Bulgaria as Seen from Outside: Upon Reading „This Unknown Land“ by Marco Schöller

This Unknown Land [in English], by Marco Schöller, Janet45, Sofia-Bulgaria, 2020, Paperback, 548 pages, ISBN: 978 619 186 543 7, BGN 23.75.

I have my reading habits, clearly, with all my ups and downs. Scanning quickly through working documentation, reading in details essential information, focus reading on stuff you need for a paper, but not the whole of it; or reading from cover to cover works you find good for mitigating the gaps in your knowledge on the novelties, lest you turn into a desperate Fachidiot. Among them the steady trend of having my summer reads, the ones that I carry with me until I fully exhaust them. Such as “Jews, God and History” by Max I. Dimont. Or the marvelous “The Orientalist” by Tom Reiss. Ok, I confess, occasionally summer reads tend to grow into other seasonal deep dives, say the autumn “Hashtag Islam” of Gary R. Bunt, or even winter ones – the latest one of the sort was “The Written Word in the Medieval Arabic Lands” by Konrad Hirschler.

This year’s hit’s been something totally different, off the textual pastures where you’d usually see me graze. Almost accidentally grabbed off the bookstore shelf, could not even expect that’d turn into my companion along the roads of a dusty summer Bulgaria. And a good one it turned out to be, fit for the time and the setting: the 500-hundred pager under the almost 19th century Orientalist title of:

This Unknown Land: How Geographers, Pharmacists, Novelists, Plant Hunters, War Correspondents, Engineers, Medical Men & Tourists Discovered & Experienced Nineteenth-Century Bulgaria

I know it has little relation to the topic of the book but one like me immediately recalls the awe inspiring titles of the early and later Western Orientalists. Just look at this from 1799, for example:

The Life of Mahomet; or, the History of that Imposture which was Begun, Carried On, and Finally Established by Him in Arabia; and which has Subjugated a larger Portion of the Globe, than the Religion of Jesus has yet set at Liberty

Isn’t it grandiose? 

That conveys a bit of my initial reader’s sentiment when encountering such a piece about Bulgaria.

And you should get me right, the Bulgarian 19th century has never been my sweet spot. History of Western Orientalism – yes. Arabic philosophy – sure. The ‘Middle Period” of Islamic history – most of all, with 11th century Baghdad standing under the spotlights. Do not want to blame it on my education, but somehow, almost unconsciously, I’ve come to associate the glorious period of our national state formation with the stern and distant portraits of Vasil Levski and Hristo Botev on the school wall, the museum smell of naphthalene in the 19th century collections, and the endless patriotic TV broadcast across the year on the traditional occasions.

Not my cup of tea as a profile.

Now, let’s give this period a chance. The title is alluring. And, sorry to disappoint you, but the merits of Bulgarian culture and civilization turn out to be far from popular on the international plane. So let’s see what’s behind.

The book is authored by Marco Schöller, a Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Münster. Interestingly, an author from my field proper has ventured into the sensitive entanglements of the Balkans in the late Ottoman Empire. I know the usual formal objection that I’ve seen immediately raised: “probably he is not a specialist, and even worse, an outsider”. Well, guys, let’s not rob people of their interests, and stay humble in our claims. If we had insisted upon this principle, we’d never had “Alice in Wonderland”; you possibly would have never heard about the mathematician Charles Dodgson, a.k.a. Lewis Caroll. You’d never have heard about the philosopher Averroes, as the legal proceedings of the Muslim qadi of al-Andalus Ibn Rushd would have been too obscure for you. Let’s leave the benefit of freedom of authorship and research, no matter how offensive it might seem to us in the ivory tower of (self-)ascribed credentials of expertise, and let rational argument speak for itself.

But the background of an Oriental studies scholar, as the author himself admits (p. 8), is very much evident in the introduction of the book. The chief subject of it has been stated from the very start, namely, “what Western and Central Europeans did, saw and experienced in nineteenth-century Bulgaria” (p. 7). One would expect that the larger notion of Orientalism naturally is being brought forth. Edward Said, controversial as he might have proven to be, is just the starting point that cannot be omitted; the perspective then narrows down to the “Balkanism” of Maria Todorova. In the very start of the book we encounter also some of the key problems raised: can we speak about general concept of “Balkans” (pp. 17-20), how have perceptions of Bulgaria changed before and after 1878-1885 with the emergence of the Bulgarian national state, moving from being “the other Turkey” to “the other Europe”. The whole book also appears conceived as a indirect dialogue, albeit a controversial one at times, with the towering figure of Felix Kanitz (in my eyes already mapped as a “Bilbo-crossing-the-Balkan-Mount-Doom”), with his self-flattering attitude of being an Indiana Jones of the Balkans. Obviously not, as much as it appears, this land has not been “unknown” even before he “discovered it”. 

The book is sitting on a middle ground between the literary, documentary and the historical genres. It seems that the contents has naturally flowed out of the vast amount of travelogues, literary, scientific and journalistic source material (mainly of German, Austrian, then French and English, also Belgian, Danish and Swiss origin) employed to convey an unusual picture of Bulgaria, standing a bit aside from the traditional insiders’ national narratives.  

Besides the introductory chapters, the epilogue and the appendices, the book is divided into overall ten chapters. The first one, “Arrival”, looks into how foreigners tended to approach Bulgaria – mainly through the Danube, entering through the milestone of Vidin, there encountering the Ottoman empire for the the first time; then following downstream to Nikopol, Svishtov and Ruse where we come upon the somewhat charismatic Midhat Pasha. Major land routes have also been used, mainly the Via Diagonalis/Militaris, or the routes tracked from Ruse, once landing there by boat. The second chapter, “Horsepower”, naturally covers the main means of transport, where one starts to notice a certain sense of humor discreetly peeking above the fence of the thick historical narrative and narrators. Uncomfortable Turkish saddles for the delicate bodily parts of Westerners (84-85), “all possible sorts of equine ugliness” (p. 89) and the Bulgarian cart as “four-wheeled torture racks” (p. 99) all find their place there, besides accounts of travels by night and prices. 

Chapter 3, “Steam & Steel” looks specifically into how new travel models and industrial development such as the steam boat  and railway changed the travel experience to this part of European Turkey. Travails of travelers and the insecurity of roads find its place in Chapter 4 (“En Route”), where the Bulgarian Hayduks as a form of banditism, “patriotic brigands” and “rather primitive form of organized social protest” (p. 165) against the Ottoman rule, make an appearance on the stage of Western narrators. Khans settings have also drawn the attention of observers on the roads, as well as settings of Bulgarian and Turkish villages, and their hospitality habits. “Mountains” are covered in Chapter 5, being labeled as “romantic” (pp. 200-201), with multiple parallels drawn between the Bulgarian and the Western European ones in the eyes of travelers. And yet, it appears that not quite often they looked at them with awe-stricken gaze, picturing them as a type of “middle sized mountains” (Mittelgebirge) unlikely to meet the high Alps grandeur (p. 207, 210). This has not refrained explorers from depictions of the wilderness thereof, like Kanitz’ picture of passing through the “Rosalitsa Pass”, indeed likened to Mordor (p. 211). Upon climbing and going down the peaks of 19th century Bulgaria, the book heads on to Chapter 6, “Rice & Roses”, which drills into how these two streams of Bulgarian agriculture have enjoyed the attention of curious visitors. Thrace rice production and the mysterious figure of Reis Baba of Bolyartsi appear in its first part. The second, much larger one, is occupied by narrations of rose oil economy – production, commercial relations, recipes – as a key attention catcher. Bet this amount of detail has skipped your high school eye. 

Chapter 7, “Species Hunters” unfold some of the accounts of botanists, ornithologists, and a range of naturalists. “Measuring and Mapping”, Chapter 8, inevitably draws me into parallel with my favorite subtly humorous “Measuring the World” of Daniel Kehlmann. This time the main protagonists are not Gauss and Humboldt but travelers of the breed of geographers, mountain climbers, naturalists or military personnel who traversed the country trying (or pretending to) chart its inland. The task appeared arduous because of the proliferation of toponyms (p. 356), and many mislocations have occurred (p. 358). Curiously, prior to the 1870s maps were not the usual instrument to help travelers orient in the surroundings; maps have been too unreliable a source of locations coordinates, so travelers either employed local guides or moved along the already known and established historical routes. Situation has come to change only by the late 1870s, while by the 1880s travelers could confidently use maps as a tool to help them arrive at the destination (pp. 366-367). “Medley of Nations”, Chapter 9, leads us to a presentation of the multiple ethnic and religious groups: travelers described Turks, Bulgarians, Circassians, and encountered with representatives of other communities. My suspicion is that the average Bulgarian nationalist would often be infuriated by some Western descriptions of our kinsmen. Once a warlike people, Bulgarians now live in misery, humbleness and political atony, or have left aside their past military character, as some accounts assert (p. 375). They can appear as a blend of Greek and Turkish types, coarse, smart, but superstitious and busy, some others say (p. 377), be phlegmatic, ponderous, or appear distinguished by patience and industriousness, at the same time cheerful, gracious and hospitable (p. 379) – these are just some of the stereotypical representations of the folk around.  And finally, the tenth chapter of the book (“In the War Zone”), is entirely dedicated to the phenomenon of covering the land through war narratives. The role of the military correspondents has suddenly come around, and coupled with the advent of the telegraph, has led to a pivotal change of the ways covering of Bulgaria is done abroad.  

And finally the books concludes with an epilogue (“Memorable Encounters”), 4 appendices (“Visit to the Harem of the Pasha of Vidin”, “The Strange Case of Eduard von Callot”, “Nineteenth Century Maps of Bulgaria”, “The Amazon of Madara”). The black and white illustrations, maps and portraits, are supplemented by full color photos (pp. 277-292).

The text of the book flows in an almost self-indulgent excellent English, bordering at times with grandiloquence. This makes it a pure pleasure to peruse for the readers tempted in old Orientalism discourses; and how can it be otherwise, when we speak of the 19th century. It is as if the subject matter allures an author to lend himself to the temptations of the language of the age. It is also a huge help in making up the gaps in one’s erudition on his own country, filling one’s plate with much of a historical fact, as well as anecdotes, fictitious narratives, simple generalizations, sympathy for the Bulgarians and their dire state of fight for the nationhood, skepticism, information on material culture or simple fun facts. Dry and grand historical approach has never been my type of a read; this here fulfills in an excellent manner the task of avoiding diving into it as a predominant form of history writing. 

One collides with vividly told stories of the quarantine on the Serbian and Wallachian borders of the Ottoman Empire (p. 127-129) – a topic even more poignant now in Covid-19 times, musings on the blind, forbidding closedness of Bulgarian houses along narrow streets (p. 193), remarks on the hospitality of Bulgarians who inevitably would present you with a bill at the end, even when you are a guest in their own home (p. 197), or remarkable meals of roasted lamb and palachinki plus wine and rakia [sic!] (p. 197). And yes, German journalists dreaming of decent beer around Novi Pazar amidst the perils of covering wars (p. 471).

Now, as I said, the book stands outside of my comfort zone of expertise, that was one of the primary reasons to obtain it. There might be more capable and careful readers to drill down to the specific areas of improvement of such a work. Clearly, it is not the type of read to be grabbed readily by a Bulgarian nationalist seeking for self-affirmation in the echo chamber of often invented historical narratives of a glorious past, enforced by fake cultural artifacts such as the communist age Shopska salad from the 1950s, the icy ‘horo’ (folk dance) of men in the Tundzha river or the reports of how Che Gevara carried a portrait of Vasil Levski near his heart. 

Nor it would be the regular read of a Bulgarian Academy of Sciences profile of a historian who’d be left primarily discontent with arguments such as “the primary scholarly profile of the author”, or the “too broad scope of material compiled in one book”, or maybe the fact that “insiders [i.e. we] have not been consulted”. Matter-of-factly, the most noticeable flaw for picky readers like me (besides possible remarks to the contents which I cannot have for reasons already stated), is the missing footnotes list which direct us to the sources of material retold or quoted in the book. Indeed, a rich bibliography has been supplied at the end of the book, together with an index; yet, the introductory text of the book points to an online location of the detailed footnote list which is currently not accessible. This might have been an authorial or publisher’s decision for readability purposes. Yes, we know what German Orientalism style, where the main text occupies one-third of a page, with the rest drowned in footnotes, inflicts to the innocent reader. Yet, for a book seemingly published with an almost Enlightenment gusto clearly not targeting a sweeping commercial success of the rank of “Fifty Shades of Grey”, I’d gladly sacrifice user friendliness for punctuality. Yes, I know that this list of detailed bibliography exists – here I sound like Thomas Aquinas asserting that “he saw” the Arabic manuscript writing of Averroes himself – but my curiosity has not been quenched by the very volume. 

This has not been a major stopper, however, of my thorough journey through the “unknown”, gradually unfolding it. And can’t help but smile when I occasionally pass through the “Felix Kanitz” street in Sofia. Yes, very close to it we also have the “Ami Boué” one. Someone was smart when naming the streets in the area.