Bulgarian Pomaks keeps traditional wedding ritual alive

Bulgarian Pomaks keeps traditional wedding ritual alive

The marriage between Nefie Eminkova, 21, and her fiancé Schaban Kiselov, 24, is an extravaganza of bright colors, flowers, partying and dancing.

But the bride, who comes from the Bulgarian Pomak minority, can not see any of it.

Her eyes must remain tightly closed until a Muslim priest blesses the couple.

The couple follows an ancient traditional winter wedding, which their small community located in the southern Rhodope Mountains was forced to abandon during communism, but has been revived since the fall of the regime in 1989.

The ritual extends over two full days, starting with a sumptuous display of the bride’s dowry.

It includes “everything you can think of” that a new family might need, Nefie explains.

Handmade socks, crocheted baby blankets and bedding hang out on wooden scaffolding on the street next to a ready-made marriage bed and a television.

The culmination of the wedding comes at the end of the second day with the “gelina” – the painting of the bride’s face.

Private and away from prying male eyes, two elderly female relatives cover Nefie’s face with a thick layer of white face paint and then decorate it with multicolored sequins.

They cover her hair with a red scarf and frame her painted doll-like face with silk flower garlands and streaks of shiny tinsel, making her unrecognizable.

She is then presented to her future husband in traditional attire in dark crimson baggy trousers, multicolored apron and top and henna-painted fingertips in contrast to his simple blue jeans and black blazer.

Nefie holds up a hand mirror and secretly looks at her face. She is only allowed to open her eyes wide after the imam has blessed the new couple and her husband washes her face with milk in their new home.

Lots of food and dancing to music from zurnas and drums ensure the success of the wedding festivities, but there is no alcohol.

In the spring, Nefie and Schaban will leave Ribnovo, a mountain village with about 3,000 inhabitants, to Germany, where the young man has a small flooring business.

Bulgaria’s communist regime from after World War II until 1989 was particularly hostile to the country’s significant Muslim minority.

The Pomaks – the slaves converted to Islam under Ottoman rule – were particularly oppressed and forced to abandon their colorful attire as well as their wedding and circumcision rituals during the 1970s.

There are about 200,000 Pomaks living in Bulgaria today, but only Ribnovo and another southern village maintain the ancient wedding rituals.

This is thanks to Ribnovo’s geographical isolation and the “encapsulation” of its society, explains ethnology professor Evgenia Ivanova.

And while only a handful of weddings are held each winter in Ribnovo, the same Muslim ritual is also observed in Bulgaria’s southeastern neighbor Turkey.

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