The Last Man Standing in the Rhodope Mountains

This is a long-­term project which started back in 2007 and whose purpose is to document some of the last surviving authentic rural communities in contemporary Europe. During the course of those 11 years, Valery Poshtarov captured the last mountain people, for which he had to visit no less than 818 villages to find his “Rhodope man”. Thus, he managed to record the vanishing of a whole culture, quickly giving in to the fast-paced globalization.

"Villages with a population of about 350-400 people 11 years back, are now either inhabited by no more than 2-3 persons or have completely disappeared.", shares Valery Poshtarov. 

The Rhodope Mountains spread over 18 000 sq. km. area with deep gorges, vast hills of greenery and rugged peaks. With their serene glory, the mountains proudly reign over the Thracian valley on the North and the South. Battered by inclement northern winds and caressed by the southern breezes from the Aegean Sea, this once home of myths and heroes, of Orpheus and Bacchae, saw for centuries on little towns, lively villages and hamlets of just 3-4 km distance one from another, nestled on the opposite mountain slopes, playing the role of stronghold of trade and tradition.

Today, the Mountains are depopulated, over 95% of their territory. Young people born here have long emigrated, the schools are closed and most of the villages are ghost dwellings with dilapidated empty houses exposed only to forgetfulness and the mercy of Gods. The few remained denizens are extremely happy to welcome every chance visitor like a family member. Braving the solitude and the elements; the last man standing in the Rhodope is a proud epitome of the human race.

Vana (Momchilovtsi, Bulgaria, 2008)

Grandma Vana never had children and this photograph is the only proof of her existence. I heard the story of her life long after her death when this photograph was published on Instagram and some folks from her village recognized her.

Sevdalina (Kesten, Bulgaria, 2018)

Grandma Sevdalina is 80 years old and is one of the few surviving inhabitants of her village. She’s always dressed up, even when she leads the sheep inside the muddy barn.

Ozgur (Varbentsi, Bulgaria, 2018)

In some parts of the Rhodope Mountains, there still are children, but hardly enough for a running school. That’s why Ozgur and his friends travel daily by bus across a few other villages to get to their school.

Emrah (Kasak, Bulgaria, 2018)

Emrah takes his 500-sheep herd out on the gorgeous meadows and under the lofty pine trees surrounding the village. His shepherd dog is always close-by, ready to protect the herd from bears and wolves.

Fikret (Zhalt kamak, Bulgaria, 2018)

Although the Rhodope people breed livestock primarily for food, they often keep only as many as they need for a living. Thus, animals have become an inseparable part of their daily lives, and the affection towards them can be perceived in each gesture.

Ramadan (Bezvodno, Bulgaria, 2018)

Ramadan takes his herd out on the high meadows near the village from which a majestic panorama of the Rhodope Mountains is revealed. From there on, the sky is the limit. He and his sheep are the last guardians of the village of Bezvodno (lit.Waterless).

Ahmed (Podvrah, Bulgaria, 2018)
Mustafa (Ardeia, Greece, 2018)
Dimitrina (Filipovo, Bulgaria, 2018)

During rainy days the locals cover the bus stop with nylon because the bus is never on time and for most people, this is their only chance to get to the city.

Emil (Skrebatno, Bulgaria, 2018)

Emil feeding his goats pine twigs; they carefully scrape the bark, leaving behind shiny white skeletons only.

Esma (Kymi, Greece, 2018)

Kymi village is a mere 100m from the Bulgarian border and all 300 of its inhabitants have Bulgarian origins. Many of them have relatives in the nearby Bulgarian villages, but only a few have actually been in Bulgaria. Most of the inhabitants understand and even speak Bulgarian, however poorly. Villages on the other side of the border are about 4km away – closer even than the Greek villages. Despite that, people are not allowed to cross the border where they wish. Instead, they need to pass the checkpoint first, traveling for 160km (three and a half hours) across the mountains, in order to reach the Bulgarian villages.

Ibrahim from Ribnovo
Ibrahim from Ribnovo (near Osenovo, Bulgaria, 2018)

To celebrate Eid al-Fitr people from Ribnovo gather in an inaccessible place far into the mountain. Most of them only stay for a couple of hours, but the extensive preparations and the festive atmosphere give out the impression that the locals plan to spend the whole summer there.

Kids from Ribnovo
Kids from Ribnovo (near Osenovo, Bulgaria, 2018)

In honor of Eid al-Fitr, everyone is dressed up festively; the adults enjoy themselves, listening to music scattered around the meadows, while the children play freely, knowing that no one would take away their freedom.

Dafinka (Slaveyno, Bulgaria, 2018)

Dafinka spends most days out, working in the field, or near her animals, who give her everything that she needs.

Kaya Ahmed
Kaya Ahmed (Myrtiski, Greece, 2018)
Zdravko, the mayor of Dolen
Zdravko, the mayor of Dolen (Dolen, Bulgaria, 2018)
Rashko (Topolovo, Bulgaria, 2018)

Rashko and his friends are woodcutters. The daily journeys to the woods have made them one with their horses, who would take them home on their own after a long, hard day.

A lumberjack
A lumberjack (Madzhari, Bulgaria, 2018)
Nasko (Gostun, Bulgaria, 2018)
Kiro (Malko Kamenyane, Bulgaria, 2018)
Fatme from Ribnovo
Fatme from Ribnovo (near Osenovo, Bulgaria, 2018)

A mother is fixing her daughter’s braids, while the whole village has come together to celebrate Eid al-Fitr in a picturesque, hard-to-reach place, deep in the mountain.

Kid in a gypsy camp
Kid in a gypsy camp (Madzhari, Bulgaria, 2018)

The nomad gypsies’ children are taught from early on how to take care of horses.

Ibrahim (Valkosel, Bulgaria, 2018)
Hussein (Dzhelepsko, Bulgaria, 2018)

Hussein has built more than 250 water wells across the Rhodope mountains.

Ebru and Ozgur
Ebru and Ozgur (Varbentsi, Bulgaria, 2018)
Kadir The Madman (Devintsi, Bulgaria, 2018)
Jamal the Tall Man
Jamal the Tall Man (Gyovren, Bulgaria, 2018)
Jamal the Tall Man
Jamal the Tall Man (Gyovren, Bulgaria, 2018)
Jamal the Tall Man
Jamal the Tall Man (Gyovren, Bulgaria, 2018)

Jamal - the Tall Man washes his hair in a sink in his yard after it’s been trimmed by his wife.

Gypsy family
Gypsy family (Popsko, Bulgaria, 2018)

Nomad gypsies can also be found in the Rhodope Mountains. They travel along with their whole families and earn their living by felling trees.

Yuri and his grandson
Yuri and his grandson (Kirkovo, Bulgaria, 2018)

Yuri and his grandson are waiting for the bus that will take them back to their village. They often go shopping in the nearby village of Kirkovo which is bigger than theirs; nowadays, there are only a few village markets left.

A boy from Ribnovo
A boy from Ribnovo (near Osenovo, Bulgaria, 2018)

To celebrate Eid al-Fitr people from Ribnovo gather in an inaccessible place far into the mountain.

Myumyun (General Geshevo, Bulgaria, 2018)
Gypsy camp
Gypsy camp (Madzhari, Bulgaria, 2018)

The Rhodopean nomad gypsies live in temporary camps set up in the woods, where women usually stay to take care of the children while men work as woodcutters.

Gypsy camp

Lumberjack and his daughter in a gypsy camp (Popsko, Bulgaria, 2018)

Asen (Malak Devesil, Bulgaria, 2018)
Kiril (Egrek, Bulgaria, 2018)
Stefan (Meden buk, Bulgaria, 2018)
Nanzife from Bukovo and her father
Nanzife from Bukovo and her father (Leska, Bulgaria, 2018)
Hasan (Gorski Izvor, Bulgaria, 2018)

Working the land by using animal force is something that can rarely be seen nowadays throughout Europe.

Rustemka (Shumnatitsa, Bulgaria, 2018)
Ahmed and Memo
Ahmed and Memo (Malchok, Bulgaria, 2018)

The Bulgarian and the Turkish flags hang together on the saloon wall in Malchok village - a definite sign for the ethnic affiliation of the locals. Most of them have emigrated either to Turkey or to Western Europe; even the few who have chosen to stay, often work in the bigger cities.

Ali (Egrek, Bulgaria, 2018)
Alil (Egrek, Bulgaria, 2018)
Dancho from Plevun
Dancho from Plevun (Zhelezare, Bulgaria, 2018)

Dancho’s family has left the village a long time ago. Now he spends his days wandering about the streets or drinking in the saloon of the neighboring village.

Jamal and his wife
Jamal and his wife (Lyubcha, Bulgaria, 2007)
Monk in the Krichim Monastery
A Monk in the Krichim Monastery (Krichim, Bulgaria, 2007)

The only monk of the Krichim monastery "Assumption", keeping company with a few goats and sheep which he cherishes as his own children. The monastery has existed since early Christianity (4th-6th century), but after completely burning down in the 19th century it remained uninhabited up until 2006 when this monk managed to fix the church and its adjacent buildings on his own, relying solely on materials at hand and donations.

Dolni Yurutsi, Bulgaria, 2018
Dolni Yurutsi, Bulgaria, 2018
Kids from Kuzyovo (Kuzyovo, Bulgaria, 2018)
Kids from Kuzyovo (Kuzyovo, Bulgaria, 2018)

Kids from Kuzyovo spend their summer vacations out on the streets or inside the barns. During the hottest days, the sun burns right through their bare skins covered by dust and small scratches - sure signs of a happy childhood.

Nikola and Ivan, traveling blacksmiths (Smolevo, Bulgaria, 2018)
Nikola and Ivan, traveling blacksmiths (Smolevo, Bulgaria, 2018)

Nicola and Ivan are traveling blacksmiths who visit Rhodopean villages that still have living inhabitants who would buy their hand-made horseshoes, axes and other tools.

Mustafa (Bel Kamen, Bulgaria, 2018)

Mustafa, just like most people around here, cultivates everything that his family needs. Even the hay for his animals is mowed from the surrounding meadows.

Mustafa (Zlataritsa, Bulgaria, 2018)

With a stunning 1400m altitude, the village of Zlataritsa is one of the hardest-to-reach villages in Bulgaria. Its only link to the outside world is an almost impassable 6 km dirt road. Its closeness to nature and the breath-taking panoramic views to the Pirin mountains have become an irreplaceable stronghold for the 50 inhabitants left. According to their own words, here, it snows all year round except for July and August. And only when the road is somewhat accessible, a freight bus manages to bring them some basic food supplies.

Angelina and Angel from Velingrad
Angelina and Angel from Velingrad (Rohleva, Bulgaria, 2018)

Angel is a lumberjack traveling across the mountains and his daughter follows him everywhere he goes.

Avishe (Butreva, Bulgaria, 2018)

Children’s freedom and closeness to nature is a treasure that we find less and less in modern Europe.

Hristo Dimitrov, math and physics teacher
Hristo Dimitrov (Egrek, Bulgaria, 2018)

Hristo Dimitrov, math and physics teacher in one of the few remaining schools in this region.

Salih from Krastava
Salih from Krastava (Gorna Birkova, Bulgaria, 2018)
Mustafa (Krastava, Bulgaria, 2018)
Little Nicolas, a phone swindler
Little Nicolas, a phone swindler (Pokrovan, Bulgaria, 2018)
Filio (Zhelezare, Bulgaria, 2018)
Dimiter Marinovski, a storyteller
Dimiter Marinovski, a storyteller (Slaveyno, Bulgaria, 2018)
Nedjahtin and his wife
Nedjahtin and his wife (Letovnik, Bulgaria, 2018)
Avidka (Rohleva, Bulgaria, 2018)
Erol (Chomakovo, Bulgaria, 2018)
Mustafa (Kamenka, Bulgaria, 2018)
Djesur (Belopoltsi, Bulgaria, 2018)
Gypsy wedding
Young girls at a gypsy wedding (Pelin, Bulgaria, 2018)

During such special occasions, young people exchange playful glances and chase each other’s hearts in a coy, a bit childish but still touching, flirt.

Sayman (Tsrancha, Bulgaria, 2018)

Sayman spends the long June days in strolling around the village streets, eating wild cherries and playing with his favorite hoop

Slavey (Buynovo, Bulgaria, 2018)
Rumyana (Kozhari, Bulgaria, 2018)

One of the few pleasures left for Rumyana and the handful of inhabitants of the Kozhari border village is to exchange some gossip in front of the old saloon, in which essential products can still be purchased.

Sali (Yonchevo, Bulgaria, 2018)

Sali was born and raised in Yonchevo, but he emigrated to Turkey a long time ago, just like most ethnic Turks did. Despite that, he comes back to his village every summer, to maintain his house and to enjoy the peace and quiet among nature that only his birthplace can provide.

Sevim (Ridino, Bulgaria, 2018)
Nazmi (Myrtiski, Greece, 2018)
Aysel and Ayse sorting tobacco leaves
Aysel and Ayse sorting tobacco leaves (Krushevo, Bulgaria, 2018)
Osman (Kukuryak, Bulgaria, 2018)
Alish, the bar keeper and a client
Alish, the bar keeper and a client (Chereshovo, Bulgaria, 2018)

The Chereshovo saloon is simultaneously a shop and a bar, but, on top of everything, it’s a social hub where the few remaining inhabitants can gather.

Ahmed (Smolevo, Bulgaria, 2018)
Emine, a mushroom-gatherer
Emine, a mushroom-gatherer (Cholakovo, Bulgaria, 2018)

Emine can be found most often in the damp forests surrounding her village, picking mushrooms in her handwoven bag. Selling mushrooms, blackberries, and herbs secures the livelihood of many Rhodopeans. After a long day of hard work, some of them earn up to €10.

Ibrahim (Kuzyovo, Bulgaria, 2018)

Ibrahim is 85 years old - the eldest hunter in this part of the Rhodope Mountains. Still in good shape, he walks tens of kilometers on the cross-country roads surrounding his village. “Hunting without a dog is like love without a woman”, the old hunter confided in me just before we went our separate ways.

Stefan (Varlino, Bulgaria, 2019)
Samet (Byal Kladenets, Bulgaria, 2019)
Mustafa (Konche, Bulgaria, 2019)
Mustafa (Konche, Bulgaria, 2019)
Fatme (Domishte, Bulgaria, 2019)
Myki, Greece, 2019
Hristina (Apriltsi, Bulgaria, 2019)
Nasko (Apriltsi, Bulgaria, 2019)
Myki, Greece, 2019
Yasen (Kozarka, Bulgaria, 2019)