Archive for the ‘ Returning to Europe ’ Category

Bulgaria: A different colonial yoke


Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2009. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.



abstract: The narrative of victimhood as a legacy of “colonialism” might feel proprietary to non-Europeans. Bulgarians offer a contrast. The “yoke” Bulgaria complains about is the one imposed by four centuries of Ottoman “oppression,” that separated it from the rest of “Christian Europe.” In this story the Church is the agent of liberation, as a result, ironically, of the distinct religious autonomy allowed to four groups of non-Muslims in the millet (community) system of the Ottoman Theocratic-Imperial rule. Still more paradoxes color the Bulgarian complaint. The Ottomans were Turkish tribes just like the Bulgars, both relative newcomers here from Central Asia and beyond. Furthermore, they were successors to the Byzantine Empire which had long fought and invaded Bulgaria, as was common for geographically adjacent states. Bulgaria’s seemingly insistent omission from its history of the developments of four centuries of Ottoman domination is belied by the extensive Turkish influence that permeates its culture: music, dance, crafts, textile, clothes, architecture and language. This was all intriguing for me as a first-time visitor.


National narrative of history

            I crossed the Danube on the Communist era Friendship Bridge from Romania to Bulgaria. In August, the famously mighty river looked wide and calm. It was another river that looked impressive that day. The Yantra lived up to the meaning of its Thracian name, “quick flowing,” as it continued to carve a deep horseshoe canyon among four tall hills in Veliko Tarnovo .

            This old settlement was established by the Thracian tribes who lived in Bulgaria since at least 3000 B.C. The Romans who came this way early in the new era recognized the unique strategic significance of Veliko Tarnovo’s Tsarevets Hill, a rock that is made naturally inaccessible by the canyons of the Yantra. The Romans’ fortress of walls and towers were augmented by the citadel that the invading Byzantine built in the 5th Century. Veliko Tarnovo’s glory days, however, were as the capital of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire, 1187-1393. The Bulgarian tribes, who arrived here from the area between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea in the middle of

the 7th Century, constructed on Tsarevets Hill more than 400 houses, Royal Palaces, 18 churches and many monasteries.

            To see the ruins of those buildings, I had crossed the drawbridge that separated Tsarevets Hill from today’s Veliko Tarnovo. I was standing next to a group of students from the local university who were taking an outdoors history exam. The teacher from the school, considered Bulgaria’s most prestigious, looked serious. A friendly student became the interpreter for me.

            As I learned, Bulgarians take great pride in their history. Like other nations, their narrative is distinctly national. Even an ordinary city street map points out that “Bulgaria is the oldest surviving state in Europe which have (sic) kept its original name -since 681 AD.” The relationship with Europe is central in this historiography.

            The Bulgarian Empire lost its luster in defeats at the hands of the neighboring Byzantine Empire. The latter’s successor in Asia Minor, the Ottoman Turks, followed in 1396. They destroyed the Tsarevets fortress and did not leave Bulgaria until 1877. After liberation, Veliko Tarnovo was chosen as the venue to write the new Bulgaria’s Constitution in 1879 and to proclaim the country’s independence in 1908. The nearly 400 years of Ottoman rule is virtually ignored in the history of Bulgaria that I heard or read. It is a veritable black hole. The “Turkish yoke” seems too traumatic to deal with, except by simply expressing great resentment. It is deemed to be a period when the Muslim Ottomans isolated Bulgaria from the rest of Christian Europe. In that summary the Bulgarians compress their deepest preferences and dislikes.

Veliko Tarnovo

            The 13th Century Patriarch’s Complex is the only large area that has been restored in Tsarevets Hill. I went inside the Church of the Patriarchate where new frescoes in bold black and red colors were painted in the 1980s. These were not religious scenes but depicted Bulgarian history. I climbed the Church’s tower and in the panorama below saw the “Execution Rock” on the edge of a cliff. Among traitors pushed into the Yantra River from the Rock was Patriarch Joachim III in 1300. In the ruins of a vast amphitheater of the Royal quarters from which 22 successive Bulgarian kings ruled, a theater group was rehearsing a play against a backdrop of religious figures hung around the stage.

            In my hotel the portrait of Tsar Simeon (893-917), under whom Bulgaria reached the zenith of its power, dominated the wall of its restaurant. Through the opposite window we could see a light and sound spectacle about the Second Bulgarian Empire which was staged on Tsarevets Hill across the canyon. I struck up a conversation with a local resident who had returned from working in Spain. “I just loved my country,” was his explanation for leaving a

much more lucrative job abroad. The sound of Bulgarian folk music filled the air. A man was on a keyboard and a violinist played while strolling in front. They were accompanied by two vocalists, a man and a woman. In their break they all sat down at a corner table to eat with their children. The waiter asked how I wanted my bread which was baked like a pizza in an open oven. The choices were with soft sirine (white) cheese and hard kashkaval (yellow) cheese.

            The scene was less festive in the bar of the Kiev Hotel across the street. The dark room with about twenty tables and red leather seats and drawn curtains was almost empty. A young man was drinking a red soft drink from a tea glass and reading a newspaper in Cyrillic print spread on a card table before him. At the other end, an older man sat on a couch and smoked. A skinny girl with pimples and wearing a shabby dress was the bartender. Bottles of beer and soft drinks kept in a cabinet were all that she could offer. Time was trapped here. In the stillness there seemed to be no expectation of anything to happen. You could imagine the specter of a Communist era Securitate agent with the collars of his trench coat pullet up under a fedora watching you from a dark corner.


            As Veliko Tarnovo was abandoned during the Ottoman rule, the nearby village of Arbanassi emerged in late 15th Century. “It thrived,” we were told “because the Turks exempted its wealthy Orthodox Christian residents from taxation, in return for guarding the mountain passes in the area.” The 17th Century Konstantsliev House which we visited had the looks of a home of a prosperous Ottoman Turk. Much of the vast main room was filled by a big wooden platform covered with carpets that served both as a bed and sitting and dining room furniture. “They also ate and entertained there.” The bathroom next to it on this second floor had “a Turkish triangular hole in the ground for discharges.”

            The Christian population of Arbanassi had been circumspect. The exterior of their early 17th Century Nativity Church did not have the typical Orthodox dome or the shape of the cross, and its windows were discrete. A brick circle on the ground inside substituted for the dome. The frescoes on the wall had secular elements. There was a twelve-sided zodiac as the circle of life and women in local dresses as pilgrims to the Holy Land. Among inscriptions in Greek, the figure of Eve was oddly identified by Latin letters, Hava . “The painter probably did not know Latin and just copied the letters,” the guide told me as explanation.

            The crooked, narrow streets of Arbanassi featured women vendors of embroidery, one of the two main traditional Bulgarian crafts. The other was wood carving which we saw demonstrated in the Etar Village Museum, an hour’s drive from Veliko Tarnovo. Life as lived since the middle of the 18th century was on display here. “In some villages nearby much is still the same,” we were told. Laundry was washed in a spinning device located outdoors and powered by the kinetic force of a short waterfall from a running stream.


            Bulgarians are indebted to the Russians for liberating them from the Ottomans in 1878 and acknowledge this by the Monument to Freedom at the 4300 feet Shipka Pass over the Balkan Mountain. In the one-year war with Turkey, the Russians lost some 200,000 soldiers, many of them at this strategic location where the Bulgarian militia armed with mere rocks helped in repulsing a major Ottoman attack. The Russian cannons of that war have been left, showing the direction of the attack in the stunning mountain scenery . Down in the valley, the 1890 Shipka Memorial Church with gleaming golden onion domes graphically depicts the Russian victory. The cross of this church is the Russian Cross with three parts, one of which is a cross hoisted over the Turkish crescent. Inside, the names of the Russian generals of the war are inscribed on the exalted walls that are also adorned with portraits of medieval Bulgarian kings.

            The Ottomans had held onto this region, called Eastern Rumelia, for seven more years after the war. This is the Valley of Roses with 350 years of a rose growing industry which began when Turkish merchants planted a variety of pink roses from Tunisia. The soil and climate here are ideal for growing roses. In the parking lot of the Russian church the vendors offered bottles of rose oil. Over 85% of the world’s rose oil which is the source of perfume and many other products is made here. The rose fields which we were seeing now “are covered in May to June by fragrant flowers,” our guide said. They harvest the crop when the blossoms open, at dawn before their oil evaporates.

            This valley has also been called by another name, the Valley of the Thracian Kings because several Thracian royal tombs have been unearthed here since 1965. The most famous tomb is located in the town of Kazanluk. We walked through the terraced Tylube park to see mural paintings of the Kazanluk Vault  which are considered to be masterpieces of Thracian paintings of the end of the 4th century. To preserve the fragile paintings tourists are shown only a full scale replica. Battle scenes decorated the vaulted entry to the burial center which had a dome with murals of a funeral celebration showing both the deceased and his wife. Our guide shared with us the local legend that the Thracian kings had their favorite wife buried alive with them. This seemed to be a version of Herodotus’s more interesting history:

Those of the Thracians who live above the Crestonaeans do the following: each man of them has many wives, and when a man among them dies, there is a great judging of the wives, and much earnestness among his friends in this respect: as to which he had loved the most. She that is so judged to be best loved, and is so honored, is greatly praised by men and women and then slaughtered at his tomb by her closest kinfolk, and, being so slaughtered she is buried with her man. The other wives feel this is a great calamity, for it is for them the greatest of reproaches.”


            From the windows of my hotel room in Plovdiv I could see the ruins of the Roman forum . They were fenced off but pedestrians walked through the holes in the fence, crossing the ruins as a short cut to offices on the other side. The Romans who came here in the 1st Century also built an amphitheater which is the best preserved in the Balkans. On the day of my visit it was being staged for one of the frequent performances which benefit from the amphitheater’s great acoustics and marble seats.

            Further down the hill, a Roman stadium is left half uncovered in the center of town so as not to unduly encroach on its two neighbors which were themselves monuments to different eras of the history of Plovdiv: a statue of Philip the Macedonia king who ruled here in 4th Century BC, standing as tall as the diamond-patterned minaret of the 15th Century Dzhumaya (Community) Mosque of the Ottoman rulers next to it. 

            The Mosque is still used today, a rare reminder of the time that this city had 500 Mosques. Plovdiv boasted the biggest Turkish community in the Balkans during the Ottoman rule. That distinction has not changed much as an estimated 25% of Plovdiv’s residents are Turkish. The pedestrian heart of Plovdiv still has a mid 19th Century feel. We climbed the hill with the Turkish name Sahat Tepe (Clock Hill) to see the distinct Bulgarian National Revival architecture of the 1830s-1840s.

            These were substantial homes built closely side-by-side along narrow cobblestone streets. Their windows almost touched. Second and third floors were larger than the first floors, counter-levered for maximal use of the limited ground space. The buildings, such as the Turkish merchant Georgiadi’s House, were decorated on the outside. Inside there were delicate wood carvings around the ceilings and low doors connecting several rooms. The roofs had flat tiles. The Kuyumdzhiogh House which was turned into the Ethnographic Museum had a pretty garden in front. Inside the museum, the traditional Bulgarian crafts on display seemed indistinguishable from those of the Ottomans. One was about the manufacturing of aba (robe), another showed “traditional distilling apparatus for attar (rose oil),” and the third had “flasks for attar and rose water.” There were pictures of women picking roses.

            On the street, a souvenirs vendor introduced himself as the “Spirit Man,” and a “teacher.” He said that the Bulgarians were not Turks. They came from northern Iran. “They are the oldest people after the Jews.” Some visiting students from Varna on the Black Sea later joined this discussion. They acknowledged the conventional theory that the Bulgar tribes were of Turkish descent and those of them who came to what is now Bulgaria merged with the Slavs and adopted their South Slavic language. They argued that Bulgarians were still different from other Slavs because of two linguistic differences. “The word chatrang in our language which means something like center is from Sanskrit, and similarly a special sound of “o” in our language does not exist in other Slavic languages.” One student speculated that this may be due to the influence of yet another tribe with whom the Bulgars mixed in this area, “the Alans who spoke an Eastern Iranian language.”

            What these “Danube Bulgarians” have in common with the other Slavs is, of course, Orthodox Christianity –whereas, the Volga Bulgarians who settled further East chose Islam. We were reminded of this as we walked passed the Church of Sts. Konstantin and Elena. Worshipers in their best clothes were going in with flowers in their hands . This was August 15 which is celebrated as the Virgin Mary’s day. The streets nearby were lined up with women on improvised seats, selling flowers for the occasion. 


            Bulgaria’s National (Patriarch) Cathedral in Sofia is named after the 13th Century Prince Alexander Nevsky who is the military hero of Medieval Russian history. It is the biggest Orthodox Church in the Balkans. It was consecrated in 1924, and the smoke from countless candles has since covered much of its frescoes. The Russian diplomats in Bulgaria, however, chose to build their own church, St. Nikolai in 1914, which became a large congregation when the émigrés poured in following the 1917 Russian Revolution. On the day of my visit, a side walk painter was sketching this church, with a sign next to him that said: “I refuse in any way to be identified with Bulgaria .”

            The heart of Sofia is the Rotunda of St. George, an early Byzantine cross-dome architecture built in the 4th Century over a previous Roman rotunda. Frescoes were added in the 12th Century, but were covered up when the Ottomans later turned the church into a mosque. They have since been uncovered as the place has been converted back into a church. Another reminder of the intersection of religion and politics stands nearby. The Nedelya Cathedral had a sign at its entrance about how, in 1925, the Communist attempt here to assassinate the king had failed but had succeeded in wiping out most of his cabinet. The Communists came to power some twenty years later and their Party House still stands in Sofia, now used by the Bulgarian Parliament. Bulgaria’s gratitude toward the Russians extends to the Soviets. Not far from the center of Sofia is a huge socialist realist monument to the Soviet Army.

            Bulgarians have replaced Communism with a Presidential regime which has its own form of “pomp and circumstance.” In front of the Presidency, as the Presidential Palace is called,  we stood to watch the elaborate hourly ceremony of the changing of the guards who high-stepped in their fancy clothes and swords and rifles. Nearby, much of the history of Bulgaria’s diverse rulers is witnessed in the artifacts of Sofia’s Archeological Museum which used to be the city’s Grand Community Mosque. My favorite there, coincidentally, was a stone frieze called An Invitation to the Circus.

            Bulgarian folk songs and dances reflect strong Turkish influence. In a special restaurant at the foot of Vitosha Mountain in Sofia we saw a group perform a rather athletic version of those dances, accompanied by singers and several musicians. Then they came to our table and took us to the stage to join them. After dinner, a series of moves that included “push ups” felt strenuous. My team “won” as though in a contest and we were each rewarded with a bottle of “Gold Beer.” Our guide quipped that at least we were spared the dance of The Feast of St. Constantine and St. Elena. This was the ritual performed barefoot on live coals, holding icons in hands. He pointed out a middle-aged man who was expected to do this dance later. We did not wait to test his devotion. 


             The lead article in the English language paper, Sofia Morning News, on August 17, 2009, was about the government plan to reduce the “dangerous budget deficit” by cutting the expenditures of government agencies, implementing better tax collection and stopping the flow of contraband. I discussed it with two thoughtful Bulgarian youth I met on a bus. “Our grandparents liked the simple life and not having to work hard during the Communist era: so what if one could not get all the goods or travel? But our parents like the challenges that the post-Communist times offer,” they said. As for themselves, “We don’t like politics because of the corruption, but we want to live in Bulgaria because it is beautiful; it has good mountains and the sea.”

            Disappointment with politics puts in focus the significance of religious symbols. Bulgaria’s “most glorious cultural feast” is on 24th of May. It is described as “the Day of Bulgarian Enlightenment, Culture and Slavic script, thanks to the second half of the 10th Century, Holy brothers Cyril and Methodius from Salonika and their disciples.” Bulgarians take special pride that in 1980 the Pope declared the two monks “the patron saints of Europe.”        

            Another monk is credited with awaking the Bulgarians in the middle of the 18th Century to their forgotten national identity. Paisii Hilendarski wrote the first complete history of the Slav-Bulgarian people in 1762. He traveled across Bulgaria reading his book to illiterate people. This eventually led to a resurrection of cultural heritage and identity among an emerging  educated and prosperous urban middle class. This phenomenon, called the National Revival, was helped by the official recognition of an autonomous Bulgarian Orthodox Church in 1870 by the Turkish governing authorities.

            Bulgarian monasteries are considered the main preservers of “the nation’s cultural identity during the dark centuries of the Ottoman rule.” None among them was more important than the Rila Monastery, Bulgaria’s largest, hidden away in a wooded valley in the 9000 feet Rila Mountain. It is now the most revered place in the country. I shared my visit there with many Bulgarian pilgrims. “Ivan Rilski from Sofia decided to change his normal life at the age of 25. He went to Rila and entered into a cave and became an exorcist,” my tour guide said. There in 927 he founded a monastic colony of hermits. Their monastery was moved to its present location in 1335. A fire destroyed it in 1883 but it was rebuilt within a year with money from rich Bulgarian families.

            The Monastery is a striking sight with colorful red, black and white striped arcades and four levels of balconies . Monks who live there strolled among the tourists who are allowed to stay in some of the rooms on the premises. I went into the Monastery’s Museum. The product of a monk’s devotion was the highlight here. The Rila Cross is a small wooden crucifix which Brother Raphael started to carve in 1790. It took him 12 years to finish its 40 biblical scenes and more than 650 human figures, all in miniatures. The price he paid was his eyesight.

            In the Rila Museum there were also three Firmans (edicts) of the Ottoman Sultans from the 15th Century, 1540, and 1831, all confirming the right of the Monastery to continue its activities. The displays in the Museum demonstrated the significance of these activities. The “Archmandarin” of Rila brought the first printing machine from Vienna to Bulgaria in 1865. The Rila Monastery’s printing house became the first printing studio in Bulgaria. The picture of Hiermonk Neofit Rilski (1793-1881) identified him as the “patron of Bulgarian writers and pedagogues.” He was a prolific writer himself. The Rila Monastery claimed to be a “great school” for the study of “ordinary books,” and “higher sciences.”

            The relics of Ivan Rilski have been cherished for their healing effects. “Byzantine Emperor, Manuel Komnin is believed to have been healed by St. Ivan in the 12th Century,” our guide said. Ivan’s body was kept and distributed to as far away as Sofia, Veliko Tarnovo and even Russia. Today only his left hand remains and for a small fee anyone can attempt to see it in the Nativity Church of the Rila Monastery. I paid the equivalent of 70 cents and approached a box that contained the relic, attended by a monk. Ahead of me a two-year old boy was held up by his parents who made him touch the box and look through the glass top into it. When my turn came, I peered into the little opening and saw something that looked more like the reflection of the light.

            The frescoes on the walls of the church were far more vivid. They are by a number of painters from the National Revival period.  With one exception, none has signed his name as they humbly considered their work not to be theirs but done by “the hand of God.” The exception was the most famous painter of the era, Zahari Zograf (1810-53). His signature accompanies his trademark gory scenes of naked sinners being tortured by demons in hell, all inspired by medieval Bulgarian art.


            It did not take long to go from the sacred to profane. Flying on the small plane of Bulgaria Air to Varna the next day, a sister and brother shared the row of seats with me. He opened the conversation by saying that he had returned from his job as a DJ in Germany to see his sister. This was his sister’s first time flying, and she spoke no English. The forty something woman was nervous. She sometimes covered her face with her hands. At other times, without asking, she pushed the sleeve of my shirt up to see how much more time was left of the flight, as she did not wear a watch herself. She also took my copy of the in-flight magazine. She showed us a page that had a bilingual article about “The Silicon Valley Girls.” These were famous Bulgarian pop singers. She pointed out the pictures of the ones who had enhanced their voluptuous looking breasts with silicon implants. “This one, however, had hers reduced,” the woman said, according to her brother.

            Varna is a throw back to the days when it was called “The Pearl of the Black Sea.” That is its charm. Its Grand Hotel Musala Palace was Hotel London when it originally opened in 1912. Exquisite stained glass windows adorn the entry door. You have to go several steps to reach a very slow elevator to your room. On the landing the antique shoe polish contraption on the landing still works but sometimes does not stop. The service is impeccable. Breakfast is not buffet-style; you are served your choice at tables covered with white linen. My room had a balcony with a view of the sea. In the afternoon, tea was served on the porch set with straw chairs facing a small park in a cul-de-sac.

            Alas, on the short alley outside the hotel that connects to the center of town, the old tiles were broken, and the big building next door was empty and dirty. Across the alley young woman clerks, fully dressed and made-up, swept the sidewalk in front of their clothing and accessory stores and then stood and smoked while waiting for customers who seldom came. People strolled on the long pedestrian-only streets that stretched from the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin to the beach. Older men carried on conversations on the benches . A woman sat on a low stool and crocheted baby socks to sell. A man hustled tourists, offering them, alternatively, women and exchange for foreign currency. The writing on the sleeve of the T-shirt of a young woman nearby said “Come, get your fun.” Her uninviting appearance, however, indicated that the inscription was more an unintended gibberish. There were several ice cream kiosks. I stopped at one. The vendor rushed to the counter from the back where she was being given a massage by a family friend. In the small park nearby, dominated by a statute of an avuncular leader, a birthday was being celebrated by cheerful children.

            On the day I arrived in Varna a tourist told me that two persons had drowned in the sea. This was unusual because Varna has a fine beach. Varna is also a port. I walked on a path over a sea wall to reach the Captain Cook seafood restaurant facing the busy port. The food was different from the common Bulgarian fare of kebabcheh (grilled spicy meat sausages) and shopska which is a salad of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers and onions covered with feta cheese. Turbo fish was special to this part of the Black Sea. My server had a name tag which simply said “Waiter”. “It is rare to have a visitor from the United States here,” she said, “most are from Germany, Britain, Scandinavia and Russia.”

            That also seemed to be the case in the newer resorts of Golden Sands and Sunny Beach. Golden Sands was a two mile long strip of gold-colored sands blanketed by sun-bathers and their beach umbrellas. The area behind them was fully occupied by souvenir vendors and, further back, rows of hotels. Sunny Beach was twice as long, with more families of tourists but also with a rowdy group of hustling young beach bums wearing T-shirts which said things like “Party Crew.” The old resort of Balchik in the north was now owned “twenty percent,” by the British expatriates, according to my taxi driver.


            I took the water taxi from Sunny Beach to Nessebar. As we approached it I could see along the coast line of a small peninsula the remains of the fortifications  of the old town of Nessebar including walls of broken rocks joined by mud with gates anchored by two quadrangular towers . These dated back to times as ancient as the 8th Century BC when the Thracians lived here. The Isthmus that connected the peninsula to the mainland was narrow and could easily be cut off by digging. Nessebar was thus deemed defensible against invaders. It was not, however, invincible. Herodotus tells us that the Thracians surrendered without a fight to the army of the Persian King Darius in the 5th Century BC. Groups of Greeks from Asia Minor began coming with that army and settled in the midst of the Thracians. The new population also surrendered when attacked by the Roman legions in 72 BC, and again much later, in 814, to the army of the Bulgarian king. Nessebar fell to the Ottomans in 1453 and was not liberated from their “yoke” until 1878, according to the publication of Nessebar’s Archeological Museum –which did not include artifacts from the Ottoman era.

            I talked to the director of the museum. In the small hall that was to the left of the entrance she showed me millennium- old Thracian triangular stone anchors and the edict of the Thracian dynast Sadales from 3rd Century BC in which he guaranteed the safety of shipping by citizens of Nessebar in return for commercial and political privileges. This was considered a sign that the residents of Nessebar “were good at diplomacy.” In the three other halls were the artifacts of the Hellenist Nessebar: marble figurines and sculptures, terracotta statues and ceramic vessels. There were also some sculptures from the 13th and 14th centuries, which surprisingly did not seem better than the ones from the much earlier periods. The museum had an abundance of old coins in gold, silver and bronze. They had been minted here from the 5th Century to 250 AD.

            Nessebar’s beautyreminded me of Italy’s Amalfi coast. It is the only Bulgaria town on the list of the Sites of UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage. This is due to its 13 and 14th Century churches and the buildings of the National Revival period. The Christ Pantokrator  and St. Paraskeva churches have earned Nessebar the title of “the jewel in the crown of Christian Orthodoxy.” These churches are built in the Byzantine “pictorial” style, with ornate facades. Alternating brick and stone layers mixed with green ceramic and turquoise inlays produces an exceptionally attractive exterior. There are blind arches decorated with sun and herringbone designs.  Nessebar also boasts some 100 homes from the National Revival era. Typically they have two stories. The first floor was used for storing grapevine-growing equipment and the second floor consisted of rooms around a large hall. The few picturesque windmills in Nessebar from the 18th Century are additional reminders of the economic revival of the town toward the end of the Ottoman rule.


This article, entitled Bulgarian Paradox; a different colonial yoke, was published on the following website of on January 14, 2o10,  with related pictures:

Romania: In search of an identity


Copyright Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2009. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.



abstract: When the Romanian-born Herta Muller won the 2009 Noble prize for literature, her novel The Land of Green Plums shot up to No. 7 on; until then it had been No. 56,359. Muller was little read even in her adopted country Germany, in whose language she writes. Romanians, whose language is different, still take unusual pride in her. This would be a reflection of their craving for positive international recognition, which I observed in my recent trip to Romania. Never mind that like another Noble laureate Elie Weisel, who was Romanian-born, Herta was an émigré from an inhospitable homeland. Romanians, in time, mix history with myth for respectable results. Such is indeed the case with the legacy of another famous writer, Bram Stoker’s legend of Dracula. Romanians are hoping that far from being a vampire, that medieval ruler will soon become known as a saint. In a seemingly paradoxical similar fashion, their violent overthrow of a more contemporary ruler Nicolae Ceausescu is now explained by demonizing him. His monuments and those connected to Dracula are the sights most tourists see in Romania. To fit these and other sights into a meaningful context required that I look into the complicated history of their times. In post-Communist Romania the relevant historical narrative that illuminates this nation is that of the youth. I paid special attention to my young tour guide.


In the lane parallel to us was a car full of boisterous youth. A young woman laughed out loud as she held her lit cigarette out of the window of the back seat. I considered a passage in the guidebook I had just read on the plane to Bucharest: while the pensioners were having a hard time adapting to the social changes following the fall of Communism, the younger generation was “still full of beans and drives fast cars.” Presently the traffic slowed to a halt. “They have been building an overpass to ease the flow on this road from the airport in the last couple of years,” my guide said. “Much of the construction work in Romania has stopped because of the economic crisis in the West,” he added. This was August 2009 and he wanted me to tell him the latest about the state of the U.S. economy. “It affects us directly,” he said anxiously. “Most banks here are foreign banks and they don’t give loans anymore. Unemployment has jumped from 4% to 10% in the last year. The Government has just announced long unpaid vacations for 1,400,000 employees.”  My guide was also young; the Communist era was his “parents’ times.”

That evening our small tour group sat for dinner at a long table close to the bandstand in a vast semi-circular room facing the lake in the Cimajura Garden. For the handful of tables which were occupied the eight musicians seemed to be far too many. They played loud Europop music. Big burly men served a nondescript Balkan meal. Our guide pointed to the lake: “they imported ducks for this lake but the ducks all choked on chewing gum spit out by the visitors.” The scene was different around the lake in Bucharest’s other famous park, the Herastrau. The bars and cafes here catered to the affluent. There was a tennis club with clay courts. Families had brought their children to the playground. On the edge of the park was a street of residences each with its own security guard in a kiosk that resembled watchtowers in military bases.

In the open-air National Village Museum of the Herastrau Park I saw a Berbesti house that had beautiful carving at its entrance and a Marmures church with an impressive belfry and icons on its exterior walls. There were more than 50 other structures – windmills, watermills and farmsteads as well as houses and churches – from all of Romania’s main regions: Oltenia, Moldova, Dobrogea and Transylvania. “Don’t think all of Romania is like this, pretty and well-maintained,” I was told by a cynical observer. “In too many places there is still no running water or inside toilets. One must see the countryside.”


Passionate History

On Sunday morning Revolution Square in Bucharest looked surprisingly quite. There was hardly anyone here except our small tour group. It was some time before a tour bus pulled into the empty parking lot that tastelessly covered most of this exceptionally prized space. Here was the Atheneum, the musical heart of Romania, where George Enescu had debuted his Romanian Rhapsody and where the national Philharmonic Orchestra that bore his name played. Facing it on the left was the palace of Romania’s deposed kings. On its right was the legendary Hilton Palace Hotel where seemingly improbable scandals and political intrigues had been hatched. Shrewd political maneuvering is credited for the unification of Romania after World War One; by dizzying changes of position in WWII Romania managed to salvage its independence.

We were reminded of the more recent history of Romania as we stood at the foot of a white obelisk that seemed to have a black bird’s nest near the top. Called the Rebirth Memorial, the obelisk is controversial as some consider it meaningless. Our guide said, “the white column indicates the history of Romania with only one black mark for the Communist era. That is how the architect describes it. Facing us was the famous balcony of a building (the office of the Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Party) from which on December 22, 1989, President Nicolae Ceausescu tried to speak before his supporters. The previous day the large crowd that he had summoned here to address the popular unrest in Romania had become uncontrollable during his speech when some in the audience began shouting “down with the Dictator.” The unruly protesters were dealt with harshly by the security police. Now Ceausescu wanted to finish what he had not been able to say. The presumed supporters again proved unfriendly. The scene turned ugly and threatening. Ceausescu left the balcony and climbed into a helicopter which was positioned for such an eventuality on the roof of the building. Soon after the helicopter took off, “the pilot reported that there was a mechanical problem and he had to land,” our guide said. He landed in a military base. Ceausescu was detained by the military “for whom the cooperative pilot had feigned the mechanical problems.”  Ceausescu was tried three days later and  summarily executed. The Communist Party retained power. “This was a coup by the Party and the military using a popular revolt against Ceausescu,” our guide finished.

Romania is alone among former Soviet Bloc states in having killed its Communist leader. “There is something in the blood of the Romanians; they wanted to be heroes by becoming martyrs,” our guide opined. “Over 2000 died; the system would have changed anyway, as it did in neighboring Communist countries.”


Of all his alleged sins, it is Ceausescu’s megalomania that is memorialized in a monument that is called the Palace of Parliament. The Palace’s construction began in 1984 and took 700 architects and 20,000 workers five years working three shifts every day. Other statistics about it are equally staggering. “3,100 rooms covering 330,000 square meters in 12 stories,” the guide rattled them off as he led us through cavernous halls with marble floors and chandeliers and grand staircases. “Ceausescu was inspired by the monumental buildings he saw in a visit to North Korea.”  The Palace was planned to accommodate the offices of the President, Cabinet Ministers and the Central Committee of the Communist Party. The locals still call it by its original name, the House of People. The Romanian legislature now meets there. “One of the current deputies is the original head architect; at that time she was only 26 years old,” our guide said. “She is still in charge of supervising the maintenance of this building.  All workers and materials used for construction of the Palace were from Romania.”

No place in Bucharest gets as many tourists as the Parliament Palace, and most want to see its balcony. We followed the crowd. The vast space in front of the balcony provides an ideal venue for a mass audience to hear speeches delivered from it. Our guide said that giving such speeches from that balcony was Ceausescu’s ultimate dream. He was killed before he got a chance as the construction was not yet finished. Urban legend has it that Michael Jackson was the first to speak from that balcony. “The concert halls in town were too small for his concert. Michael Jackson started by saying ‘Hello Budapest!’” our guide related. In fact, the Bucharest National Stadium was the place for Jackson’s famous gaffe, but tourists do not visit the National Stadium. Our guide used the anecdote as an example of how the outside world does not pay Romania enough respect.

The sweeping view from the balcony was of the boulevard below, built to complement the Parliament Palace. The Palace’s grand scale is carried over there. The Boulevard of the Victory of Socialism was deliberately constructed half a meter wider than the Champs-Elysees. There are forty fountains on the Boulevard, one for each county in Romania. Romanians are fond of reminding foreigners that in the 1930s Bucharest was known as “Little Paris” because of its neoclassical buildings and parks designed on Parisian models. In fact, earlier, in the 17th Century, Bucharest was among the wealthiest cities in South East Europe. It boasted of having gas lamps in 1861, before Paris and Berlin. Alas, bombing by the Allies in WW II and an earthquake in 1940 destroyed much of the old Bucharest. Ceausescu is accused of leveling neighborhoods with the remaining “priceless ancient buildings” to erect the Parliament Palace and the Boulevard, and concrete block houses. Today Bucharest is considered Europe’s most crowded capital, with ten times greater density than Paris.

Asymmetrical Development

To his credit no statue of Ceausescu was erected in his time. Instead, he built rows of residential buildings in major cities. These were to house “peasants displaced by his industrialization and the workers needed for those industries,” our guide said. Their unattractive appearance was dictated by the need to build “fast and cheaply.” They survived Ceausescu’s fall because they were sold to the occupants with the help of twenty-year loans. “By the 1980s Romania had the highest per capita percentage of home owners.” Once in these modern homes “the former villagers did not want to return to the countryside.” The guide allowed: “Ceausescu in the beginning was not a bad politician, had good skills, and managed to get rid of Russia with his ‘national communism’. He was even popular with President De Gaulle of France. The Dacia car company which is really Renault 12, was almost a gift from De Gaulle. France was not going to make that model of Renault any more. They are cheap but very good cars. They are also sold abroad. It is a growing company, hiring more people even in these hard times.” The guide continued, drawing the familiar picture of a late 20th century Communist state: “Nobody was poor. There was money but not much consumer goods to buy with it, only apartments and Dacia cars.”

The guide’s Ceausescu was not exactly the demonized figure one meets in standard guidebooks. “The irrigation system built by the Communists was very good, but since then it has been allowed to deteriorate. The Communists also dug a 35-40 mile long canal from Bucharest.” The Communist party won the 1946 elections by benefiting from the Russians’ role in the return of Transylvania to Romania after World War II. The Party’s love for Russia was short-lived. After the Soviet troops were withdrawn in 1958, the names of streets and towns which had been Slavicised were changed to emphasize their Roman roots. Romania refused to assist in the 1968 Russian intervention in Czechoslovakia, and was rewarded by the most favored nation treatment by the United States. Ceausescu condemned the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and was subsequently decorated by Britain’s Queen.

“The Communist Party is now forbidden in the Constitution,” our guide said. This did not describe the whole picture. The dominant figure in the post-Ceausescu era has been Ion Illiescu, from the old Party. His left of the center National Salvation Front has since been replaced and has in turn replaced the right of the center party. The difference no longer mattered for our guide. “Everybody knows that the government is corrupt. The percentage voting in the election is a big problem. It is becoming fewer and fewer. Now it is almost 25 to 30% because we think all politicians are corrupt. After the revolution we tried with the right and the left. Now they don’t deserve the 30 minutes that it takes to vote. After the revolution the portion of population that voted was 80%. People were excited to exercise the right that they did not have before. The younger generation does not vote anymore. In the last 9 years I have not voted. Solution? Maybe time and more education: 20 years. So far there has been some progress, but for me it has been too slow.”

There have also been setbacks. According to our guide, “in the Communist era Romania exported food but now it imports. Agriculture has suffered because of bad management: land was given back to the peasants too hastily.” There are individual Romanians who have become very rich. “There are 3 to 5 of them in the top 500 in the world. They have made their money as real estate entrepreneurs, and in oil, dealing with the Romanian oil industry,” the guide said. Romanian doctors are very good, but because of low salaries they don’t do a good job unless you tip them. Now there are signs in the hospitals saying ‘don’t tip’. Still the tipping system continues.” The doctors also “leave for other countries of the European Union where the pay is better.”

Going to the United States is more desirable but far more difficult. Romania was one of the first to join the American war efforts in Iraq and is said to have provided a secret detention center for suspects. “Getting a visa to even visit the United States is almost impossible; they want evidence of property ownership and family to show that you do not want to stay,” our guide lamented. When former President Bush visited, “what we remembered from his speech was his promise to ease the visa requirements. That has not happened. So now people remember that he also referred to the rainbow that came after the rain during his speech, and people have made a pun: President Rambo, instead of Rainbow.”


Dacians and Romans

“Romania is a product of many reincarnations,” my guidebook said. The very word “Romania” was first used to refer to a political entity only in 1859 when the two regions Wallachia and Moldavia united. Transylvania was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918. Today, however, nearly 83% of the country’s population consider themselves “Romanian.” By that they mean that they are “the descendants of both Dacians and Romans. We don’t distinguish between those two,” our guide said as we looked at stone reliefs at the foot of the Military Academy building in Bucharest. Dacian was what the Romans called a Thracian tribe that had lived here for many centuries before a Roman legion came in the 1st Century and occupied this land for a hundred years. In the reliefs which depicted their battle, the Roman soldiers were identified by their familiar eagle insignia behind their heads, the Dacians by their own animal “draco,” resembling a wolf. Before the Roman legion left, they married enough local peasants for the Romanians to now claim their Roman heritage, the most important of which is the roots of the Romanian language. In village communities the Romanians survived the onslaught of many other tribes who came this way later and absorbed them, notably the Slavs.


Religions and Icons

The Slavs gave the Romanians their religion. “We are the only Romance-language people who are Orthodox Christians,” our guide pointed out. In fact, the traditions of the Orthodox Church are as important as language in binding this nation. Almost 87% of Romanians call themselves Orthodox. During the Ottomans control of the nominally autonomous Romania that lasted for more than three hundred years from the 15th Century, Orthodox Christianity remained the unofficial religion here. In Transylvania, it competed with Catholicism and Protestantism. Similarly, the Communists allowed religions to function. Indeed, as our guide said, “the head of the Orthodox church collaborated with the Communist Securitate.”

Icons and frescoes on the walls of the churches are major parts of Romanian cultural heritage. Heavily influenced by Byzantine art, they served as means of educating an illiterate population by depicting biblical scenes, our guide said. We were in the church of the Cozia Monastery. On this summer afternoon, the 14th Century church on the road that crossed the picturesque valley of the Olt River in the Transylvanian Alps looked more like a destination for Romanians on holiday. Families with children crowded the space. Supplicants still managed to light candles and beseech the saints with requests which they wrote on scraps of paper. The church was a small structure . Orthodox churches are modest because “people should not feel humble in the house of God,” our guide explained. The interior of the Cozia church had three parts. A screen of painted icons, iconostases, separated the priests’ chamber. The rest was mostly the nave which was for men. Behind it was the narthex for women. Outside was a space, the exonarthex, for those who could not enter the church proper, “like the divorced and criminals,” our guide explained. The walls of exonarthex were elaborately painted with religious scenes. Heaven was detailed in the frescoes on the left and hell on the right.



Not everyone appreciated icons in Romania. The Lutheran Saxons who lived in Transylvania in the 16th century did not. They “destroyed many of them and the frescoes in most churches,” our guide said. Among the few exceptions where frescoes were kept was the Cathedral in Sibiu which we were now visiting. This 14th Century Gothic structure had been a Catholic church, but was converted to a Lutheran church after Sibiu’s German Saxon inhabitants became Lutheran following the Reformation. “The conversion was peaceful and the Lutheran allowed the Catholics to build their own churches elsewhere,” our guide said.

The Orthodox Romanians had not been as tolerant. “They did not like the fact that the mother of one of their Rulers in the early 16th Century was a Catholic. When he visited Sibiu in 1510, they assassinated him in the square in front of this church after he attended service.” The guide showed us the wall in the then Catholic Church where the murdered Ruler (Mihnea Voda cel Rau) was buried. In that square now stood the statue of “Teutch ,” the Lutheran theologian and historian of the mid-19th Century. “No Catholic or Lutheran church was taken over and turned into Orthodox,” our guide said. Instead, our biggest Orthodox Cathedral was built here as a smaller copy of Istanbul’s Hagia Sofia.”

The Saxons had been brought here by the Hungarian kings in the 14th Century to defend their southern flank against “the threat from the Turks,” our guide said. They were good businessmen as well as warriors. They established their guilds here, each representing a different craft. Sibiu flourished as a trade center. The guilds’ leaders became its most significant citizens. They took responsibility for the fortification of the town. “Each of the guilds was in charge of one of the 39 towers in the defensive walls around the town,” our guide said as we were looking at one of the towers and part of the wall still standing.

Sibiu is an exceptional mediaeval town. “It is the best looking town in Romania,” our guide said. “Not many building were demolished by the Communists.” When the European Union named Sibiu a Cultural Capital of Europe in 2007, Sibiu received funds to clean and shine itself. I climbed the former Council Tower and looked down.  Buildings painted red, apricot, pea green and blue with red-tile roofs shone below in three cobblestone squares connected by pedestrian malls. They had distinct windows shaped like “eyelids” .Over a deep ravine I saw the Liar Bridge, so called after both the tricky merchants who used to meet here to trade, and the young lovers who professed fickle love.

Sibiu was called Hermannstadt when its residents were mostly Saxon. Now the Saxons constitute only 1.5% of the population. Many of the Germans left for Western Europe when Romania changed sides against the Nazis in WW II. More left during the Communist rule, “when they had to pay to leave,” our guide said. Those who have stayed seem to be well integrated. “The mayor of Sibiu is now a Saxon,” our guide emphasized.

Farm House

Now the Germans are coming back to this area, this time often as hikers. The lodging signs in the nearby village of Sibiel advertised “zimmers.”  I walked thorough this rustic  settlement  along a stream  that ran from the green mountains in the background. A narrow paved strip filled the middle of the otherwise dirt road that was the main street. Teenagers were playing soccer on that street, all the while smoking. The fruit stand was closing . The one-room souvenir store was still open with its touristy T-shirts at $15 each. Several structures offered themselves as “Farm Houses” with rooms for foreign guests. There was even a tourist office, although the peeling paint on the exterior walls made it unappealing. A museum of icon paintings on glass was a main attraction. Older men and women sat outside their homes in this lazy day of summer observing the occasional visitors who passed by. A group consisting of a man and four women congregated around one in a wheelchair. The man addressed me: “Deutschland?” When he learned that I was from the United States, he said “The New York Times!” Those were the only words in English he uttered. The rest were in halting German. I reached back decades to a year of college German to capture these: “zwei minute nach Restaurant” about his restaurant nearby; “hab ein sonnen im Deutschland” about his son in Germany. When he said “schone frau,” he pointed to one of the women and said “nein,” shaking his head and making a circle around his ring finger to emphasis that the “pretty woman” was not married and eligible. The women looked embarrassed at this clumsy joke, while the others chuckled. Someone cautioned “Regina!” That was the owner of the neighboring Farm House I was staying at.

Regina’s Farm House had 7 rooms, each with a separate bath. Her husband, who was a farmer, helped serve us dinner. Their Romanian food had Saxon and Hungarian flavors: a watery soup, eggplant spread, fried squash, feta cheese, small pieces of pork, and cabbage rolls. The apple pie for desert was good. The wine was like vinegar. The plum brandy was strong. “Last time a woman tourist won the contest to see who could drink the most brandy; she had 10 glasses,” our guide said. “I had to carry her upstairs to her room.”

Back on the tour bus the next day, someone asked the guide if Sibiel resembled the Romanian village used in Borat (Sacha Baron Cohen film’s, Borat: Culture Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan). “No. That village is in the south, Wallachia,” he said. “The villagers complained that they had volunteered for what they thought was a documentary. Now that the movie was making money, they sued to share in the proceeds. They lost because they had signed a release. The villagers were not really offended because the movie was about Kazakhstan and it was a comedy.”


Our guide was not as forgiving of the Gypsy men we were now seeing on the side of the road with their distinctive black hats, selling plum brandy distillates. “When the Saxons left this area, the Communist government gave their vacant houses to these Gypsies,” our guide began his tale. “There are 500,000 to one million of them in Romania. They have their own king, not recognized by the government, who settles disputes according to Gypsy laws. They don’t have toilets in their houses because that is their custom. They don’t have real jobs. They play music. They were brought here from India in the 16th Century by the Turks because they were good entertainers and they made good swords and were good horsemen. Then they moved from here to other countries. Between the end of 16th and the middle of 19th they became slaves in Romania: this was the only country in Europe where as serfs they could not move from the land. That is why their numbers went up here. They also have had many children. Only after the 1989 Revolution have they been able to leave Romania. Most don’t have IDs. So they have left illegally. Many went to Italy. There they were called Romas and because of the bad things that they did many of them were expelled.” The guide continued.  “They are different and want to remain different. They speak Romanian but also have their own language which is called ‘Rromani’ with 2 Rs, and that is their only connection to Romania. And that does not help us a lot. Tourists ask if Romania comes from Rromani,” the guide complained.  “I was furious to hear this. They are not from here. Their origin is possibly northern India. Rrom and Rromani are their European name and the language’s name.”

My guidebook said that anti-Rroma chants are common at Romanian soccer games. When I was in Bucharest, preparations were underway for a big concert by Madonna. Posters publicizing it were everywhere. As it was reported later, when Madonna introduced a Rromani group of musicians during her show, she was roundly booed.

The Other

The Turk’s insertion of the Gypsies into Romania was especially annoying to our guide as it took place despite all the walls and fortifications he almost invariably labeled as having been constructed in Romania to ward off threats from the Ottomans. Fortified churches of southern Transylvania are considered unique. “This is the only place in the world you see fortified churches,” our guide said. He took us to see a good example in the village of Axente Sever . The plaque next to the old church did not quite support the guide’s claim about the Turkish threat. It said that the 14th century fortification here, as well as in the other 300 such churches, were for “protection against invasion of migratory people. ” The armies of the Ottoman Empire who came a century later hardly fit this description.

Parts of the Axente Sever church were being turned into an overnight facility for tourists. This was partly a testimony to the attractive beauty of the green valley north of the Carpathian Mountains we were now crossing on a twisting road, which the special churches and charming mediaeval villages only amplified. One such village was Biertan where the hilltop church, typically the most durable and strategically positioned building in the area, was surrounded with fortification walls below. The church is monumental as it was the seat of the Lutheran Bishop of Transylvania for over 300 years, and memorable as it houses an even older Gothic triptych of 28 pre-Reformation plates from 1483.  Our guide pointed out a structure  next to the church, “that was the reconciliation prison,” he said. “Quarreling couples were sent there; it had only one bed, one spoon, and one chair. They were kept there for a time and had to live as one. The result was that there was only one divorce in this village for a long time.”   


Not far down the road was Sighisoara. Colonized by the Saxons, it is the best preserved medieval fortified town in Transylvania. Now it is equally famous to many tourists as the birthplace of Dracula, a.k.a. Vlad the Impaler, the ruler of Wallachia. The crowd was there when we arrived at lunch time, many in the restaurant [36] that is housed in the building with a sign marking the famous birth in 1431. Renovation of the small old town square was continuing with help from German investors and Britain’s Prince Charles. Dust covered the outdoor dining tables. We came in through the Tailors’ Tower  and circled toward the Shoemakers’ Tower , two of the nine original towers of the fortification still remaining, all named after the guilds that were in charge of their upkeep.

Sighisoara also has a hilltop church. We climbed the 175 steps tunneled into the hill in the 17th Century up to the Gothic Lutheran Uphill Church. A guide introduced the restoration work that had been done to reveal the old frescoes which the Lutherans had covered. Near the alter was a notice also from the past which was roughly translated for me as: “If you do not know Latin do not approach this pulpit or otherwise we will come and kill the fleas in your body with stick.”  Outside the church a German couple was having their fortune read by a large Gypsy woman.



To German tourists it is the larger town square of Brasov (the Saxon colony of Kronstadt in medieval times) that “looks just like a German town,” my guidebook said. It was also here that allegedly the last witch burning in Europe took place. At a stand in the square I was admiring the display of “figurative ceramics” by Nicolae Diacounu, a peasant artist living near Brasov who has won many awards for his folk art. A man came up to protest the vendor’s sale of Dracula figurines also hanging on the racks. When he turned to me, I gathered that he was saying Dracula was not Romanian. He made his face look frightening, his fang helped by his missing teeth. “Italian?” he asked. Romanians are “amici,” he said.

The Austrians were not that friendly when they invaded and burned this town in 1689. The smoke from that fire gave the only major building still standing its moniker, the Black Church . The 14th Century church is the city’s landmark. It was also a place for a rare non-hostile mention of the Ottomans by our guide. A huge collection of 120 “Anatolian rugs, the second largest in the world” hung from the balconies of the Black Church. They date from the 16th to 18th centuries. They were gifts to the church from wealthy merchants as thanks for a safe return from trading trips to the East. The rugs felt heavier than kilims but thinner than carpets. They had geometric designs, not flowers, in frames. They were of two kinds: decorative and prayer rugs .

I saw parts of Brasov’s 12 meter high and 3000 meter long walls built in the 15th century to defend against the Turks. It was Vlad the Impaler, however, who attacked and took Brasov in 1458, impaling some 40 prominent local merchants atop its fortress. In later years the walls mostly served to keep the local Romanians out of the Saxon Brasov: they were banished to the Schei district. Romanians were allowed to enter through the Schei Gate only one day of each year, on the “June (Bachelor) Pageant”. As we went through that gate, the city scape changed from rows of Teutonic buildings to the smaller and simpler structures of the ancient Romanian settlement that was Schei. A professor of religion was awaiting us at the two-room First Romanian School Museum which had an impressive collection of 6000 old books, including schoolbooks from the 15th century. He had us sit in a classroom at 200 year old desks and, playfully with a disciplining wood switch in his hand, demonstrated the role that Wallachian Orthodox priests played in educating the locals. He showed us the printing press  they installed in 1556 and displayed the first Romanian books in the Latin alphabet which were printed here. Pointing out an original old text of the Romanian National anthem, the jovial Professor broke into singing a stanza: “Romania wake up….” Our guide translated his comment: “Instead it puts you to sleep.”

I could not sleep well that night because of the dogs howling in Schei. This was also a problem in Bucharest. Our guide gave us the common explanation: “Ceausescu demolished houses to build apartments and the departing residents had to leave the dogs behind on the streets.” When their numbers and danger increased, the post-Communist government “promised to sterilize the dogs. But the animal-lover actress Brigitte Bardot came and took three dogs and protested that Romania should adopt her approach instead. The President used this as an excuse not to spend money. The dogs are still on the streets.”

As I laid awake the huge sign “Brasov” on the east mountain shone brightly into my room. It was Brasov’s answer to the famous sign in Hollywood. This is not the only kitsch in Brasov; it has also appropriated the slogan of a beer company. It calls itself “Probably the best city in the world.” Brasov, of course, also offers the nearby “Dracula Castle.”

The Dracula Castle

In our guide’s words, the “Dracula Castle” was an invention of American tourists. They first came to see what a former Communist country looked like. While in Brasov, the Americans decided that Bran Castle, which is about 30 kilometers away, was the one Bram Stoker referred to in his popular book about Dracula. This was because there are not that many other castles in Transylvania in such a good shape. Further, the scenery was good here and Bran was old enough — all fitting the descriptions in the book. “But this was not the location that Stoker used,” our guide said. Nonetheless, the dubbing has stuck and a big industry has grown as a result. “Now we even have Halloween parties because of that. The notion of Halloween had not existed in Romania.”

Dracula, of course, had existed. That was another name for Vlad the Impaler. Our guide said that Dracula, however, was not a vampire. “Elizabeth Battory, a Hungarian countess was the source of Stoker’s inspiration for that. She used to bathe in maiden blood to preserve her youth.” Vlad was called Dracula which means the son of Dracul “because his father chose that name which means devil as the closest Romanian equivalent of the Hungarian Dragon when he was initiated into the Order of Dragon.” The Impaler part of Dracula’s name had another story. “Vlad did not have a peaceful childhood,” our guide said. “He had to go to Turkey as a guarantee that his father respected the rule of the Turks. He learned impaling from the Turks. Note the Shish kebab!” Vlad became the Prince Ruler at the age of seventeen after his father and older brother were executed by rivals. “He wanted to take revenge against the rivals and the Turks who must have supported them. So he started to use this impaling method. The Turks were really scared of him.”  The guide continued: “In our history there is a famous episode called ‘the event of the midnight.’ The Turks sent an army to capture Vlad because he did not pay them taxes. Vlad took a few of his men and, dressed as Turks, they went into the Turkish camp at night and killed some Turks and left. This caused panic among the Turks as in the dark they could not see or find out who did this. They thought other Turks were the killers, and started killing each other. The few who were left, then ran away.”  Eventually, “Vlad was killed in 1476 by agents of the Turks and decapitated.” Our guide concluded: “Vlad the Impaler is a hero of the Romanians and maybe one day he will become a Saint.”

Vlad was the ruler of Wallachia for three interrupted periods. The only time he was in the “Dracula Castle” was when the Hungarian king imprisoned him there in 1462. This Bran Castle was built in 1377 in Transylvania as a tollbooth along the trade route from Wallachia, and “to defend against the Turks,” according to our guide. This was not the way I found it now. Blocks of souvenir stands were all there to welcome the visitors. They sold vampire paraphernalia from stakes to “blood wine.” In the meantime, the castle has collected other fantastic claims to fame.

Bran is rumored to have been where Marie, Queen of Romania (1914- 1927) met her lovers. Bran was her private property, given as a gift by a grateful Romanian government. She was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria of Britain when she became the wife of the Romanian Crown Prince Ferdinand. “She committed herself full-heartedly to her adopted country, learning the language, converting to Orthodox Christianity, even often wearing traditional clothing,” the guide said. In World War I she devoted herself to ministering to wounded Romanian soldiers.” Most important, she effectively represented Romania in the Versailles Peace Conference and was largely credited with what Romania achieved there, including regaining Transylvania. Her husband, King Ferdinand paled next to Queen Marie’s personality. In fact, “she was considered to be the real king,” the guide said

What was colorful abut King Ferdinand was the background of his accession to the Romanian throne. “Why did the Romanians chose a foreigner as their king?,” our guide asked rhetorically, and then he told us this version of the history. When Wallachia and Moldavia formed the United Romanian Principalities in 1859, which was then renamed Romania in 1862, they elected Alexandru Ion Cuza as their ruler.  The reform-minded Cuza “wanted to pass laws which were not popular and so he quit in 1866,” as our guide put it. “The Prime Minster thought a foreign prince could deal better with the corruption. A delegation was sent to Paris to talk to a French candidate. But the Frenchman did not accept the offer. Back in their hotel the dejected delegation were met by the hotel owner who was a Romanian woman. Hearing their story, she told them that a while ago she had a guest from Germany who was unhappy because although he was a prince he was not in line of succession to become king which he desired to be. The women encouraged the delegation to look the Prussian up. They did and he accepted to become the ruler of Romania.” The guide continued, “In the beginning this Prussian, as Prince Ruler Carol, faced some resistance because he was a foreigner; even though he learned Romanian he spoke it with an accent.  But after his leadership in the 1877-78 war of independence against the Turks his popularity grew. So the constitution was changed and starting in 1881 he was named the King of Romania.” Ferdinand, Queen Marie’s husband, was the childless Carol’s nephew and successor.

The Bran Castle story had still another twist after Marie. “She gifted the Castle to her daughter, Illeana, who left for the United States when the Communists took over and became a nun and died there. The Communist turned the Castle into a museum but when they fell from power, Illeana’s son and heir -Archduke Dominic- who now lived in New York sued to take Bran back. The contested claim took until recently before the court ruled that the castle should be given to Dominic. He put it on the market for 100 million dollars. But due to worldwide recession he could not sell it. So he and the Romanian Government reached an agreement to keep Bran as a museum for now.” Tourists are charged entrance fees which go to the Archduke.


Royal Palace

Our guide favored the attitude of the deposed last king of Romania toward the former Royal estates. Prince Michael who is 88 “would just like to live in the Pelisor Palace.”  This is the smallest of the three Royal palaces in Sinaia. The big tourist showcase here is the sumptuous Peles Palace. “A French tourist once told me this is better than Versailles,” our guide said. In our visit, we were asked to put on special shoe-covers to protect the floors and to strictly follow the guide. King Carol I who began the Palace’s construction apparently never wanted to finish it even after 160 rooms. “He had this superstition that once he finished it he would die,” our guide said. When he died in 1914 he asked that his body be laid in state in the Moorish Room of Pelisor Palace. The guide had no explanation for this wish. On an ottoman in the Moorish Room, visible from the door, I could read this Arabic phrase Ya mofattah al-abvab (O! The Opener of Doors). Later in the day on the door of the 17th Century St. Catherine Monastery in the town of Sinaia we read this Romanian inscription in Latin: “God Bless Our Entrances and Our Exits.”


This article, entitled In Search of an Identity, was published on the following website of on December 1, 2009   with related pictures: