Edited by Bulgarian Center for Regional Cultural Studies (Sofia)

© 1998 This paper may not be reproduced in any form without the express permission of the Bulgarian Center for Regional Cultural Studies or the author

Histories and Identities: Nation-state and Minority Disco urses

The Case of the Bulgarian Pomaks 1

Ulf Brunnbauer, University of Graz


In the last few years the study of ethnic identities has become extremely popular among scholars dealing with the Balkans. Predictably, the main focus was laid on the nationalities of former Yugoslavia who came into the consciousness of the Western audience as archaic in-groups fighting each other. A special interest was given to the case of the Muslims in Yugoslavia, above all the Bosnians. In the light of the formation of a Bosnian state new interpretations of the Bosnian Muslim’s identities were tried.

The case of the Bosnian Muslims shows perfectly well how difficult it is to establish one-featured identities throughout the Balkans. Lacking the early phases of nation-state formation the Balkans have remained a place where fierce struggles about identities continue to be fought in a belated effort to achieve homogenisation.

The enforcement of a single national identity has become a main goal of official policy. Instead of developing the institutions of civil society, Balkan nation-states have been leaning in the direction of boundary-building and the imposition of authoritarian regimes.

In spite of such tendencies and ambitions minority peoples throughout the Balkans have by and large resisted assimilation and have opposed the 'one state – one nation' principle. Partly because of the weakness of the institutions of the central state no matter how authoritarian, and partly because of a purely formal acceptance of identities ascribed by the state, the Balkans have thus remained a geographical and cultural region with a high density of different ethnic, national and other superindividual identities. Even Communism could not change fundamentally this picture.

Actors are sensitive to the resulting social heterogeneity. The question of identity is of serious concern to people, insofar as in the end they have to settle on one identity or switch between several identities. A case very much in point are the Bulgarian Muslims (Pomaks). As it has been said above, international attention during the recent years had been mainly preoccupied with the plight of the Bosnian Muslims in the context of the war in former Yugoslavia, while other Muslim populations were (with the exception of the Kosovo Albanians) largely ignored. Such a case of an ignored community are the Pomaks of Bulgaria.

Who are the Pomaks?

The British specialist in Balkan minority-studies Hugh Poulton writes: 'The Bulgarian Muslims (i.e. the Pomaks) are a religious minority. They are Slavic Bulgarians who speak Bulgarian as their mother tongue, but whose religion and customs are Islamic.' (Poulton 1994:111)

In Bulgaria the Pomaks are one of three larger minorities, the first two being the Bulgarian Turks and the Roma. In 1989 the Ministry of the Interior gave for the Bulgarian Muslim (Pomak) population of Bulgaria the number of 268 971 which was around 3% of the whole population of the country at the time. (See Konstantinov and Alhaug 1995:24)

Outside Bulgaria Pomaks live in Greece, Macedonia, Turkey and probably also in Albania. Their numbers cannot be estimated even roughly since they are not counted in national censuses. What is known about the Pomaks in Turkey and Greece (the former having come from Bulgaria as economic migrants or fleeing from repressive measures) is that they are again subjected to processes of assimilation on the part of the respective majority societies. (Cf. Apostolov 1996)

In Bulgaria the Pomaks live in compact settlements in the districts of Smolyan, Blagoevgrad, Pazardzhik and Kurdzhali, that is in the Mesta valley and the Rhodope Mountains. Smaller Pomaks communities exist near the town of Lovech (Lory 1987), and in a few small villages around Zlatarica near Veliko Turnovo (Konstantinov and Alhaug 1995). Over 90 % of the Pomaks live, however, in the south in the predominantly mountainous area of the Rhodopes.

Traditionally the Pomaks have been mountain pastoralists and small-time agriculturists. These occupations lost partly their subsistence character only after World War I when the Pomaks began planting tobacco. During Communism they did not take part in the migratory movement to the towns and the new industries, trying to remain in their native villages as far as possible. This was assisted by employment possibilities opened up by collectivization, as well as by the subsequent partial transfer of small industrial units from towns to villages ('domestication of industry'). (For these processes see Creed 1995; Giordano and Kostova 1995:157-164).

All of this is connected with the formation of collective farms (TKSZ) in the 1950s and agro-industrials complexes (APK) in the seventies which created a variety of new jobs in the villages. Salaried job-opportunities increased still further in the late 60s and 70s when a great number of small factories and work-shops were set up in the countryside to help relieve urban house-shortage, chronic consumer goods deficits and transportation problems. As a result the Pomaks had no reason to search paid work in urban centres. To get a salary from the state and to own a small plot of land for the production of the food for the family was and to a large extent still is the ideal of Pomak life.

This very brief survey of the social and economic features of the Pomak community is important for understanding their identity. Because of their reluctance to go to the towns and disappear into the anonymous life of modern industrial and urban centres, Bulgarian Pomaks had managed to retain a position at a certain distance from the majority society. Occupying such a niche they represented an image of a remnant of the old order in the eyes of Communist Party and State administration of the pre-'89 period, and, consequently, it was only a question of time when the Party would turn against them to bring them back into the future.

The contested identity of the Pomaks

The question of identity and the battles about determining it seem to be crucial for understanding the situation of the Pomaks. In this paper I emphasize the role which the use of history has played for the construction of a Pomak identity. It was through the writing and telling of various histories about the origins of this community that the various versions of their identity have been formed.

Poulton’s definition of who the Pomaks are, quoted above, provides a good point of departure for a discussion of 'own' and 'alien' versions of their identity. It shows that a member of the community has the choice between two sets of identities which shall be called 'organic' here.2 Choice depends on what cultural features persons would choose for describing themselves. If they choose language to be the defining feature, they will have to see themselves as Bulgarians, but if that feature is religion, then their identity will be Muslim.

The latter choice is open to a number of different interpretations. Muslim could mean an adherent to Islam and member of the Umma. It could also indicate a distinct Pomak identity. Or - and very likely - Muslim identity could lead to a Turkish ethnic adherence.

This ambiguity of Pomak identity on an individual and group-level makes it possible for larger ethnic groups with a stable ethnic consciousness to try to impose their views about who the Pomaks are. In the Bulgarian context the most serious challenge has come in the form of Bulgarian nationalistic campaigns carried out after 1878 by the nation-state and its institutions.

A more vernacular version of identity-manipulation has come from the Turkish minority in Bulgaria. It gained momentum especially after the fall of Todor Zhivkov in the late fall of 1989 when the Party for Rights and Freedom (DPS) was founded. Unofficially, the party is identified as a primarily Turkish ethnic party, although its purported aims are to defend the rights of all minority groups. On the ground of the common religion there is a tendency within DPS to 'Turkify' the Pomaks.

Thus the Pomaks are confronted with two identity-prescriptions used by nationalists from the two primary camps. One of them is based on language, and the other one - on religion. A growing number of Bulgarian Muslims refuse, however, both versions and decline to define themselves either as Bulgarians or as Turks. They call themselves 'Pomaks', 'Achryani', or simply 'Muslims'.

Such facts point in the direction of discussing identity in terms of socially determined constructs. Identity is a social fact, and as such it is determined by human (i.e. social) behaviour. (Cf. Banda-Beckman and Verkuyten 1995:30f.) Social, cultural, and individual processes and decisions form identity. Fixed identities which are ascribed to a community with no regard for their social life can only be seen as highly ideological.

Generally they would deny exactly the constructed character of identities and as a consequence - their historical development.

More often than not identities ascribed from outside tend to assume natural origin - i.e. to be inherited in one's 'blood', as it were, and not to be a product of one's mind. Ascribed identities can, of course, be deconstructed. The agents of invention and imposition can be identified, and their interests and methods analysed.

The Balkans present a great number of cases of nation-state inventions and their impositions, one of the the most striking ones being the Macedonian case. (See Poulton 1995) A less well-known, but nevertheless very telling example of Balkan identity-politics is the Pomak one discussed here. It is a good example of how power constructs identities and how the targeted communities react to such impositions. It also illustrates how impositions are self-destructive as instead of achieving a single identity, actors on the ground adopt multiple context-sensitive identities. Thus the Pomaks' self-definitions are often related to the specific context in which they act and communicate.

History has always been the decisive means for constructing an identity for the Pomaks. The battle between different versions of history is, however, an unfair one. Nation-state historiography, which provides the basis for officially constructed and imposed identities, has an impressive number of power-instruments at its disposal - ranging from the school-system, public propaganda, to sheer force. By contrast, vernacular versions of history - Turkish and Pomak ones, have enjoyed a degree of public life only since 1989 and are actually sometimes silenced even now.

The (re-) construction of the history of the Bulgarian Muslims

Identities are rooted in history. Communities construct their identities to present themselves as historic entities

existing continuously and uninterruptedly for as long a period as possible. The principle applies to the Pomak case, too. Different interpretations of their identity are based on different histories of their origin.

On a written and national level Bulgarian, Turkish and Greek versions challenge each other. Their validity is confined to the borders of the respective nation-state with the important exception of the Turkish version which is also distributed by Bulgarian Turks within Bulgaria. Not surprisingly each national interpretation claims that the Pomaks are of their nationality, i.e. either Bulgarian, Greek, or Turkish.

The Greeks and Turks have to be the more imaginative identity-makers since their versions of Pomak origin have the least convincing foundations. Since it is a fact that the Pomaks speak Bulgarian as their mother's tongue their main thrust has been to prove that either the language is not Bulgarian or that it was imposed forcefully only in the 20th century - before that time the Pomaks had been speaking Turkish. The well known Canadian-Bulgarian anthropologist Asen Balikci has written a paper recently about the Greek and Turkish attempts to 'pocket' the Pomaks. (Balikci 1997) Disregarding the ingenuity of these attempts, my focus will be on the less imaginative, but more relevant Bulgarian case.

The overwhelming majority of the Pomaks live in Bulgaria, and thus Bulgarian policy is of greatest concern to them. In broad outlines, the latter can be said to follow the typical course of asserting a new nation-state on the Balkan Peninsula.

In this context a discussion of Bulgarian Muslim identity and history began already towards the latter half of the 19th century, but following a pattern established by intellectual forerunners much earlier. A most prominent case in point is the famous monk Paisy Khilendarski with his programmatic Istoriya Slavyanobolgarskaya (A Slavic Bulgarian History) written in 1762.

Despite such early proclammations, it was only in the second half of the 19th century that the nation-building process in the country started to make some headway. Following the established pattern this was first and foremost an intellectual project defining a Bulgarian nation and determining its distinctive features. The ambition of the Bulgarian intelligentsia of the period was to try and transform parochial, kin-oriented, and self-centred traditional perceptions of identity - which were only natural in a multiethnic society of mostly illiterate smallholders - into a national one. A main distinctive feature of a Bulgarian was to be language, going back to the glories of the First and Second Bulgarian Kingdoms.

Within this context Bulgarian language was presented as the pillar of all other Slavic languages. It had been preserved all through the centuries of Ottoman occupation (the 'Turkish Yoke') because of the resistance of the Bulgarians against Ottoman assimilation and also due to the Church. The existence of a Bulgarian nation was thus traced back into the early middle-ages. But since Orthodox Christianity was an important feature of what I will call 'Bulgarianness' (bulgarshtina) the belonging of the Pomaks to the Bulgarian nation needed some additional proof. They had to be 'genuine' Bulgarians in an environment of aggressive nationalisms of the German type (Sprachnationalismus, Kulturnationalismus). Furthermore, the Pomaks lived mainly in areas which were the goal of Bulgarian expansionism after 1878 (the Pirin and Rhodope regions). Those regions were regained by Bulgaria after the First Balkan War of 1912 and their integration was a main aim of Bulgarian politics at that time. To be able to declare the Pomaks to be Bulgarians and to cope with the fact that they believed in Allah - the god of the former oppressors! - the history of forced Islamization had to be invented. Once shown that the Pomaks were converted by force and against their fiercest resistance, the continuation of their Bulgarianness could be claimed.

This version of history is reflected by the officially adopted ethnonym bulgaromohamedani, Bulgarian Mohammedans, in reference to the Pomaks. It has been one of the main aims of the extensive ethnographic, historical, and other writing about the Pomaks to prove that even after conversion to Islam they had continued to keep their Bulgarian language, together with Christian and sometimes even pagan traditions and customs. (Vakarelski 1966; Vasilev 1961; Vranchev 1948).

Nationalist historians, like the director of the Provincial Archive in Smolyan, Andrej Pechilkov, did not modify their theories about the bulgaromohamedani after 1989: 'After adopting Islam under the most terrible and harshest circumstances they (i.e. the Bulgarian Muslims) - people whose mind is full of tragedy, but who are hard as stones - did keep their beautiful Bulgarian language, their old Slavic traditions, their pure national character, despite brutal pressure and persecution throughout centuries. (Pechilkov 1993:5)

Thus obvious differences in the mentality and habits between Christians and Pomaks were either ignored or attributed to old Slavic customs which were preserved by the Pomaks. Their language, as in the text quoted above, was said to be an extremely old, even Cyrillo-Methodian dialect, with a 'pure and beautiful' Bulgarian flavour. Again Andrej Pechilkov: 'The Bulgarians with Muslim faith do not know one Turkish word which is the basic and most categorical proof of their Bulgarian ethnicity. It is also believed that the oldest Bulgarian language - Cyrill-Methodian one - is preserved exactly in the Central Rhodopes)'. (ibid.)

The most consistent official histories of the Pomaks were written under the Communist rule. The most ambitious and authoritative of them is the book 'On the Past of the Bulgarian Mohammedans in the Rhodopes'. It was edited in 1958 by the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences and had gathered for its composition some of the best known and respected Bulgarian historians of recent times, like Vera Mutafchieva and Nikolai Todorov. The book reflects very well the official and also popular majority way of thinking about the Pomaks and thus anticipated the name-changing campaign of 1971-1974 which formed he first phase of the so-called Process of Rebirth. In that process all Pomaks had to change their Turkic-Arabic names to Bulgarian ones. (See Konstantinov and Alhaug 1995) The book can be viewed as the logical outcome of a cultural policy that viewed the Pomaks as Bulgarians, but with a certain shortcoming, a blemish - their Islamic religion.

The part of the book which interests us most is the chapter on 'the enforced Islamization of the Rhodope Bulgarians'. The author is Nikolai Todorov, one of the few Bulgarian historians who had been published in the West before 1989.

Todorov defines two waves of large-scale forced conversions to Islam in Bulgaria: the first under Sultan Selim II in the 16th century and the second under the reign of Mehmed IV (1648-1687). The first mass conversion allegedly affected a region stretching from the Aegean to Bosnia. The main source for Todorov’s assertion is a chronicle from the 18th century /sic!/ which he does not quote anyway. The second wave is said to have been conducted by the Sultan’s famous Grandvezir Mehmed Köprölü who commanded a body of Janissary troops on a campaign against the Venetians in the long-drawn Ottoman-Venetian wars. Mehmed Köprölü is said to have forced the population of the Rhodope region of Chepino, through which he was passing with his troops, to accept Islam. The only source for this event is a chronicle of one Priest Draganov which according to Todorov was written 'not long after the events' (Bulgarska Akademiya na Naoukite 1958:68).3 Todorov concedes that the chronicle had got lost and that we know it only from the copy in Stefan Zahariev’s book (Zahariev 1870: 67ff). But the truth is that the chronicle is simply a fake - and even 'one of the worst' as the Ottomanist Machiel Kiehl puts it (Letter from Machiel Kiel to the author, October 9, 1997). Todorov’s example is so illustrative because it was a common practice not to quote original sources, but to take them uncritically from other authors. One author after the other perpetuated the quotation of the source without the slightest attempt at verification.

Thus a whole literature became built on very few sources which were often fakes. But the point is that the (hi)story, however faked its basis was, was believed. What was created was a genre of literature with a number of constantly repeated genre-topics.

One of these genre-features is to tell a story of 'some Bulgarians who rather preferred to be killed or to leave their homes than to adopt Islam. They stayed devoted to their grandfathers’ faith. Others converted to Islam under the threat of death . They did this to save their lives. But although they changed their faith they did not cease to be sons of their people.' (Bulgarska Akademiya na Naoukite 1958:70).

Other topoi which do not miss in most of the accounts about the Pomaks are: 'In every Bulgarian Muslim village there is at least one grave of a Christan who was killed by the Ottomans for his protest against Islamization.' The following case, however, seems to present the reality of the situation. In the 1980s the Historical Museum of the town of Smolyan organized an archaeological expedition. Its aim was to find such Christian graves in Pomak villages. Since such had not been found, the director of the museum put crosses on the Muslim graves as a proof that the deceased had previously been Christian. (oral information provided by the mayor of the village of Smilyan and the historian Mrs. Boryana Panayotova).

Another recurrent motif is that a lot of toponyms 'recall' the Christian past of the Pomaks and the victims of the enforced Islamization. Such names are for example derivates from words like 'church', 'blood', 'bride' or 'virgin'. The story is that villages in the Rhodopes bearing such names had been founded by Christian fugitives who had hid in the forests, fleeing from the Ottoman troops.

Another point is made by emphasizing the good everyday relations between Pomaks and Christians. A popular story has it that one of these two communities had run to the rescue of the other during war-time: Pomaks were rescuing Christians from retreating Ottoman troops during the Liberation War of 1877-8, or, conversely, Christian neighbours were providing defence for Pomaks in the face of the advancing Russian army. Indisputable massacres - like the ones in the Christian villages of Batak and Perushtica in 1876 or the expulsion of the Pomak population of some Rhodope villages in 1912 - are, if they cannot be ignored, attributed to a small group of fanatics from both communities and the senseless and fatal policy of the state. But all that could not destroy the Bulgarianness of the Pomaks; they continued to keep their Bulgarian ethnicity nevertheless.

The main premise behind such versions of history is that not religion, but language defines ethnicity: 'They (the Pomaks) speak an old and pure Bulgarian language, which is the best proof of their Bulgarian origin.' (Bulgarska Akademiya na Naoukite 1958:72).

Todorov’s account in this volume contains all the important points needed for an official reconstruction of Pomak history. The main line of argument is that the Pomaks are Bulgarians, but with a certain defect: i.e. that they do not belong to the Christian community , but cling to the faith of the former oppressor. This can be rectified however and the Pomaks can be returned ('reborn') into their true and pure Bulgarianness.

The removal of the defect was seen as a semiotic (anthroponymic) operation which could be imposed on the Pomaks employing violence if needs be. Books like the academic volume referred to above anticipate such operations. The first of these drastic measures was the enforced conversion to Christianity in the autumn months of 1912, followed after intervals of various lengths by name-changing campaigns. Konstantinov counts four cycles of conversion: 1912, 1938-1944, 1962-64, and 1971-72. (See Konstantinov 1992a; Konstantinov and Alhaug 1995:25 ff, also Konstantinov in this volume)

The last conversion was the most brutal one (for a good description of this campaign and the resistance against it from the perspective of a small town in the Rhodopes, Madan, see Karagiannis 1995: 20 ff.) It was carried out with administrative orders and with the support of the army, the secret police, special police forces, and para-military support. Any attempt to resist the measures - and there have been such - was crushed by force.. An unknown number of Pomaks, who refused to accept the new name, were killed or injured, and several hundred people were interned in the notorious prison camp on the Belene Island in the Danube.

The Communist Party aimed at the destruction of all semiotic representations of a distinctive Pomak culture. Not only names, but also traditions and customs, as well as the wearing of traditional dresses was forbidden. The idea was that no public symbol of the Pomaks' different faith and different culture should remain – an ambition which unwittingly laid bare the fact that such differences did exist.

Another point which the authorities were trying to make was that the campaign of 'rebirth' was a voluntary step towards modernization and thus the Socialist State was helping the Pomaks to get out of their 'backwardness' - a backwardness identified with Islam.

Thus we can observe a process in which academic or literary fictions by historians, ethnographers and writers on the topic of the Pomaks as forcefully islamized Bulgarians, escalated to a military operation designed to bring the Pomaks back into a state of complete Bulgarianness. In this process all representations which could serve as a basis for a distinguished Pomak identity, or even worse - for a Turkish one - were targeted to be extinguished.

Such an assimilatory policy was tested on the Pomaks and would ten years later be applied to the Bulgarian Turks - a second edition of 'the process of rebirth', but much better known because of its international repercussions. (See for instance Poulton 1994: 129ff). The conversion campaign was identical, but this time it was directed against a minority of 800 000 people, who offered resolute resistance in some places. Summing up the rationale of the process from the point of view of the nation-state, three main motives could be identified: (1) a feeling of threat coming from Islam and especially from Turkey; (2) tension resulting from an obvious contradiction between Communist rhetoric of modernity and the traditional life-style of the Muslim minorities; and (3) the dominance of a strongly nationalistic faction in Communist Party leadership.

New identities and new histories

Soon after the overthrow of Zhivkov's regime in November 1989 most of the laws discriminating Bulgaria’s Muslim minorities were revised (not without facing fierce nationalist opposition 4). Since 1990 it has become possible for Muslims to take back their old names or to create for themselves new 'Muslim' names. The practising of Islam was allowed again and religion experienced a short-lived boom. Mosques were renovated and reopened, and new ones were built. For Bulgarian nationalists this was a traumatic experience. 'For short-sightened political gains the minds of the people (i.e. the Bulgarian Muslims) were again confused. (...) In the district of Smolyan casettes with prayers and talks in a foreign language which nobody understands are distributed muddling the consciousness of our brothers (the Bulgarian Muslims). (Pechilkov 1993:18) The liberalisation of the semiotic codes marking ethnicity and national identity generated feelings of being threatened among the majority population. Visions of the Muslim threat (historically materialized in the Ottoman empire) reemerged. (See Konstantinov 1992b:75)

For the Pomak identity these changes implied a return of the battles over their ethnic consciousness back onto the public scene. The official version - before 1989 being the only one allowed - was going to be contested again in the public as in the private sphere.

Broadly speaking, three tendencies of Pomak self-definition arose. The first was to adopt a Turkish identity - a phenomenon located primarily in the Western Rhodopes (Chech) and the Mesta valley, and also in the Eastern Rhodopes (Region of Kurdzhali), where Pomaks were becoming increasingly assimilated to the predominantly Turkish environment there. (Kalyonski 1993:126) A second tendency, but this time in the opposite direction, was to accept the nation-state designed identity, that is to see oneself as ethnically Bulgarian. More often than not this correlated with sympathy for or membership in the Bulgarian Socialist Party - the party which succeeded the former ruling Bulgarian Communist Party.

A good example of the second tendency can be provided by the small and isolated village of Zaburdo situated in the northern slopes of the Rhodope mountains. The village is known as a 'red' village and its population which is entirely Pomak calls itself Bulgarian. There is even an initiative to build a Christian chapel in the village.

A third tendency is to refuse to adopt either a Bulgarian or a Turkish orientation, but to cling to a distinct and Pomak-specific ethnic consciousness. Such Bulgarian Muslims would call themselves Pomaks, Achryane, Muslims and so on. As far as I know this tendency has its greatest spread in the Central Rhodopes around the towns of Chepelare and Smolyan.

All these identities can be said to be founded on versions of history which differ radically from each other. The official nation-state theory about the origin of the Pomaks has already been presented above and I shall now turn to alternative versions.

All of them have one common premise: they deny that the Pomaks had been originally Christians who were forced to adopt Islam. In the extreme case they would exclude every possible connection with a Slavic origin of the Pomaks; such versions would claim instead that when the Pomaks arrived in the Balkans they had already been Muslims.

The mayor of Smilyan, an overwhelmingly Pomak village of two thousand inhabitants told me the following story about the Pomaks’ origin. In the first place, he made a difference between the Pomaks proper who live in the Western Rhodopes and the Achryane, the Muslim population of the Central Rhodopes (including Smilyan). The Pomaks had allegedly come with the Proto-Bulgarians from the steppes of Central Asia and were a warlike people; whereas the Achryane were descendents of people from Syria who had been settled in the Rhodopes during the 8th century. The action is attributed to a Byzantine Emperor as a measure against the Slavs. In point of historic fact, durig the 8th c. settlers from Syria had been indeed placed in Thrace, in the foothills of the Rhodopes by the Byzantine Emperor Constantin V Copronymus (741-775). But, of course, there is no proof for a descent of the present-day Pomaks from these Syrian settlers. The theory is not plausible and contradicts what we know about Islamization, but the point is that it is believed by many people like the mayor of Smilyan - an intelligent, educated person.

Other anti-official Pomak histories are for instance the following. In one version the Pomaks are presented as descendants of the Yuruks, Anatolian nomadic pastoralists who had settled on the Balkans -and specifically in the Rhodopes - soon after the Ottoman occupation in mid-14 c. Indeed the presence of the Muslim Yuruks played an important role in the process of Islamization, but again there are no sources establishing a direct descent of the Pomaks from them.

In another variant the Pomaks are the descendants of Ottoman (Turkish) soldiers who had married Bulgarian women. This theory is based on the assumption that men transfer nationality (through blood/sperm) and women language (through bringing up the children). As a consequence the Pomaks speak Bulgarian as a mother tongue, but are of Turkish (sometimes Pomak) nationality.

Yet another variant is that the Pomaks descend form the Kumano-Turks who on their way from the steppes of Central Asia to the Balkans stopped for some time in the Ukraine where they adopted a Slavic tongue.

It has also to be said that some - mostly elderly - Pomaks deny that the Pomaks have been speaking Bulgarian before 1912 (or 1878) . (Comp. Konstantinov in this volume). The claim is that Pomaks had been forced to attend Bulgarian schools and learn Bulgarian and that they had been forbidden to speak Turkish. (ibid.) Vernacular versions of Pomak history would also claim that the Pomaks (or Achryane) had come from western Anatolia. Similarities between names of Anatolian and Rhodope villages are used as a proof of this scenario.

The list of popular theories about the origins of the Pomaks could be continued, but I would rather stop at this point as the pattern has become obvious. Its logic and motivation is to resist the officially imposed identity by presenting its own versions and 'proofs'. Versions can often contradict each other and in a single village one is likely to come across several theories - or even one and the same person may tell more than one. The striking point is that all these histories and explanations of identity structurally resemble the official version: they belong to a discourse which sees identity as an immutable, organically inherited fact. Neither the official nor the unofficial versions of Pomak identity accept the validity of a constructed identity.

Pomak identity is in fact in a flow, but identity-makers try to impose a single identity which excludes all other possible ones. Taking recourse to history - and the more distant that history, the better - they try to integrate people into a corporate community with a single, monolithic and immutable identity. Members of one community must be separated from the other by clearly defined and easily recogniseable borders. One cannot be of ours and of the others simultaneously - that is how identity is regarded when the individual's right to decide for oneself is refuted.

In place of a conclusion I want to give a further example of construction of identity and one that illustrates that the makers of official identity variants are themselves not too scrupulous when it comes to historic truth. If necessary they could invent events and persons and make them popular knowledge through the use of institutions of the state (history textbooks, monuments, propaganda).

In the already mentioned village of Smilyan there stands a monument of one Bishop Visarion. Official history has it that he was killed during the 17th century conversion-campaign by the Ottoman troops because he dared to offer resistance. The existence of the Bishop seems to have been faked however - there was no bishopric at this time in Smilyan and consequently no Bishop Visarion could have held office there.

A similar example of inventing history is also the following. On the small orthodox church in the Pomak village of Trigrad (some five Christian families live there nowadays) a plaque reads: 'To our brothers who have given their lives for our liberation in 1912-1913'. There were no Bulgarians to be liberated in Trigrad in 1912-1913 however, because the population was entirely Pomak. For them liberation meant the burning down of their village by Bulgarian troops and irregulars from the neighbouring Christian villages after which they had to flee southwards. When they came back, they saw their best property and the administration of the village taken over by Christians.

Finally, differing perceptions of the Bulgarian liberation movement of the latter third of 19 c. have not been subjected to intensive debate. What was liberation for most of the Christian population of the Bulgarian provinces of the Ottoman Empire, was perceived in a completely different way by its large Muslim population (for more details see: Brunnbauer 1997, 27ff.). To reach a new consciousness of citizenship however, alternative experiences of such a process have to be taken into account. For the Balkans as elsewhere it is vital to be able to step beyond monolithic identities which try to pocket people without regard for their own will.


This paper results from my work in the research-project 'Ecology,Organisation of Work, and Family Forms in the Balkans. Mountain Societies in Comparison', which is funded by the Austrian Foundation for the Advancement of Scientific Research (FWF). The project is conducted at the Department for Southeast European History at the Karl-Franzens-University of Graz


1. This article was first read as a paper to the Workshop 'Muslim Communities in Bulgaria Eight Years After the Exodus of 1989', 19 - 24 September 1997, Hamlet of Hadjiyska, Bulgaria. Organised by the Bulgarian Society for Regional Cultural Studies (BSRCS) in cooperation with The Austrian Institute for East and Southeast Europe - Branch Office, Sofia. Back

2. 'Organic' in so far as the social environment would take it as a 'natural', 'grown', and 'traditional' identity. Since on the Balkans and elsewhere nation-states and nationalisms do not accept heterogeneous identities, they claim one feature of oneself to be decisive for the belonging to a given in-group. To have a multiple identity is not accepted. To capture this state of affairs the term „organic“ is offered here. Back

3. The authenticity of Draganov’s chronicle was questioned already by the Bulgarian historian Antonina Zhelyazkova in 1988 (See: Zhelyazkova et al. 1997: 79ff).Back

4. In January 1990 violent nationalistic demonstrations took place in the centre of Sofia, protesting against the decision of the still existing Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party for allowing Muslims to regain their names, faith and language. It should also be mentioned that many architects of the Process of Rebirth wre still powerful figures at this time. Thus Academician Nikolai Todorov was serving as the elected Chairman of the National Assembly. Back


Apostolov, Mario 1996. The Pomaks: A Religious Minority in the Balkans. Nationalities Papers 24 (4): 727- 742.

Balikci, Asen 1997. Pomak Identity: National Prescriptions and Native Assumptions. Paper read to the Second Conference of the Association for Balkan Anthropology, Bucharest 20.9.-22.9.1997.

Banda-Beckman, Keebet and Verkuyten, Maykel, eds. 1995. Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Cultural Identity in Europe. Utrecht.

Brunnbauer, Ulf 1997. Pomaken in Bulgarien. Der schwierige Weg der Identitätsfindung. Ostwest- Gegeninformationen 9(3): 26-30.

Bulgarska Akademiya na Naoukite 1958. Iz minaloto na bâlgarite-mohamedani v Rodopite. /On the Past of the Bulgarian Mohammedans in the Rhodopes/. Sofia:BAN.

Creed, Gerald 1995. Agriculture and the Domestication of Industry in Rural Bulgaria. American Ethnologist 22(3):528-548.

Georgiev, Velichko and Staiko Trifonov 1995. Pokrustvaneto na bulgarite mohamedani 1912-1913. Dokoumenti. /Conversion of the Bulgarian Mohammedans 1912-1913. Documents/. Sofia: Prof. Marin Drinov.

Giordano, Christian and Dobrinka Kostova 1995. Bulgarie: Une réforme agraire sans paysans. Etude Rurales, 'Paysans au-delà du mur', No 138-139-140. Paris: L'EHESS, pp. 157-173.

Kalyonski, Aleksei 1993. The Pomak Dilemma. Programme de recherches interdisciplinaires sur le monde musulman périphérique: La transmission du savoir dens le monde musulman périphérique. Lettre d’information, 13:123-130.

Karagiannis, Evangelos 1995. Die Pomaken der Gemeinde Madan. Zur aktuellen Lage der bulgarisch- pomakischen Auseinandersetzung in den Zentralrhodopen. Unpublished MS.

Konstantinov, Yulian 1992a. An Account of Pomak Conversions in Bulgaria (1912 - 1990)'. In: Gerhard Seewann (ed.), Minderheitenfragen in Südosteuropa. München: Südost-Institut, R. Oldenbourg Verlag, pp. 343-359.

________________ 1992b. 'Nation-State' and 'Minority' Types of Discourse - Problems of Communication between the Majority and the Islamic Minorities in Contemporary Bulgaria. Innovation 5(3): 75-89.

Konstantinov, Yulian and Gulbrand Alhaug 1995. Names, Ethnicity, and Politics: Islamic Names in Bulgaria 1912-1992. Tromsø Studies in Linguistics 15, Oslo: Novus Press.

Lory, Bernard 1987. Une comunaute musulmane oubilee: Les Pomaks de Lovec. Turcica 19: 95-117.

Pechilkov, Andrei 1993. Istoricheskata sudba na rodopskite bulgari mokhamedani. /The Historic Destiny of the Rhodope Bulgarian-Mohammedans/. Smolyan: ODA Smolyan.

Poulton, Hugh 1993. The Balkans. Minorities and States in Conflict. London: Minority Rights Publications.

____________1995. Who are the Macedonians? London: Hurst & Co.

Vakarelski, Christo 1966. Altertümliche Elemente in Lebensweise und Kultur der bulgarischen Mohammedaner. Zeitschrift für Balkanologie 1-2 : 149-172.

Vasilev, Kiril 1961. Rodopskite bulgari-mohamedani, kn. 1. /The Rhodope Bulgarian Mohammedans, Vol. I/. Plovdiv: Hristo G. Danov.

Vranchev, Nikolai 1948. Bulgari-mohamedani (pomatsi). /Bulgarian Mohammedans (Pomaks)/. Sofia.

Zhelyazkova , Antonina, Bozhidar Aleksiev, and Zhorzheta Nazurska 1997. Myusyulmanskite obshtnosti na Balkanite i v Bulgarija. /Muslim Communities in the Balkans and in Bulgaria/. Sofia: IMIR.

Zahariev, Stefan 1870. Geografsko-istoriko-statistichesko opisanie na Tatar-Pazardzhishkata kaaza. /A Geographical, Historical and Statistical Description of the Region (kaaza) of Tatar- Pazardzhik/. Vienna: L.Sommer.

Ulf's Home

In and Out of the Collective / Contents / BSRCS' Home / Next article / Cumulative Bibliography