For travelers drawn to the cradles of civilization, Bulgaria offers a good alternative to the crowds of Greece. One can revel in the Greek and Roman occupations that followed the Thracians. Moreover, while civilization was having a rough go later on in the western Roman empire, matters were quite different in the eastern Roman Empire, or what we now call the Byzantine Empire, and examples of Byzantine art and architecture are abundant in Bulgaria. Early, Middle, and Late Byzantine churches can all be found in the coastal town of Nesebar (Mesambria). The Old Metropolitan was likely built during or shortly after the reign of Justinian (Early Byzantine), the Church of St. John the Baptist around 1000 (Middle), and St. John Aleiturgitos around 1525 (Late). All of these are within a few blocks of each other.

One of the highlights of Bulgaria is Backova monastery, a few miles outside of Plovdiv, which is in the middle of the country. The foundations of some of the buildings were laid in the 11th century, and as is so often the case, situated in beautiful mountainous surroundings. The founder was a naturalized Armenian from Georgia and either Quarter Master General or else Commander-in- Chief in the Byzantine army. His name is rendered variously as Gregori Pakourianos, Boukiani, or Bakuriani. Although business in the empire was transacted in Greek, Bakuriani insisted that Georgian be the language of the liturgy and even of everyday use. Furthermore, no Greek person was to be admitted to the community.

Inside the enceinte, or surrounding fortress-like walls, sits the small cathedral which was built in the 16th century. Its pattern is cross-in-square, unusual in Bulgaria I am told, with a dome over the crossing supported by four pillars. Coming out of the church I saw a monk and asked, through the two students of English from Plovdiv who accompanied me, if I could take a picture of him, to which he assented. They explained to him that I could not speak Bulgarian and he asked if I spoke German. We chatted a bit in my limited German, and he told me there were about ten monks living there at the time.

A bit later I met another of them who turned out to be quite a card. He said he came to Backova when he was 37 and very ill. He took no pills, but was made well by Christ’s Mother. He said he had had numerous visions of her, so many that the other monks scolded him for always praying to her and not to Christ. He also said he was the most photographed monk, although not the best known. Both monks had long black and gray beards, but the second one was the more exotic-looking. Once he began talking, the second monk told us many things. One of their monks, he said, had been seeing women, but God punished him—he was killed in a car wreck. We had also noticed a very slender woman dressed all in black sitting with the abbot on a bench. The second monk told us that she was a poet and artist who stayed here, but was so sensitive that she would not show anyone her work.

What makes the 16th-century date for the building of the cathedral especially noteworthy is that it occurred after the “messengers of God,” the Muslim Ottoman Turks, invaded the country in the 14th century and ruled Bulgarians until 1878. In general the Turks were not enthusiastic about encouraging Christians or church-building, but during a respite, they permitted this one at Backova. Several Bulgarians told me that Christian churches during the period had to be built so that the cross on top was not noticeable, and that was why some church floors were below ground level.

Prior to the Turkish invasion, during what is known as the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1393), Bulgaria had been weakened by almost constant warfare. The Tartars invaded and briefly ruled; later, the Bulgarians had to face simultaneously the Serbs and the Turks. All the war-making led to the increased power of local barons, which in turn led to weak central authority incapable of defense against the ultimate Turkish threat. In 1564 Plovdiv (Philippopolis) fell, and Sofia in 1585. And Bulgarian identity faded into deep shadows.

My two student friends drove me north of Plovdiv to Sopot, the former home of Bulgaria’s most famous writer, Ivan Vazov. Besides being a poet, he wrote the classic Bulgarian novel Under the Yoke, which is set in preliberation times and dramatizes life under the Turks. Not far from Sopot is Kariovo, the hometown of the country’s national hero, Vasil Levski. Levski, who helped organize the national uprising which tried to remove the Turkish yoke, was captured by the Ottoman police and hanged in Sofia.

Soon after the Turks were in full control, some Bulgarians were forcibly converted to the Muslim religion, and there were others who collaborated with the new masters (just as had happened in Serbia during this time). These were rewarded with posts in the administration. Many of these people, called Pomaks, lived in the Rhodope mountains. It was in these beautiful mountains that I was to have some of my most interesting experiences.

I had mentioned to my friend Ivo Hadjimishev, the Sega magazine photographer, that I would like to read something by a living writer and then interview him. Because I had heard from other Bulgarians about their anxiety regarding the current Pomak “problem,” Ivo suggested I read a book of stories called Wild Tales by Nikolai Haitov. Thus, as I moved about the country, in the evenings in my hotel rooms I read the stories, all set in the Rhodope mountains, some of them alluding to Pomaks.

Haitov, whom I subsequently interviewed, had been a forester in the Rhodopes and early on (the book was originally published in 1967) had witnessed the environmental damage caused by the government’s clearcutting policies. His stories are full of mountain humor and partly reflect the shepherd’s world that had existed for hundreds of years south of the Rhodopes and into what is now Greece. It is Haitov’s sense of mutability and fate that deepens the narratives, and for me is reflected in the Bulgarian consciousness as I know it, a consciousness mirroring the historical troubles of these people—invasions, occupations, an existence at the mercy of the neighboring empires, whether Roman, Ottoman, German, or Russian. Typical characters’ observations: “Something’s bound to happen if there’s too much laughter”; “Just an hour running away, and a lifetime trying to get back. And no matter how you try, it’s never any good. You never get back to where you first started”; “When your sorrows are too many to bear, it’s only the malice that keeps you going.” How Balkan, how Bulgarian!

Ivo picked me up in Plovdiv one morning and we drove to Kurdzhali about 50 kilometers from the border of Greek Thrace, an area also populated by many Greek Muslims. We went to Kurdzhali to meet an Orthodox priest, but a very special one. He had once been a Pomak, but after being at the university, had converted to Christianity. He then returned to the heart of Pomak country and was essentially a missionary to the Muslims. When Ivo had first contacted Ivan Saruev, he said he was not sure he wanted to meet an American journalist, because Americans always sided with the Turks. He said he had to think about it. I mentioned that we were having our problems with Muslims, too, that our attitudes were more complex. The United States had suffered the Trade Center bombing, and the Reverend Farrakhan was meeting with our enemies in Libya for some walking around money for his mosque. Finally he agreed to meet with me.

As a matter of fact, my contact with Muslims had started in my hometown of Baton Rouge. In the 1980’s I attended the trial of nine Muslims who had come to teach the “blue-eyed devils” a thing or two, by blockading part of the city, permanently maiming a television journalist, and generally destroying that part of town. Probably they had counted on the Berkeley or Cambridge campus police, but our men in blue had not yet been to crisis management school and did not understand the routine. All nine of the brothers went to prison for a long time. Subsequently, I moved to a small university town in Missouri where the word “union” is not much heard of unless it’s the teachers’ union, and you can’t order a hamburger without mentioning the word “diversity.” Here I was greeted with Muslims demonstrating for Ayatollah Khomeini while Americans were held hostage in Iran.

Father Saruev had a muscular build, large hands, and long light-brown hair. We chatted in his modest house in a working neighborhood of town, and drank tea made from several herbs that he had gathered himself on his walks in the mountains. I asked him how he went about his work, right in the middle of Muslim country, and how successful he was. He said he was reasonably successful, considering he was a voice crying out in the wilderness. One thing the communists had done in Bulgaria was educate all classes, including the Gypsies and the Turks. Because of this, they knew about Bulgarian Christian culture, and they knew that the Church had held Bulgarians together after they had been made inferior subjects of the Turks. With this historical background. Father Saruev visits their homes and organizes meetings. One problem is the scarcity of priests. “We need 12,000 to 14,000 priests in Bulgaria and we have only 2,000.” He has converted some men to the priesthood and they have built a new church, besides the one that was next to his home.

I asked how the Muslims were reacting to this; he smiled, and said the hodjas say he is Enemy Number One. For the moment he is tolerated. I had heard that Turkey was giving help to the Bulgarian Turks, and asked if this was so. “Absolutely. Bulgarian TV is very weak because of the signal over the mountains, and Muslims are helped with their satellite dishes, which cost around $120 for them. They only listen to Turkish TV.” But it is not just Turkish help. Missionaries are coming from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, and Egypt. “They are trying to isolate the Christians.” Furthermore, Turkey is stopping its policy of letting Muslim Turks freely emigrate there. At first I thought he meant that Turkey felt it had enough problems without more people, but that was not what was guiding their policy. They wanted to have strong Turkish contingents in other countries. Then the drumbeat could begin for “autonomy.” This has already happened across the border in Grecian Thrace. What this can easily lead to, of course, is an excuse to “rescue” their brothers from the oppressors.

During our conversation, Father Saruev mentioned that Valya Balkanska had sung at some of his meetings. Ivo explained to me that she was perhaps the most famous folk singer in Bulgaria and had sung for the state folk group for 30 years. We made arrangements to meet her in Smoljan, which was even closer to the Greek border. The drive through the Rhodopes was breathtaking, and Ivo stopped several times to take pictures. We stopped for coffee in a small town that looked completely Turkish, as was our coffee. Outside I heard the muezzin announce the call to prayer, but noticed that the men hanging about in the street made no motion to answer it.

In Smolyan, Ivo pointed out the mountain that Orpheus reputedly had inhabited, an appropriate place for a folk singer to live near. Valya Balkanska looked to be in her 50’s, and her hands showed she was accustomed to manual work. She said that her retirement from the state was only 5,000 leva a month (perhaps ten dollars), and she raised a few sheep and cattle at her small mountain farm in order to survive. She said she had converted to Christianity in 1960. For the second time I heard about foreign Muslim missionaries. She said they stood outside the public schools and handed out Muslim literature. (Incidentally, Carl Sagan had chosen from 1,500 submissions a song sung by her to be representative of mankind’s strivings after knowledge to go with Voyager I and Voyager 2—it’s called “Delyu the Rebel.”) Other songs that I listened to later included the Bulgarian bagpipe, eerily like that of my own Celtic ancestors; the Celts had made it to Bulgaria in the third century B.C.

On the way back to Sofia, Ivo and I stopped at Batak, where in 1876 Muslim converts slaughtered 5,000 Christians. Today the skulls and bones can be seen in St. Nedelva’s Church. Of course, in 1986 the Bulgarians were kicking around the Pomaks, for example back in Kurdzhali. But that’s another Balkan story. The Christian-Muslim conflict is not one that is going to remain remote for Americans, much less for Bulgarians. Already we are seeing this. Unless there can be much clarification about the relationship through dialogue and political action, this conflict will be contested by force of arms. Just as the United States should insist on parity and reciprocity in our trade with Japan, Christians and Jews must insist on parity and reciprocity with Muslims. It’s not enough for a Muslim college professor in the United States to point out a message of brotherhood in the Koran, when “brotherhood” means only Muslims. What does it mean in the Koran to say, “O you who believe, fight the unbelievers who are near to you,” or “Believers! Do not take Jews and Christians for friends”? “Sure they are unbelievers who allege that God is the third of three.” What about the chaplains in Kuwait who were forbidden to show any sign of a cross while we were there, even if incidentally, to save them from annihilation? h: order to take each other’s traditions seriously, each must believe there may be elements in the other’s tradition that he can use to understand experiences foreign to him and that he may even be able to incorporate into his own. As things are, religions will remain the servants of politicians and the state, the skin of the war drum. Killing your neighbor may be necessary from time to time, but it is unmanly to use God as an excuse.

I was to make one more swing through part of the south, the first leg to the Rila Monastery, a national shrine to Bulgarians and a necessary pilgrimage for every visitor. Built first in the 10th century and ravaged many times, it was virtually destroyed in the 19th century, and what you see is a restoration. Here and elsewhere in Bulgaria, I was reminded how popular St. George was, represented in frescos and icons: the patron saint of soldiers, which is especially meaningful in the Balkans. King Boris III, monarch until 1945, is buried here. His son King Simeon currently lives in Spain, but has returned recently to visit his father’s grave.

Back in Sofia, I did something I said I was not going to do: I ate at the new McDonald’s. Feeling rushed, I raced in, and before I could pick up my order, the young man waiting on me asked how he could get to the States. Back in Plovdiv, the two university students talked with pessimism about their chances of getting work when they graduated. One of them had already been to Germany working as a manual laborer. As many as can leave to find work, to escape the economic and social hard times. This has happened before, following the collapse of the Second Bulgarian Empire, after the Ottoman collapse (a period know n as kurdjaliiatvo), and now after the communist collapse. Every time, local freebooters have stepped into the vacuum, and during their feuding and pillaging, people have gone to Rumania, to southern Russia, and now, even to the United States. Often these people, especially the younger ones, returned to help restore the country later on. Even now, the university students of Sofia arc demonstrating in the streets before Parliament for a new government. Maybe their ciders will listen and take the high road. Maybe not.