Saturday, February 6, 2010

An Easy Kill

Or the Thracian Civilization buried again

The Balkans always have been a zone of cultural mixes, a powder keg of conflict and a treasure hunters’ wet dream. One would think that with the European Union reigning over some of the countries that deserve this geographic nomination, all these intrigues, quarrels and mutual hate would stop. Wrong.

The Balkans live in the past. There are hordes of politicians, pseudo-historians and archeology aficionados, who try to “prove” the right of territory (though right of culture, right of ethic adherence and history) to belong to a modern state. The international soap opera “Macedonia name” continues for years. Slovenia and Croatia still dispute territories, Serbia doesn’t want to grant the right of existence of Kossovo, after giving away without fight Montenegro. And so on…

On this background of everybody hanging on the dear thread of history, it looks like it would be difficult to erase from the face of science and human memory the Thracians, people who existed 3 millennia on the Peninsula and beyond. Wrong. Many peoples want to kill the Thracian cultural heritage (except the treasure hunters, who know that a Thracian coin is more expensive on the market than a Greek or Roman one) and its uniqueness.

Who are the killers?

Let’s start with the arch-enemies of the Thracians, the Greeks. Cultural tourism in Greece depends on the 5 centuries of glory, when Athens and Sparta created amazing cultural heritage, visible until now a day. Alexander the Great and his father, Philip, added another 4 centuries of Hellenistic culture to the mix. With territories from the Middle East to Italy, Magna Graecia was a powerful cultural sphere, although never existed as an empire or organized state. At that time, there were only 3 enemies to Greece – the Persians, the Illyrians and the Thracians.

Form all literature surviving, the Thracians were constantly criticized: they didn’t water down the wine!!! (Can you believe such a crime against civilization), described with all kind of lies (they were selling their children in slavery, for money), and attacked by wars many times. In spite of all this, the memory of the Thracians survived – from Homer to Herodotus and Plato, to many travelers who admired their fine wines, supreme craftsmanship, their wealth and their military power.

Fast-forward 12 centuries after the last Thracians lived on the Peninsula within the limits of the Bulgarian and Byzantine empires, today the Magna Graecia fans are killing them with much more efficiency that they ever could with arms and lies in the Antiquity. How? Every Thracian tomb, artifact, epigraphic inscription, or document found in modern Greece is automatically labeled “Greek” and this is the end of the story.

And don’t believe that this is only happening to the Thracians. Mycenaean civilization gold masks, palaces and others – once again – Greek. The short memory of the Magna Graecia zealots cannot even go 200 years ago, when Thrace (currently a province in modern Greece), was completely occupied by Bulgarian speaking people, who still worshiped the Sun God of the Thracians by performing Nestinaria dances, to which several historical records testify.

With the same blindness to see antique maps, they insist that Macedonia was part of Greece, forgetting that in spite that Alexander the Great was speaking Greek at this time and his father was admitted to compete in the Olympic games as a Greek, he was considering himself Macedonian, not Greek. At this time, Macedonia was a melting pot of several tribes, including Thracian, Hellenistic and Illyrian ones, in spite of the labeling in the Museum of Macedonia.

If you believe the description in the Museum of Macedonia in Skopje, the Peonians (a Thracian tribe) were Macedonians and, accordingly to the modern FYR of Macedonia, the Illyrians were Macedonians too. And while the war over the naming, history and cultural heritage of the Macedon Empire is very visible internationally, the fight over the Thracians is only visible to a handful people in Bulgaria.

The politicians and pseudo-scientists in FYR of Macedonia are the other killer of Thracian history, although they are so discredited by trying to link their Slavonic (read Bulgarian, for some) heritage, to Alexander the Great that nobody believes them anyway. BTW, the Macedon cultural heritage doesn’t have anything to do with modern Macedonia, or with the geographical zone with this name covering parts of Greece, Bulgaria or FYRM.The Macedons and their Empire disappeared short after the dead of Alexander the Great, when it was broken in several provinces, including Thrace.

Romanian statements, trying to explain that the Dacians were not Thracians, based on the latest years of the Roman Empire, don’t hold water either. The Roman Province of Dacia was an administrative unit. The Dacian were Thracians, as per several documents from the antiquity. Several Thracian artifacts, fortresses, tombs, etc. are found not only on Romanian territory but as far as Ukraine and Southern Russia. That last one, is using the label “Scythians” to glue on every Thracian artifact found in their territories.

The Turks, who dominated the Balkan Peninsula with iron fist and terror, including cruel conversions to the Islam, slaughtering entire villages, etc., surprisingly enough, don’t always try to mislabel their archaeological finds with “Magna Graecia” or “Anatolian civilization” naming. Of course, there are mistakes made, but at least, in the Archaeological Museum of Istanbul, there is an entire hall dedicated to the Thracians, and every object is properly described as artifact of this important civilization.

All above is very normal – as I said – long histories, long hostilities reign over the Balkans. The reasons – cherchez le money! The tourism industry represents from 10 to 20% for each of the GDPs of any of the Balkan countries. Beach tourism is cheap. The cultural and creative tourism are bringing more money. That combined with ill territorial disputes, makes history important for the income of any of the Balkan countries.

Croatia, and Turkey took the high road and are proclaiming themselves successors of several civilizations, without particularly favoring any of the past cultures. Romania has its Dracula as a cash-cow in cultural tourism. Serbia and Slovenia stress their late medieval adherence to Europe with mostly Italian and Austrian influence, and are showing off their West European style castles and palaces. A smarter policy than to try to dwell in the antiquity. Albania, helped by the Islam countries, glorifies its Ottoman inheritance.

So, who is left to fight over the Antiquity? Bulgaria, Greece, and Macedonia. The last one is obviously a looser. By trying to implicate that Alexander the Great has anything to do with the modern Macedonians, who are heirs of the First and Second Bulgarian Empire, the country lost all international credibility to claim history.

What is doing Bulgaria in this battle against Greece over history? Trying to promote the Proto Bulgarian civilization, which in the antiquity was way out of the territories of modern Bulgaria and dwelled somewhere between modern Kazakhstan and Iran. What about the Thracians? Nothing. The Bulgarian Academy of Sciences took out the independence of the only one in the world Institute for Thracian Studies and glued it to the Institute of History, together to the Institute of Balkan Studies.

That, combined with the fact that only in Bulgaria there is not an Institute for Byzantine Studies from all the former territories of the Byzantine Empire, leads to… what?

If you want to visit Bulgaria, what you will see? Proto Bulgarians? Sorry, you have to go to other countries to see their cultural heritage – from Volga Bulgaria to Hungry, where is the Kubrat Golden Horde. As per the Bulgarian civilization from the First and Second Bulgarian Empires on the Balkan Peninsula, you can see Pliska (ruins), Preslav (ruins) and Tzarevetz. 250 000 people visited Tzarevetz in 2009. Compare this with the National Museum of History, Sofia with its Thracian Gold Treasures – 1 million of visitors. Compare this with Perpericon (Thracian Sanctuary Perperek) - half a million.

Is there a UNESCO site from the First and Second Bulgarian Empires? Yes, there are. The Boyana Church, the Ivanovo Monastery, and the Madara Horseman. The Boyana Church and the Ivanovo Monastery are in the list because of their frescoes, exhibiting great mastery of the Bulgarian medieval school of painting.
Unfortunately, for the non-specialist eye, these paintings are not different from the ones found in Serbian and Greek Monasteries, and the ones in FYR of Macedonia. One of the reasons is because the main painting styles were created and defined in Constantinople, Byzantium – all the rest followed the fashion.

Madara Rider is a giant reproduction of the Thracian Horseman, only few centuries later, depicting a Bulgarian Khan and built on Thracian sacred grounds. The UNESCO monument Rila Monastery is from late National Revival period, which architecture is a mix between neo-Byzantine and Ottoman and the frescoes are typical for all Balkan Peninsula, following the Byzantine cannon with few exceptions visible only to specialists. The same is true for the amazing wood carvings. So, promoting the great Bulgarian Empires as part of the cultural tourism brand for Bulgaria might result in a very confusing proposition.

What about the rest of the civilizations that left behind testimony of their existence in Bulgaria? You want to see Roman ruins? A lot of them in Bulgaria, but why going there, while in Italy they are much more abundant and for sure better preserved and presented to the public.

You want to see Greek Heritage? Yes, there is a plenty of this in Bulgaria too, but Greece is more famous tourism destination, plus all of their ruins are included in the UNESCO list. No one of the Greek cultural heritage sites in Bulgaria is.

You want to see Byzantine cultural heritage? You can, but then it is called “Bulgarian” here, even in Nessebar, which is pure Byzantine city,in spite of the Thracian name that survived millennia.

It is another story that Turkey and Greece fight over Byzantine heritage, which doesn’t have anything to do with modern Greece or with the kingdoms of Athens and Sparta. Bulgaria believes that they don’t have a dog in this fight, which is very stupid, since Constantinople was built on the ruins of a Thracian city (Byzantion – a Greek version of the name of city of Bizas, a Thracian tribe), from where the name of the entire empire.

What is left for the Bulgarian cultural tourism branding? The Thracians and the prehistoric civilizations. Very recently, the curators of an exhibition in New York called the Neolithic civilizations from Buglaria “Danubian” and totally forgot about the Neolithic Dwellings in Stara Zagora, the painting of the Magura cave, or the Hotniza treasures. It is clear that now Bulgaria doesn’t have prehistoric heritage for cultural tourism. You better go to Romania or Moldova, or Russia. Or Greece, for that matter, if you believe the map published by the UNY. As per this map, the agricultural tribes coming to Europe from the Middle East (understand Israel) through Greece, are not passing through the modern territories Turkey or Bulgaria. This is probably because they had such sophisticated navigation and fleet in the 10,000 BC, that would rather go through the sea than on firm ground only crossing the strait of Bosporus. Wrong, of course, but that is the result of 150 years of cultural policy of Greece to promote its heritage and to try to kill the one of the neighboring countries.

That, plus the total ignorance of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, which is trying to close the Institute for Thracian Studies “Prof Alexander Fol”, a lack of cultural policy, the “Strategic Plan for Cultural Tourism in Bulgaria” labeling the Valley of the Thracian Kings “The Valley of Kings” (funny, isn’t it, when there are at least 2 other Valleys of Kings near by – one in Egypt and another in Serbia) and the uber-patriotic claims that the Thracians were Proto-Bulgarians, leads to a very easy kill. The victim: the Thracian Civilization. The other victim – the millions of dollars from cultural tourism.

The National Museum of History, the Minister of Education and Sciences, entire public advocacy groups are trying to save the Institute, without any success. In the meantime, the only hope that is left is in the hands of the Bulgarian multi-billionaire Vassil Bojkov, who dared to exhibit his private collections of Thracian artifacts in Brussels 2 days after Bulgaria became member of the European Union and called the exhibition: The Splendors of Bulgaria. Bojkov also created a Foundation for Thracian studies and hired brilliant Thracology experts, gave for free his collection to be exhibited in the National Museum of History, published catalogues and books, and showed the Thracian splendors in Moscow, Russia for the Year of Bulgaria in Russia.

Many will say that the exhibitions of the Thracian gold in the USA, Japan, France, Switzerland, etc., are clear efforts of the Bulgarian government through its Ministry of Culture to showcase the Thracian Culture. Yes, they are. But without scientists to interpret this heritage not only as art created by the Thracians, Greeks and other “scientists” will continue to label the “Panagyurishte Treasure” as Greek, the Varna gold as “Danubian”, and the frescoes in the Kazanluk Tomb as “Hellenistic”.

In a time of battle between brands, the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences is killing (very easily, with the help of its friendly neighbors) the Thracian Civilization as brand of Bulgaria. And as Nike is now known as a brand of sneakers, not the Goddess of Victory, the next generations will believe that Thrace was part of Greece and Turkey, and Bulgaria doesn’t have anything to do with it.