Ivo Strahilov and Slavka Karakusheva: Dis/Inheriting the Ottoman Legacy in Contemporary Bulgaria

The Ottoman legacy is often perceived as something that gives specificity to the Balkans and characterizes their demographic and cultural structures. Various remnants of the Ottoman Empire, both physical and intangible, are still very visible in the region. However, the repositioning of this legacy in the context of the different modern nation states has made it highly ambivalent. Imperial remains have been rarely valorised, but often neglected, charged with new functions and meanings, or appropriated for the purposes of national integrity. The research project explores namely these various polarized perceptions of the Ottoman heritage in what is today Bulgaria. On the one hand, it problematizes the hegemonic heritage discourse that either excludes the imperial past out of national history, or domesticates it and uses it as a nation- and state-building instrument. The focus here is on what some scholars have described as “De-Ottomanization”, and its contemporary dimensions in spheres like urban planning, museum politics, and government policies in general. On the other hand, the project also challenges the monolithic structure of this discourse. It highlights those memories, narratives and practices that actually valorise the remnants of the Ottoman Empire and transform some of them into cultural heritage. Anthropological fieldwork among different ethnic and religious communities in several localities throughout Bulgaria reveals a whole spectrum of “silenced” voices that demonstrate a strong affection to the Ottoman heritage. People appreciate its monumentality and authenticity, but they also embed it in their personal or family biographies and in local collective memory. Through the juxtaposition of these competing discourses, the analysis develops a more critical and nuanced notion of heritage and heritage community. It further emphasizes the active processes of heritage-making, and underlines the agency, multivocality and variety of experiences of individuals and communities.

Ivo Strahilov is Assistant Professor at the Department of History and Theory of Culture, Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski. He holds a PhD in Cultural Studies (2019) and specializes in the field of Critical Heritage Studies. His dissertation scrutinizes the social construction of the ancient Thracian heritage and its contemporary political, economic, academic and popular dimensions in Bulgaria. His scholarly interests focus on the modern uses of heritage, identity politics and performativity, popular history and historical reenactments, contested and minorities’ heritages (especially Ottoman and Romani), and intangible heritage with an emphasis on masquerades and carnivals. Ivo Strahilov has been a visiting fellow at the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (2019), Paris Descartes University (2017, 2018), the University of Salento (2018), and the University of Guadalajara (2016).

Slavka Karakusheva holds a PhD in Cultural Anthropology from the Department of History and Theory of Culture, Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridksi. She holds a Master’s degree in Cultural Anthropology and a Bachelor’s degree in Cultural Studies from the same institution. Her research focuses on the interconnections between migration processes, identification strategies and nation-building politics related to the Turks in/from Bulgaria. She was an associate at the Russian, East European and Eurasian Center, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (2020), and a visiting fellow at the Centre for Southeast European Studies, University of Graz (2019), the Department of New Media, Kadir Has University (2016), and the Cultural Politics and Management Research Centre, Istanbul Bilgi University (2014-2015). Her scholarly interests include migration, mobility, and transnationalism; nation-building, ethnicity, and minorities in the Balkans; memory studies; anthropology of media; and cultural heritage studies with emphasis on the perceptions of the Ottoman legacy in post-imperial contexts.

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