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Liberty or death

Liberty or death - the slogan under which more than 30 000 bulgarians died during the April uprising
Liberty or death - the slogan under which more than 30 000 bulgarians died during the April uprising

The townfolk of Panagyurishte imortalized the name of their humble town. Their Oborishte and their town should stay at the top of the pages of Bulgaria's modern history.

Zahari Stoyanov

The town and the surrounding area did play a part in ancient history, too, despite being off the main roads of antiquity and the Middle Ages.  A number of archeological monuments have been discovered in and around town, including several dozen Thracian burial mounds. One of them, the Mramor Mound, yielded the burial of a Tracian war-lord from the late forth or early third century B. C. Nearby, construction workers discovered in 1449 what has now become the world-famous Panagyurishte Gold Treasure, a rare archeological find from the Hellenic Age (fourth-third century B.C.). The nine utensils making up the treasure – four rhytons shaped like animals’ heads, three ewers sculpted like Amazons’ heads, an amphora with handles in the shape of centaurs, and a phiale, are all richly ornamented with mythical figures. The unique table set, a replica of which is on show at the Panagyurishte Historical Museum, is the most interesting monument of culture, which Thrace has yielded so far.

The ruins of the once-mighty Bulgarian fortresses of Krassen and Doushkovchenin indicate that in the Middle Ages, too, people were attracted by the town’s comfortable location, bountiful nature and the fine climate.

Where monuments are lacking, legend helps fill in the town’s history, linking the founding of present-day Panagyurishte to the dramatic developments in the late fifteen-century, following the Ottoman invasion of the Balkan Peninsula. As a venue of a modest trade fair on the banks of the Luda Yana river, the town derived its present name from ‘panagyur’, an Old Bulgarian synonym to the noun ‘fair’. In the years of Ottoman domination, Panagyurishte was formally recognized by a sultan’s decree as a settlement of warriors. The ensuing privileges, like relative independence in local affairs, certain tax alleviations, etc., helps the tow’s economic development and nursed hopes for freedom in the breasts of the townsfolk.

Economically, the town reached its heyday in the early nineteenth century, when animal husbandry gave rise to crafts and occupations like trading, homespun cloth manufacturing, tanning and fur clothing, shoe-making and goldsmithery. Master craftsmen alone numbered in excess of 550; together with the journeymen and apprentices, their number was well above 2,500. Merchants from Panagyurishte peddled their goods to the markets of Asia, Serbia and Greece, and as far as Vienna, Dubrovnik and Cairo.

It was this economic boom that led to an intellectual upsurge which reached a high point on the eve of the April 1876 Uprising. The Panagyurishte townsfolk’s thirst for knowledge made the town one of the country’s topmost centers of education. The two-storied building of the boys’ school was erected by common effort in 1839, and was followed by the building of the girls’ school in 1843. Their joint annual enrollment was in the vicinity of 900 children on the uprising. The boys’ school boasted a library of some 2,000 volumes by Bulgarian and foreign authors including medieval manuscripts of the time, most prominent among whom were Marin Drinov, the founder of Bulgarian historical studies and, afterwards, one of the founders and the first president of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, and Nesho Bonchev, the first Bulgarian literary critic.

Alongside the two schools, there was yet another cultural institution in town stirring up the freedom-loving spirits of Panagyurishte’s inhabitants: the “Videlina” (Enlightenment) community center, the core of various cultural and educational undertakings, newspaper and book readings, lectures and discussions on politics and on the affairs of the Ottoman Empire.

Just prior to the April Uprising, Panagyurishte welcomed back home Pavel Bobekov, a graduate of Constantinople’s Military Medical School. As head teacher at the boys’ school and chairman of the community center’s board of trustees. Bobekov was at the heart of a patriotic fervor, creating, according to contemporary accounts, “an entire movement among the young people”. The atmosphere of economic and intellectual prosperity was largely responsible for Panagyurishte’s ardently embracing the idea of national liberation as early as the time at which that great fighter for Bulgaria’s liberation, Vassil Levski, was setting up his revolutionary committees across the country.  He founded one such committee in Panagyurishte, in the autumn of 1870, kindling in the townsfolk’s souls the idea of an uprising that was to burst out in flames in the fateful spring of 1876. By that time, the emissaries of the Giugiu Revolutionary Committee, Georgi Benkovski and Panayot Volov, had arrived in Panagyurishte, mounting together with the local revolutionaries, headed by Pavel Bobekov, feverish preparations that established the town as the center of the coming uprising.

These preparations culminated in the history-making assembly at the Oborishte, “Liberty or Death!”

Little remains today from the town of that time. In the uprising’s suppression, there burnt many of the two-storied merchants’ houses, erected by the best builders and decorated by famous painters. Yet, a few have remained, as if to tell us about the memorable days of April. One of these is the Toutevs’ house, in which the uprising was proclaimed on April 20, 1876.  Even today, the courtyard seems to revive the fateful moments when the Letter Written in Blood by the rebels in Koprivshtitsa was being passed from one emotion-shaken hand to another, before Benkovski read out the words: “...If you, brothers, have been true patriots and apostles of freedom, then follow our example in Panagyurishte, too...” Ivan Toutev’s home was too small to take in all the fervor and enthusiasm. With tear-filled eyes, Volov admonished: “Quick, brothers! Open the gates and let us go. Let us become the first victims”. Several hours afterwards, the entire town was resounding with cheers: “Long live Bulgaria” and “Long live freedom!”

Another treasured monument is the house in which national heroine Raina Popgeorgieva was born. Today the house-museum tells the story of the maiden who embroidered and carried across town the banner of freedom; of the maiden whom the nation has lovingly named Princess Raina (Raina Kniaginia). At the mere age of twenty at the time, Raina was already head mistress at the girls’ school. On a memorable evening, in the midst of the feverish preparations for the uprising, the leader Benkovski asked her to make the main battle flag for the insurgents, the legendary ensign with the lion rampant and the winged motto: “Liberty or Death”. Not far from Raina’s home are the walls that fenced in what was Hadji Louka’s house, the office of the Interim Revolutionary Government of 1876, headed by Pavel Bobekov.

The townsfolk of Panagyurishte basked in freedom but for ten days, then they had to defend it with the bullet and the sword, and to prove they were worthy of it. Many were the feats of the heroes who defended Panagyurishte. The victims were even more numerous. The Doudekovs’ house, one of the last strongholds in the town’s heroic defense, is another silent witness to the common self-sacrifice. Peter Shturbanov, a member of the Interim Revolutionary Government, chose suicide here rather than surrender to the overwhelming adversary.

Together with the other towns and villages in which the April Uprising broke out, Panagyurishte entered Bulgaria’s history as the author of one of its most glorious pages. Men like Victor Hugo, Feodor Dostoevski, Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy, Guiseppe Garibaldi and US journalist Generarius MacGahan spoke out in defense of the Bulgarians. The following year, Russia declared war on Turkey, during which, in the course of two years, 1877 and 1878, 200,000 Russian soldiers gave their lives at the altar of Bulgarian’s liberation.

Nadejda Karaboycheva

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