November 15, 2010
The gilded domes of Bulgaria's largest cathedral reflect the rays of the setting sun as hundreds of the faithful line up for a chance to take a glimpse of relics that have made headlines all over the world. Once inside they touch the bones through cotton padding to avoid damaging them.
The John the Baptist relics hype exploded over the summer after their discovery, lagged during early fall, only to recapture Bulgarians' fancy in the winter in just one more proof that in post-communist Bulgaria religion often rubs up against superstition.
"I have come to pray for health and well-being. I am certain that the relics have miraculous powers and will protect my family from the evil and from disasters," explains Maria, an elderly woman, visibly exhausted, but radiant after the long hours spent outside.
Alexander, one of the very few young people waiting in the line says he really wanted to see the relics, but "you need to put up a tent to get there", there meaning Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.
I consider myself a believer, why then the lofty smirk on my face as I pass by the long queue, winding up in the square in front of the cathedral?
Long queues have long been a rare sight in Bulgaria. The big deal about these relics is that they purportedly come from the Forerunner and Prophet John the Baptist, who heralded the coming of Christ and baptized Jesus. The remains, including a skull fragment and a tooth, were uncovered at the end of July during the excavation of a fourth-century monastery on St. Ivan Island, off Bulgaria's Black Sea coastal town of Sozopol. They were in a sealed reliquary buried next to a tiny urn inscribed with St. John's name and his birth date.
The excavation of a small alabaster box containing a few pieces of bone amid the ruins of a medieval monastery might easily have passed unnoticed as Bulgaria is rich with archaeological artifacts. But when Bulgarian archaeologists declared they had found relics of John the Baptist, their discovery became the subject of huge interest, much skepticism and even scam allegations.
My personal skepticism about the relics box-office draw potential and the possibility of turning Sozopol into a center of religious tourism and a second Jerusalem were nothing but fueled when I first saw them at Saint George church in the town of Sozopol shortly after their discovery. The display of the remains and the ambiance in the church was highly unimpressive. Two half-asleep policemen, a bag of cotton from the nearby pharmacy and the semi-dirty glass roof of the box the relics were in added to the gloomy and uninspiring picture.
My meetings with the people behind the discovery convinced me they were honest and genuine, but failed to dispel a lurking feeling of ill-ease.
I agree with excavation leader Professor Kazimir Popkonstantinov, a humble man, a strong believer and son of a preacher, that the discovery is a breakthrough and the Greek inscription on the tiny sandstone box is a very strong proof that the relics of John the Baptist are genuine.
I agree with Tsonya Drazheva, director of Burgas Regional History Museum and deputy head of the archaeological team, who dreamily says they have managed "to prove in the original milieu the existence of a legend".
I agree with the highly emotional Dimitar Nedev, director of the archaeological museum in Sozopol, who says it is important that these relics are not commercialized and purportedly belong to a saint respected not only by Christians, but by Arabs and Jews as well.
The problem is not even that their case for the relics mixes fact with hypothesis. I agree - what matters is that the relics had been acquired by the island's early monastic settlers in the genuine belief they were holy.
The problem is that brandishing someone's relics is not the best way to attract tourists and distract voters, especially when their discovery has been marred by a very public and vulgar row between a minister and archaeologists and their display has been that unimpressive and uninspiring.
The problem is that the government is in a hurry to get...somewhere. But it is barreling down the road without a map and is wasting all too often its energy on go-nowhere efforts.
These concerns apparently have not hurt the belief of many Bulgarians in the relics special – both economic and miraculous - powers.
Anything that has to do with miraculous healing, including relics, clairvoyants, soothsayers, fortune-tellers and astrologers with special powers, is booming in Bulgaria as never before on the back of the economic crisis, Bulgarians' despair and their predilection for mysticism and superstitions.
The communist era was a period of great persecution for the religious people in Bulgaria, turbulent times when religion officially did not exist and the entry into churches was banned. In recent years however Bulgaria's Orthodox church has been greatly discredited, leaving Christian believers nothing but disturbed.
People now try to rediscover faith in the intimacy of family and friends, in sudden surges of hope, kindness and joy, clairvoyants and ... relics. Despite the obvious fact that the Orthodox Church has been a little cavalier about the historicity of certain relics.
Cavalier is the last word one can use when it comes to the Bulgarian government plans to benefit from the box-office potential of the discovery. Officials of the recession-hit country believe the relics will promote religious tourism, hoping this will be the driver to prompt further the interest of the faithful people and translate into a tourist bonanza for the resort region.
"Catholic countries such as Italy, Ireland, Poland, Portugal, Spain and even France all have well developed "shrine tourism" businesses on the back of someone's bones. As does Israel. So why not Bulgaria?", says Ivan Petrov, a veteran hotelier who runs a family hotel and complains that occupancy was down by 40% this year.
Why not? Because promises whispered in the heat of passion or without any follow-through are not worth anyone's time.
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