat to their interests and so forced another treaty, effectively establishing a much smaller Bulgarian state.  Torn into several territorial pieces—some still under foreign rule—Bulgarians steadfastly pursued their centuries-old dream for a free and unified nation. In 1885 Bulgaria reunited the once separate Northern and Southern halves. After this unification, the country experienced another period of military, economic and cultural progress culminating in a proclamation of independence in 1908.
During the First and Second Balkan Wars (1912-1913) and the First World War, Bulgarians fought hard, yet fought on the losing side with significant human, economic and territorial losses. During World War II, Bulgaria was a member of the Axis and fought on the losing side again. This resulted in even more economic and territorial losses. Although allied with Germany during that period, Bulgaria never declared war on Russia and remained the only Axis country to save its Jewish population from deportation to the concentration camps.
With the Communist uprising in 1944 following the end of WWII, Bulgaria fell under the sphere of Soviet influence and the economic organization of the Eastern Bloc (COMECON) establishing itself as a single-party republic with a planned economy. Amid the wave of late-1980’s political changes in Eastern Europe, Bulgaria transitioned to their modern parliamentary democracy and free-market capitalist economy.


by Evgenia Angelova


Fresco “Sebastokrator Kaloyan and His Wife Desislava” in the Boyana Church. Photo courtesy of Kandi.
Traditional Bulgarian culture is an eclectic mixture of Thracian, Slavic and Bulgar heritage with Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Persian and Ottoman influences over the centuries. This mixture of influence can be seen in the ancient art found in Bulgaria. The oldest treasure of worked gold in the world, dating back to 5000 BC, was found at the site of the Varna Necropolis. Numerous Thracian artifacts dating back to the 3rd and 4th centuries B.C.E. have been found in the burial tombs all across the country. After the creation of the Cyrillic alphabet in the 10th century, both the First (c. 681-1018) and the Second (c. 1185-1422) Bulgarian Empires functioned as a cultural center for the medieval Slavic community in Eastern Europe. During these periods, Orthodox Christian murals, icons and fresco paintings emerged and helped to shape the Western art world.
During the centuries of Ottoman rule (1299-1878), folklore in the form of legends, traditions, songs, rituals, music and dance as well as the applied crafts of wood carving, ceramics, jewelry making and weaving played a crucial role in the preservation of the Bulgarian identity. Today, the Bulgarian cultural scene boasts a rich palette of contemporary literature, art, music, dance, theater and applied arts and crafts. Among the accomplishments of contemporary Bulgarian artists include Grammy awards to Milcho Leviev(1980), The Mystery of Bulgarian Voices Choir (1990) and Formation Studio Balkanton pop-band (1990), the Nobel prize for literature to Elias Canetti (1981) and fifth place in the 2007 Eurovision song contest to Elitsa Todorova and Stoyan Yankulov.
On May 24th each year, Bulgarians all over the world celebrate their culture during one of the most sacred and beloved holidays – The Day of the Bulgarian Alphabet, Education and Culture, and Slavonic Literature

Holidays and Traditions

by Evgenia Angelova

All tribes and ethnic groups of the Balkan Peninsula have left their mark on Bulgarian traditions. Ancient rituals and beliefs have blended with the Orthodox Christian culture and Bulgarian folklore to create a unique set of customs. The traditional Bulgarian calendar of celebrations is positioned toward two seasons—the spring, symbolizing origin and birth and the winter, symbolizing the end and death (leading the way to a new beginning). Some of the rituals and customs that demonstrate this cycle include koleduvane and lazaruvane, baba Marta (granny Marta), kukeri, and nestinarstvo.
Koleduvane is a winter ritual performed on Christmas Eve by young unmarried men (the “koledari”) dressed in ritual costumes. They walk from house to house in their neighborhood with a richly decorated oak stick, singing carols and reciting wishes for health and prosperity in the new year. In return for the good wishes, the owners of the house gift the koledari with food. Similar to Koleduvane,Lazaruvane is a spring welcoming ritual performed the Saturday before Flowers Day (Palm Sunday) by young unmarried women. They wear distinctively colored costumes with lots of flowers and walk from house to house, dancing and singing special songs. With these songs, the women impart wishes of health, prosperity and fertility on all family members and on the livestock. Both Koleduvane and Lauaruvane symbolize the initiation of young boys and girls into maturity and readiness to create their own homes and families. The ritual acts performed by boys show their ability to win over the evil powers of winter and cold, and those of young girls show how they have acquired the skills to take care of their own home and children.

Martenitsa, courtesy of StockphotoPro.
On March 1st Bulgarians welcome Baba Marta(granny March). Tidings of health and happiness are brought to family and friends in the form of a martenitsa, a small, wearable ornament made of white and red threads woven together. The colors of the martenitsa symbolize the snow and the sun, purity and blood, innocence and passion, male and female, and on a deeper level – the balance between life and death. The martenitsa is worn until the first coming of a stork or swallow or the first blossoming of a tree. Wearers then remove the martenitsa and tie it to a tree or place it under a stone.
Koukeri is a ritual in which the earth is awakened after the long winter so that it may

Koukeri from the village of Turia. Photo by Daniela Nyberg.
welcome spring with renewed strength. Only men participate in the ritual because Bulgarians believe only male energy can awaken the female Mother Earth. The purpose of Koukeri is to scare off the evil and cold from the land, favor the fertile energy of nature during the agricultural season and prove the man’s ability to continue the family line. The men who participate jump up and down wearing big masks and an abundance of bells and perform various comical scenes representing everyday life.  The masks are extremely ugly so that evil will be chased away. The festival is connected with sexual and orgiastic activities and has strong ties with the ancient rituals of Dionysus, god of wine, fertility, and the emergence of spring.
Nestinarstvo is the most mystical of all Bulgarian rituals. It takes place in the Strandzha Mountains region on May 21, the day of Sts. Constantine and Helen. On the village square surrounded by all the people in the village, the nestinari dancer, acting as a mediator between the sky and earth and under the spiritual protection of St. Constantine dances on smoldering embers barefoot in a trance. The act of dancing on live coals with icons in arms symbolizes sacrifice and death as a progression toward the purification of the community and the acquisition of new life and prosperity.


by Evgenia Angelova

Bulgaria has a long folkloric tradition. An abundance of regions with unique songs and dances form a rich variety of costume colors, sounds, rhythms and movements. The distinctive sounds of the world-famous Bulgarian women’s choirs come partly from the unique quality of the voices and partly by the melody, harmony and polyphony. The most famous of these choirs– Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares, was honored with a Grammy Award in 1990. In 1977 the popular Rhodope song “Izlel E Delyu Haydutin”, performed by Valya Balkanska, was included in the gold record collection sent into outer space by the Voyager space shuttle.
The large variety of Bulgarian music contains even metered as well as asymmetrical rhythms. Bulgarian folk dances (horo) are done in a circle holding hands and moving in a counter-clockwise direction. Some of the most popular dances are: pravo hororachenitsapaidushko horoeleno momekrivo/Gankino horo (kopanitsa) and buchimish. The musical instruments used to accompany these dances are kaval (wooden flute), gadulka (rebeck), gajda (bagpipe) and tapan (kettle-drum). More information can be found here: or here:
Children dancing a horo

Children dancing a horo at the Koprivshtitsa 2010 Folklore Festival, Bulgaria. Photo by Evgenia Angelova


by Evgenia Angelova

Bulgaria offers numerous tourist opportunities for all seasons. From pristine beaches and world-class resorts along the Black Sea coast to well-developed ski resorts in the mountains, there is something for everyone in the diverse Bulgarian landscape. Additionally, there are numerous archeological sites, churches and monasteries to see and some rural tourist destinations offer well-preserved cultural and ethnographic attractions. Fourteen nature parks and seventeen biosphere reserves exist on Bulgaria’s territory today. It is estimated that on average the landscape of Bulgaria changes every 20 miles, presenting an enormous diversity of flora and fauna. In 2011, Lonely Planet placed Bulgaria fifth on its top 10 list of travel destinations.
Currently Bulgaria has 9 UNESCO World Heritage Sites: The Madara Rider, The Thracian tombs in Kazanluk and Sveshtari, the Rila Monastery, the Boyana Church, the Rock-hewn Churches of Ivanovo, Pirin National Park, Sreburna Nature Reserve, and the ancient city of Nessebar. Fourteen additional Bulgarian properties are listed on the Committee’s Tentative List.


by Evgenia Angelova

Bulgarians take tremendous pride in their cuisine. Famous for its rich salads required at every meal, Bulgarian cuisine is also noted for the quality of dairy products and the variety of Bulgarian wines and alcoholic beverages. Bulgarian cuisine also features a diversity of breads and pastries, as well as hot and cold soups. The recipes use a rich assortment of local herbs and spices that give the dishes their distinctive aroma and delicious taste. Some of the most popular foods are: kiselo mliako (yogurt), sirene (white-brined feta cheese), lutenitsa (thick, pureed tomato and pepper spread), banitsa (oven-baked pastry of filo-dough sheets and different mixtures tucked in between), kiufte or kebabche (balls or rolls of grilled minced meat with spices), and Shopska salad, the recipe for which is included below.
Shopska Salad

Shopska salad (recipe courtesy of Tanya Anguelova)

Mix together the following:
  • 4 tomatoes, diced
    1 long cucumber, diced
    1-2 fresh or roasted green peppers, cored, seeded and diced
  • 1 medium onion, thinly sliced
    2 tablespoons chopped parsley
    2 tablespoons olive oil or more to taste
    Salt to taste
Sprinkle on top:
Bulgarian white brine cheese or feta cheese

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