My first postcard from Bulgaria was a swap arranged through a Facebook group that arrived in just over two weeks. It is, indeed, a colorful card with Bulgarians wearing national costumes overlaid on a map of the country.
The Republic of Bulgaria (Република България, or Republika Bǎlgariya), is a country in southeastern Europe bordered by Romania to the north, Serbia and Macedonia to the west, Greece and Turkey to the south, and the Black Sea to the east. With a territory of 42,855 square miles (110,994 square kilometers), Bulgaria is Europe’s 16th-largest country.
Organised prehistoric cultures began developing on current Bulgarian lands during the Neolithic period. Its ancient history saw the presence of the Thracians, Greeks and Romans. The emergence of a unified Bulgarian state dates back to the establishment of the First Bulgarian Empire in 681 AD, which dominated most of the Balkans and functioned as a cultural hub for Slavs during the Middle Ages. With the downfall of the Second Bulgarian Empire in 1396, its territories came under Ottoman rule for nearly five centuries. The Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78 led to the formation of the Third Bulgarian State. The following years saw several conflicts with its neighbors, which prompted Bulgaria to align with Germany in both world wars. In 1946, it became a one-party socialist state as part of the Soviet-led Eastern Bloc. In December 1989, the ruling Communist Party allowed multi-party elections, which subsequently led to Bulgaria’s transition into a democracy and a market-based economy.
Bulgaria’s population of 7.4 million people is predominantly urbanized and mainly concentrated in the administrative centers of its 28 provinces. Most commercial and cultural activities are centered on the capital and largest city, Sofia (София). The strongest sectors of the economy are heavy industry, power engineering, and agriculture, all of which rely on local natural resources.
The country’s current political structure dates to the adoption of a democratic constitution in 1991. Bulgaria is a unitary parliamentary republic with a high degree of political, administrative, and economic centralization. It is a member of the European Union, NATO, and the Council of Europe; a founding state of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE); and has taken a seat at the UN Security Council three times.
Traditional Bulgarian culture contains mainly Thracian, Slavic and Bulgar heritage, along with Greek, Roman, Ottoman, Persian and Celtic influences. Nine historical and natural objects have been inscribed in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the Madara Rider, the Thracian tombs in Sveshtari and Kazanlak, the Boyana Church, the Rila Monastery, the Rock-hewn Churches of Ivanovo, Pirin National Park, Sreburna Nature Reserve and the ancient city of Nesebar. Nestinarstvo, a ritual fire-dance of Thracian origin, is included in the list of UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. Fire is an essential element of Bulgarian folklore, used to banish evil spirits and diseases.
Bulgarian folklore personifies illnesses as witches and has a wide range of creatures, including lamya, samodiva (veela) and karakondzhul. Some of the customs and rituals against these spirits have survived and are still practiced, most notably the kukeri and survakari. Martenitsa is also widely celebrated.
Slavic culture was centered in both the First and Second Bulgarian Empires during much of the Middle Ages. The Preslav, Ohrid and Tarnovo literary schools exerted considerable cultural influence over the Eastern Orthodox world. Many languages in Eastern Europe and Asia use Cyrillic script, which originated in the Preslav Literary School around the nineth century. The medieval advancement in the arts and letters ended with the Ottoman conquest when many masterpieces were destroyed, and artistic activities did not re-emerge until the National Revival in the nineteenth century. After the Liberation, Bulgarian literature quickly adopted European literary styles such as Romanticism and Symbolism. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, several Bulgarian authors, such as Ivan Vazov, Pencho Slaveykov, Peyo Yavorov, Yordan Radichkov and Tzvetan Todorov have gained prominence. In 1981, Bulgarian-born writer Elias Canetti was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Bulgarian folk music is by far the most extensive traditional art and has slowly developed throughout the ages as a fusion of Eastern and Western influences. It contains Far Eastern, Oriental, medieval Eastern Orthodox and standard Western European tonalities and modes. The music has a distinctive sound and uses a wide range of traditional instruments, such as gadulka, gaida (bagpipe), kaval and tupan. One of its most distinguishing features is extended rhythmical time, which has no equivalent in the rest of European music. The State Television Female Vocal Choir is the most famous performing folk ensemble, and received a Grammy Award in 1990. Bulgaria’s written musical composition can be traced back to the early Middle Ages and the works of Yoan Kukuzel (c. 1280–1360). Classical music, opera and ballet are represented by composers Emanuil Manolov, Pancho Vladigerov and Georgi Atanasov and singers Ghena Dimitrova, Boris Hristov and Nikolay Gyaurov. Bulgarian performers have gained popularity in several other genres like progressive rock (FSB), electropop (Mira Aroyo) and jazz (Milcho Leviev).
The religious visual arts heritage includes frescoes, murals and icons, many produced by the medieval Tarnovo Artistic School. Vladimir Dimitrov, Nikolay Diulgheroff and Christo are some of the most famous modern Bulgarian artists. The film industry remains weak: in 2010, Bulgaria produced three feature films and two documentaries with public funding. Cultural events are advertised in the largest media outlets, including the Bulgarian National Radio, and daily newspapers Dneven Trud, Dnevnik and 24 Chasa.
While major sections of Bulgaria’s media are controlled by state entities, including Bulgarian National Television, the Bulgarian National Radio, and the Bulgarian Telegraph Agency, reporting is generally deemed to be unbiased by direct government interference, although there is no specific legislation to maintain this. Written media has no legal restrictions, and a large number of private television and radio stations also exist. Despite this, traditional Bulgarian media outlets are experiencing negative economic and political pressures, and instances of self-censorship have emerged. Meanwhile, internet media is growing in popularity due to its lack of censorship and the diversity of content and opinions it presents.
Bulgarian cuisine is similar to those of other Balkan countries and demonstrates a strong Turkish and Greek influence. Yogurt, lukanka, banitsa, shopska salad, lyutenitsa and kozunak are among the best-known local foods. Oriental dishes such as moussaka, gyuvech, and baklava are also present. Meat consumption is lower than the European average, given a notable preference for a large variety of salads. Rakia is a traditional fruit brandy which was consumed in Bulgaria as early as the fourteenth century. Bulgarian wine is known for its Traminer, Muskat and Mavrud types, of which up to 200,000 tonnes are produced annually. Until 1989, Bulgaria was the world’s second-largest wine exporter.