Text: Magdalena Gigova
Photo and video: Tsvetan Ignatovski
The Hadji Dancho’s Houses Ethnographic Complex in Sliven, which is managed by NEF ‘13 Centuries of Bulgaria’, resembles a Revivalist tale with its old Viennese furniture and woodcarving characteristic of the region.
The permanent ethnographic exhibition displays original Kotel carpets with their beautiful hues and ornaments—evidence of the material and spiritual culture of the Bulgarians of this area. The authentic house arrangement sparks the imagination and paints pictures of the everyday life of that time.
During the National Revival, Sliven was an enlightened town. Its temperate climate, mineral springs, abundant fertility and the enterprising population elevated the settlement to a centre of trade and crafts. It is no coincidence that the beginning of Bulgarian industrialisation was established in 1834 by Dobri Zhelyazkov – Fabrikadzhiyata [the Factory Owner], who built the first textile mill in Sliven.
It was there that, in the early 19th century, Hadji Dancho was born. He was a wealthy and patriotic merchant, a generous benefactor of churches and educational activities: he donated funds for the construction of the Church of St Nicholas, supported the publication of the book, ‘Obshtoe zemleopisanie’ [General Geography] by Konstantin Fotinov, and financed the activities of Sliven’s Zora [Dawn] Community Centre.
From 1860 to 1863, he was an elected member of the Community Centre council and a parish councillor. His home conveys his spirit and manifests the wealthiness of his large family. The house has a dynamic façade, richly carved ceilings and alafrangas—decoratively painted niches.
It is claimed that, in one of the rooms, an unknown Tryavna master portrayed the host in full length—a testimony to the public reputation of the Sliven merchant. He was something of a doyen of the hajis in the town, organising pilgrimages to the Holy Sepulchre, and setting an example with his donations to churches and monasteries. He also owned property in Jerusalem.
Hadji Dancho married twice. Luka, his son by his first wife, was Hadji Dimitar’s companion-in-arms and friend. He studied along with Dr Mirkovich and Ivan Karapanchev in Kotel, under the man of letters Sava Dobroplodni. He left for Jerusalem and returned years later as a pilgrim. During his travels, he learned Turkish, Arabic and Indian (as stated in National Revival sources). He also mastered hypnosis.
Hadji Dancho’s youngest son, Yordan, became a famous Bulgarian magistrate, chairman of the Plovdiv and Sofia Courts of Appeal.
The merchant had 11 daughters, of whom the youngest, Tsonka, as a 40-day-old baby, was secretly loaded onto a ship bound for the Holy Sepulchre, packed as luggage. She married Dimitar Boev, the first mayor of Sliven following the Liberation.
Hadji Dancho’s House still preserves Sliven’s Revivalist spirit and is an example of the architectural mastery of that epoch. It was built in the mid-19th century and is located in the central part of the town next to the shopping centre.
‘The ground floor exhibits the traditional design solution for the plinth floor of Sliven houses: a spacious, slightly dug-out cellar, a winter room with cupboards and a fireplace, and a large storeroom with cupboards. The floor has a symmetrical composition, with a spacious vestibule and two rooms on each side. These rooms are well lit on both sides, and those in the left half have a representative character with cupboards along the entire intermediate wall and alafrangas between them.’, wrote Dr Andon Boyadzhiev in ‘The Wide-awake Memory of Sliven’, Volume I.
The alafranga in the back room has retained its rich decorative painting, while that in the front room has probably been restored. In both rooms, the wooden ceilings represent rich compositions: in the front one, a combination of squares and octagons, while in the other, a round carved rosette in the centre, triangular motifs and a flat coving, on which garlands of flowers are painted similar to those surrounding the alafranga. The right group of rooms is now considerably remoulded, the ceilings are plastered; in the front room only, the fireplace has been preserved, with built-in closets to the sides.
The greatest number of transitional elements is incorporated in the floor salon. It traverses the middle of the entire structure in depth, its rear part is narrowed and, in the bevels, the doors of the two back rooms open. Currently, the wall at the far end has windows, but traces on the masonry show that it, as well as the front part, was later glazed. An indication of this is the presence of the square, raised kyoshk [veranda], which is still open, protruding entirely outside towards the yard, and supported by pillars. The hall ceiling is flat, wooden, and decorated with a carved sun in the centre. The kyoshk has a pretty ceiling: a neutral composition of intersecting circles that is marked in the middle by a small rosette.
The salon’s decorative ornamentation includes the richly designed panel doors of the rooms. Along the smooth façade of the ground floor, the openings are arranged in no particular order: on the left are the doors for the cellar, the floor itself and the ground-floor room—all three of different shapes and sizes. The façade’s decorative ornamentation is mostly accentuated in the body of the kyoshk with a parapet of wooden balusters and round wooden columns with sculptural representations of acanthus leaves.
This information is taken from ‘Pages in the History of Photography in Sliven’, by Svetlozara Kurdova and Stefan Stefanov, and from ‘Sliven and Its Architecture During the National Revival’, by Rachel Angelova.
In 1966, the Hadji Dancho’s Houses were registered as a monument of culture.
The two massive buildings, the courtyard with cobblestones, vines, evergreen boxwood and a fountain with constantly flowing water were restored in 1980, when a third house was built in the style of the other two.
The complex has been consigned to the ‘13 Centuries of Bulgaria’ Fund—the right caring keeper preserving the architectural value of the ensemble.
In 2007, Hadji Dancho’s Houses acquired the status of a museum. In addition to the permanent ethnographic collection, conferences, exhibitions, meetings, art readings and other activities are organised in it.
Take a tour around Hadji Dancho’s House in Tsvetan Ignatovski’s video: