Correspondence for the New York Evening Post

Albert Sonnichsen




The Day of the Forty Martyrs

By Albert Sonnichsen


New York Evening Post (Saturday, April 15, 1905)

Saturday supplement

Pages 1 to 8


[Special Correspondence of The Evening Post]



Scans as a .pdf file (0.8 Mb)



When Mussulmans and Christians worship together.


The Zig-Zag Procession Up the Rocky Trail to Hizzarlik, in Bulgaria — Ghosts of the Martyrs Said to Be Most in Evidence Just Before a Revolution — Watching a Solitary Fire



KUSTENDIL, Bulgaria, March 28. — We are just celebrating, or rather observing, a holy day. That in itself is nothing unusual here in the heart of the Balkan Peninsula, where almost every day is holy to some one of the three peoples represented in the town — the Bulgarians, the Mussulmans, or the Jews. But this particular holy day has aroused my attention, for I have seen an unusual sight. I have Mussulmans and Christians bowed in prayer, side by side, before the same shrine. Perhaps there is no other place in the world where you may see that, and here in Kustendil you may see it only once a year, on this, the day of the Forty Martyrs.


The town is snuggled up close to the almost perpendicular side of a high cliff, the abrupt ending of a mountain spot shooting out from the surrounding ranges toward the middle of the valley. On the top of this cliff stands a small speck of a house; a chapel, visible against the hazy blue background of the great peaks far, far beyond, still streaked with snow, in spite of the warm southerly winds that have been blowing lately. Through the filmy clouds of vapor rising above the red tiled roofs at the base of the cliff, where a hundred boiling sulphur springs gush out of the rock, you may distinguish the zigzag line of the trail which leads up to the chapel, from side to side, cut out of the face of the bluff. Along this the people climb to the top of Hizzarlik.


Early this afternoon 1 looked out of my window and saw that the trail was alive with people, a long line of them, toiling slowly back and forth and upward, many women and children, and some men. Here and there along the line the scarlet fez of a Turk attracted the eye. Save for a few occasional breaks, the line continued its slow laborious movement, the first part having already reached the top. Beyond the chapel above, rose a thin column of smoke, while through the clear, spring air came the low, soothing hum of a chant, reaching me down in the town.


Hurrying out on the street I found small groups of people, families together, others appearing from smaller side streets, all walking in the same direction toward the base of Hizzarlik. Many of the women carried small yellow tapers. In the last street up by the cliff the converging groups from all parts of the town came together, causing quite a throng. Along the sidewalks wore small stands where white fezzed Albanians sold tapers.


My friend and I Joined the line moving up on the trail. Before us went a Mussulman and his family, many children, and several women with covered faces, all carrying lighted candles, possible in this secluded valley where only a western wind may reach through the pass leading in from Macedonia. It was hard climbing, up that narrow trail, so steep that the little ten-year-old Turk before me was level with my face. Along the line rolled the chant, a mere one-toned, long-drawn expulsion of the breath against the vocal chords, but impressive for its volume. Sometimes its strength seemed to have rolled down to the base of the cliff, intermingling with the gurgling and hissing of the springs, but again it shot upwards until the whole line was asound, growing as we climbed, for a multitude was already on the top.




We finally reached the end of the climb, where the line melted into the scattered throngs already there, some about the chapel, some further up on jutting rocks. Looking down, the town nosy scented a crazy-quilt pattern of red-tiled sections divided into irregular divisions by the crooked winding streets. Far off over the green plain of the valley rah the gray-blue streak of the Struma, the Stryman of antiquity.


My friend and I found a seat by the side of the chapel where a temporary coffee house was erected, and the men of the families, bearded Mussulmans, fur-capped Bulgars, and a few youths in European dress sipped small cups of Turkish coffee. Of all that crowd about us it seemed that only I was a spectator.


From the slight elevation of the coffee house was visible what appeared to be a great stone bench, huge moss-covered slabs of rock lying flat, one edge against a further rise of cliff, a shelf. Along the outer edge of this flat stone surface were small holes made in the slabs, each containing a lighted taper, just forty in number. Before them stood rows of people, most of them women, here and there a man, all bowed, apparently in prayer, the Christians crossing themselves. the Moslems with folded hands, their eyes on the ground. Now and then one would leave the group of worshippers and join the crowds about, but the place was immediately refilled. Sometimes a dying, sputtering taper expired; it was at once replaced by someone from the row. That was the shrine of the Forty Martyrs.


Then, while we sat there sipping the thick, black Turkish coffee, I heard the legend of the Forty Martyrs, and why Christians and Mussulmans do reverence to their memory on this day alike.


"Long, long ago," began my friend, "when King Konstantine and his Queen Helene ruled the country about here, this was the most beautiful and fruitful of lands along the banks of the Stryman. While the peoples of neighboring kingdoms fought and destroyed each other, the subjects of Konstantine and Helene by reason of the great virtues of their sovereigns, lived peace - fully together, Mussulmans and Christians, side by side. Here on Hizzarlik stood the royal palace surrounded by the town, and its walls, while below in the valley dwelt the peasants, who sang and danced and were happy.


"But one day the Spirit of Evil and Darkness, who had long been jealous of the virtuous sovereigns, determined to visit them with his wrath and show them his power. So he suddenly caused a violent upheaval of fire and lava and terrible vapors at the lower end of the valley by the Rilo Mountains. For many days the clouds of poisonous vapors swept over the kingdom, and showers of ashes fell, while hideous noises shook the land from end to end. Gigantic monsters circled about above the town, uttering terrible bellows and cries, shooting out flames and vapors from their eyes and nostrils and open mouths. The dead rose from their graves and ran shrieking through the streets and along the roads below. But all thistime, because of their virtues, none of the people had been killed.


"Finally, the Spirit of Evil and Darkness began to weaken, because of his terrific efforts, and the tumult calmed down after some days. Quiet returned, but the pass by the Rilo Mountains had been blocked up, and, unable to find an outflow, the Stryman began to rise its waters, now boiling, spreading across the plain, destroying the villages and crops and driving all the people up into the town or the mountains behind Hizzarlik. So the waters continued to rise until it seemed even Hizzarlik and the royal palace must be submerged. King Konstantine fell on his knees on the edge of the cliff and prayed. Then was heard a voice from out of the swirling waters below him, which said:


"’Let forty of your young men sacrifice themselves for their fellows by giving themselves up to the waters. If among you there is so much virtue, the people shall be saved and the waters shall subside.’


"All the people, had heard the voice. Almost immediately thirty-nine young men stepped forward and offered themselves as victims. Now, here is where the dispute begins; the Mussulmans say that the thirty-nine were of their faith, while the Bulgars have it they were Christians. Some say the king himself completed the number when no other offered himself. The Moslems admit the fortieth was a Christian. The Christians admit he was a Mussulman. The just ones of both faiths are willing to agree that both were equally represented.


"The forty men threw themselves from the cliffs. Then came the sound of a great explosion by the Rilo Mountains; the Evil One shrieked in disappointed anger, the Stryman was freed, and the waters subsided, flowing down through Macedonia. The bodies of the forty martyrs were found below and buried on Hizzarlik, but during the wars afterwards they always appeared to fight with the people. By their sacrifice, says the legend, they gained immortality in flesh, and now, the peasants down in the valley often hear them chanting of dark nights up on Hizzarlik, and sometimes they are seen marching along the roads, especially when the clouds of revolution are gathering."


Such was the legend, as I heard it from my friend, but there seem to be various versions of it, even among the Christians. Those who worship before the shrine, is their belief, shall be granted one which shall be fulfilled during the coming year.


Toward evening the people gradually returned down the trail, and when dark came the shrine was deserted. As I look out of my window now I can see a solitary fire glimmering up there. To-night, at twelve, according to the true believers, the Forty Martyrs will gather about it and chant the story of their deeds of the past, and, before retiring again, cast blessings over the town, which shall preserve it from future dangers.


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