16 September 1997
This month's Long Letter is not a letter at all but rather an article/story that I wrote that will be included in the Bulgarian Peace Corps News Letter in October. Hope you enjoy it! I started year two in Bulgaria last week and in some ways the story is a celebration of my first year in Zlatograd. More regular stuff plus my cycling efforts next month.
16 September 1997
This statue of Delyo and Julsuma stands near the street on the left side of the Zlatograd Municipal building square.
THE BALLAD OF DELYO
It was a Sunday in Belovidovo and the sun was just beginning to lighten the sky above the mountains that enclosed the Verbitsa valley. The fog was still swirling gently and would dissipate like smoke as the day warmed. So it was a rather normal spring day on this 11th of April 1756; yet as we will see it was the beginning of something exceptional.
Minka, the wife of Jordan, had been in a difficult labor since the previous evening and had yet given birth to what Jordan was sure to be his first son. Jordan's brother Emilo had been with him throughout the night to help assuage his worries while Emilo's wife Penka assisted as midwife. During the long hours of labor Penka had assisted Minka but at the dawning she had left for home to tend to her two sons. Her midwife duties being taken up by a neighbor that almost every one called Widow Yaga. Soon after Penka's departure there was a flurry of activity by Widow Yaga and the two waiting men finally heard the cry of a new born. As was the custom, they entered the bedroom to see for themselves if Jordan's prayers had been answered. Minka was cuddling the infant in her arms but it was easily noted that yes Jordan finally had the son he had long prayed for. They also noted that the infant had very pale hair, almost like a golden silk, and very bright blue eyes; but there was another troubling physical attribute that all were aware of but fear precluded talk of such things.
Nedelcho, that was the name that Minka and Jordan had selected for their son, had grown up as an only child but did not feel the absence of brothers and sisters. He had his two cousins, the sons of Emilo, and many neighbor children to play with or as he grew to work with. The job that Nedelcho liked the best was when he was allowed to shepherd the flocks into the Rhodope Mountains that surrounded his home. Although he had no schooling and could neither read nor write he received a good education in the mountains. He learned the ways of the animals in the forests; how to find ones way through the tangle of beech and oak trees, the blackberry and wild grape vines; and he learned to read all that nature had written. Although he loved the mountains and the forests, when he was fifteen he joined his Uncle Emilo and his cousins when they departed for Enije. It was the normal work pattern for his Uncle to go to Enije every fall and return to Belovidovo in the spring; working through the winter in relative warmth near the White Sea. Nedelcho was apprenticed to his Uncle to learn the trade of tailor so that he too would have an opportunity to earn money to buy the things that could not be grown or made in Belovidovo.
The work in Uncle Emilo's tailor shop was not physically hard for Hedelcho but it was exhausting his spirit. It was the first time in his life that he felt that he was a slave to the Turkish Masters that demanded his work. In the past a part of the crops, part of the wool shone each year, an occasional sheep, or some days of labor were required by the Master in Belovidovo. But, he had felt a freedom from oppression and did not feel the slave that the demands of tailoring made him feel. Also weighing on him were the insults and taunts of the Turkish and Greek children that he was subject to everyday as he walked the streets of Enije. His anger prompted him to seek out a blacksmith to fabricate a knife and upon receiving it he once again began the walk home. However, this time when he was confronted with the daily jibes, catcalls, and insults he threatened his tormentors with the newly made knife. This action quickly silenced his harassers but it also brought upon Nedelcho the quick response of a Turkish soldier who struck him with the flat of his sword. With no thought to his life Nedelcho immediately struck back with a fist to the soldiers chest; knocking him from his feet into a cloud of dust in the street. The soldier could see in Nedelcho eyes and face a look that was uncommon to any Bulgarians that he had come into contact with before; he also knew that he would not attempt to trouble him more. Nedelcho also realized what he had done and he now understood the feelings that he had been struggling with. In the crowd that had formed to watch this drama was another Bulgarian. With the realization that he now did not need the knife Nedelcho approached his countryman and said "Take this knife for protection against your oppressors; I now know that I have the strength to prevail without it". When Uncle Emilo returned home he had heard of Nedelcho's confrontation and was not in a mood to approve his request to visit Belovidovo on Easter Sunday. That day was also the Turkish religious day of Bayram and there was much tailoring required in preparation. Nedelcho did not wish to disobey his uncle but he also wished to visit his mother, father, and aunts; so he left for Belovidovo when his uncle retired for the night. It was 80 Km to Belovidovo from Enije but Nedelcho made the journey and returned before Emilo arrived at the shop Easter morning. Nedelcho said "I visited Belovidovo last night and have brought a loaf of bread for us from Aunt Penka.". It was unbelievable that any man could have made such a trip, much less during the night, in less than two days. Emilo did not believe Nedelcho; but upon seeing the still hot loaf of bread, which he could recognize, as being of his wife's hand, he knew it to be true. It was then that he remembered what he had seen some 15 years before at the child's birth. The infant had a tail - a sign that the devil had taken a soul and in exchange had bestowed the man with superhuman strength, speed, and wit. Emilo became very frightened when he thought what might happen to him and his sons if the Turks were to come for Nedelcho because of his fight with the soldier. He also knew that they would hear of Nedelcho's trip to Belovidovo; that was not something that could be kept a secret. Therefore, he gave Nedelcho some new clothes and his wages and begged him to return home.
Emilo was certainly correct when he thought that the actions of Delyo, for that is what people were now calling him, could not remain a secret. The news of his fight with the Turkish soldier and his Easter Sunday trip was conveyed throughout the region even before Delyo could reach home. For this time Delyo was not in any rush to reach Belovidovo; he was using the journey as a time to reflect on what had happened and what he was going to do. Perhaps that was why he did not notice that he was now on the side of the mountain range where waters flowed into streams feeding the Verbitsa River rather than the White Sea. It may also be why he was unaware of the haiduk that surrounded his camp and were upon him before he could react. If his normal wits had been about him they would have never caught him in such a trap. The haiduk leader said: "Give us your valuables and your fine new clothes Delyo and we will spare you." Delyo give up what was demanded and said only: "If I had known how easy it was to get new clothes and money I would have apprenticed with you rather than my Uncle Emilo. We shall meet again sometime." A letter from Kour Aga, the Pasha of Karaolan Region, awaited Delyo when he arrived at his mother's home. Because of the tales that were being told, the Pasha was requesting that Delyo serve in his army. Delyo agreed to visit Kour Aga but only if he had a Turkish soldier escort preceding him; not following him, giving the false appearance of his being delivered. This was not acceptable to the soldiers but Delyo forced them to abide by his wishes. Kour Aga was very impressed when he saw them arrive in this fashion and knew that he had selected the right man. Delyo agreed to serve in the Pashs's army but only if Kour Aga stopped all forced Muhammadan religious conversions, stopped all violence against Bulgarians, and Delyo must be granted a permit to carry a musket (a privilege reserved to Turks). Kour Aga agreed to all these terms and Delyo served one year in his army. But, the Pasha broke his vow by allowing violence and conversions to resume and Delyo left. He was then asked to lead the forces of Alemin Bay in Ugurli and knowing that he could use this army to protect Bulgarians, Christians, and the poor - he accepted. And so it was that he also served the Pasha of Ugurli for one year before leaving. His apprenticeship in the armies of these two Turkish Masters would serve him well in his undertaking to protect the oppressed from haiduk bands or from Turkish domination.
Delyo went into the forests and mountains that he loved so much and that provided him the sanctuary from which he could carry on what he now saw as his life's work. There were others that joined him there, from Belovidovo came Dumlovsti and Karagovsti, and they formed a band of haiduk that was something more than the robbers that the term normally connotes. To the Turkish forces that were trying to capture them they were just another band of robbers and murders. But to the poor of the Central Rhodopes they were good men that helped relieve some of the oppression of those Turkish forces. Yes they robbed the wealthy, those that had acquired their wealth from the slave labor of the oppressed; and yes they killed, in revenge, for the killings or rapes that were inflicted upon the Bulgarians, the Christians, and the poor. Delyo and his band lived this way for some thirty years and he became celebrated in song as a hero of the people. He was to be found returning many times to Belovidovo for he had come to love Julsuma, and she to love him; he visited her as frequently as possible while avoiding the patrolling troops. Julsuma could have been mistaken for Delyo's daughter when they were seen together; her small stature and forever-young appearance belied the woman that she was. Although she was very happy to have Delyo with her she was apprehensive that the Turks would trap him when he came to visit. He said to her: "Do not fear for me; the Turks can not catch me nor can they harm me, I am protected from them." But, as he was approaching Belovidovo one cold January morning in 1798 Baba Yaga met him in the forest. She said: "I have come to warn you Delyo that there are troops awaiting you at the house of Julsuma; you must not come into town this day." Delyo thanked her for the warning by rewarding her with pieces of silver and retreated back to the forest. Baba Yaga was an old woman that was approaching death and was troubled by the secret that she possessed. Therefore, she went to the Pasha of Belovidovo and said to him; "I know that Delyo can be killed only with a silver bullet made from silver of his own. I have that silver and I give it to you so that you may kill the one whose soul has already been taken by the devil." Silver bullets were cast and another trap was laid for the time of Delyo's next visit to Julsuma. Two shots out from what sounded like an area near the river where they had met many times before. She rushed to their meeting place and there found Delyo lying on a large rock; which they had sat upon on many pleasant afternoons. He was in a pool of his own blood and close to death but had the strength to say: "I have many fine horses, many rich clothes; but I will not see the Rhodope spring." As an additional insult to the man that they had killed, and a warning to others, the Pasha commanded that Delyo be hung from a tree near the center of town. The news of his violent death, and the treachery of Baba Yaga, was soon carried through the Rhodopes. Because Kour Aga and Alemin Bay had great respect for Delyo they came to Belovidovo to claim his body and provide an honorable burial. But before they left they told the Pasha; "It was a very bad mistake to kill Delyo and to dishonor him in this way, the people will not forget". This prophecy had been barely spoken before the most famous song of Delyo, "Izlel e Delyo Haiduk", was being sung to honor the legend that he had become.
Perhaps the story you have just read is true but then again maybe it is only this authors understanding of the legend. The fact is, we only know what some thirty folk songs from the Central Rhodope Mountain Region in Bulgaria are able to tell us. There is no surviving written history of a man named Delyo or Nedelcho; but there were fifteen song written in Belovidovo Region, eight from Smolyan Region, and seven from adjoining Regions. This is at least circumstantial evidence that someone of that name lived in the Central Rhodopes. It is a fact that towns named in the songs: Smolyan and Belovidovo in Bulgaria and Enije and Ugurli, now in Greece, did exist. Only Smolyan has the same name today; what was known as Belovidovo is now called Zlatograd. Historical records carry the names of Kour Aga and Alemin Bay as rulers of regions in the Rhodopes that are now in Greece and the names Dumlovsti and Karagovsti are family names in the Zlatograd Region that can be found in records of that period. It is a fact that the people of Zlatograd venerate a statue of Delyo and Julsuma that overlooks the Municipal Square. The statue is more than that of a local legend; it also stands as a memorial to those that fought for independence from Ottoman rule. Wreaths are placed at its base on every important Bulgarian National Holiday and on Zlatograd Town Day. I have seen wedding parties dancing the hora in front of the statue before proceeding on in their celebration. Even today, there are people in Zlatograd that will show you a rock in the Verbitsa River that has a red stain on it that they will swear is the rock on which Delyo died. I believe that legends endow the hero with character, behavior, and values that mirror the culture from which the legend originates. From the legend we can get some idea of what the culture of the place is like. I will leave the study of this to the social scientists but even the reader or listener of the legend will form an impression.Lastly, it is a fact that the most famous song, "Izlel e Delyo Haiduk", was recorded on a golden record and placed aboard the Voyager spacecraft in 1977. Voyager passed from our solar system some years ago; when and where it will be found I do not know. I do believe however that it will be found, the record will be played, and once again a song of Delyo's legend will be heard. I wonder what the listeners will write as their ballad of Delyo?