OCTOBER 1, 2017
HIGH IN THE Rhodope Mountains on the border between Bulgaria and Greece there is a cave called the Devil’s Gorge that Orpheus used to descend into the Underworld. All who follow him vanish. In this same district the mountaintops served as tombs for Thracian kings. Courageous fighters but unused to conquest, the Thracians shocked their neighbors, the Greeks, by drinking undiluted wine. They left us no writing by which to remember them: only gold, great heaps of it, cunningly wrought into masks and horns and pegasoi. Now the hills swarm with treasure hunters, and the earrings of Thracian queens find new homes in Berlin, and the money gained thereby pays for the villas of former border guards and ex-communist chiefs of police.
In some of the villages of this district, people lived to a tremendous age, so much so that a death at 90 seemed young. For a time, a group of Japanese researchers would come and visit for the summer and drink the local water and make yogurt according to the local method to find out whether the secret to longevity was in the yogurt or in the springs or in something else. The locals insisted the secret was to have three hearts: “One for loving people. Another for loving yourself. And the third one, to love the mountains.”
Borders frighten; frontiers entice. Despite its title, Kapka Kassabova’s marvelous new travelogue, Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe, is a book about both. It traces a journey around the zone where Greece, Turkey, and her ancestral Bulgaria meet, a place Kassabova calls “the last border of Europe.” It is also a journey across time, for, as Kassabova writes, “in the minds of those who don’t live or visit there, this border is another country, a bit like the past, where they do things differently.”
This country, of the Greco-Turkish-Bulgarian borderlands, is a region long neglected by tourists and mistreated by governments, but one that in recent years has acquired a new geopolitical importance. Once it was the southern edge of the Iron Curtain. Bulgaria was surrounded by an electrified, alarmed barbed-wire fence: its official name was simply as Saorajenieto, or “the Installation.” Next to it ran a strip of bare earth, carefully combed so even a bird’s footprint could be seen in it; it was known as the Furrow of Death. Now this same fence marks the southeastern edge of the European Union. Barriers which once held in people trying to escape life in the people’s democracies now try to stem the flow of migrants from Iraq, Syria, and the other shatter zones of the Middle East. Kassabova arrived in 2014, just as this “flow was becoming a haemorrhage.”
In telling the story of these twin migrations, Kassabova doesn’t try to prosecute an agenda or illustrate a theory. She simply listens. In Berlin, she hears the story of Felix S., an East German from Erfurt, who was caught trying to cross the border in 1971, and subsequently jailed and beaten for months in special prisons supervised by the East German secret police. On the Bulgarian side of the border, she speaks to border guards, smugglers, human traffickers, and the local shepherds and woodsmen who, under communism, were required to turn in would-be escapees. On the Turkish side, she meets refugees trying to cross those same borders in the present. At Ali’s Café, the Rick’s of the Turkish frontier, she speaks to young men from Syria and Kurds fleeing Iraq. In a Turkish cafe on the Bulgarian border, she listens to the stories of Kurds fleeing Iraq for the West. “In Kurdistan, you’re never too young to be a widow,” a mother of eight tells her. Back on the Bulgarian side, in a chicken shack run by the son of a Syrian father and a Bulgarian mother, Kassabova wonders: “Can the shabby periphery be a cosmopolis? If so, it was a strange cosmopolis of people who had embarked on a forced adventure, and their roads had converged here, at the point between opportunity and catastrophe.”
This type of shabby cosmopolitanism was once typical of border zones across Eastern Europe, from the Polish kresy to the Dinaric Alps. The Bulgarian borderlands were zones of “mixed populations” going back to the time of the ancient Thracians. As Kassabova points out, it was only when empires (in this case, the Ottoman) started transforming into nation-states that this long-standing diversity became politically problematic. The problems persisted into the days of communist rule, which, in spite their supposedly universalizing mission, regarded ethnic minorities as a source of political instability. In 1986, during the death throes of the communist regime, Bulgaria expelled members of its sizable Turkish minority, forcing thousands to leave the country carrying their possessions on foot and in wagons. Kassabova calls this campaign of expulsion “pointless and poisonous, a way for a police state in decline to distract the populace from the real issues of the day,” and compares it to the role the Falklands War played for the Argentine junta. “A minority,” she observes, “is always easy prey.”
Hostility toward “inconvenient” minorities has a long history in this region. Long before the expulsion of the Bulgarian Turks, Bulgaria and its neighboring nation-states regarded another Muslim minority group with suspicion: the Pomaks, indigenous Balkans who converted to Islam centuries ago. In the 20th century, both Greece and Bulgaria decided that this group constituted a threat. The Bulgarians thought the Pomaks were “the fifth column of Turkey and Orientalism.” The Greeks thought they “were the fifth column of Bulgaria and communism.” On both sides of the border, Pomaks were deported from their native villages and forced to change their names, from ones that sounded Turkish to ones that sounded Slavic on one side, and from ones that sounded Slavic to ones that sounded Turkish on the other. Today, many have embraced a more narrowly “Turkish” identity rather than a Slavic Muslim one, as the last remaining option in a world suspicious of hybridity and border-crossers. “[T]his seems like a throwback to the old blurring of ethnos and religion,” writes Kassabova. But then, “nationalism is like that — it won’t just let people be.”
As good as Kassabova is at telling the hard stories of migrants, refugees, and escapees, she is even better when she lets herself linger in a place and absorb its rhythms and idiosyncrasies. Fortunately for us, she does this a lot, and the result is that Border is a pure delight. Kassabova’s language is beautiful throughout; here, she describes parting from one of her many itinerant heroes, an archeologist who once worked for one of the secret services and now supervises the transit of loads of coal through Syria and Anatolia:
I watched him walk away to his car, a small plastic bag in his hand, with a syringe and a single shot of insulin. His feet described small circular patterns as he walked, as if he was turning on himself, and in a flash, I saw him in some remote monastery of Anatolia, whirling in a white cape like an open tulip, his face turned up under the high arches with an expression of inscrutable bliss.
Border is that rarest of things: a travel book with a conscience that is also a compendium of wonders. It as thoughtful as Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, as open to the world as Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Between the Woods and the Water, as beautiful in its architecture as Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia. In its pages one encounters a cursed bridge and a fountain born from a doomed love affair, shape-shifting dragons that appear as fireballs to lure people into their caves, and a witch who could turn herself into a hen and all her children into chickens.
These legends belong mostly to the long centuries of Ottoman rule, though they resonate into the present. Times closer to our own, such as the 35-year reign of Bulgaria’s communist dictator Todor Zhivkov, likewise offer surprises. In the early 1980s, Kassabova relates, Zhivkov’s daughter Lyudmila embarked on a search for hidden Egyptian treasure in the south Bulgarian mountains at a place called the Big Site. She was assisted in her quest by a local prophetess named Vanga, who had developed her second sight after having been picked up by a freak tornado as a child. The tornado blinded her, but afterward she began a steady dialogue with the invisible world, which allowed her to acquire knowledge of medicinal plants as well as the future. For decades Vanga was held at arm’s length by the communist regime until they eventually decided to weaponize her prophetic gifts, putting her on the payroll of “state Institute of Suggestology” in 1967. The story goes that Vanga succeeded in helping the dictator’s daughter discover the treasure. But it was cursed, Lyudmila died, and the treasure vanished (if it ever existed in the first place).
Rumors continue to swirl around the Big Site. It seems to exert a powerful fascination on all who come near it, and a sense of dread similar to that produced by the border installation itself. Some say what Lyudmila really found was an ancient tomb, or an intergalactic portal, or the goddess Bastet (she of the feline head and admonishing finger). According to another story, the site is protected by a fence of living snakes — specially trained vipers from Uzbekistan. Others insist they found nothing at all, just an empty pit. In Kassabova’s words, the Big Site is “a void” onto which people project “the feverishness of the demented collective unconsciousness.”
The area where all this was supposed to have happened is called the Strandja. A region of remote, sparsely inhabited hills, the Strandja straddle the boundary between Bulgaria and European Turkey. Today, much of the range is a national park. Only some 8,000 people live on the Bulgarian side. Kassabova’s travels there bookend Border. She calls it the “last mountain range” in southeast Europe. It is home to ritual fire walkers called nestinari in Bulgarian and anastenarides in Greek. Once a year, typically in early summer, a desire for fire seizes them and drives them toward the coals. Trampling embers barefoot released their other gifts, of prophecy and song. The ritual is still performed today, though the ranks of the nestinari are thinning out.
In the 14th century a Saint named Gregory of Sinai came from Egypt to these mountains and started a monastery in a place called Paroria. There, he taught a mystical discipline called hesychasm, “a form of psychosomatic prayer akin to ecstatic meditation.” The hesychasts were dismissed by their opponents as “navel-gazers” for their single-minded concern with inner experience (and their habit of staring at their own midsections). But this was unfair, for the hesychasts were in truth seekers of illumination. Done right, with the proper discipline and focus, the hesychast prayer was meant to produce a vision of the divine light. In the 1360s the hesychast monks were scattered by the advancing Ottoman armies. The location of their monastery is now lost, but Kassabova finds traces of their ecstatic contemplation among the gestures, symbols, and above all “the dissolving of the ego” practiced by the surviving nestinari of the Strandja mountains.
In Border, Kassabova herself has achieved something akin to the revelation sought by these forgotten monks and fire-walkers: she has let her ego take a backseat to her senses, if not quite dissolve entirely. Her book is the product of a roving eye and an acute ear. It is a masterpiece of what I would call slow geography. It combines the capaciousness of the old Renaissance genre of cosmographia, or description of the world, with the sensitivity to personal tragedy of the best humanitarian reporting. It reveals the frontier to be bottomless well of stories, as deep as a Strandja spring, as easy to get lost in as Orpheus’ cave.