NatGeo Does Bulgaria

Looking at National Geographic back issues is not only a lot of fun but offers snapshots of a place over time. The National Geographic Society first turned its attention to covering Bulgaria in February 1903. For the next three decades, the magazine’s writers explored Bulgaria’s history, its place in the region, its current development, and its great natural beauty, and they offered assessments of its national character and predictions for its future. The writers too often displayed the prejudices of their time, ascribing strengths and weaknesses to various European and “Oriental races”, and they sometimes offered conflicting assessments. But they also unknowingly provided fascinating historical parallels: what they observed in Bulgaria’s potential and progress after the long period under the Ottomans is often echoed in contemporary Bulgaria’s potential and progress after the long period under Communist rule.
1903 February cover

Bulgaria in the Balkans

  • The next, like the last, battleground of Europe will be the Balkan Peninsula…1
  • In appreciating the progress made in Bulgaria, it must be borne in mind that the country is situated within a very absorbing political atmosphere, which has certainly been a drawback to its fuller development. 3
  • It is difficult to assign exact territorial limits to the Near East; and as for the Balkans, it may be said, as did Dooley of the Phillipines, that before the World War few Americans knew whether they were mountains or canned goods. 6
  • Bulgaria bulks large in Balkan history. In one generation of freedom she made incredible progress and crowned her achievements with exceeding prowess in the First Balkan War.6

Hospitality (or Not)

  • Hospitality is based upon the ancient oriental laws. No stranger is ever turned from the door if he comes in peace. 1
  • Bulgaria may be a brigand land, and there are parts of the southern frontier where it must be admitted we did not feel any too safe, but Bulgarian people as a whole are among the friendliest in the world to the stranger within their gates. 2
  • Unlike most southern races, the Bulgarians are reserved, taciturn, phlegmatic, unresponsive, and extremely suspicious of foreigners.3

1907 October cover

Education

  • Without money, with only a few educated leaders and the mass of peasants illiterate, surrounded by jealous and much more powerful states, their future independence seemed remote, if not impossible of achievement. But the leaders had grit and common sense, and realized that there were three essentials: (1) To educate the people; (2) to grant religious tolerance to all, and (3) to require of every man two or three years’ military training, so that every Bulgarian would be a capable soldier in time of need…today 92 per cent of the male city Bulgarian population between the ages of 10 and 30 can read and write and 74 per cent of the female, and 68 per cent of the male and 18 per cent of the female rural. This is a result which none of the countries, neighbors of Bulgaria and others to the west, can show. 3
  • Youngest among the nations of the Balkan Peninsula to be freed from Turkish domain, it being less than forty years since they threw off the Turkish yoke, illiteracy is less common in Bulgaria than in any other country in that region. In 1880 only one out of ten soldiers in the Bulgarian army could read and write; today only one in twenty cannot…The amount spent for educational purposes in 1912 was $1.20 per capita, as compared with 67 cents in Servia, 50 cents in Greece, 40 cents in Montenegro, and 20 cents in Turkey. 5

1908 November cover

Charm and Beauty

  • ’Why can’t we overnight at Tirnova?’ he pleaded. ‘Von Moltke calls it the most charming spot in the world.’ 2
  • …and, to tell the truth, all Bulgaria is so picturesque one is loth to go through any faster than he must. 2
  • …on [cliffs] perched the town—Tirnova the Beautiful—every house a blaze of color; the roofs of red terracotta shingling; the walls painted over in washed-out pinks and browns; the eaves and cornices set in relief by heavy beams that are browned to black by age. Yellows and blues marked other homes. We stopped to take in the perspective—a second Naples—from the sea—for here, too, the homes are three and even five stories high, a most rare architectural form for the Orient. 2
  • Sofia has been called The Little Brussels, just as Brussels in times of peace was called The Little Paris. 5
  • The country possesses great wheat fields, extensive forests, rich mines—all of which have been made to respond to that patient industry for which the Bulgarian peasant is the model for all his Balkan neighbors. 6
  • The Rhodope, Rila, and Pirin Mountains constitute the outdoor playground of Bulgaria. Where revolutionists used to hide from the Turks, city folks now escape from their cares. Evergreen forests, clear mountain lakes, and dangerous precipices all have their devotees. 7

Tourist Troubles

  • Today, however, I am inclined to believe it is the work of local politicians, in order to give the cabbies of their constituency a chance to make a living at the expense of the stranger. 2

1912 November cover

Progress and Leadership

  • No people have greater cause for satisfaction and honest pride in what they have accomplished during the last 30 years than have the Bulgarians. Their progress in self-government and education since 1877-78, when, with the aid of Russia and Rumania, they threw off the Turkish yoke, is one of the most remarkable records ever made by any people within a similar space of time. Industry, courage, and compulsory education have won for them a position unsurpassed by any country of their size, and have made them in less than a generation a powerful, and perhaps the determining, factor in the settlement of the Eastern question. 3
  • Twenty-five years ago the country had recourse to foreigners for professors, engineers, men of law, financiers, and specialists for all the administrative branches…and for the organization and command of public forces. Now all this work is done by specially educated Bulgarians. There is not a foreigner in the service of the state. 3
  • The resurrection of the Bulgarian nation is one of the wonders of the past century.
  • From the first hour of their liberation the Bulgarians of the newly created principality manifested a strong democratic spirit, and a firm determination to secure for themselves a full measure of political freedom and complete national independence. 4
  • There can be no question that if the Bulgarian people are allowed to develop their country and themselves—and they will do so if they can enjoy the advantages of a long period of peace and satisfactory commercial relations with their neighbors near and far—that the rapid progress of this people in every way will astonish the world, and to say the least, disabuse the minds of many who now think Bulgaria in a more or less semi-savage state and peopled by a race who would rather fight than not. 5
  • [The Russian-Turkish] war was ended by the Treaty of San Stefano, which essayed to establish a big Bulgaria; but, thanks to Disraeli, British influence brought about the Congress of Berlin, and it was a little Bulgaria which finally secured a place at the world’s council table. A lowly place it was, but with splendid courage the Bulgarian set out to make it better, and the story of Bulgarian development in a single generation finds few parallels among modern nations. 6

1915 April cover

National Character

  • The peasants of Bulgaria are industrious, ingenious, and intelligent. Both men and women are of fine physique, capable of great endurance, and few are idle, intemperate, or vicious. 1
  • In the short period of their political existence they have gone through so many vicissitudes that they have become inured to desperate situations. Their tenacity, their shrewdness, their dogged perseverance—the characteristics of an agricultural race—their cool-headed judgment and intuitive sagacity, and—shall we add?—the luck which has hitherto attended them, may once more stand them in good stead. 4
  • This virile, laborious, thrifty, and persevering race has displayed many qualities which entitle it to play an important part in the future history of southeastern Europe. During the thirty years of its troubled existence the young Bulgarian State has made almost phenomenal progress. Education has advanced rapidly; public works have been instituted on a large scale; the country has been covered with a network of railways; wealth has undoubtedly increased, and order has been maintained, often in circumstances of great difficulty…Not withstanding the recent economic crisis, the financial situation compares favorably with that of the sister States, inasmuch as the national debt is proportionately small. 4
  • There is an initiative and a power of organization in the Bulgarians that is unusual in the capricious and fatalistic Orient. Our Bulgarian students had a certain sturdiness, an out-of-doors quality, a sanity which marked them from the fanciful, sentimental, and weaker-nerved girls of some other nationalities. 5
  • The Bulgarians have shown themselves eager for education and for civilization, and their women acquire culture with the ease of the traditional American woman. Often, the daughter of an unlettered peasant, living in a remote village, after some years of schooling will take her place in Sofia or Varna as a teacher, or lady of fashion, or leader in civic betterment. 5
  • Among the more or less formal Thanksgiving proclamations of recent times, surely one of the most arresting was Bulgaria’s ‘Our poverty is our riches.’ A land of homespun may be proof, not only against spiritual, but also economic depression.7

1921 February cover

In 1932, a graduate of Constantinople Woman’s College explained the mood of Bulgaria as the different generations struggled with enormous changes: “…but this seems a confusing time. The old folks seem pessimistic. Perhaps because they are ill at ease. Light living engulfs them, ostentation violates their traditions. The young city folks are living beyond their means. We have long sought progress. Now we can’t escape it. But I have great faith in my country. We are honest, industrious, and eager. In most matters we are tolerant. We have vast reserves of courage and character. “7

1Curtis, William Eleroy. The Great Turk and His Lost Provinces. National Geographic Magazine, February 1903.

2Koch, Felix J. Tirnova, the City of Hanging Gardens. National Geographic Magazine, October 1907.

3Bulgaria, the Peasant State. National Geographic Magazine, November 1908.

4Bourchier, James D. The Rise of Bulgaria. National Geographic Magazine, November 1912.

5Jenkins, Hester Donaldson. Bulgaria and Its Women. National Geographic Magazine, April 1915.

6Moses, George Higgins. The Whirlpool of the Balkans. National Geographic Magazine, February 1921.

7Williams, Maynard Owen. Bulgaria, Farm Land Without a Farmhouse. National Geographic Magazine, August 1932.

5 thoughts on “NatGeo Does Bulgaria

      1. Riza…would you be willing to write or post about “The Summer Help” (www.thesummerhelp.om) on your blog or share the information about the film with some of your friends? We started a crowdfunding campaign yesterday. You can watch the video to meet the director (me, Melody Gilbert) and read why I am making the film and why nowbit.ly/TheSummerHelp. Hope you will consider sharing this important story about Bulgaria, Bulgarians and America. If you have any questions, contact me melodygilbert01@gmail.com (PS: what part of DC are you in? I grew up there!)

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  1. If ever there was a comprehensive review of everything Bulgarian this would be it. One of the most thorough posts around, especially with the evident similarities between national character and progress and leadership.

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    1. I very much appreciate your comment as I did strive both for a comprehensive review and a way of looking at a culture and country beyond the usual “shake the head for yes, nod for no” and variations on that sort of theme. Thank you for giving the blog post such a close reading.

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