Bulgarian History Museum Director Bozhidar Dimitrov: I Got Many Nice Things Done in Politics
Novinite.com (Sofia News Agency) and Novinite.bg are publishing an interview with Bozhidar Dimitrov, a prominent historian, Director of Bulgaria's National History Museum in Sofia, and a former Minister of Bulgarians Abroad (Diaspora Minister) in the Borisov Cabinet in 2009-2011. Interview by Evelina Ivanova, a freelance journalist.
Bozhidar Dimitrov has an impressive resume, a harsh language and a knack for stirring up the national spirit. Just recently the head of the Bulgarian National Museum of History (NIM) announced his plans to build a chapel within the confines of the museum to house the relics of the seven Bulgarian saints known as Sveti Sedmochislenitsi, i.e. the authors of the two Slavic alphabets, St. Cyril and St. Methodius (authors of the Glagolitic Alphabet), and their five disciples, including St. Kliment Ohridski (i.e. of Ohrid) and St. Naum Preslavski (i.e. of Preslav) (authors of the Cyrillic Alphabet), as well as St. Angelarius, St. Sava, and St. Gorazd. And even though the digging has not begun yet, the first step has already been made. The relics of Saint Kliment Ohridski (of Ohrid) are already on exhibit in the museum and have attracted great public interest.
How did a particle of the relics of St. Kliment Ohridski (ca. 840-916 AD) end up at Bulgaria's National Museum of History?
It must have been God's doing as two coincidences occurred. I had made up my mind to build a chapel in the yard of NIM where I wanted to gather the relics of all the Seven Saints or Svetite Sedmochislenitsi (who created and spread the Bulgarian alphabet).
I know exactly where these relics are kept and I've already held preliminary talks with the respective authorities. So I picked a place that seemed appropriate for the building of a chapel as it faced east. And I was surprised to find out that in the past, in that very same spot, there had stood another chapel of which only the flooring had been preserved.
Later on I contacted Bulgarian Bishop Sioniy to ask for his assistance in bringing my plan into action. This is when the second coincidence occurred. Bishop Sioniy said to me, "I already have what you are looking for".
It turned out that a particle of the relics of St. Kliment Ohridski had been bestowed upon him by some Greek monks when he himself was still a monk. I believe that we'll manage to gather a particle of the relics of all Seven Saints before the chapel is built. The first sod will be turned on May 24 (the official holiday of the Slavic Script and Bulgarian Culture). But I cannot say when the chapel will be finished. This too is in God's hands.
Why do you want to erect a chapel in the name of the Seven Saints?
Because these saints are more peculiar. They had not been tortured – they had neither been strangled, nor burned alive, nor had they lived in poverty. For example, Kliment, who was born in Moesia and was most probably a native of Pliska (the ancient capital of Bulgaria), was granted three boyar houses by Tsar Boris I.
His disciples were also graciously treated and for good reason too. Because these men had accomplished a real feat – they gave the Bulgarian people a weapon that was much more powerful than a warrior's sword –that weapon was the Slavic alphabet.
It's a proven fact that a people without an alphabet is doomed to disappear within a period of 150 years. This is what happened to the Ancient Thracians. They had no written language, no historical memory and they vanished, though there were the second largest nation in their time.
The Bulgarians did not disappear. Even during the darkest of ages, when the Bulgarian people had lost their natural leader, a monk came into the scene, Paisius of Hilendar (ca. 1722-1773 AD) (author of Istoriya Slavyanobolgarskaya, The History of the Slavo-Bulgarians written 1762 AD) and he paved the way for the Bulgarian national and spiritual revival [in the 18th and 19th century].
After the death of St. Methodius, the five disciples of St. Cyril and St. Methodius – Kliment, Naum, Gorazd, Angelarius and Sava were arrested by the newly crowned king of Great Moravia but were later released at the demand of the Bulgarian Tsar Boris I (r. 851-889 AD) and in 886 AD arrived at the municipal town of Beograd.
What did Tsar Boris I assign them? He sent them to different parts of the country, demanding them to fulfil a deed that was truly colossal, intellectually and production-wise – they had to assist about 20 000 Bulgarian churches in introducing the Bulgarian language in their liturgies (up until then, the people in the First Bulgaria Empire, who were formally converted to Christianity in 864 AD had to use Greek in their church services – editor's note).
In order to achieve that they had to educate 7-8 000 priests and produce 20 books for each church which amounted to a sum total of 400 000 books. And they managed to achieve all that in just 7 years.
This task may seem easy to us today but it was a veritable feat at that time. Why? Because there were no schools, no literate priests and the manufacturing of books was quite laborious. About 15-20 million lambs had to be slaughtered for these books to be produced. This was quite a lot of money. But Tsar Boris I stood firmly behind the deed and invested all his political and financial resources in it.
How do Bulgarians today view their saints?
They respect them and want to know more about them. Last year, [the Black Sea town of] Sozopol welcomed about 500 000 visitors who wanted to honor the relics of St. John the Baptist which are exposed at the recently renovated church in the town, "St. Cyril and St. Methodius". Relics such as those of St. John the Baptist and St. Kliment Ohridski are historical monuments that give people a certain kind of spiritual calm.
Talking about Sozopol, we must say that this town has enjoyed quite a bit of financial support from the Bulgarian state. How, at a time of a financial crisis, did Bulgaria's Finance Minister Simeon Dyankov manage to find the means needed for the completion of the newly discovered excavations?
Let me clarify something – the Finance Minister will find the means. So far a minimal amount of money has been granted so that the excavations could continue.
Otherwise, due to the present discoveries and the growing public interest, Minister Dyankov sees Sozopol as a pilot project for the development of a historical tourism. Statistics show that the tourist flow for Sozopol has increased by 30% for last year. And we should give credit for that to the locals as well.
Just recently, Dr. Nanyo Ivanov, who has lived and worked in Sozopol for many years, built a chapel named after Ivan Rilski where icons of the Bulgarian Tsar Tervel (r.ca. 700-718 AD) can be seen. Tervel is no ordinary saint. Up until the 19th century, he was considered to be one of Europe's biggest saints – more than 60 plays had been written about him and staged in theaters in France, Germany.
The truth is that Khan Tervel saved Europe from the first Muslim invasion – that of the Arabs at the beginning of the 8th century (i.e. the 717 AD Battle at Constantinople in which Bulgarian Khan Tervel defeated some 80 000 invaders besieging the Byzantine capital – editor's note). However, later on, Europe proclaimed Charles Martel for its saviour, although he defeated only 6000 Arabs (i.e. French military commander Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours (Poitiers), 732 AD – editor's note). This kind of Europocentrism is quite unfair but hardly surprising.
Nearby this newly built chapel, archaeologists have stumbled upon the medieval monastery St. Apostles?
Yes, this is an impressive monastery, built at the time of Tsar Mihail Shishman (r. 1323-1330 AD, Second Bulgarian Empire – editor's note). We'd been looking for it for quite some time. It was a lucky coincidence that I came across a document in which the headmaster of the town's Greek school had written that on that same spot „where the monastery had once scattered light now a school stands". We were fearful that the school could have been built on top the monastery but our fears were dispersed – at that time people were deeply religious and they had kept the monastery intact. But we made one other discovery too which somehow remained in the background. We found the entrance to the city's fortification wall.
Was this discovery a lucky coincidence, too?
No. We were aware that part of the fortification wall was located behind two illegally built barrack-like restaurants. After the Bulgarian parliamentary elections in 2009 we brought them down. And because God helps the brave, he gave us a bonus – apart from the entrance to the fortification wall, we also discovered one other monastery with a big church and interesting architecture but a rather unusual location– right in front of the wall's entrance. At the time it was absolutely forbidden to build in front of the city walls and especially in front of its gates because an approaching enemy could have used the buildings as a shelter. So why did they build this monastery then?
It probably gave refuge to mariners who were used to causing trouble with their indecent behaviour. Indeed the monastery is named after their patron St. Nicholas the Wonderworker. There are other mysterious things too. Some lead stamps were also discovered, all of which belonged to Byzantine emperors from the 11th C. Why such imperial interest in that part of the Black Sea coast? Some colleagues argue that after the Battle of Manzikert when the Byzantine army was defeated by the Seljuq Turks (1071 AD) plans were made to set up a 'back-up' capital of the empire which was to be located in present-day Sozopol.
Otherwise the medieval churches in Sozopol are more than 20, each chapel in the town was also built in proximity to some church. We are still looking for a 30-meter medieval church. And I wouldn't be surprised if we stumble upon the Holy Grail too. And you shouldn't think that this is some cup made of massive gold. The grail is holy because Christ had drunk from it at the last supper. It is most probably just an ordinary cup like those used at the pubs, made of stone or ceramics.
Do Bulgarians know their history?
Yes, Bulgarians have greater historical competence than other Europeans. This is probably due to the fact that it's rather difficult for a German to learn his or her history. While the entire Bulgarian people were subjected to the power of one khan, in Germany things were quite different – up until Otto von Bismark there were 300 kingdoms. Which history should one study first – that of Prussia, of Bavaria, of Schleswig-Holstein? Italy is in a similar predicament – there you have the Republic of Venice, of Genoa, the Pope's state, the Kingdom of Naples, the Kingdom of the Two Scillies. We don't have one or two Bulgarias. Those who sought independence from the state, did not dare proclaim themselves 'tsars'. In the 14th century Dobrotitsa is an independent feudal ruler, he had great power but had he proclaimed himself a 'tsar', no one would have recognized his title.
What kind of history are Bulgarians making today?
The usual kind. Right now we are 'writing' the history of Bulgaria caught in the clutches of a world economic and financial crisis that spans a number of years. It is not unusual to be upset, to protest against the current situation. I myself don't like the fix we are in but things are what they are. Luckily, we have a rather good Minister of Finance who grapples with the problems.
And what kind of Prime Minister do we have? Is Bulgarian PM Boyko Borisov an absolute ruler just like the Bulgarian khans and tsars before him?
No, such claims are groundless. One thing is clear however, there are no friendships in politics, there are only partners and collaborators. Olympiy Panov is one Stefan Stambolov's best friends (Olimpiy Panov and Stefan Stambolov were Bulgarian freedom-fighters and politicians in the newly liberated Bulgarian state at the end of the 19th century – editor's note). The two are an unbeatable duo at card-cheating. But Panov staged a coup against Stambolov and the latter sentenced him to death. This is how things are in politics. You shouldn't get involved if you can't handle it.
Do you regret getting involved in politics. For over two years you were a minister without portfolio, responsible for the Bulgarians abroad?
No, I managed to get done many nice things. The Bulgarian Parliament approved the Law for the Bulgarian Citizenship, which stopped the corruption related to the procedures for getting a Bulgarian citizenship.
I can't say if this corruption dates back to the time when Angel Marin was Vice President of Bulgaria, but the protocols that are kept at the Cabinet pointed out that the unofficial fee for receiving a Bulgarian citizenship was EUR 10 000. Now things are continuously improving, even though I'm no longer responsible for the Bulgarians abroad.
In 2010, when I was still the minister, about 15 000 Bulgarians received citizenship, last year, when Finance Minister Dynkov took over that responsibility, their number grew to 18 000. And this is good enough for me. I am glad I managed to increase Bulgaria's population amidst a demographic crisis. (Dimitrov refers to his policies of granting Bulgarian citizenship to members of the historic Bulgarian communities abroad – such as those in Macedonia, Moldova, Ukraine, Russia, Serbia – editor's note.)
Are these new Bulgarian citizens an asset to the country?
Indeed they are. For example, one of the leading Macedonian doctors lives and works here in Sofia. Dr. Vladimir Dimov is a specialist in abdominal surgery and a former health minister of Macedonia. The Bulgarian from the region of Bessarabia (in Moldova and Ukraine) Leonid Bazan, who was born in Bulgaria, recently won a silver medal at the European Wrestling Championship. I expect him to snatch the gold at the upcoming Olympiad.
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