Sunday, 30 September 2012

Balkania Pt. 9: And the Tsar, he chose a heavenly kingdom…

world-map nisGreetings!

Once again, another bumper month for Uncle Travelling Matt with ‘Balkania’ proving to be continually popular. In this week’s excerpt, I visit Serbia for the first (or second…) time and discover how battles fought over half a millennium ago can still affect the politics of today.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

My Flickr album of this trip

Index and links to all the parts of Balkania:

Balkania Pt. 1: Sofia to Varna

Balkania Pt. 2: A Drink in Varna

Balkania Pt. 3: Wedding Bells in Varna (unpublished)

Balkania Pt. 4: A Trip to Tutrakan: Tales of Devotion and Despair

Balkania Pt. 5: Of Love, Lust and the Nation (unpublished)

Balkania Pt. 6: Back to School

Balkania Pt. 7: On a Mission

Balkania Pt. 8: The City of Wisdom?

Balkania Pt. 9: And the Tsar, he chose a heavenly kingdom…

Balkania Pt. 10: The Bridge over the Drina

Balkania Pt. 11: The Death-Drenched Drina

Balkania Pt. 12: Jerusalem of the Balkans

Balkania Pt. 13: A City Under Siege

Balkania Pt. 14: Austrian Influences

Balkania Pt. 15: Along the Bosna Valley

Balkania Pt. 16: Under the Airport and over the Mountains

Balkania Pt. 17: A Day Trip with Miran

Balkania Pt. 18: The City of the Broken Bridge

Balkania Pt. 19: Up the Black Mountain

Balkania Pt. 20: Worth the Bones of a Pomeranian Grenadier…?




Some fifteen minutes or so after passing the mighty monument of Slivnitsa, I crossed over the border into a country that I had never before visited, Serbia.

Or did I? In the Balkans such simplicities as knowing whether one has been to a country or not can get very complicated. I certainly didn’t have a Serbian stamp in my passport but the border guard who checked out that document was none to happy with one of the other stamps in there. She took out her biro and purposefully crossed it out before then writing the word ‘Poništeno’ in bold blue letters underneath.

The stamp was that issued by the Republic of Kosova and ‘Poništeno’ means ‘does not exist’.

But Kosova does exist; I know so because I’ve been there. I’ve drank in its cafés, prayed in its churches and slept in its hotels. No, the problem that this female enforcer of the law had that whilst Kosova – or ‘Kosovo’ – does exist, in her opinion – and that of the government that she represents – the Albanian-dominated independent Republic of Kosova does not. To her and to all Serbs, Kosova was, is and always will be an integral part of Serbia.

This is an issue that the Serbs feel very seriously about. They fought – and lost – a war against NATO in 1999 over it. And to be fair, they do have some support for their stance. According to the UN, Kosova still is a part of Serbia – albeit under the administration of the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). And why does the UN not recognise this new nation that declared its independence to the world in 2008? Well, because less than half of its members do, far less than half in fact, only 87 out of 193.[1]

The moment that I’d boarded the train back in Sofia, I’d sensed a different atmosphere in the air and that atmosphere was a far more menacing one than on the laid-back Bulgarian trains. In addition to the Ratko Mladić stickers on the doors and windows, I found myself to be the only passenger on board not from the Former Yugoslavia. Plenty of Serbs go to Bulgaria these days it seems, but those visits are not reciprocated. The air was thick with the sounds of Serbo-Croat and I felt alien; that language is quite similar to Bulgarian and I can understand bits and conduct simple conversation, but speak it I do not.

The majority of my fellow passengers were returning from Istanbul where they’d been shopping. None of the infamous Serb intolerance towards Muslims was evident here; instead all the talk was of how good the shopping had been. Two men however, stood apart from the chattering disciples of commerce. One was a wrestler lookalike who looked like he’d just left Mladić’s militia. He sat across from me, unsmiling and impassive. The other was the opposite; a thin, wiry man who darted from compartment to compartment secreting a variety of bags and boxes filled with feta cheese wherever he could. He was nervous and joking and referred to by one of the conductors as a ‘Makedonski pederast’.[2] During the stowing of one bag on a luggage rack above me, he got into conversation with one of the matrons returning from Turkey. “Are you Bulgarian?” she asked cheerily.

“Yes, I’m from Macedonia.”

The man mountain in the corner looked up and snarled. “Macedonia is Serbian territory; you are Serb.”

“Err, yes, you are right,” said he concerned about Customs before retreating to the corridor. An uneasy atmosphere settled over the compartment and I realised that some Serbs were missing more than just Kosova.

The countryside that we passed through en route to Niš, Serbia’s second city and my destination for the night was beautiful but largely empty. Very few dwellings or other signs of humanity could be seen and I wondered why the Serbs were so desperate for more land when they clearly weren’t filling that which they had already. But when humanity did intrude, like in the other parts of the former Yugoslavia that I’ve visited, it was very different in architecture and character to Bulgaria. Gone were the tat the greys of Soviet-style communism and in their place something altogether more Mitteleuropean.

When I got to Niš there were no banks, no taxis and no hotels near the railway station. Eventually I managed to hail a taxi that took me to a bank to get some of the national currency and then to a cheap hotel that turned out to be full (of prostitutes). The taxi driver had impressed upon me that this hotel was the best as it was near to the bus station but seeing that it was full, he instead took me to one several miles away that actually was near to the bus station and cost only 2,000 dinars per night. The driver then tried to screw me over by insisting that the 415 on the meter actually meant 4,150 dinars but after a brief exchange of Slavic obscenities, I threw him 1,000 and he left. Thankfully, that was the only time on the entire trip that someone attempted to scam me.

After depositing my bags I set out to explore Serbia’s second city. Niš is not on any tourist route, it is very much a working city with bustling shopping streets. I found a restaurant and dined on Serbian fare – peppers with yoghurt and then Karađorđe’s Schnitzel, a kind of veal schnitzel stuffed with cheese that is named after Karađorđe Petrović, a rebel who fought the Turks and before being killed by one of his comrades back in 1817.

After dining I continued my walk through the streets and came across a rather strange procession which I have been able to find no reason for during subsequent researches. Marching down the street was a smartly-attired military brass band accompanied by four young couples dressed in old-fashioned, (i.e. pre World War II), wedding costume. Whatever the reasons, it certainly was a spectacle, not just for me but also for the shoppers and other passers-by so I followed them down the street and when they got to the main square, I hailed a taxi and headed off for Niš’ main tourist draw card: the Skull Tower.

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Strange procession, Niš

On the 31st May, 1809, on Čegar Hill, a few kilometres from Niš, the Ottomans inflicted a crushing defeat on the Serbian rebels during the First Serbian Uprising (1804-13). The battle was ended when the Serbian commander, Stevan Sinđelić fired at the gunpowder depot killing himself and all his men but taken thousands of Turks down with him in the process. After the battle, the Ottoman commander, Hurshid Pasha, was so enraged that he had all the heads of the killed Serbs cemented into a tower by the side of the main road as a warning to all those who might think about rebelling again in the future.

The tower stood in the open-air and many of the skulls disappeared or fell off, but after the liberation of Niš in 1878 donations were collected from all over Serbia and a chapel was built over it. And that’s what I saw that day; a small square chapel with a weathered pile of stones and mortar inside that still had a few dozen skulls gruesomely attached.

Equally interesting was round the back of the skull tower, a car park full of old military ambulances. What were they doing there? Unwanted relics from the many recent wars? I would of course, never find out the answer.

The taxi took me back into the centre of Niš and after alighting in the main square and admiring the incredible war memorial with bass reliefs of Serbian soldiers fighting during World War I, I walked over the Nišava River to spend the evening in the city’s other major attraction, the Niš Fortress.

But before I entered through the fortress’ imposing gateway, I crossed the road to a small monument by the river. It commemorated the ‘Civilian Victims of 1999’ and was a memorial to all those who had lost their lives when NATO bombed the city during the Kosova Conflict, in particular the many who died during the cluster bombing of Niš on May the 7th.[3] I looked through the long list of names and saw one, a boy called Sasho who was exactly my age. I thought back to then – I was only twenty-two and had experienced so little of life – and I felt sick. What made this more challenging you see, was that the 1999 conflict was a war that I had supported, indeed argued for long before most people in Britain had even heard of Kosova. Normally, one looks at war memorials and monuments, be they recent or from the distant past, with a level of detachment. Yes, it was a tragedy that people had been killed and had suffered, but it was nothing to do with me. I hadn’t fought, I hadn’t even agreed to it and indeed, in many cases, (e.g. Iraq and Afghanistan), I had actively disagreed and campaigned against the actions. This however, was different; I had agreed to Kosova and these raids had been a part of that intervention. In a small way, I was responsible for the death of that boy who has never had the chance to grow old that I have had. What gave me the right to wield such power? And had I wielded it correctly or should I, like so many others, have argued against going into Kosova?

It’s a difficult one and this was not the first time that I’d been forced to mull over it. Two years before I visited Kosova itself and in Prizren, the country’s historical heart, I’d seen the churches and houses of Serbs that had been abandoned and burnt out during the ethnic riots of 2003 when the Albanians had attacked their Serbian neighbours.[4] They would never have been able to commit such mindless, pointless, bigoted vandalism had NATO not have kicked the Serbian military forces out for them. But then again, the city’s beautiful mosques might not have still been standing, or perhaps vandalised like the one that I’d seen earlier in Niš, boarded up, its minaret reduced to a stump. And when I had visited the museum dedicated to the League of Prizren, the first manifestation of Albanian nationalism, I discovered that the building in which the League had first met was a brand-new rebuild; the original had been blown up by the Serbs just before they’d departed. In 1999 the indications had been that the Serbs had been preparing ethnic cleansing and mass murder in Kosova much as they had just finished in Bosnia. Was it worth the death of young Sasho to prevent such a tragedy? And would he understand if you could explain that argument to him?

Niš’ fortress was completed in the 18th century during the Ottoman heyday but was built on the site of earlier Roman, Byzantine and Mediæval forts. With over two kilometres of walls that are generally eight metres high and three metres thick, it is a stunning site to visit and a potent reminder that those parts were once far more Turkish than they are now. Through the main gate and one could easily have been in Anatolia or even Palestine. There were shops in former stables and a café in an old hamam that reminded me of a thousand and one nights and whilst I – and hundreds of locals who were milling around enjoying the balmy summer’s evening – rather liked it, the cultural chasm between such a scene and Central Europe only a couple of hundred miles away to the north was staggering. It was perhaps, no wonder that the Serbs and the Turks never really got on.

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Serbia or Syria? Inside Niš Fortress

I left the busy part of the fort where the cafés were and walked around its perimeter. I came across a beautiful but abandoned Ottoman mosque that again had only the sad stump of a minaret remaining whilst in the quieter spots amongst the trees, young lovers sat on the walls, holding hands, kissing or just sitting side by side.

The walls themselves were impressive. As I said, three metres thick and eight metres high and still complete too, they constituted one of the most imposing defensive structures that I’ve ever visited. At one point, at the rear of the fort, there was a long tunnel through them and at another some ruined poder houses that I had a good look around. Also near the back where the people were few and far between, I found some brilliant murals on a shed, a huge communist era Yugoslavian emblem and some Roman tombstones. Impressed and enjoying my Serbian sojurn, I retired to the café on the highest point of the fortifications for an evening drink, but by now it was dark and I was tired, so after a single juice, I walked back to my hotel to get some sleep before my journey onwards in the morning.

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Niš Fortress: Left to right: Minaret-less mosque; impressive walls, mural, Yugoslavian emblem

It was another early (6am) departure for Bosnia. I grabbed a window seat and watched Serbia go by. It is a noticeably different country to Bulgaria, wealthier in appearance and tidier plus the roads are better too although the trains, far worse.

We passed through the town of Kruševać where I saw signs for the fortress and I would have loved to have stopped awhile for Kruševać was the city of Prince Lazar and he is a man that every student of the Balkans in general and Serbia in particular needs to know about for, as Victoria Clark explains in her seminal work on Orthodoxy, ‘Why Angels Fall’:

Prince Lazar is a crucial piece in the jigsaw of the Serbian national psyche, but not so much because of anything he achieved in his lifetime. Although he founded this monastery, gave the monks of Mount Athos a precious camel-hair scrap of the Virgin’s girdle and mended a badly broken fence with the Patriarch in Constantinople by promising him that Serbia would not try to invade Byzantium again, Lazar was nothing like as gloriously effective a rule as Tsar Dušan. He is only important because the myths about him after his death were what turned the Serbs’ crushing defeat by the Ottomans at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 into a glorious spiritual victory. Prince Lazar is the key to understanding the Serbs’ deep conviction that, however many wars they may initiate, the remain a nation of victims and martyrs.[5]

Kruševać was where the Serbian army camped prior to the Battle of Kosovo and it was there too that Lazar’s queen, Milica, waited and legend states that in the tower of the fortress that still stands was where she heard of the Serbian defeat – and her husband’s death – from crows who had flown there from the battlefield.

Kosovo, Kosovo, Kosovo. One cannot understand Serbia without grasping the Battle of Kosovo Polje. 1389 is a year seared into the Serbian consciousness just as much as 1066 is into that of the English for in so many ways, Serbia is Kosovo. That battle, the great clash between the two superpowers of the day, the Christian Serbs and the Muslim Ottomans, decided the fate of the Balkan peninsula for five centuries or more. It was a battle not just between armies, but between worldviews, a spiritual struggle just as much as a military one. Many nations make great battles the lodestones of their national story, but only Serbia has chosen a defeat. And it has done so not because of the battle itself but because of the legends that grew up about it afterwards. It chose that battle because, in Serbian legend, that crushing defeat was in fact, the greatest of victories.

Prior to the battle Lazar was visited by a grey falcon carrying a sparrow in its beak that turned out not to be a sparrow at all, but a message from the mother of God in Jerusalem whilst the falcon was in fact the Prophet Elijah. What happened then is told in a famous piece of Serbian Epic Poetry called ‘Propast Carstva Srpskoga’ (‘The Fall of the Serbian Empire’):

From Jerusalem, the holy city,
Flying came a swift grey bird, a falcon,
And he carried in his beak a swallow.

But behold and see! ’Tis not a falcon,
’Tis the holy man of God, Elias,
And he does not bear with him a swallow,
But a letter from God's Holy Mother.
Lo, he bears the letter to
Drops it on the Tsar's knees from the heavens,
And thus speaks the letter to the monarch:
Tsar Lazar, thou Prince of noble lineage,
What wilt thou now choose to be thy kingdom?
Say, dost thou desire a heav’nly kingdom,
Or dost thou prefer an earthly kingdom?
If thou should’st now choose an earthly kingdom,
Knights may girdle swords and saddle horses,
Tighten saddle-girths and ride to battle--
You will charge the
Turks and crush their army!
But if thou prefer a heav’nly kingdom,
Build thyself a church upon Kossovo,
Let not the foundations be of marble,
Let them be of samite and of scarlet....
And to all thy warriors and their leaders
Thou shalt give the sacraments and orders,
For thine army shall most surely perish,
And thou too, shalt perish with thine army.”

When the Tsar had read the holy letter,
Ponder’d he, and ponder’d in this manner:
“Mighty God, what now shall this my choice be!
Shall I choose to have a heav’nly kingdom?
Shall I choose to have an earthly kingdom?
If I now should choose an earthly kingdom,
Lo, an earthly kingdom is but fleeting,
But God's kingdom shall endure for ever.”

And the Tsar he chose a heav’nly kingdom,
And he built a church upon Kossovo,--
Did not bring foundation stones of marble
But he brought pure samite there and scarlet;
Summon’d there the Patriarch of Serbia,
Summon’d there with him the twelve archbishops.
Thus he gave the warriors and their leaders
Holy Sacrament and battle orders.

But no sooner gave the Prince his orders
Than the Turkish hordes swept on Kossovo.
And the
Jug Bogdan leads there his army,
With his sons, the
Jugovitch--nine brothers,
His nine sons like nine grey keen-eyed falcons,
Each of them commands nine thousand warriors,
And the Jug Bogdan commands twelve thousand.

With the Turks they fight there and they struggle,
And they smite and slay there seven
When the eighth advances to the battle
Then doth Jug Bogdan, the old knight, perish,
With his sons the Jugovitch--nine brothers,
His nine sons like nine grey keen-eyed falcons,
And with them doth perish all their army.

Moved their army three Mernyachevichi:
Ban Uglyesha and Voyvoda Goïko,
And the third, the mighty
King Vukáshin;
And with each were thirty thousand warriors,
With the Turks do they there fight and struggle,
And they smite and slay eight Turkish pashas.
When the ninth advances to the battle
Then there perish two Mernyachevichi,
Ban Uglyesha and Voyvoda Goïko;
Many ugly wounds has King Vukáshin,
Turks and horses wade in blood above him,
And with him doth perish all his army.

Moved his army then Voyvoda Stefan;
And with him are many mighty warriors,
Many mighty warriors--sixty thousand.
With the Turks do they there fight and struggle,
And they smite and slay nine Turkish pashas.
When the tenth advances to the battle,
There doth perish the Voyvoda Stefan,
And with him doth perish all his army.

Then advances Tsar Lazar the Glorious,
With him moves a might host of Serbians,
Seven and seventy thousand chosen warriors.
They disperse the Turks upon Kossovo,
No time had the Turks to look upon them,
Still less time had they to stem the onslaught;
Tsar Lazar and all his mighty warriors
There had overwhelm’d the unbelievers,
But--the curse of God be on the traitor,
Vuk Brankovitch,--he left his kinsman,
He deserted him upon Kossovo:
And the Turks o’erwhelmed Lazar the Glorious,
And the Tsar fell on the field of battle;
And with him did perish all his army,
Seven and seventy thousand chosen warriors.

All was done with honour, all was holy,
God’s will was fulfilled upon Kossovo

So, in essence, Lazar was, like Christ before him, offered the choice between an earthly or a heavenly kingdom and rather than victory on the battlefield, he chose martyrdom and sainthood. He went into battle, just as Christ went to Gethsemane, knowing that he would lose, knowing that naught but death awaited him, and yet still he went. Furthermore:

The old legends say that on the night before the fated Kosovo defeat, Prince Lazar gathered twelve bishops and the Serbian Patriarch for a last holy communion in a tent church. A Last Supper with his knights, including the one who would betray him to the Turks, completed his identification with Jesus Christ, and the following morning he spurred his men to their doom with a stirring speech, about how ‘sufferings give birth to glory and toils lead to repose’.[7]

The identification with Christ was complete, even down to a treacherous disciple,[8] and so defeat came and with it Lazar’s death, but with that came his sanctification, his ascent to his heavenly kingdom, a place in Heaven for all those Serbs slain on the battlefield and a change for all time in the spiritual status of the Serbs as a nation. And that has had a devastating effect on the Serb mindset.

Just as Jesus Christ chose a humiliating death on the cross to win eternal life for man, so Prince Lazar chosen defeat at the hands of the Turks to win a sort of eternal Most Chosen Nation status for his people. Thereafter, through centuries of wars and humiliations, ‘Heavenly Serbia’ could perceive itself as living with the consequences of Prince Lazar’s agonizing decision. Betrayal, suffering and death were to be the Serbs’ lot on Earth, but also righteousness and resurrection. The country’s best-loved modern theologian, and spiritual father to four of its most politically active bishops until his death in 1979, reaffirmed the country’s Christ-like self-image: “Our national history is an eloquent proof of Christ’s resurrection and power” wrote Archmandrite Justin Popović, noting elsewhere that Serbs “have in all fateful moments of their history always preferred the heavenly to the earthly, the immortal to the mortal, the eternal to the transitory”.[9]

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Prince Lazar and the Battle of Kosovo in Serbian religious/nationalist imagery

Top Left: Lazar, after making his choice of a heavenly kingdom, steels himself with God’s help for the task ahead; Top Right: Lazar holds his Last Supper with his knights before the battle; Bottom Left: The souls of those killed in the battle are transported up to Heaven; Bottom Right: Lazar himself dies and is taken to Heaven by an angel.

Kosovo can be approached in many ways. Adopt a modern, purely historical approach and you will learn that much of the legend doesn’t actually add up. The Serbs, far from being the Christian defenders of Europe against the Islamic menace from the east, had actually spent much of the previous decades fighting against Byzantium, the main Orthodox power on earth and seat of the Patriarch, weakening it to such a point that the Byzantines had been forced to invite the Turks into the Balkans to counter the Serbian threat. One might say that, had it not been for Tsar Dušan, Lazar’s predecessor, one might never have had the Ottomans in Europe in the first place! Furthermore, it was not a trend that changed more with the Battle of Kosovo Polje. On three occasions afterwards – 1396, 1444 and 1448 – the Serbs fought on the Ottoman side against Byzantium!

Furthermore, the description of Kosovo as a crushing defeat for the Serbs is also somewhat erroneous. Militarily, it was, if anything, something of a score draw with neither side decisively defeating the other and both leaders falling on the day. The difference was though, that the Turks had both the abilities and resources to cope with their losses and fight again another day whilst the Serbs did not, and so after Kosovo they were always on the back foot. Nonetheless, they still managed to face their foes in battle for several decades afterwards, only being completely defeated in 1459. Kruševać and its fortress fell to the Turks soon after Kosovo but only a short while later Queen Milica managed to retake it. A people as totally defeated as the legends suggest the Serbs were would never have been able to accomplish such a feat.

Another modern way of looking at it all is from a psychological perspective. Collectively the Serbs could not accept the fact that they were beaten, at their apogee, by a people and culture whom they regard as inferior. Exhibiting mass symptoms of denial, they subconsciously argue that Lazar could not have been beaten on the battlefield under normal conditions and so ergo there must be some other reason for the defeat. The traitor, Vuk Branković partially fulfils the requirements but not completely, for he too was a Serb which therefore appropriates some of the blame back onto themselves, and besides, someone as great as Prince Lazar, a man in communion with God Himself, should have been able to cope with such a minor setback as betrayal by an underling. So if Branković will not do, then instead an elaborate myth which satisfies the trait of denial must be created, thus since Lazar couldn’t have lost in a fight, the he didn’t and instead he chose to lose instead, and he made that choice because by doing that he earned a far greater victory which put the Serbs above the Turks for all eternity, thus satisfying the original dilemma of the Serbs having to beat the inferior enemy. And since this myth answered the psychological needs of a defeated and grieving people, abandoned it seemed, by even God Himself, then all embraced it with gusto.

But all of these explanations are modern and thus, whilst they might make perfect rational sense to us as children of the modern age, they cannot, alas, match the legends in one key aspect: we don’t want them to be true. Think about it; a big battle that no one really wins; a Serbian victory prevented by a communication error; Lazar, a worldly leader and political manipulator whose widow, desperate to maintain her power and status after her husband’s demise and as politically wily as her spouse, rewrites history after his death to suit her own ends; Serbs fight against fellow Orthodox Christians, the Byzantines, solely for political and power reasons; Serbs fight alongside the Muslim Turks for exactly the same base reasons, all of this is feasible, rational and sane. But it is too base, too rational, too sane; it is not how we want things to have been.

We long for heroes who fight for what is right and defy all the odds to win the day. We long for true romance, love at first sight that lasts forever in a flower-strewn bliss. We long for pretty children who play happily together, sturdy young men who work hard and are brave, beautiful young women who are demure and pure and grow up into wonderful mothers, wise old grandparents who sit in a chair by the fire, love their family to bits and impart their vast wisdom to the young before then dying peacefully and serenely in their beds, a smile resting on their lips. All of these are the things that we long for, but sadly, in this world of ours, all of those are things that we rarely get and so instead we have to put them in our stories, tales and legends to which we can escape from time to time when reality gets too hard.

Wouldn’t it have been better if Prince Lazar had fought the Turks solely to preserve his glorious and true faith and people against the menacing infidels? Wouldn’t it have been better if he had been visited by Elijah in the form of a flacon and had chosen a heavenly kingdom over an earthly one? Wouldn’t it have just been tragically lovely if his queen, instead of being a power-hungry political operator, had been a meek and mild maiden who waited patiently for her husband’s return, only to be told of his death by the crows who had flown to her open window direct from the battlefield? Wouldn’t all of that have been lovely indeed? And more than lovely, wouldn’t it have made sense too? The purely rational, factual and historical approach teaches us what happened but not why. Why did the Serbs have to lose on that fateful day, condemning their people and others in the Balkans to five centuries of Ottoman tyranny and misery? Why was the faith which is – in Serbian eyes – the only true one on earth and spiritually deeper and purer than the modern upstart Islam, crushed completely by the newcomer, forced to undergo indignities and attack for century after century? Why oh why do such terrible things happen? Alas, on matters such as these, the historians, psychologists and other prophets of modern rationalism fall silent for their explanations can bring no succour. But the legends can help, they can answer these difficult questions and they can answer them both decisively and clearly and what’s more, offer hope for the future. After all, show me a nation that does not want to be chosen by God!

Nonetheless, the whole narrative of the Serbs is not understood by the majority of the world. I remember vividly during the Kosova Conflict the Serbs claims to the province being seen as ridiculous since they were all based on legend, ancient history and a ‘spiritual legacy’. The hard fact that 90% of the population was ethnically Albanian was seen as irrelevant to the Serbs but the only factor of relevance to everyone else. Yet we forget, we are the ones who have changed, not them. Spiritual legacies and the promises of God were often valid reasons to start wars right up until the modern age. The Crusades were inspired by similar reasoning – to reclaim holy Christian territory from the Muslims – and some of the myths that grew up around the First Crusade in particular are just as compelling as those concerning Prince Lazar.[10] And even today the Serbs are not alone in such thinking; the only other group equally vilified in the world’s press must be the Israelis and in particular the Settlers who occupy Palestinian lands on the West Bank. Yet why do they choose to live there? Because of a promise by God to His original Chosen People, a promise seared into Jewish hearts after their cataclysmic defeat by and subsequent exile to Babylon.

As Christians we should be able to empathise with the Serbs a great deal than we generally do. Like Christ, was not Lazar offered a choice between temporal and spiritual glory and like Christ, did he not proclaim that his kingdom was not of this world? Like Christ, did not Lazar hold communion with his disciples immediately prior to his death and like Christ was he not betrayed by one of his own? Like Christ too, Lazar cursed those who chose not to fight on the righteous side and promised glory in heaven to those who fought with him? And like Christ, did not Lazar win for his people a special closeness with God Himself? And yet despite all of this, we fail to relate to the Serbs and their myths; their claims are misunderstood, they are invalid to us for we do not understand them at even the most basic level and so, unlike the Crusaders, Europe has never rallied behind them.

The key as to why there is this gulf of misunderstanding lies in the role of myth and legend in our modern society. Today these powerful tools that so dominated times gone by have virtually no serious part to play, they are not needed, extinct. That is why so many in our society fail to connect with religion – or at least, the established religions – for religion is permeated by myth and legend. Take Christianity for example; in the Gospels alone we have the Virgin Birth, the raising of Lazarus, the healing of the blind man, the feeding of the five thousand, the transformation of water into wine and the Resurrection itself not to mention countless more. Yet the modern, rational man – or woman – cannot truly believe in such things, the way he has been brought up and educated forbids it, and so he does not and instead retreats into atheism, agnosticism or some fuzzy personal god who is untainted by such impossible absurdities. And even those few who do remain religious, do so in a fashion totally alien to the ancients. Ever since the Reformation, Christians – and then later, other faiths – have embarked upon a process of rationalising – and thus making them superficially acceptable to the modern mind – their faiths. Instead of embracing myth, they take the faith and attempt to rationalise it, either in a liberal fashion by trying to explain everything historically, (the Walls of Jericho was an earthquake; the Crossing of the Red Sea was due to a low tide…), or in more conservative ways via a retreat to literalism, (again a modern phenomenon). The results often verge on the embarrassing as anyone who has encountered full-on Creationism can attest to. The example that sticks most in my mind though, is a product of Islam and comes to us in the form of a small book entitled ‘The Qur’ân & Modern Science: Compatible or Incompatible?’ by one Dr. Zakir Naik. This tract has gained great popularity across the Muslim World for in it Zaik cliams that the Qur’ân is not just a collection of religious myths (literally true myths mind you…) and teachings, but also that it is some sort of thinly-disguised science textbook and he concludes that “The scientific evidences of the Qur’ân clearly prove its divine origin.”[11] That ‘evidence’ includes such gems as ‘And We have set on the earth mountains standing firm’[12] which apparently proves that the author knew all about plate tectonics,[13] ‘We have built the Firmament with might. And We indeed have vast power’[14] which clearly shows that the author knew all about the discovery by Hubble that the universe is expanding,[15] and my personal favourite, ‘Seest thou not that Allah merges Night into Day and He merges Day into Night’[16] deep wisdom that can only have been got, according to Zaik, by knowing that the earth is round, (and certainly not by observing with your eyes every morning and evening that the sky changes somewhat with regards to how light it is).[17] The Qur’ân is a powerful and often beautiful book and may – or may not – have divine origins, but Dr. Naik’s missive I am afraid, proves only one thing to me; that literalism can become more than a little silly at times.

Such rationalism of thought is evident in the faith of many of today’s religious. On this trip though, I was constantly reminded of Sally and Sam’s faith which, though deep and Christian, possessed little in common with that of the mystical Orthodox. Their faith focuses on the moral teachings in Scripture and on cultivating a personal relationship with Christ and to them myths such as the Kosovo Cycle are as alien as Mohammed or Ganeesha. Rather than focus on Lazar’s similarities with Christ with regards to a Last Supper and being offered a choice of the earthly or the heavenly, I suspect that they’d be more concerned by his lack of moral scruples when it came to killing Turks aplenty in battle and cursing those who didn’t do likewise.

As a Traditionalist, I have a foot in both camps. A rational education and liberal upbringing has led me to automatically seek the true historical facts first and never to accept anything at face value, but my faith has taught me to value deeply the spiritual lessons that myth can provide us with. One of the most powerful pilgrimages that I have ever made was to Glastonbury, the great centre of English myth and whilst I am aware that Christ may never have visited England with his great uncle, Joseph of Arimathea and built a church where the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey now stand, I gained much from the contemplation of the possibility, of meditating over what it would have been like if He had done so. Put in such a context, I feel that the Kosovo myths of prince Lazar can have great value to the Serb people. However, when used as an excuse for ethnic cleansing and hatred, I am afraid, they have none.

We sped on, through villages and towns, I switching between reading ‘Silverland’ and viewing the country beyond my window. Neither were disagreeable activities; ‘Silverland’ had got much better towards the end, largely because Dervla had stopped talking about her pets and got onto more relevant matters, whilst Serbia remained interesting. In Kraljevo where we stopped for the toilet, there were some fantastic murals on an apartment block whilst in Čačak I saw a mass parade of schoolchildren celebrating some occasion or another, and an old man in a partisan hat – only the second I’d seen in the whole country, (the first being from the train as we’d passed through a village near Dimitrovgrad). The most captivating sights of all though, were the Serbian girls who are exceptionally beautiful. With dark hair, fine bone structure and gorgeous brown eyes that you long to dive into, they remind one greatly of their Slavic sisters across the border in Bulgaria, but if there is a distinction to be made between the two, it is that the Serbs perhaps have a little more in the derriere department.

And that brothers, can never be a bad thing!

After the town of Čačak we travelled through a very beautiful gorge, at the end of which the river had been dammed resulting in a fine lake by the road. There were several ancient monasteries signposted and I made a note to return one day and explore what looked like a fascinating region and a real slice of Balkania. That resolution was further enforced when we then came across a narrow gauge railway which looped to the left and the right of us and followed us all the way to the border. It looked a stunning ride and I knew that it was one that I had to sample one day.[18] That however, was for the future; now I had another new country to delve into and as we pulled up at the border post, the silver tracks of the railway running beside us, I wondered what Bosnia-Herzegovina, a country that only sixteen years before was engulfed in an horrific civil war, would hold.

Next part: Balkania Pt. 10: The Bridge over the Drina


[1] As of the 11th November, 2011

[2] Lit. ‘Macedonian gay’, although the term could just be used in a similar sense as the Greek ‘malaka’ or English ‘tosser’ rather than to indicate any actual homosexuality.

[3] Cluster bombs were dropped from Dutch F-16s and so many casualties were inflicted that the Dutch stopped using cluster bombs during the campaign, (although other NATO members continued to do so).

[4] See ‘Albanian Excursions’.

[5] Why Angels Fall, p.70-1

[6] Translation by Helen Rootham (1920). Hosted on:

[7] Why Angels Fall, p.72

[8] Vuk Branković was Lazar’s most beloved brother-in-law and one of his nobles. He was there at Lazar’s Last Supper but prior to the battle he sold himself to the Turks and at a crucial moment in the proceedings led his troops away, thus exposing Lazar’s flank and causing the defeat of the Serbs. Modern historians however, rubbish these claims and believe that instead, Branković didn’t receive the message to advance in time and thus failed Lazar accidentally. It is thought that he was cast as a Judas figure by Queen Milica who tried, through legends such as those above, to lay the blame for the defeat elsewhere and away from the feet of her dead husband. Once can only say that she succeeded.

[9] Why Angels Fall, p.71

[10] For those interested in this topic, I highly recommend Karen Armstrong’s ‘Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today’s World’, a book which deals with both the Crusades and modern-day Israel.

[11] The Qur’ân & Modern Science, p.79

[12] Qur’ân 21:31

[13] The Qur’ân & Modern Science, p.32

[14] Qur’ân 51:47

[15] The Qur’ân & Modern Science, p.22

[16] Qur’ân 31:29

[17] The Qur’ân & Modern Science, p.13

[18] A check on the internet revealed it to be the Sargan Eight, a 15km long tourist railway which was once part of a narrow gauge line linking Sarajevo with Belgrade. It gets its name from the fact that at one point, in an effort to gain height, the tracks actually form a figure of eight.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Balkania Pt. 8: The city of wisdom…?

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This update is a momentous one for Uncle Travelling Matt for since the last we have passed 10,000 pageviews, something I hoped at best to accompany in a year and certainly not in under ten months. Since this blog started back in November last year, it has grown steadily each month with visitors from around the globe. So, thank you all, I am glad you are enjoying it, please keep sending me your feedback and, most importantly of all…

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

My Flickr album of this trip

Index and links to all the parts of Balkania:

Balkania Pt. 1: Sofia to Varna

Balkania Pt. 2: A Drink in Varna

Balkania Pt. 3: Wedding Bells in Varna (unpublished)

Balkania Pt. 4: A Trip to Tutrakan: Tales of Devotion and Despair

Balkania Pt. 5: Of Love, Lust and the Nation (unpublished)

Balkania Pt. 6: Back to School

Balkania Pt. 7: On a Mission

Balkania Pt. 8: The City of Wisdom?

Balkania Pt. 9: And the Tsar, he chose a heavenly kingdom…

Balkania Pt. 10: The Bridge over the Drina

Balkania Pt. 11: The Death-Drenched Drina

Balkania Pt. 12: Jerusalem of the Balkans

Balkania Pt. 13: A City Under Siege

Balkania Pt. 14: Austrian Influences

Balkania Pt. 15: Along the Bosna Valley

Balkania Pt. 16: Under the Airport and over the Mountains

Balkania Pt. 17: A Day Trip with Miran

Balkania Pt. 18: The City of the Broken Bridge

Balkania Pt. 19: Up the Black Mountain

Balkania Pt. 20: Worth the Bones of a Pomeranian Grenadier…?



Sofia (2)

On my last day in Bulgaria I rose exceptionally early feeling miserable indeed. Early mornings always make me feel terrible but the realisation that I had failed yet again in my quest for an alcohol-free night in Bulgaria was hitting home seriously. Yes indeed, I had to get out of this beautiful country, for love it though I did, my liver couldn’t take anymore.

The journey to Sofia was not a long one and it featured a trip over the Petrohan Pass which, according to Ward, is the highest point in Western Bulgaria. It would have been spectacular if only someone would have cleared just a few of the trees so that some sort of view could be glimpsed; as it was, all I got was a sea of foliage.

I booked myself onto the next train to Serbia but it did not leave until one which meant that I had several hours to kill in the capital. That sounds alright in theory but the truth is that I’ve been to Sofia many times before and I don’t really like the place. It’s a grey, dismal, soulless city with little of historical interest beyond the central core, it only being a provincial town before the 19th century and after that made into some second-rate copy of Vienna, (and alas, the real thing didn’t do that much for me either when I went there).

I decided to walk to the centre where there is at least a little to see – a mosque, some stones that belonged to a Roman gate, an old market hall and a couple of ancient churches – so I sat off through the dusty, nondescript streets. As I walked I reflected on how Sofia reminds me somehow of Tirana, the Albanian capital, and yet Tirana is somewhere that I really like.[1] Sofia is as if God has taken Tirana and somehow sucked all the colour, zest and life out of it and replaced it with grey, leaving only a naff copy of the original. Indeed, the highlight of my entire walk from the station to the centre was heading down one street and finding it to be a dedicated CSKA[2] neighbourhood with scarves tied around the phone lines above the street and a soft toy with ‘КУР’[3] written across it hanged from one of the lampposts.

It comes to something when football hooliganism is seen as the highlight of a city.

Trans Balkan Trip 2011 256

Death to all teddies!

I viewed my churches, mosque and Roman stones with passing interest and bought some souvenirs for friends in the market hall and then returned to the grand precincts of Sofia Central to catch my train, the international express to Belgrade. A grand terminal and a grand-sounding train but when I got to the platform the reality did not match up to the image for it was just two coaches long, (one Bulgarian, one Serbian). I sat in the Serbian coach, (as the Bulgarian one was a sleeping car), which had stickers of Ratko Mladić[4] stuck all over the windows and doors and, sandwiching myself in-between other passengers laden with boxes and bags, we began our journey.

The scenery going out of Sofia was non-descript but just before we reached the border, near the town of Dragoman, there was something that caught my eye. Written on a hillside with stones in absolutely enormous letters was a gigantic medal and the words ‘1885-1985 СЪЕДИНЕНИЕ НА БЪЛГАРИЯ’.


Part of the Monument to the Unification of Bulgaria on a hillside near Dragoman. The other part of the monument is a gigantic medal, similarly sized, several hundred metres to the left.

Later research informed me that this was Slivnitsa, the site of a decisive battle in 1885 between the Bulgarians and the Serbs leading in the Serbo-Bulgarian War. The reason that the site is commemorated by such a stunning memorial is that the war was sparked off by the Act of Unification between the Principality of Bulgaria and the then-Ottoman province of Eastern Rumelia in the autumn of 1885. This rectified one of the main injustices felt by the Bulgarians from the Treaty of Berlin whereby Southern Bulgaria, which had been liberated by Bulgarian, Russian and Romanian troop during the Russo-Turkish War, was allowed to stay within Ottoman hands, albeit with some autonomy, and was given the name of Eastern Rumelia. After a nationalist takeover of the governor’s residence in Plovdiv, (the capital of Eastern Rumelia). Unification was declared on 6th September, 1885. Whilst the major European Powers grudgingly accepted this, the other Balkan nations were less than impressed, (since it made Bulgaria the most powerful country in the region), and so on the 14th November, the Serbs declared war, a war in which they were soundly defeated only a fortnight later by a Bulgarian army that was smaller and had no one higher than the rank of captain to command it, (the Russian generals that had won the Russo-Turkish War had all returned home and the Bulgarians hadn’t trained anyone up yet). The only major battle was Slivnitsa, dubbed the ‘Battle of the Captains versus the Generals’ and it was a battle in which the 30,000 or so Bulgarian troops defeated the 40,000 or so Serbs, largely through the virtue of their superior, Krupp artillery. That battle led to the Bulgarian victory of the war and the effective confirmation of the earlier Act of Unification, hence that Act being commemorated on the battle site.


A famous painting of Prince Alexander of Bulgaria commanding his troops at the Battle of Slivnitsa. In reality he arrived as the battle was almost over.

Well, that’s all the official story and doubtless there’s much veracity to it, but to me there is also another sub-plot here, connected more with the 1985 date than that of 1885.

That sub-plot was one that I’d seen evidence of throughout my trip and through all my previous visits to Bulgaria. It is a story that, like Dervla Murphy’s ramblings through Siberia, both annoyed and inspired me. It was the story of Bulgarian nationalism in particular and Balkan nationalisms in general and it intrigued me because it has had such a profound impact on the region.

Take this monument for example. It commemorates a great victory, against considerable odds, which led to the reunification of a state that had not existed for five centuries. All in all, good reasons to build a monument but why build it so big and on a hillside facing the main road and rail routes to and from Serbia or, as it was when the monument was built, Yugoslavia? As I said before, the date 1985 is just as important as 1885.

During the 1980s the communist regime in Bulgaria was in trouble. After much initial economic growth during the fifties and sixties which raised the living, educational and cultural standards of the population beyond all imaginings, the economy, like that of its Soviet big brother, began to stagnate and those standards were becoming increasingly difficult to maintain. The regime, whose legitimacy had always been a tad shaky, was getting worried. There were rumblings Solidarityesque rumblings from below and the changes of Glasnost and Perestroika from the USSR and Zhivkov’s government felt that they needed a way to demonstrate their legitimacy and to raise spirits amongst an increasingly dissatisfied population. Traditionally in such situations, a socialist turns to the mantra of the proletariat overcoming the bourgeoisie, but these days the middle and upper classes were the socialists and capitalist exploitation was by and large unknown amongst the masses, as opposed to socialist restrictions on freedoms which were familiar to all. The other faithful old standby was to appeal to memories of the war, but this too had only limited appeal in a country that had been largely by-passed by the conflict and whose population was now mainly too young to recall even that. Instead, the main rumblings of discontent when it came to foreign policy was Bulgaria’s slavishly close relationship with the USSR and that was a relationship bequeathed by the war. So if no war appeals and no class consciousness, where could Zhivkov et al turn to?

Their solution was to accelerate a trend that they’d flirted with on and off since 1944 and that was – despite it being antithetical to classical Marxism – an appeal to national pride. The friendship with the Soviet Union was presented as the natural continuation of that age-old brotherhood with their fellow Slavs, (the word ‘Orthodox’ quietly dropped these days), who paid with their lives to give Bulgaria its freedom, (see monuments to both the liberators of the 1870s and the Red Army in 1944 plus place names such as Druzhba and Tolbukhin[5]), whilst the current regime were presented as the natural successors to Levski, Botev et al, rebels who had fought for the people against the Turks, (see countless monuments across the country, the awarding of literary awards for sycophantic dross like Mercia MacDermott’s ‘The Apostle of Freedom’ and place names like Gotse Delchev[6]), and also others afterwards who had fought against monarchist/capitalist/fascist oppression, (see monuments to the 1923 Uprising and place names like Mikhailovgrad). But beyond that, Zhivkov worked hard to demonstrate how his communist regime was in fact the legitimate successor to every successful Bulgarian regime throughout the entirety of history. That was most notably demonstrated during the absolute orgy of celebrations that the state laid on to commemorate the (rather un-noteworthy) event of the 1,300th Anniversary of the Founding of the Bulgarian State[7] which culminated in a great big show of ceremony around the gigantic concrete wedge on the hillside above Shumen.

And to me that slogan on a hillside near Slivnitsa built only four years after the monument at Shumen falls into much the same category. It is not just a commemoration of a victory against the Serbs in 1885; it is also a confirmation in stone of the glory and legitimacy of the communist regime that built it in 1985. In that year both Bulgaria and Yugoslavia had socialist regimes but that was about all that they did have in common. In 1948 Tito fell out with Stalin and in 1955 Yugoslavia split with the USSR completely and started to steer its own path, still socialist, but Non-Aligned and thus open to both West and East. It was a path that brought them unprecedented wealth and development, so much so that by the mid-1980s, Yugoslavia had living standards almost akin to those in Western Europe. In contrast, Bulgaria had stayed more Soviet than the Soviets themselves and this had resulted in a steady stream of money from Moscow to Sofia which had funded much of the country’s national development. By the eighties though, this money was drying up and it was clear than Bulgaria was seriously lagging behind its neighbour to the west. The communist government knew this and it hurt them and to me, when I gaze upon that monument at Slivnitsa, visible to every Yugoslav and Bulgarian travelling between the two countries, it has been built to say ‘We were different then and we’re different now; then you appeared stronger than us, but we defeated you; now you again appear strong but never forget that we beat you once and we will do so again!’

And looking at it in 2011, in a sense that Zhivkov never intended, (and would have been horrified by), one has to say that it many ways that has come true.

It all sounds a little paranoid and desperate doesn’t it? Well, if was. The 1,300th Anniversary of the Founding of the Bulgarian State, the hero-worship of Levski et al, the Great Excursion, the Revival Process and all the other manifestations of Bulgarian nationalism by the communists were acts of a desperate, illegitimate regime using any way it could, no matter how morally dubious, to cling onto power. And as we all know, ultimately, at the end of the decade, they failed. But despite that failure, the legacy that they bequeathed was a potent one.

Communism left a lot to Bulgaria. When I first visited, my primary fascination with the country, (ok, my secondary fascination; at nineteen in a country like Bulgaria, the local ladies will always come first…), was exploring as much of that communist legacy as possible and then refuting many of the misconceptions about it. I believed then – and I still do believe now – that communism was not the unmitigated disaster that it is usually painted as being. True, it collapsed economically towards the end, but the 1950s saw incredibly high growth rates. True, the communists restricted personal freedoms, but they also dragged the country into the 20th century. The Bulgaria that they inherited in 1944 had a largely peasant population that was mostly illiterate. The country that they left in 1990 was urban and amongst the best educated in the world with a literacy rate that its southern neighbour in the EU, Greece, could only dream about. No, all was not bad indeed.

And likewise too, politically there had been much good. Nationalistic Bulgarians angered me with their tales of hanged heroes like Levski, but what of Georgi Dimitrov who set fire to the Reichstag or Peshev, the socialist MP who saved the country’s Jews from Hitler or Marx himself who taught that capitalist oppression who taught us all that it is fundamentally immoral for the rich to oppress the poor? How can your partisans compare with such figures and how can you even be a nationalist when you see what it is doing, ripping your previously wealthy and successful neighbour Yugoslavia apart at the seams?

Over the years though, and particularly during this trip, I began to realise that things are never so clear cut. Study the Ottoman Empire and Bulgarian nationalism becomes more comprehensible, but more than that, study Bulgarian communism and one realises that they were primarily the ones responsible for dispensing such poison throughout the land. They drenched the population in the myths of Marx and the nation, but the short sharp shower of the 1990s washed the former clean away. The stains of the latter however, proved to be much harder to shift.

But with a new generation growing up who have never experienced communism and who instead are exposed fully to Western liberal attitudes, then things are changing. The grandiose monuments of Shumen and Slivnitsa would never be built today even if there was the cash to spare. After all, in 2011 there is no need to either shore up an illegitimate regime or to piss off passing Serbs. And that is one enduring change in the country that I sensed strongly, time after time, after my long absence of eight years. It’s a change in mentality, a shift to a more realistic, humane and less dangerously romantic view of the world.

And as my train thundered towards the border, that was a great cause for hope in the future.

Next part: Balkania Pt. 9: And the Tsar, he chose a heavenly kingdom…


[1] See my travelogue ‘Albanian Excursions’.

[2] CSKA, (or more accurately, ‘TsSKA’), is the ‘Central Sporting Club of the Army’ (ЦСКА – Централен Спортен Клуб на Армията). They are Bulgaria’s biggest and most successful football club, having won the league title 31 times and the national cup 20 times as well as appearing in the European Cup semi-finals twice and the Cup-Winners Cup semis once. Their rivals are the country’s number two team, also from Sofia, Levski with 26 league titles and 26 cups. They are the old police club and the game between them is called the ‘Eternal Derby’.

[3] КУР (Kur) – lit. shit.

[4] The former Bosnian Serb general who had just been captured a month before and taken to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at the Hague, charged with being being both the Siege of Sarajevo and the Srebrenica Massacre.

[5] The communist era name for Dobrich. Marshal Tolbukhin was the Red Army commander who liberated/conquered Bulgaria.

[6] Gotse Delchev was a freedom fighter in Macedonia, (an area now split between Greece, Bulgaria and the country that calls itself Macedonia. Delchev had the added appeal of being also claimed by the Serbs as one of theirs and so by naming a town after him, the Bulgarians were reinforcing the view that he was their rebel and no one else’s. Whoever he did belong to, he wasn’t very successful: he died in a skirmish in 1903 after being betrayed by local villagers.

[7] Except that it may not have even been that. The date 681 was chosen because that is the first time that a Bulgarian entity is mentioned in the chronicles of Byzantium although of course, one may have existed for years before.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Balkania Pt. 7: On a mission…

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Here’s the next installment of ‘Balkania’ in which I finally leave Varna and head across Bulgaria to a small village in the mountains where some old friends of mine are now ensconced.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

My Flickr album of this trip

Index and links to all the parts of Balkania:

Balkania Pt. 1: Sofia to Varna

Balkania Pt. 2: A Drink in Varna

Balkania Pt. 3: Wedding Bells in Varna (unpublished)

Balkania Pt. 4: A Trip to Tutrakan: Tales of Devotion and Despair

Balkania Pt. 5: Of Love, Lust and the Nation (unpublished)

Balkania Pt. 6: Back to School

Balkania Pt. 7: On a Mission

Balkania Pt. 8: The City of Wisdom?

Balkania Pt. 9: And the Tsar, he chose a heavenly kingdom…

Balkania Pt. 10: The Bridge over the Drina

Balkania Pt. 11: The Death-Drenched Drina

Balkania Pt. 12: Jerusalem of the Balkans

Balkania Pt. 13: A City Under Siege

Balkania Pt. 14: Austrian Influences

Balkania Pt. 15: Along the Bosna Valley

Balkania Pt. 16: Under the Airport and over the Mountains

Balkania Pt. 17: A Day Trip with Miran

Balkania Pt. 18: The City of the Broken Bridge

Balkania Pt. 19: Up the Black Mountain

Balkania Pt. 20: Worth the Bones of a Pomeranian Grenadier…?



I slept on and off until Cherven Bryag, then I sat and read some of Silverland, account of winter travels through deepest Siberia along the BAM (Baikal Amur Mainline) by Irish author Dervla Murphy. Dervla Murphy always annoys me intensely – this book being no exception – yet she should not for in so many ways we are in complete agreement. She is left-wing, so am I; she is pro-environment, so am I; she believes fervently in independent travel, so do I; she loves drowsy, downtrodden ex-communist provincial dumps, so do I. Nor to is it her prose that annoys, for that too is of a pretty high standard. No, it is probably that age-old case of when one is quite different to another, one looks for common ground whereas when two people are quite similar, one hunts out the differences. Maybe that and maybe because she can be somewhat self-righteous about her positions and there’s also the small issue of her sending her daughter to a private boarding school, (very socialist and proletarian I’m sure you’d agree), plus too I do feel that she constantly moans without ever offering any solutions. She subscribes to an attitude which I call ‘primitivism’ and Pavel Marinov, “the hyprocisy of socialists”. Leave those backward, impoverished people as they are, happy in their ignorance, their primitive, undeveloped, eco-friendly, (because they haven’t yet acquired the technology to really fuck the environment up), state, regardless of the fact that if you actually asked them what they wanted, they’d tell you it’s a mobile phone and some designer clothes, (the Lord alone knows why, but that is what they long for…), the old dilemma of democracy: We should listen to the Will of the People, but then when they express that Will they don’t ask for what they need or what’s good for them, instead they ask for Celebrity Come Dancing, alcopops, iPhones and a Happy Meal. But back to good old Dervla, yes, she thinks that they’d be better off without all these trappings of capitalism, regardless of their own opinions on the matter, for how they live now is much more in keeping with the environment but when the camera is turned round, then does she abandon her globe-trotting ways to live in such a fashion? No way Jose! I know that I am someone who pollutes far too much, rarely lives up to his lofty political ideals but at least I don’t expect others to be holier than I. If they want stupidly-expensive mobiles with a thousand and one apps to wile away those Arabian – or Lancastrian, Costa del Solian and Staffordian Nights – then let them have them, although I do reserve the right to laugh heartily at them and be pissed off when they decide to text or twitter rather than engage in a real-life conversation. We are all human after all, and so that is that and thus the only question that remains is why on earth do I read this irritating Irishwoman’s books. Well, the answer to that one is simple: Who else travels through Siberia in the depths of winter for fun. You’ve gotta hand it to the old girl, that is pretty cool!

I changed trains at Mezdra, a station I knew well from the timetables but had never alighted at before. With time to kill I strolled around the small but smart town centre in the pre-sunrise gloom. There were some great abstract socialist murals which I tried to photograph but failed due to invisible moisture in the air that showed up with the flash, but there was also a fine picture of Hristo Botev with the legend “2 юни – Ден на Ботев и падналите за Майка България” (“2nd June – The Day of Botev and those who fell for Mother Bulgaria”) upon it.

Botev is big in Mezdra for it was in the mountains nearby that he led the ultimately unsuccessful April Uprising against the Ottomans in 1876, being killed with his few remaining followers in a last stand on Mt. Okolehitsa not far away. The 2nd June was the day of that last stand, hence the celebrations announcing the seminal importance of that date in the calendar which were celebrated by a photo display in the town hall window. I smiled at title which would obviously appeal to some of my more nationalistically-minded comrades before moving on to peruse another display in the window, this time an EU-financed project entitled “Училището? Да! Това е моя дом!” (“Students? Yes! This is my home!”), in which local high-school kids presented Mezdra’s history and culture to the wider, web-friendly world.[1]

2 yuni den na botev

Hristo Botev: Big in Mezdra


There was early morning mist on the fields as my train trundled towards Boichinovitsi, from where I caught another train onwards to Montana. This tatty little city must surely be able to claim some sort of honour as the most renamed settlement in history having been known as Kutlovitsa during Pre-Ottoman days, then by its Turkified form, Kutlofça, then after independence it was renamed Ferdinand, (after the first king of the new Bulgaria), changing again after the 1944 Revolution to Mihailovgrad in honour of one Hristo Mihailov, a rebel who led the 1923 September Uprising. After the regime fell though, and avowedly socialist rebels became unworthy of having cities named in their honour, the municipality held a referendum on what the town should now be called and Montana – the name of a Roman settlement in the vicinity – was chosen, and so that is what it now is confusing link between America’s butt-ass back of beyond and Bulgaria’s stagnating provincial equivalent.

The guidebooks say that there is little to see in Montana, but I can neither confirm nor deny this, for all I did there was cross the road from the railway station to the bus terminal where I waited for an hour or so until the bus to Berkovitsa arrived. All that I did notice was that there was a fine old steam locomotive preserved in a huge glass building next to the railway station, and in the terminal building of that institution, an enormous and impressive – if somewhat dirty – glass chandelier. As I’ve already said; whatever you might think about the communists, you can’t deny that they had style.

Berkovitsa and Mezdreya

I had travelled to Berkovitsa to meet up with two old friends of mine. The first was Sally, an old schoolmate and the second was Sumito – or ‘Sam’ as he prefers to be called – her husband. They were out in the back of the Bulgarian beyond on what she described as a “sort-of mission” connected with their church. Ho hum, all well and good, but when I arrived they weren’t there, so in true Balkan style, I fretted not, bought a coffee and a chalga magazine[2] and wiled away the time until they arrived.

The delay, it transpired, was due to their car breaking down and a taxi having to be called. I didn’t really care since I now knew all about how a famous Turkish chalga singer called Sarit Hadad was now working with Alisiya, one of Bulgaria’s starlets and what’s more, how Siana is on a Cindy Crawford fitness programme, Tsvetelina Yaneva went to a ball with a camp-looking nineteen year-old named Stoyan Petrov and that Draga and Vesna sang for two and a half hours in Sofia, so one could hardly say that my time had been wasted.

We went into the town to dine and have a look around and I was surprised to discover that Berkovitsa is an incredibly pretty little place indeed with much to offer the visitor. It had a large central square with some stunning socialist era murals depicting Marx and Lenin on one side whilst on the other, Bulgaria’s two great communist luminaries, Georgi Dimitrov and Todor Zhivkov.

berkovitsa mural1 berkovitsa mural2

The stunning Berkovitsa murals

At the opposite end of the square was an old clocktower, the staple of any Ottoman provincial town[3] whilst just off it was the delightful Church of the Virgin Mary built in 1835n in the manner of all Orthodox churches built during the Ottoman Era, set very low so as not transgress the ruling that all churches must be physically lower than mosques. It was surrounded by beautiful gardens whilst inside it was cool and dark. Its icons told of a deep peasant faith that has lasted throughout the ages. I showed Sally and Sam what the etiquette and ritual is in terms of entering an Orthodox house of worship and made a note to discuss the subject with them a little more later on.

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Berkovitsa’s central square

One name that one hears bandied about Berkovitsa a great deal is that of Ivan Vasov who, like Levski and Botev, is seen as another member of the country’s great pantheon of revolutionary heroes, but unlike most of then other members of that esteemed group, did not actually get killed by the Turks. Vasov is remembered more for his contributions to Bulgarian literature, especially the seminal ‘Under the Yoke’, a book which, as the title suggests, is not particularly pro-Ottoman. Vasov lived in Berkovitsa between 1879 and 1880. After the liberation, he’d returned from exile in Romania but has then been diagnosed with TB and was basically sent to Berkovitsa to die. Contrary to expectations however, the mountain air did him much good and he not only survived but made a full recovery, eventually passing away some forty-one years later in 1921. During his time at Berkovitsa he chaired the court and Ward’s guidebook mentions a house museum dedicated to him but the building that Sally and Sam thought it was turned out instead to be some sort of community hall-cum-theatre where we came across some local kids practising a drama production.

Over lunch we caught up and I found out exactly what Sally and Sam were doing in Bulgaria. They had come over to help with a Baptist mission, primarily based in Lom, a city some fifty kilometres or so distant, where they were developing a vibrant church largely amongst the impoverished Roma population there. On this trip though, somewhat frustratingly, they weren’t going a great deal of missionary work per se, instead they were more learning the language and getting a feel for the culture of the place.

Sally and Sam were not staying in Berkovitsa itself, but instead in a house owned by their pastor in the village of Mezdreya some three or four kilometres distant. Mezdreya was a beautiful place, a collection of red-roofed houses clustered around a dip in the hills and watched over by a fine white Orthodox church dedicated to the Holy Spirit.[4] The house was beautiful too and brand new. It stood out from all the other shabbier dwellings in the village and on one hand one might be a little critical of this, a potent symbol of Western wealth lording it over the impoverished locals. I however, do not subscribe to such a view; Bulgarian villages, as I discussed in the chapter dealing with the Razgrad and Shumen districts, are by and large, impoverished and dying places, with the young moving to either city or abroad in search of work and a brighter future. People like Sally and Sam’s pastor however, bring some life back and some employment for the locals that remain, (he ensured that all the building work was done by locals and using local suppliers). What’s the alternative? Another empty and decaying building. That helps no one.

We went for a walk through the village and up to the church, (close for repairs). Sally told me constantly how friendly all the villagers had been to them and as if to prove a point, the proprietor of the local bar, Lili, came out, asked Sally and Sam how they were, who their visitor was and then offered to take us on a trip to a local monastery. This was certainly to my liking so we agreed to meet a few hours later and I returned to the house so that I could get a few hours sleep, having enjoyed far too little on the train.

The monastery that Lili wanted to show us was some eight or nine kilometres distant by car, (although only three or four as the crow flies). It was situated in a valley between some wooded hills in a spot that truly did reflect the Divine. As a Christian and a Bulgarophile, I have always thought it strange that I have seen so few of Bulgaria’s many ancient and beautiful monasteries, but the reason is that monasteries being as monasteries are, most are situated in remote and often hard to access locations and before this visit I’d never had access to a car.

The Klisurski Monastery was founded back in 1240 during the glory days of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom. Since that time though, there’s been far more misery than majesty in Bulgaria’s history and this has been reflected in the fate of the monastery which has been repeatedly destroyed by foes so that naught of the original structures remains. The last time was on St. Cyril and St. Methodius’ Day[5] in 1862 when one Yusuf Bey, the Ottoman Pasha at Berkovitsa, came with his troops and razed the whole complex to the ground, killing the monks and visiting pilgrims in the process. That was in the dark, dying days of the Ottoman Empire when the Turks were struggling to keep hold of their European dominions and these days the setting is so tranquil that it is hard to imagine any violence in such a place. But when one does, when one visualises the senseless murder and destruction, then the hatred towards the Turks of many Bulgarians becomes a little more comprehensible. As I’ve said already, I detest such intolerant nationalism, but then such destruction has never been wrought on my country by foreign occupiers.[6]

After only seven years, in 1869, the complex was rebuilt and in 1891 the main church was re-consecrated and what one sees today is pretty much the legacy of that period, and despite its lack of antiquity, I found it powerful. We climbed up to the church where a service was in progress, a bearded priest intoning to the altar watched by a handful of black-robed nuns and a smattering of pilgrims. I stood and listened in awe, letting the sanctity and beauty of the glorious Orthodox liturgy flow through me, the candles, incense and icons helping me heavenwards towards the Divine. It was powerful and it was holy and I felt spiritually refreshed and replenished. I looked across at Sally and Sam and wondered what they were thinking of it all…

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Klisurski Monastery with Lili and Sally

We stopped twice on the way back from the monastery. The first was at a restaurant that specialised in river fish, (very nice although I’ve always been more of a sea fish person myself…), whilst the second was at an enormous statue of a partisan which commemorated the 1923 Uprising in which the socialists (led by Mihailov) tried (unsuccessfully) to overthrow the monarchist government and suffered much for their pains. Statues of soldiers and workers are, of course, something that communists have always excelled in and are something that is generally lambasted in the West, yet I feel that they have value. Thinking over the matter, a few days later I came across the following comment in ‘Silverland’ and I have to confess that Dervla put it better than I could have ever done myself:

“Westerners tend to mock the Soviets’ ‘hypocritical’ glorification of the common worker, to recall only Stalin’s labour camp abominations and overlook later generations, people like Aunt Tasha in Nizhneangansk, to whom her medal ‘for good work’ meant so much. And all my BAM-builder friends are gratified that numerous monuments honour them en masse – though they do resent the deletion from the record of those who died as victims of official brutality or stupidity. To have remembered them would have tarnished officialdom’s share of the glory.

In the West we are more inclined to raise monuments to individual Fat Cats, many of whom were indifferent to their workers’ welfare – hardly thought of them as human beings. Now, in a world where deregulation and privatisation make a uniquely safe habitat for such felines, the Soviet recognition of ordinary workers’ input looks positively humane.”[7]

These words refer to Siberia, but they could in fact be about anywhere in the post-socialist world, and indeed, even here in the West, there is much to back up the veracity of her statement. My brother is an artist by trade and he regularly paints potters at work saying that people love to buy pictures of unknown people at work since they can relate to them whereas pictures of the same folk at home or doing some other activity would not sell. Similarly, in my home city of Stoke-on-Trent where there is a variety of monuments and statues of varying quality, the most beloved by the people are the mining memorials and the two statues dedicated to Sir Stanley Matthews, a working class lad who became world famous through playing football.

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Monument to the rebels of the 1923 Uprising, near Berkovitsa

Back in Mezdreya we did as one should do when out with the proprietor of a bar; we then went to that bar and boosted her coffers. We sat and talked and drank and I was introduced to Lyubo, Lili’s husband. They were both glad to have me there since I could translate for them and so for the first time they could start to have a proper conversation with the nice young foreign couple who were living in one of the houses in the village, whilst I enjoyed practising my Bulgarian and experiencing a little of village life which differs greatly from that of cosmopolitans like Plamen, Pavel and Popov that I know in the city. We chatted and I learnt about Mezdreya’s economic woes, about how the bishop has visited the village several years before because of the repairs being done to the Holy Spirit Church and had eaten in the bar whilst they found out about how I knew Sally, how she had come to be married to a gentleman of East Asian extraction and of how I happened to know Bulgarian.

As the night progressed and the beers flowed[8] more locals and others joined us. There was a man from Dobrich who was visiting on business and a local who liked to talk history and politics. Sam got out his guitar and we started singing folk songs and all in all, a most enjoyable time was had by all until Lili finally shut up shop around eleven.

Our conversations continued back at the house although they now took a more religious turn for I was eager to find out just what Sally and Sam’s mission in Bulgaria was all about and what they had thought about the beautiful service we had witnessed at the monastery.

I wished to talk on such matters since it was a subject that I had been giving much thought to particularly since we’d stepped out of that church. Like Sally and Sam, I am a practising Christian and also, like them, I am technically a Protestant. Beyond that though, our practices diverge greatly. They profess to being non-denominational, but as she was brought up attending a Pentecostal church, (he converted from Buddhism/Shinto), and they now attend a Baptist church, theirs is a very Evangelical non-denominationalism.

I am also non-denominational, but in a completely different way. As a confirmed and practising Anglican I believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic church, and thus I give equal credence and respect to all the other branches of that church, and I am happy to worship in Roman Catholic, Orthodox and even Methodist temples, for my non-denominationalism is Traditional; it is about respecting history, building on what has gone before, a sense of continuity back until the days when Christ Himself preached on the shores of Galilee. That is the opposite end of the broad and diverse Christian spectrum to the Evangelical churches. They sprang from a ‘pure’ Protestantism, one that wanted to break completely with all that had gone before, throw out anything that is possibly non-Christian in origin, indeed anything that isn’t in the Scriptures, Scriptures that can only be read literally. One can see straightaway how a Traditionalist with a habit to indulge in mysticism at times, to mix-and-match Christianity with cultural practices, to pay homage to the saints and traditions of the Church through all the ages, is not always going to quite get the Evangelical perspective.

And that is why I longed to talk to both Sally and Sam about the matter. They were in Bulgaria to convert Christians from the Church to another – and in my opinion, lesser – brand of the faith. That sat uneasily with me, but more than that, I could not understand how any Christian could have stood in that church at the Klisurski Monastery and experienced that liturgy and not been moved towards it. How could one not be a Traditionalist?

So I asked them what they’d thought of the service.

“It was beautiful,” said Sam.


“But was it God?”

I asked him to expand and he explained how to him Christianity is a way of life, a relationship, not something you do once a week to experience a beautiful service. I could see where he was coming from but at the same time, I felt offended at the thought that he was viewing the Orthodox faith of most Bulgarians – and perhaps Traditionalisms in general – as something other than a way of life, for my faith permeates my entire existence and so too does the faith of many traditionalist friends of mine, be they Catholic or Orthodox. I questioned the purpose of converting the converted but both Sally and Sam countered with the fact that much of the Christianity that they came across in Bulgaria seemed superficial; people visited a monastery once in a while and attended Mass at Easter and maybe also lit a candle for a sick relative or to help pass an exam but that was as far as it went, it was not a part of everyday life. After all, beautiful as the service may have been at the monastery, the congregation had hardly been very large.

But then looking at congregation sizes as a measure of success is a very Protestant thing to do. The Church of England seems obsessed with publishing numbers of churchgoers and looking at trends in attendance (usually negative…) whilst the phrase, “They get quite a few in there on a Sunday,” is seen to be the best evidence that there can be that a particular church is a successful one. Protestantism though, is about the congregation; about giving the layman, not the priest, power. In a Protestant church the layman preaches, he sings, he reads the lesson, he may even choose the lesson, he may hand out communion and he may read – and interpret for himself – the Bible in his own language. Orthodoxy however, belongs to a different, more mystical, less auditable mindset. In Orthodox churches the congregation is almost an irrelevance for it is the celebration of the Mass is central, not who is there to witness it, and no one does that celebration quite like them. It was this very perfection of the act at the very heart of Christianity that moved me so; a perfection that could only have been achieved after years of developing the art. In ‘Black Lamb and Grey Falcon’, West puts it far better than I could ever do myself after attending Mass at an Orthodox church in Frushka Gora in Serbia:

‘Here was the unique accomplishment of the Eastern Church. It was the child of Byzantium, a civilization which had preferred the visual arts to literature, and had been divided from the intellectualized West by a widening gulf for fifteen hundred years. It was therefore not tempted to use the doctrines of the primitive Church as the foundation of a philosophical and ethical system unbridled in its claim to read the thoughts of God; and it devoted all its forces to the achievement of the mass, the communal form of art which might enable man from time to time to apprehend why it is believed that there may be a God. In view of the perfection of this achievement, the ecclesiastics of the Eastern Church should be forgiven if they show incompetence in practical matters and the lack of general information which we take for granted in painters and musicians. They are keeping their own order, we cannot blame them if they do not keep ours.’[9]

That is the key to Orthodoxy, but it is something that can be hard to understand if one comes from another tradition and particularly from the Evangelical one. But in the Balkans I would argue that it must be understand, for in so many ways, to understand Orthodoxy is to begin to understand the Balkans for that is the most widespread and deeply rooted of the peninsula’s faiths. It is earthy and in harmony with the mountains, trees, buildings, rivers and pathways of the land and because it is of the land, then the people, even if they are not particularly religious, stay true to it. Sadly in Britain, the opposite has become the case. Our faith is far more intellectual, far more rational, far more inventive almost, but it has lost most of its connection with the land and as such, has become a resort for those who seek faith rather than for the whole populace. England’s Christianity was ruined when the monasteries were dissolved, when the old festivals were banned, when the iconoclasts stripped the churches of their decoration, and when the Roman Catholic Church, once it was legal again, became Irish or Italian in character and did not return to its old English self. For Catholic and Protestant, that connection with the land, with history, was lost and we reap the results today.[10]

And so was that it; Sally and Sam were miscomprehending Orthodoxy because at the very heart of their faith is the ideal ‘to use the doctrines of the primitive Church as the foundation of a philosophical and ethical system unbridled in its claim to read the thoughts of God’ whereas Orthodoxy is about something very different entirely. I, on the other hand, with a foot in the more rational West and the mystical East can catch glimpses of the Orthodox perspective, (but by no means grasp the whole thing), but at the same time struggle to understand their perspective? Perhaps it is so though one wonders how such diversity can originate from just one man. Indeed, He must have been a God!

But back to the matter of converting Christians to Christianity, one point that Sally did raise was that their congregation was almost entirely Roma, very poor and very divorced from the rest of Bulgarian society and what’s more, she was unsure as to whether they had even been Orthodox prior to their conversion. A lot of Bulgaria’s Roma community, such as those that I’d seen at Demir Baba, are nominally Muslim, but she wasn’t sure if theirs had been. This surprised me since I’d have thought that, in the conversion business, a sound knowledge of where one had come from was just as important as where they’re going to. Once again, I was wrong and besides, when I talked to Sally and Sam more about their mission, it seemed in fact to be very little about amassing souls and far more about alleviating Roma poverty. And whichever one looks at it, that is a most Christian ideal indeed, for as St. Francis of Assisi famously said, “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.”

Next part: Balkania Pt. 8: The City of Wisdom?


[1] And here are the stunning end results of that project:

[2] I’ve mentioned chalga a couple of times now and in case you’re wondering what I’m on about, chalga is a genre of music sometimes called ‘Pop Folk’ or ‘Turbo Folk’ that is popular all over the Balkans. It originated in Serbia and is basically a mix of traditional Balkan folk with modern pop. It’s singers are often silicon-enhanced beauties and the songs are all about sex, money and the mafia. Educated Bulgarians detest it for its vulgarity and its Roman and ‘Oriental’ influences whilst the working classes seem to listen to naught else. I rather like it as a culturally-fascinating product of a turbulent time in Balkan history. For more information on Bulgarian chalga, see my 2001 article imaginatively-titled ‘Chalga’.

[3]Under the Tanzimat reforms of Sultan Abdülmecid the way that time was regulated was changed to the Western method rather the Islamic Calls to Prayer, (which go by the position of the sun), and to reinforce this clocktowers were built in towns all over the empire during the 19th century both for practical time-keeping reasons and as potent symbols of the change in the concept of time.

[4] Here Sally and Sam taught me some of the local lingo. I’d always assumed that the Bulgarian for ‘Holy Spirit’ was ‘Pantokrater’, but that is in fact the Greek term for Christ the Almighty. The Bulgarian apparently, is ‘Sveti Dukh’. Mind you, as some brought up a Pentecostalist, Sally should know how to say Holy Spirit…

[5] St. Cyril and St. Methodius are the men who brought Christianity and a written script to Bulgaria, hence the name of the alphabet: Cyrillic.

[6] Although our home-grown religious reformers did a pretty good job at times!

[7] Silverland, p.99

[8] We were drinking a beer called Alba which I’d only had once before, in Belogradchik in 1999 when drinking with Sasha Aleksandrov, Iva’s friend, an excellent host and best mates with a man called Martin who had such a passion for chalga that he was nicknamed ‘The Chalga King’. Alba’s a tasty beer and cheap too; try it when you’re in Bulgaria’s remote north-west.

[9] Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, p.505-6

[10] I know this may all sound a bit rich from a guy who’s just spent pages ranting against nationalism, an ideology that thrives on a relationship with the land and the history of the people who dwell therein, but there are differences. This is religion and that is politics and religion should never be truly rational whilst politics should never be anything but. Furthermore, a faith that is in tune with the land takes goodness from it and adds goodness to it, whilst nationalism, as I argued earlier, is purely negative, merely using those ounces of goodness into cudgels to batter the other. At its heart nationalism is negative and offers nothing; at its heart a faith in tune with the land can offer everything. But please, please, don’t ever mix the two!