There are places in the history of each nation that represent a turning point of events. For the Americans, these are Liberty Bell and Gettysburg. For the British, there are Stamford Bridge and Waterloo. For the French, there is the Bastille, and for the Germans, the Brandenburg Gate and the Berlin Wall. The Greeks have the Thermopylae, and the Italians the Rubicon.
The Bulgarians have the Shipka Pass.
Located at an altitude of 1,326-metre, the Shipka Pass is a major route across the Stara Planina mountains. It is topped by a 31.5-meter stone monument with a massive bronze lion: one of the most recognizable sights from Bulgaria. The monument is there to remind of the fact that on the Shipka Pass, between July and December 1877, Russian army and Bulgarian volunteers stood up to outnumbering Ottoman forces.
The defense of the Shipka Pass was one of the crucial points of the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish war, the conflict which would eventually lead to the restoration of Bulgaria.
The Russians had crossed the Danube at the end of June 1877 and then forced their way south, besieging Pleven and pushing through the Stara Planina. Their aim was to reach the Thracian Plain. From there, the advance towards Constantinople should have been easy.
The Ottomans, however, blocked the mountain passes.
The two sides clashed at Shipka, in early July. A small detachment of 5,000 Russians soldiers and Bulgarian volunteers, led by General Joseph Gourko, captured the peak and the pass. They faced 30,000 Ottomans, led by General Suleyman Pasha, trying to cross north in a bid to relieve Pleven, join with the forces which were blocked in the northeast, and ultimately win the war.
The outnumbered defenders stood their ground. The clashes peaked in August, when the slightly enlarged defense forces (5,500 Bulgarians and 2,000 Russians), led by General Nikolai Stoletov, faced 38,000 enemies. The defenders suffered from water and munition shortages. When Bulgarians ran out of bullets in the heist of the battles, they used rocks, tree trunks, and even the bodies of their dead comrades.
In September, the Ottomans made their final attempt to take the pass. But the drama on the Shipka Pass was far from over. The defenders were reinforced, reaching 66,000 men against 40,000 Ottomans, and then the so-called Shipka Waiting began. The two sides held their positions and waited, even while a harsh winter befell them, claiming hundreds of lives.
In December, Pleven surrendered and the Russian army headed to Sofia, securing another route to the Thracian Plain. At the end of the month, the defenders of Shipka attacked the Ottomans and won.
On 3 March 1878, a peace treaty was signed. The war was over.
The casualties in the battles for the Shipka Pass number 13,500 killed or wounded defenders (Russians, Bulgarians, Ukrainians, Poles, Finns) and 24,000 killed or wounded Ottomans. An additional 36,000 Ottoman soldiers were taken, prisoner.
In a matter of years after 1878, the defense of the Shipka Pass became a foundation stone for the Bulgarian national consciousness. It was epic, a David against Goliath type of clash – and Bulgarians played a crucial part in it. The Opalchentsi, or Bulgarian volunteers, were a force of about 10,000 men, who had joined the Russian army during the war. Initially, the Russian military was skeptical about the Opalchentsi as most of them were inexperienced. Their bravery, however, proved crucial in those first, hard months on the Shipka Pass. The Opalchentsi also proved that the Bulgarians were not meek victims of Ottoman cruelty who had waited for the Russians to liberate them. They actively fought for Bulgaria’s liberty, prevailing against all odds.
The first monuments on the Shipka Pass appeared as soon as the war was over. They were humble and at places of particularly fierce battles.
In 1920, the surviving Opalchentsi decided that a larger monument to freedom should be constructed on Shipka Peak. A nation-wide fundraising campaign began. The first stone of the monument was laid in 1922. Thousands, King Boris III included, attended the official inauguration in 1934.
19th-century guns overlook the Lower Balkan Plain. Once at the peak, one begins to realize the strategic importance of the pass, and the difficulty to take it and to defend it
Inside the stone pyramid, a marble sarcophagus preserves the remains of some Bulgarian and Russian soldiers.
The complex was enlarged under Communism. Reliefs and poems were added, promoting the continuity between the Russian imperial army, which liberated Bulgaria from the Ottomans, and the Red Army, which entered Bulgaria in 1944, leading to the 9 September Communist coup.
The 26 memorials as well as the restored artillery batteries and positions and huts used by the defenders at the Shipka Peak are in several localities on 300 acres.
The heroic stand of the Opalchentsi at Shipka also entered national art. Poet Ivan Vazov penned an ode where he compared their bravery and sacrifice to the 300 Spartans at the Thermopylae Pass. Even today Bulgarian children have to learn the long ode by heart, although few adults remember more than the most significant lines. Dimitar Gyudzhenov, an artist who specialized in historical paintings, created
A Battle for Shipka, one of his most famous works.
The reverence, however, sometimes turns to kitsch. In 2007, at President Georgi Parvanov’s official party for 3 March, the national holiday, a cake replica of Gyudzhenov’s A Battle for Shipka – dead bodies and all – was prepared – and served to incredulous guests.
On 3 March and 11 August, the day of the most fierce battle, the Shipka Monument becomes the focal point of commemorative events and historical reenactment shows. Bulgarian politicians make sure to be seen there, and in 2003, Russian President Vladimir Putin attended.
Another monument to those who died at the pass is a monastery by Shipka village, south of the pass. It was built at the beginning of the 20th century with Russian and Bulgarian donations. About 9,000 men who died in the 1877-1878 war were buried there. Its beautiful, Russian style church was consecrated in 1902. Until 1934, the monastery was a Russian property. Then Stalin granted it to the Bulgarians on condition no Russian emigre would be included in its management.