May is rose-picking season in Bulgaria. This flower has become the national symbol and can be found in and on all kinds of products. The Bulgarian chess set in the Chessmen Museum is also decorated with roses.

Valley of the Roses, Bulgaria

The colourful wooden chess pieces, with roses and folk dancers painted on them, immediately catch the eye. It is a Bulgarian chess set from the Rademaker Collection. In this Balkan country, roses are a popular image that can be found on souvenirs. It´s also impossible not to notice the traditional costumes of the Bulgarian folk dancers and singers. The two melt together in Kazanlik: this city is situated in the Rose Valley, the birthplace of the Bulgarian rose. The fragrant flower is picked from May onwards and the month after sees the rose festival, with Bulgarian rose pickers and folk dancers dressed in traditional costumes.

Although all this sounds like a tourist attraction, the cultivation of roses has been a serious business in Bulgaria for centuries. Rose oil, which is obtained from the fragrant flower, has long been in great demand as well. It is used in luxury products and perfumes throughout the world. In the 1950s, Bulgaria was even the world’s number one rose oil producer, with an annual export of one ton of oil. In addition to chess games with roses on them, as a tourist you can also purchase the hugely popular little wooden tube filled with rose oil, as a reminder of your stay among the roses.

Knowledge from the neighbours

Rose picking in Bulgaria, 1870ies

The procedure for obtaining the famous rose oil – i.e. the pressing and distilling of the oil in the petals of the Rosa damascena– is not a Bulgarian discovery: this Persian procedure reached Bulgaria in the seventeenth century. The oil conquered the international market in the eighteenth century. The rose itself was not a native flower either, but was imported by Turkish traders in the seventeenth century as well. The climate conditions in the current Rose Valley proved perfect for cultivation.

The valley extends over a distance of approximately 140 kilometres in a narrow corridor in the Balkan Mountains. It is crossed by two rivers and the mountains around it protect the valley from inclement weather. The sandy, clay-poor soil combined with mild winters and cool mornings, and sunny and sometimes wet afternoons in the flowering period ensure that the rose can literally blossom. And that´s not all: under these circumstances, the roses themselves produce all their fragrant oil as a defence mechanism during flowering season. If you harvest them too late, the oil will have already evaporated.

Cultural changes

Roses and rose oil have been present on and in all kinds of products in Bulgaria for centuries. Proof of this can be found not only in the traditional costumes, which are decorated with embroidered roses, but also in all kinds of old recipes in which the rose or its oil are used. From rose cakes to soap and perfumes and from wine to rakija (a strong brandy made from local fruits). The rose and its oil are also a popular subject in art and literature. The main character Bay Ganyo, for example, in the eponymous satirical novel by Aleko Konstantinov (1863-1897), is a trader in rose oil. This anti-hero has become the personification of traits that the Bulgarians consider vices such as greed, arrogance, stinginess and suspicion.

Bulgarian rose on hand painted chess game, Rademaker Collection

Bulgaria was very traditional in its cultural development for a long time. In the fourteenth century the country was conquered by the Ottomans but until the eighteenth century, especially in the isolated areas, the medieval folk culture with pagan aspects remained very much alive. This was reflected in manners and traditions, material culture, orally transmitted folk tales and folk music. This famous music, with its complex rhythms, harmonies and melodies, is a popular research topic for music scientists.

In the nineteenth century, however, the country came under the influence of European enlightenment and Bulgarian culture became westernised. Fortunately, this did not mean that all traditions were lost. The Bulgarians are still famous for their musicality and they play in the best orchestras in the world. The age-old tradition of vocal folk music, which demands a lot of the vocal cords, is probably the reason that the country still produces many talented singers. According to the Bulgarians, their musical tradition goes back to the mythological singer Orpheus, who is said to have lived in the Bulgarian Rhodope Mountains.

In general, there is not much singing going on in the Chessmen Museum, but anyone interested in Bulgarian roses and folk dancers is welcome to come and admire the chess pieces. Don’t wait too long though, because as a Bulgarian saying goes: “As long as you have not picked a rose, it is not yours; one hailstorm and it is gone!”

By Marjolein Overmeer