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Writer Penny Smith


nestinari print
Every year on the 3rd of June in the deep recesses of the Strandzha National Park in SE Bulgaria amazing and ancient rituals take place. Two small villages, Bulgari and Kosti host the Festival of Nestinarstvo or Fire Dancing. This semi-pagan ceremony has taken place for centuries and is an enthralling event to experience. People dance on red hot embers, barefoot… are they mad? Some say they are, some say they are possessed, others, more religious say they can only withstand the pain of the fire due to their faith. The sceptics, of which I am one, believe they have assistance from pills, potions and
ointments. Who knows the truth?…only the Nestinari, the fire dancers themselves.
On this sacred date Bulgarians celebrate the day of St. Constantine and St. Helena who are considered patrons of fire dancers. Ritual icons of both saints are decorated and taken in a solemn procession to a spring and sprayed with holy water. In the evening the dancers are led to the church of St. Constantine where they light candles and incense and pray before the icons.

Bulgari church 2
Determined to watch this unusual spectacle and inspect the unblemished soles of the Nestinari feet for myself I set off for the Strandzha. The largest and most famous festival is held in Bulgari, a small, rural village in the middle of MAMBA (Miles And Miles of Bugger All). However, during the week of Nestinarstvo it becomes a tourist Mecca; stalls selling souvenirs and fast food spring up from nowhere, meaty smells of kyufte and kebapche tempt the expectant crowds who are passing the time drinking beer or watching macho men wrestle semi-naked. Men, women and children dressed in immaculate Bulgarian folk costume chatter in groups whilst eating doughnuts and candyfloss. The bright red, green and white dresses of the pretty, painted girls with their pinafore aprons and coloured flowers in their hair stand out from the grey, milling spectators.

babas 1

When I arrived the atmosphere was already building around the small, central arena in front of the church and Mayor’s office, music was blaring from a solitary speaker. A solemn looking young man dressed in waistcoat and breeches attended the ceremonial fire which had been lit hours before and was now glowing in anticipation with a fierce heat in the hot sun.
People had already begun to take their places around the circle and it was only 4 p.m. Apparently the best view meant several hours of boredom and a numb bum. I looked around for seats, there were none. Content with passing the time listening to the Strandzha ladies choir and watching the intricate folk dancing I whiled away the hours until dusk. It had to be dark before the ceremony could take place. The crowds were now nine and ten deep around the centre, it was impossible to squeeze in anywhere and by 9 p.m I estimated there were at least five thousand people gathered in the Bulgari town centre.

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I wriggled in between a fat man and a lady with a large handbag and felt smug with myself as I was now positioned with a view of the fire, just behind people seated on the floor. The fire was being raked from the centre outwards creating a hole in the middle,
later the burning embers were spread over the whole area creating a red hot, star-shape.
By 9.45 p.m I began to wonder if it was all worth the wait. I checked my small camera for the twentieth time, at the ready for the one picture I needed. I only wanted one as proof that these crazy people actually did this. What I had come for was to experience the spiritual atmosphere and watch the Nestinari with my own eyes.
At 10.15 p.m the sound of drums and bagpipes could be heard approaching the centre, it was now dark and the atmosphere was charged. The small procession, preceded by the band, walked three times around the church then entered the arena. Seven people had bare feet, four women and three men, the Nestinari! Holding aloft icons of Saints Constantine and Helena and whirling in circles like dervishes the fire dancers began their ritual, I was excited. The crowd gasped and shrieked. But as the first Nestinari stepped onto the embers the cameras and phones started flashing all around the arena, thousands of distracting white lights. In front of me everyone was using their mobile phone or selfie stick to take video or photos, even small children and grannies,
they all held their devices high above their heads and snapped away, heedless of whose view they were blocking. I couldn’t see the fire or the dancers. Then the seated spectators all stood up too and raised their arms and phones.

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Five thousand people all clicking away, not even looking at the Nestinari…egocentric tech spectators. I shouted ‘SIT DOWN’ but they were carried off in the certain joy of unlimited exposure on the internet. What should have been a deeply moving, spiritual performance had become a circus. Few experienced the essence of the Nestinarstvo that evening. What price technology? How can a picture or video taken in haste on a mobile phone encapsulate thousands of years of tradition and culture? It can’t, it is something to be watched with awe and amazement, not thrown casually away on a Facebook post next day.

I walked away that night with sadness, the Nestinari had given their all to keep an ancient Bulgarian tradition alive, they had danced on burning embers, celebrated their saints and received what in return…burnt feet?


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Written by Pippen Smith 3.06.2018
Photos courtesy of Paul Barlow