During the 12th century, Muslims became the majority of the population in the Balkans following their surrender to the Ottoman conquest.
According to a 1866 census, Muslims accounted for at least 50% of the population in most cities of Romania (Modern day Bulgaria) and consisted 1/3 of the total population.
Today that number has dropped to 7.8% of the population.
Bulgaria’s “purification” had been a century-long goal since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the formation of Bulgaria as a nation-state. Muslims left in large numbers following years of ethnic relocation as well as atrocities executed by both the Ottomans and Christians during the establishment of the nation-states.
By 1950, the Soviet Union managed to capture Bulgaria and installed a Communist regime to replace the country’s government. The Communist dictator, Todor Zhivkov, led campaigns of genocide and forced assimilation against non-Bulgarian minorities, namely Muslims and Turks, in an attempt to achieve an ethno-linguistically and ethno-religiously homogeneous Bulgaria. Around 800,000 people were forced to replace their “Islamo-Arabic” birth names with Slavic-Christian names. Protests erupted and were summarily suppressed when the “ring leaders” of the protest were arrested and sent to concentration camps. The Muslims and Turks fought back against their persecution with demonstrations and hunger strikes involving more than 600,00 people continued but to no avail.
Between 1925 and 1988, around 380,000 Turks (Muslims) were displaced, many of them fled to Turkey seeking asylum. On average about 6,000 Turks were expelled from Bulgaria annually.
The minority Muslim group, the Pomaks, were among those pressured to convert in 1912-13 and those who were subjected to forced government-led name-changing in the early 1940s.
Pomaks are Slavic Muslims, many of whom are likely descendants of Bulgarian Christians converted to Islam during the peak of the Ottoman Empire. Pomaks are characterized as a group of people who retain the Bulgarian language and certain Orthodox practices.
Persecution against the Pomaks continued into the latter half of the century, measures to assimilate the Pomaks were accompanied by violence and led to many deaths. This decimated the Pomak population and with it, many of their cultural traditions.
Despite multiple governments attempts to suppress the Pomak’s culture, the remaining descendants of the Pomak have preserved as many of their traditions as they can, including their wedding rituals that were outlawed during the Communist regime.
The wedding face paint is a representation of a bride’s virginity. The process is called gelina and is considered a specialized art that can take up to two hours to complete. Pomak weddings take place over the course of two days and are typically done during the winter months, with some villages having as many as 10 weddings in one winter’s season. Almost every winter weekend in the remote Pomak villages of Bulgaria, people can be seen feasting together, dancing and celebrating.
The first day of the wedding celebration belongs to the bride and her family who traditionally hosts a Saturday-afternoon party. Here they eat and pin money to the bride and groom’s clothing before going to dance the houra, a traditional Balkan dance, in the village square. The night ends with the older folk heading for an early night’s rest before celebrations resume the next day. Young people continue the party into the wee hours; smoking and conversing with the people closest to them.
The next day, the celebrations start all over again, this time the groom and his family host the feast. On Sunday night, the bride lies down on her back while female friends and relatives paint her face like a canvas and decorate her skin with jewels.
Once the ritual painting is complete, the bride must keep her face very still and keep her eyes closed. An Iman says a blessing before the bride is escorted, still with her eyes closed, from her family home to her future husband’s house.
Once there, the shower of tinsel which assumes the role of bridal veil is removed to reveal the pure bride before the groom and his parents.
At last, the wedding process comes to an end, all visitors as well as the bride’s escorts, leave the newlyweds to their privacy for the next three full days. The couple is finally allowed their first moment alone since their wedding celebrations begin.
The survival of the Pomak tradition of bridal face paint is thanks to the generations of Soviet Muslims that live on today. In spite of their past, the Pomaks continue to take pride in their long-standing tradition and are eager to share their culture and history with the rest of the world.