The Southeastern tip of Bulgaria and the European Union – Mount Strandzha – is a remote, godforsaken place even by Bulgarian standards. This mountain forms border between Bulgaria and Turkey, and its hills gently descend to the shores of the Black Sea to the East. Yet, full of history, mysteries, and undestroyed natural beauty, it is one of the most promising places in Europe for a visitor curious for unexplored treasures.
This is one of the rare places, where honey bees can feed on ecologically oak woods and produce one of the most precious varieties of honey. Just several kilometers away from the beaches and tourist villages of the Black Sea, one enters a land where rare birds and turtles live undisturbed, as hundreds of years ago. Strandzha even has its symbol – a plant called zelenika – which lives only in this area.
Thousands of years before Christ, this was the territory of one of the numerous principalities of the Thracians – the northern neighbours of the Greeks. One can still visit the sacred sites of the Tini and Asti – the two Thracian tribes that lived in Strandzha: stone structures of megalithic architecture reminding Stonehenge; springs still venerated today; and the burial places of Thracian princes around the town of Malko Tarnovo. The three adjacent mountains – Strandzha, Sakar and the Rhodops formed the gateway through which homo sapiens and waves of ancient civilizations entered Europe.
Strandzha always displayed a strong spirit of dissidence, even if situated just a day ride on a horseback from Constantinople, the capital of the world’s Christian and then Muslim empires. An expression of this spirit is a custom inherited from the ancient dwellers of this mountain: the nestinarski dances on red-hot charcoal. The ritual is performed each year on 3 June – the day of the Saints Constantine and Elena – the Emperor who imposed tolerance to Christianity in the Roman Empire and his pious mother. Yet the roots of the rite go deep back into the Thracian past, when the ritual was most probably dedicated to the veneration of the Thracian Mother Goddess Bendida. In those times, it was the local Thracian king, who was also the chief priest, who performed the dance in a state of trance, while his subjects observed him with awe. The emperors and patriarchs of Constantinople considered the rite heretic – a manifestation of the pagan past – and unsuccessfully tried to eradicate it.
Under the Ottoman Empire, the local population in northern Strandzha managed to negotiate a local self-rule called hasekiya – a rare case in the Ottoman Empire. In the mid-nineteenth century, in order to underline their autonomy from the imperial power and the Phanariote Patriarchate in Istanbul, the population of many Bulgarian towns, including Malko Tarnovo – the main town of northern Strandzha – signed a union with the Roman Pope, recognizing his supremacy, but keeping their Orthodox rites. The Uniate (Eastern Catholic) church stands in the centre of Malko Tarnovo, where until recently served a Polish priest.