Tag Archives: National Revival

Neofit Rilski / Неофит Рилски

Neofit RilskiMonks of many faiths, perhaps all, take vows of one kind or another. These are generally along the lines of chastity, poverty, and obedience—precisely the sorts of things that minimize distractions and maximize stability in a monastic order. Often the monk (or nun) will adopt a new name to show the thorough and permanent break from the old life to the new. But it perhaps takes a special kind of humility to adopt and retain the name of “Neophyte”—even after long years of leadership and the acquisition of expertise have made one the precise opposite of a neophyte. Even after making an incalculable contribution to the building of one’s nation.

signNikola Poppetrov Benin (1793–January 4, 1881), however, became the Neophyte of Rila, Неофит Рилски (Neofit Rilski). Born in Bansko, Neofit Rilski was the son of a monk who taught in a monastery school. He took up both of his father’s professions, first continuing his vocation and studies at Rila Monastery and then inaugurating his teaching career there. His boyhood home in Bansko is a lovely example of the traditional architecture of that time. The first floor is dedicated to the common needs (kitchen, food storage, farm animals) and the second to those of the family. It is beautifully preserved, and a wing has been built to house a detailed museum devoted to his life and work.

Rilski 20001Although he created the first popular Bulgarian translation of the New Testament (commissioned by American Protestant missionaries) he is more known and deservingly revered for his secular educational efforts. Professor Vera Boicheva notes in her Neofit Rilski: Creator of the Bulgarian National School that he was the first Bulgarian writer to champion the use of a pure Bulgarian language, rather than the Greek popularly used in education. It was a truly revolutionary idea: modern Bulgarian was not simply the language of the peasant or the market, but imperative to the continuing development of a national sensibility, culture, and identity without which the country would be ill prepared for independence from the Ottoman Empire.


къща музейNeofit Rilski lived through the worse years of that struggle for independence. The Bansko house constructed by his father is a tangible reminder. The walls are double built with space between them. This secret space could be entered by several entrances from the house should escape from Ottoman soldiers be necessary. Many houses throughout Bulgaria acted as mini-fortresses and hiding places.

By the time Neofit Rilski passed away at age 88 in Rila Monastery, the symbol of not only the Bulgarian Orthodox Church but Bulgarian culture preserved for five centuries, autonomy had been won and nation-building well and truly underway.

In order for the various dialects of the Bulgarian language to be unified, there had to be a way to teach the language in the same way students were already learning the languages of other countries. To that end, Neofit Rilski published the first Bulgarian language grammar book—211 pages—in 1835. And not only did he write the grammar book, he developed the pedagogy to utilize it in schools nationwide. Neofit Rilski thus had an impact not simply on the schools he personally directed—particularly the first fully secular and public school, in Gabrovo—he influenced other schools throughout the country.

The Bulgarian National Revival that flowered throughout Neofit Rilski’s life was an intellectual movement that forwarded a nationalism perhaps unique in the region (Modernism: The Creation of Nation-States (Discourses of Collective Identity in Central and Southeast Europe, Vol. 3/1)).

Rather than being conservative and inward-looking, Bulgarian nationalism was expansive and progressive with broad education of both men and women seen as key to the progress of the entire community. It is not incidental that the Slaveno-Bulgarian History of Paisii Hilendarski (also from Bansko) and Neofit Rilski’s Bolgarska grammatika 1835 [Hardcover] are not only the key publications of the early Revival but are meant to be educational. They are not a call to arms, not a political rallying cry, not dogmatic. They do not suggest circling the wagons. They suggest by their very nature that education is the revolution and education is critical to create a strong and independent nation. Nationalism, then, is not best expressed by attempts to expand the borders without but the minds within.

Triavna / Трявна

We were planning a trip through central Bulgaria when my husband’s cousin told us we couldn’t miss Triavna. “It’s lovely,” she said, “and you must have the coffee on sand.” That was irresistible and we duly included Triavna on the trip map we plotted.

часовникова кулаTriavna was well worth the stop. We loved the beautifully preserved National Revival architecture and the wide main square with the clock tower dating to 1814, but we also enjoyed just wandering the winding streets and crossing the bridges over the Trevenska River. We spent a good amount of time on the riverbank and in gathering many bouquets of wild flowers.

църква Св Михаил

The St. Archangel Michael Church, the oldest in Triavna, dates back to the 1196-1297 medieval rule of Bulgarian Tzar Kaloiyan. The small and peaceful churchyard is beautifully landscaped. In its tiny cemetery, presiding priests of the last two centuries or so are buried.


Triavna is known for its crafts, particularly woodcarving. This tradition gave rise in 1920 to a formal school for woodcarving. Over time, the school expanded from functional craft to applied arts and added other disciplines both to preserve and develop traditions. Today the National School of Applied Arts in Triavna is nationally famous and has three major courses of study: carving, interior design and icon-making. Many who come to the school stay in the region to live and work. Along the Triavna main square are a number of craft ateliers and as we peeked into one, one craftsman immediately beckoned us in, picked up my four-year old son, gave him a woodcarving tool, put his large hand on my son’s small one, and guided him into making a few lines. Another woodcarver gave my daughter an intricately carved wooden fish.


If you continue to walk along the main square, you find the entrance into a courtyard around which is built the restored Trevnensko School, constructed in 1836, one of the earliest secular schools in Bulgaria. There is a carefully preserved 19th-century classroom with its rows of seats and writing systems designed for all levels of learners. The first row’s long sandbox allowed the youngest children to practice drawing the letters with their fingers and then to “erase” them by pulling a thin, flat piece of wood over the sand to smooth it once again. The slates and chalk in the middle rows were used by children who had advanced to practicing words. The last rows were equipped with paper, quills and inkwells for the most advanced students. Exhibited also are the wooden signs with thin metal chains for children to wear around their necks, largely of the “dunce” variety, so as to publicly display their performance or conduct.

“Your Coffee on Sand” announces a wood-carved sign above a café on the main square—and yes, there is plenty more to Triavna than the main square. By coffee, Bulgarians do not mean the American version of eight ounces or so of black coffee, which they refer to by the pseudo-German шварц кафе (schwarzer Kaffee). Bulgarians generally drink expresso or Turkish coffee. And when they order Turkish coffee, they expect it to be made in a traditional джезве (jezve), the Turkish small copper coffeepot with the long wooden handle (Turkish Coffee Pot with Medal Handling Ideal for 2 Turkish Coffee Cup Size). With 500 years under the Ottoman Empire, Bulgarians developed a similar coffeehouse culture that still exists today.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the golden age of the Ottoman Empire occurred just as coffee had become an empire-wide phenomenon. Muslim legal scholars grew concerned about the obvious stimulatory properties, and an addiction that was indulged by sultans and commoners alike.

They extended the Koranic ban on intoxicants to coffee, but coffee drinking went on apace as sultans and peasants alike imbibed. By the 17th century, famed Ottoman travel writer Evliya Çelebi (An Ottoman Traveller: Selections from the Book of Travels of Evliya Celebi) could describe coffeehouses that served up to 1000 patrons, though as a devout Muslim himself he professed to having never tasted so much as a drop.

Mark Pendergrast in his Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World highlights the observation of another traveler of the same period, British poet Sir George Sandys. Sir George spent a year traveling in Turkey, Egypt and Palestine; the Turks, he found, sat drinking their coffee and “chatting most of the day.” My husband and I have long noticed the proclivity of Bulgarians to do the same, enjoying what most Americans would consider the great luxury of unscheduled and unhurried time with friends while paradoxically complaining all the while about the poor standard of living under which fate has compelled them to live.

The various Ottoman bans on coffee were perhaps more particularly on coffeehouses; they fostered gatherings of people who could well be stimulating social upheaval and controversy, and not merely stimulating themselves. The sultans may have enjoyed drinking coffee in the confines of Istanbul’s famed Topkapi Palace, but they worried that the establishments serving the drink to the public undermined social order and security. In a classic “nihil novi sub sole” (“there is nothing new under the sun”), the Communists had a similar reservation. My husband recalls that when longtime head of the KGB Yuri Andropov became General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Bulgarian police entered cafés and demanded of patrons “Why aren’t you at work?”

To make Turkish coffee today, the coffee beans must be ground to a very fine powder and added to the water (with sugar if desired). To give a start to the froth, one stirs without touching the bottom of the джезве until the coffee sinks (and the sugar is dissolved). The джезве is then slowly heated but never boiled; one keeps stirring from the outside in to gather the froth in the middle. As soon as small bubbles form and the froth begins to rise, the джезве is removed from the heat. The rising of the froth and the consequent immediate removal from the heat is repeated an additional two times and poured into a cup to be drunk slowly once the coffee grounds have sunk to the cup’s bottom.

At home, we just put our джезве on a conventional burner on the stove, but one traditional method is to place a tray filled with sand over a burner or other heat source. At “Your Coffee on Sand,” there was a large black metal curl-footed barrel. A metal tray some 4-5 inches deep was set into the open top and filled with hot sand, ready to gently heat one’s Turkish coffee, and allow for the optimum amount of foam while eliminating the possibility of any burnt flavor. Following his cousin’s recommendation, my husband ordered a Turkish coffee “on sand” and informed the children that now was a perfect time to run around the square and play. We sat at the outdoor tables watching them at a distance sufficient to allow both responsible oversight and an inability to hear any potential squabbling. Possibly the sultans did not enjoy a more pleasant day in the Topkapi Palace than we did in in Triavna.