Muddy streets, soulless buildings and stunning Rhodope landscapes: at first glance, Ribnovo is like every other Pomak village in the western part of the mountains. However, Ribnovo is like no other village in the Rhodope, or indeed in Bulgaria. What gives the village vitality and a sense of colour, even in the dullest months of the year, are its people.
They belong to the Pomak, or Muslim Bulgarians, community in Bulgaria but what makes them special is the fervour with which they adhere to the old traditions. In Ribnovo, the elderly are treated with the utmost respect, the old men still wear their fezzes and women of all ages stand out with their colourful baggy trousers and headscarves, which have for centuries been the mark of their faith.
Nothing, however, can beat a traditional wedding in Ribnovo, a feast of exotic traditions long extinct in Bulgaria and the Balkans. The strangest and most arresting of them is the attire of the bride – she goes to meet her husband in full traditional costume, her head covered with a red veil and her face hidden under a white mask with sequins.
Weddings in Ribnovo are a winter affair, as in the warmer months men work as builders all over Bulgaria and Europe, mainly in Spain. They come home for only a few months to see their families, spend their savings and, if they are in the right age and have a sweetheart, to marry.
The people of Ribnovo marry young, preferably someone from the same village. At one time the marriages were arranged, but this is no longer the case and couples can flirt and even have sex for months before making it official. The Ribnovo wedding is a religious one, with the couple having the mandatory civil marriage days or weeks before.
In Ribnovo, wedding planning starts immediately after the birth of a baby. The boy’s parents are required to provide their son and his future wife with a house and those of a girl have to furnish and equip it.
Once scheduled, a wedding becomes the focal point of community life. People are always aware of who is going to marry whom and when, and eagerly watch and participate in the festivities.
Traditionally, a Ribnovo wedding takes two days.
On the first day, everyone in the village takes time to pass by the home of the bride. Since early morning the family have been exhibiting the dowry in its entirety in the street. Perched on high wooden frames glow colourful Made-in-Turkey carpets and rows of towels, headscarves and linen, table cloths and hand-knitted woollen socks. Heaps of pans and sieves, glasses and plates shine, still in their plastic wrapping, next to pots of plastic plants and cheap paintings. Covered in plastic sheets, big refrigerators, flat-screen TVs and huge sofas are the main show-stoppers. And passers-bye do stop. They stand in front of the whole exhibition and evaluate both the effort and the money spent on it.
Meanwhile, at the home of the groom there is a party. All the relatives and friends gather for a huge communal party. There could be alcohol, but not much, as most of the people in Ribnovo are observant Muslims.
In the evening, in a special ritual, an elderly woman prepares henna and brings it to the home of the bride, whose palms and nails are decorated.
The evening finishes with a horo in the centre of the village, where boys and girls dance to the music of a professional band, usually of Gypsy musicians. This sort of music accompanies the whole wedding, enhancing almost every stage of it.
On the second day it is the time for the family of the bride to gather their friends and relatives for a feast. They also select the best pieces of the dowry to give as presents to their future in-laws and again exhibit the treasures in the open air. It is an important ritual, as everyone in the village will evaluate and comment on their generosity.
The fuss at the groom’s home is more intense. There people gather and hang the presents they have prepared for the bride’s family on the so-called wedding standards; high poles with a horizontal beam at the upper end. The wedding standard of the bride comes first in the procession, and on it are the clothes the bride is going to wear for the rest of the ceremony.
With the banners held up high – so everyone can get a good view – and with the musicians to the fore, the relatives of the groom form a long procession and head for the home of the bride. Their progress is solemn and slow, as they stop several times on their way to dance the horo.
When they finally reach the house of the bride, they present her with her wedding clothes.
This is when the most spectacular part of the Ribnovo wedding begins. The bride is taken to a room where only women can enter. She dresses and then lies down and closes her eyes. An elderly woman bends over her and gently covers her face with a layer of white cream so thick that the girl's features become indecipherable.
Then, the elderly woman sticks dozens of shiny sequins to the brows, cheeks and forehead, creating elaborate
The bride is then veiled and taken out of the room to meet her future husband and to distribute her family's presents to the guests.
When this is over, she is taken to the home of the groom where an imam waits to conduct the religious marriage.
If the family can afford it, they extend the wedding by an additional day, when musicians play and everyone dances the horo in the centre of Ribnovo and bouts of pehlivan wrestling energise the crowd.
The origins of the strange customs surrounding the Ribnovo wedding are not known. Some anthropologists say that it is a Ribnovo invention. Others argue that the set of rituals resemble that of ancient Bulgarian traditions – the red veil was a part of the wedding ritual in Bulgaria before urbanisation and modernisation eliminated it. The hennaing is undoubtedly a Muslim ritual.
However, the painting of the bride's face has no explanation. Some say it is a relic of the ancient Thracians, who used to tattoo their faces.
Pomaks from the Rhodope and also those from the Stara Planina mountains say they used to marry in precisely the same way before the Communist regime banned all religious rituals and Muslim clothing and even names in the 1960s–1980s.
Ribnovo was the only place to revive the old wedding traditions in the early 1990s, after the collapse of Communism. Why? Because in Ribnovo they love their traditions. Other Pomaks consider it too conservative, but the people of Ribnovo were the first to revolt openly against the forcible name changing of the Pomaks in 1964.
Today, however, the conservatism which has preserved the traditional wedding has created enemies for the villagers of Ribnovo. Nationalists view their religiousness with at least suspicion. Sometimes the government seems to take their line. In 2009, for example, the village school was publicly ransacked for propagating "radical Islam." Later, the charges were dropped.
The truth is that, in spite of its traditionalism, the community is already changing. A number of youngsters decide to continue their education far from Ribnovo and couples have fewer children. The virginity of the bride is not always an issue, and the more affluent have their feasts not at home but in the village restaurant. Some of the girls opt for the common princess-like white dress instead of the red veil and the white mask of their grandmothers.