You may write about us if you wish, but please do not try to prove we are Bulgarian." The speaker is Ali, a 37-year-old unemployed bus driver from Sveta Petka, a village of 3000 inhabitants perched on a windswept peak high in the Rhodope Mountains. Ali is speaking Bulgarian, the only language spoken in Sveta Petka. Neither he nor his fellow villagers speak Turkish, the language of Bulgaria's largest Muslim ethnic group. Yet to visitors, Ali first describes himself and the people of Sveta Petka as Turks. After repeated inquiries, he simply says: "We are Muslims, nothing more, nothing less—and there are no differences among Muslims."
Ali's reticence is understandable. Sveta Petka and scores of villages in the Western and Central Rhodope Mountains are inhabited by a people some call Pomaks: Bulgarian-speaking Muslims whose forebears accepted Islam during the centuries following the Ottoman conquest, and whose Muslim faith and Bulgarian roots have brought them recent harassment and persecution.
The origin of Bulgarian-speaking Muslims puzzles the country's historians and ethnologists, who wonder why, under Ottoman rule, some Bulgarians accepted Islam while the great majority did not. Theories abound. Some hold that Christianity never developed a strong grip high in the Rhodope Mountains. Others hypothesize that the Rhodopes—like Bosnia—were once home to adherents of Bogomilism, an anti-authoritarian Christian heresy, native to Bulgaria, and that the Bogomils embraced Islam en masse in reaction to persecution by church authorities and secular rulers. Still others look to intermarriage among Turkish Muslims and the native Bulgarians among whom they settled.
Margarita Karamikhova of the Bulgarian Institute of Ethnology explains that economics also played a role in motivating undetermined numbers of Bulgarians to accept Islam. Under Ottoman rule, Muslims paid lower taxes than Christians or Jews, and initially enjoyed privileges as traders. Acceptance of Islam brought a rise in social status and the possibility of a future in the Ottoman military or bureaucracy, as well as the chance to start life anew.
A more sweeping explanation comes from a chance acquaintance in a tea house adjacent to an immense new mosque being built on an exposed plateau above the mountain village of Avramovo—a handsome and intense man who later proves to be the mufti of the Rhodope city of Smolyan. Referring to the Qur'an, he looks into the eyes of his inquirer and explains: "After reading this most perfect of books, nobody could resist accepting Islam."
Whatever the origin of Islam in Sveta Petka—and in scores of Bulgarian-speaking villages in the Rhodope Mountains and adjoining regions in Bulgaria, Northern Greece, and ex-Yugoslav Macedonia—the hospitality offered by Ali and his family is quintessentially Muslim. It is Ramadan and, despite their daytime fast, Ali and his family insist on serving
Sveta Petka is one of the most intensely religious Muslim villages in the Rhodope Mountains. Like most men in the village, Ali prays five times daily. He is proud that his son, Mehmet, age 11, is learning to read the Qur'an as well as pursuing his secular studies. Ali, who is one of three men in Sveta Petka trained to slaughter animals in accordance with Islamic law, will realize a lifelong dream later this year, when he joins an excursion of Bulgarian Muslims on the pilgrimage to Makkah, becoming one of the first residents in the recent history of Sveta Petka to perform the Hajj.
From the 1970's until only three and a half years ago, it was not easy to be a Muslim in Sveta Petka. The regime of former party boss Todor Zhivkov attempted to "reclaim" Bulgarian Muslims from the ostensibly forced conversion of their ancestors. The mosque was closed, residents were forced to adopt Christian names, and overnight the village—originally called Lutovo—was re-dubbed Sveta Petka, after the medieval patron saint of the Bulgarian nation.
For almost two decades, circumcision was forbidden in Sveta Petka, as was the celebration of Muslim holy days. Soldiers and militiamen patrolled the streets to ensure that prohibitions were enforced, and in neighboring villages protesters were shot. Women were forbidden to wear their traditional dress of loose-fitting pantaloons under skirts or embroidered aprons; those refusing to aban don traditional attire were ejected from rural buses. Many chose to walk 10 or 20 kilometers to and from work or school each day rather than compromise Muslim codes of modest dress.
Today, the events of the past 20 years seem like a bad dream. Islam was strong enough to survive in Sveta Petka. The village's own imam, together with a second imam from abroad, leads prayers and instructs the young. Ali and his fellow villagers express no ill-will towards their Christian compatriots. They are too preoccupied with the problems and joys of daily life, the soaring unemployment that effects Muslims and Christians alike, and their preparations for weddings and feasts, high points of life in rural Bulgaria.
It is difficult to estimate the exact number of Bulgarian-speaking Muslims in the Balkans today. Preliminary results of Bulgaria's latest census place the country's ethnic-Bulgarian Muslim population at 250,000 or more but, according to Ilona Tomova of the President's Office for Minority Affairs, the precise number can only be guessed. Muslims, like all Bulgarians, now enjoy the freedom to identify their ethnicity and religion as they wish; some hide them in reaction to past persecution in their own country and the present events in nearby Bosnia, others make a point of their separateness.
According to Tomova, "In the Western Rhodopes, where Bulgarian Muslims live among Bulgarian Christians, they refer to themselves as Turks; in the Eastern Rhodopes, where they are surrounded by ethnic Turks, they stress their identity as Bulgarians."
Despite the strength of their beliefs, Bulgarian Muslims are caught between two worlds—that of the Bulgarian Christians to whom they are related linguistically and that of their ethnic-Turkish fellow Muslims. To complicate matters further, the arrival in the Rhodopes of Muslim teachers from Turkey, North Africa, and the Middle East gnaws away at local customs, even while strengthening the religious identification of Bulgarian-speaking Muslims.
This article appeared on pages 20-29 of the May/June 1994 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.