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Bulgarian Middle Ages (VII – XIV centuries)

State History

First Bulgarian State (681 – 1018)

Beginning of the Bulgarian state in the Balkans

The Basilica in Pliska stands as a majestic symbol of the nascent power and cultural nucleus of the First Bulgarian State, serving as its inaugural capital. This architectural marvel epitomizes the aspirations and achievements of early Bulgarian rulers.

Following the collapse of Great Bulgaria under the onslaught of the Khazars, a significant portion of the proto-Bulgarians, under the leadership of Asparukh, embarked on a momentous migration to the Balkan Peninsula. Concurrently, another faction, led by Kuber, also sought refuge in the region. Here, they merged with the indigenous Slavic populations, who had migrated from the north in the early 6th century, intermingling with the local Byzantine populace.

The pivotal moment in the establishment of the emerging Bulgarian nation occurred when Asparukh secured a decisive victory over the forces of Byzantine Emperor Constantine IV. Subsequently, an agreement was reached between Asparukh and Constantine, delineating territorial boundaries. According to this agreement, the proto-Bulgarians and Slavs were granted dominion over much of the territory between the Stara Planina mountain range and the Danube River. This landmark treaty, concluded in 681, is widely recognized as the moment of the creation of the First Bulgarian State.

The Basilica in Pliska, as the capital of this fledgling state, embodied the burgeoning power and cultural vibrancy of the Bulgarian nation. Its grandeur and significance endure as a testament to the formative years of Bulgarian history and the enduring legacy of its founders.

During the reign of Krum (803 – 814), Bulgaria experienced significant territorial expansion, notably extending its influence to the southwest and southeast. In 811, Bulgarian forces settled in the area that would later become present-day Sofia, followed by the establishment of control over present-day Edirne in 813. Krum’s military prowess was showcased by his defeat of Emperor Nicephorus I at the Battle of the Varbish Pass on July 26, 811. In a grisly display of triumph, Krum reputedly fashioned a drinking cup from the skull of the fallen emperor. Despite his military successes, Krum’s ambitions to conquer Constantinople were thwarted, as he failed to breach its formidable defenses.

Krum’s rule was characterized by the implementation of stringent laws aimed at maintaining order and discipline within the realm. These laws included draconian measures such as the uprooting of vineyards and the imposition of self-mutilation as punishment for thieves.

Following Krum’s demise, Khan Omurtag (814 – 831) assumed the throne and continued the administrative reforms initiated by his predecessor. Notably, he divided the country into districts known as comitats, each overseen by a comitas. Omurtag’s reign also earned him the moniker “the Builder” in Bulgarian history, owing to his significant contributions to infrastructure and governance. His renowned inscription, “Man and it is good to live – dies, and another is born, and let the one born after him remember his deeds,” reflects his commitment to leaving a lasting legacy for future generations.

Prince Boris I (Mikhail) (852 – 889) played a pivotal role in shaping Bulgarian history by adopting Christianity as the official religion of the realm. Despite facing resistance from some boyars, who staunchly opposed the conversion, Boris undertook decisive measures to ensure the acceptance of Christianity throughout Bulgaria. Those who refused to embrace the new faith were subjected to harsh persecution and, in some cases, execution. Boris’s determination to enforce Christian unity among the proto-Bulgarians and Slavs, who adhered to disparate religious beliefs, aimed to strengthen Bulgaria’s international standing within the community of Christian states.

One of the most notable actions taken by Boris was the dethronement and blinding of his first-born son, Prince Vladimir Rasate (889 – 893), due to his attempts to revive paganism. This drastic measure underscored Boris’s commitment to consolidating Christian authority and preserving religious harmony within the realm.

Furthermore, Boris facilitated the spread of Christianity in Bulgaria by welcoming disciples of Cyril and Methodius, namely Clement, Nahum, and Angelarius, who had been expelled from Great Moravia. Their arrival in Bulgaria in 886 brought with it the Glagolitic alphabet, newly created by the brothers Cyril and Methodius, along with Christian teachings tailored for the Slavic populace. Boris provided unwavering support to Clement and Naum in their missionary and educational endeavors, thereby ensuring the preservation and dissemination of the Cyril-Methodian heritage among Europe and the Slavs.

As a testament to Boris’s patronage of education and culture, the Preslav Literary School emerged in the early 10th century, developing a new alphabet known as Cyrillic. Inspired by both the Greek script and the Glagolitic script, Cyrillic became the primary writing system used in Bulgaria and other Slavic regions, further solidifying Boris’s legacy as a pivotal figure in Bulgarian history and culture.

Around 950, a pivotal moment in Bulgarian history occurred as a new national identity emerged from the amalgamation of descendants of proto-Bulgarians, Slavs, and various local populations, including Hellenic and Roman colonists, as well as Byzantines. This blending of ethnic groups gave rise to the Bulgarians as a distinct nationality, characterized by a common language that evolved from the prevailing Slavic tongue. Classified as a South Slavic people akin to the Serbs, the Bulgarians solidified their cultural and linguistic heritage, laying the foundation for their future identity.

Later, during the reign of Prince Simeon I (893 – 927), Bulgaria reached its apogee, earning the appellation of the Golden Age. Educated in Constantinople, Simeon I spearheaded cultural and educational reforms, establishing numerous centers of learning throughout Bulgaria. His ambitious military campaigns posed a serious threat to the Byzantine Empire, and after a series of victories, Simeon I proclaimed himself Emperor, vying to capture Constantinople and solidify Bulgarian dominance in the region.

Following Simeon I’s death, Bulgaria experienced a gradual decline marked by internal strife and external pressures. The emergence of Bogomilism during the reign of Tsar Peter I introduced religious dissent, while conflicts with Byzantium and Kievan Rus further weakened Bulgaria’s position. Despite valiant efforts, including notable victories such as the Battle of Trajan’s Gate under King Samuel, Bulgaria succumbed to Byzantine conquest in 1018 under Tsar Ivan Vladislav, signaling the demise of the First Bulgarian State. The capture of the last fortresses by Byzantium marked the culmination of Bulgaria’s decline and the end of an era in its history.

Byzantine rule (1018 – 1185)

Byzantine rule 1018 – 1185

Following the Byzantine conquest of Bulgaria in 1018, significant administrative changes were implemented, including the transformation of the Bulgarian Patriarchate into an archbishopric and the relocation of Bulgarian aristocracy to Asia Minor, where they were granted Byzantine titles. Despite resistance from local princes and the heir to the throne, Presian II, the Byzantine administration solidified its control over the region.

After the death of Emperor Basil II, the Bulgarians faced heightened taxation and the appointment of Byzantine officials, including the replacement of the deceased Bulgarian Archbishop John in Ohrid. These grievances culminated in the uprising led by Peter Delyan in 1040, which originated in Belgrade and resulted in his proclamation as king. The insurgents, joined by rebels from Albania under the leadership of Tihomir, advanced southward, defeating Roman forces along the way.

However, internal divisions among the Bulgarian insurgents emerged when Peter’s cousin, Delyan Alusian, challenged his leadership. Despite Peter’s pardon, Alusian’s incompetence as a military commander led to a decisive defeat at the hands of Roman forces. Subsequently, Alusian betrayed Peter, who was blinded during a dinner, marking the end of the uprising. Despite initial successes, the rebellion was quashed, and resistance to Byzantine rule was extinguished.

In the ensuing years, Bulgaria endured a series of challenges, including barbarian and Norman invasions that resulted in widespread plundering and massacres of the Bulgarian population. Faced with these threats, the Bulgarians had to fend for themselves, as well as contend with the passing through of crusaders, who often emulated the barbarian tactics. Despite these adversities, Byzantium ultimately managed to overcome these dangers.

In 1072, the rebellion led by Georgi Vojtech erupted, yet it was swiftly quashed by Byzantine forces. Subsequent uprisings occurred in various regions, such as Thessaly under the leadership of Nikulitsa Delfina in 1066, Nestor in 1074, the Pavlikians in Plovdiv in 1074, and Dobromir in Nessebar in 1078, among others. Despite valiant efforts, these uprisings proved unsuccessful in challenging Byzantine dominance.

However, in 1185, a significant uprising emerged, spearheaded by Asen and Peter, which ultimately secured freedom for the Bulgarian people. This pivotal event marked a turning point in Bulgarian history, heralding a renewed sense of national identity and independence.

Second Bulgarian State (1185 – 1396)

Culture of the Second Bulgarian State

The uprising led by Asen and Peter in 1185 resulted in the restoration of Bulgaria, with Peter initially assuming the role of king. However, Peter’s reign was marred by mismanagement, leading to his abdication in 1187 in favor of his brother, Asen. Under the leadership of Asen, Bulgaria embarked on a period of territorial expansion, reclaiming regions such as Belgrade, Braničevo, parts of lands beyond the Danube, Mysia, Northern Thrace, and territories along the Upper Struma. Byzantium, facing internal crises, proved unable to halt the Bulgarians’ advance.

In 1196, Asen was assassinated by his cousin Ivanko, while Peter was also killed by the nobility shortly after reclaiming the throne. Power then passed to the third brother, Kaloyan, who had previously endured years of Byzantine captivity but managed to escape. Kaloyan’s reign saw further territorial gains, including the capture of Varna and the expansion into Macedonia and Thrace. He forged an alliance with Pope Innocent III, garnering significant international recognition for Bulgaria. Kaloyan also successfully repelled the Fourth Crusade’s knights, halting their expansionist ambitions.

However, Kaloyan’s reign was cut short by a conspiracy that led to his assassination at the gates of Thessalonica, leaving his nephew Boril to ascend the throne. Boril’s rule saw Bulgaria lose some of its territories, and he faced suspicion from the populace regarding Kaloyan’s murder. Boril was eventually overthrown by Ivan Asen II, the son of Tsar Asen I, who returned to Bulgaria in 1218 and assumed leadership, seeking to restore stability and territorial integrity to the kingdom.

Under the rule of Ivan Asen II, Bulgaria experienced its zenith, achieving unprecedented territorial expansion during the Second Bulgarian State, with its borders extending to three seas. Notably, at the Battle of Klokotnitsa, Ivan Asen II decisively defeated Theodore Comnenus, the ruler of Epirus, thwarting Byzantine attempts to reclaim dominance.

During Ivan Asen II’s reign, Bulgaria saw significant institutional developments, including the elevation of the Bulgarian archbishopric to a patriarchate in 1235, further solidifying Bulgaria’s independence and autonomy.

However, following Ivan Asen II’s death in 1241, Bulgaria plunged into a period of crisis. The country experienced significant territorial losses and became increasingly dependent on Tatar influence. Despite efforts by Ivan Asen II’s successors, such as Michael II Assen, to stem the decline, Bulgaria remained embroiled in internal strife and external threats.

The reign of Constantine Assen saw little improvement in Bulgaria’s fortunes, culminating in his assassination in 1277 by Ivaylo, who briefly seized power. Although Ivaylo managed to achieve victories against both the Tatars and Byzantines, his rule was short-lived.

Subsequent rulers, such as George I Terter and his successors, faced continued Tatar hegemony, although Svetoslav Terter managed to annex some territories and stabilize the realm temporarily.

Efforts to expand Bulgaria’s influence into Macedonia under Michael III Shishman Asen and Ivan Alexander encountered setbacks, particularly with defeats at Velbazhd. Ivan Alexander’s reign witnessed the beginning of Ottoman Turkish expansion into the Balkans, as they gradually infiltrated the region, initially as mercenaries.

The Ottomans’ incursions into Bulgarian territories escalated, culminating in the capture of key fortresses such as Cimpe in 1352. Despite proposals for a union between Bulgaria and Serbia, the Ottomans continued their advance, seizing Bulgarian strongholds including Yambol, Plovdiv, Sofia, and Kyustendil, signaling the beginning of a new era of Ottoman dominance in the Balkans.

The Ottoman invasion took a new trajectory, advancing northward along the Maritsa River valley, resulting in the capture of Ikhtiman, Samokov, and Sofia in 1386. Subsequently, in the same year, the Ottomans reached Niš. Balkan rulers attempted to form an anti-Ottoman coalition, but their efforts suffered a setback in 1387 when they were defeated at Plocnik.

In a decisive turn of events, the Ottomans mobilized and emerged victorious at the Battle of Kosovo Field in 1389, further consolidating their control over the region. Following this triumph, the Dobruja despotate fell under Ottoman rule.

On July 17, 1393, the kingdom of Tarnovo met its demise. Tsar Ivan Sratsimir, seeking support from the Hungarian king, led a large army to Nikopol. However, Bayazid, the Ottoman ruler, defeated the knights in the Danube marshes and ordered the execution of all prisoners. Ivan Sratsimir was captured and taken to Asia Minor, where he met his end by strangulation. Meanwhile, the Hungarian king managed to escape via ship along the Danube.

In the aftermath of these events, Vidin fell easily to the Ottomans in 1396, marking another significant milestone in their conquest of the Balkans.

ttoman rule (1396 – 1878)

The Bulgarian lands in the 15th and 16th centuries (1396 – 1600)

Bulgaria bore the brunt of Ottoman conquest, being the first of the Balkan states to succumb entirely to Ottoman rule by 1396. Despite this subjugation, Bulgarian resistance persisted. In the early 15th century, the Bulgarians initiated their first uprising against the Ottoman regime, occurring in Northwestern Bulgaria around 1404 or 1408, led by figures such as Konstantin II Asen, son of Tsar Ivan Sratsimir, and Fruzhin, son of Tsar Ivan Shishman. Regrettably, this uprising ultimately ended in defeat, with Duke Radić being captured in 1454.

Throughout subsequent years, Bulgarian opposition to Ottoman rule manifested in support of external adversaries. Bulgarians participated in the military campaigns of King Vladislav III and Janos Hunyadi against the Ottomans. Following their defeat at Varna, many Bulgarians migrated north of the Danube seeking refuge.

In 1598, the First Tarnovo Uprising erupted amid favorable international circumstances, with Austria engaged in conflict with the Ottoman Empire and Wallachian Duke Mihai Vityazul supporting the Austrian cause. The uprising, led by figures like Todor Balina, the Dubrovnik merchant Pavel Djordjevic, and the Greek cleric Dionysius Raleigh, sought to challenge Ottoman authority. However, like its predecessors, the uprising ultimately faltered and ended in failure.

Ottoman rule inflicted profound damage upon Bulgaria, dismantling its administrative, legal, fiscal, military, and cultural institutions. The church hierarchy, state apparatus, and Bulgarian elite, pivotal pillars of the nation, were dismantled. Furthermore, the intelligentsia suffered decimation, dispersal, and degeneration, leaving Bulgarian society bereft of organizers and leaders. Demographically, Bulgaria faced significant losses, with many Bulgarians either massacred or forced into emigration.

In response to Ottoman oppression, Bulgarian society engaged in various forms of resistance, which served to blunt exploitation, preserve historical memory, and sustain Bulgarian self-awareness. The clash between Ottoman and Bulgarian socio-economic systems, compounded by influences from Byzantine, Mongolian-Iranian, and Asian elements, underscored the complexity of this period.

During the initial three centuries of Ottoman rule, marked by the empire’s ascendancy, passive resistance predominated, leading to the recurrent failure of uprisings. Despite their unfavorable outcomes, these uprisings remained crucial for the survival of the Bulgarian identity, serving as enduring symbols of resilience and perseverance against oppression.

The Ottoman conquest inflicted a profound psychological shock upon the Bulgarian populace. The invaders employed a meticulous strategy, gradually seizing individual territories, consolidating power in conquered lands, and establishing a robust military organization. This approach, characteristic of nomadic and semi-nomadic lifestyles, aimed at centralizing power and control.

In the initial decades of Ottoman rule, the primary concern for Bulgarians was their physical survival and the preservation of their ethnic identity. Efforts to resist Ottoman dominance included collaborative attempts by the Orthodox and Catholic churches in 1439 to form an anti-Ottoman coalition, albeit with limited success.

A significant bid for liberation occurred during the Crusades organized between 1443 and 1444 by Polish-Hungarian King Władysław III Jagiełło and Hungarian Voivode Janos Huniadi. Their army achieved a decisive victory over the Ottomans near Nis on November 3, 1443. However, harsh winter conditions compelled the Crusaders to negotiate peace with the Sultan, though plans for further action remained.

In the subsequent autumn of 1444, the Crusaders converged upon the Varna field, where they suffered defeat at the hands of the Ottomans on November 10, 1444. The battle claimed the life of their 20-year-old leader, Vladislav III Jagielo, who was posthumously honored with the epithet “Varnenchik.”

On June 29, 1453, Mehmed II, known as the Conqueror, achieved a historic victory by capturing Constantinople, renaming it Istanbul, and establishing it as the new capital of the Ottoman Empire.

The unceasing anti-Ottoman resistance among Bulgarians stemmed from the progressively deteriorating conditions they faced under Ottoman rule. Bulgarians were excluded from participating in the administrative and managerial mechanisms of the state, relegating them to a disenfranchised social group known as “rayah.”

Ethnic and religious discrimination also fueled resistance, as Islam’s doctrine mandated a “War of Faith” or Holy War (Jihad) against non-Muslims within the Islamic state. This policy of inequality permeated all levels of Ottoman institutions. A particularly brutal form of assimilation was the “blood tax” (devshirme), where boys were abducted in childhood or adolescence, forcibly converted to Islam, and trained to serve in the elite Janissary corps. This practice, sanctioned by law, continued until the late 16th century, characterized by cruelty and violence.

Another significant reason for resistance was the policy of Muslimization imposed on the Bulgarian population. Islamization occurred through individual, group, and mass methods, with individual conversions posing a grave threat to the Bulgarian nation by leading to detachment from ethnic identity, language loss, and Turkification. Group conversions targeted districts or villages as punishment for disobedience or failure to fulfill obligations, while mass conversions occurred in regions like Chirmen, Nikopol, Belomorieto, and Macedonia during the 16th century.

Foreign political domination, economic exploitation, linguistic and religious disparities, discriminatory policies, and political and legal injustices further fueled Bulgarian resistance against foreign oppression.

Throughout the centuries of foreign rule, resistance efforts spanned the entire ethnic territory and aimed at protecting the Bulgarian nation, preserving its demographic integrity, challenging exploitation, and striving for political liberation.

First Tarnovo Uprising, 1598

The forms and methods of Bulgarian resistance against Ottoman rule can be categorized into active and passive forms. Passive resistance, characterized by persistence and refusal to accept another’s faith, was a continuous aspect of Bulgarian resistance.

Active forms of resistance, such as rebellions and uprisings, were less frequent due to the need for leadership and organization. However, they were significant in challenging Ottoman rule. The military weakness of the Ottoman Empire contributed to a crisis in political and economic life, further intensifying Bulgarian struggles.

The first Tarnovo uprising erupted in 1598, organized by figures like the Metropolitan of Tarnovo, Dionysius Ralli, the merchant Pavel Djordovic, and Todor Balina. Bulgarian Catholics also played a role in anti-Ottoman resistance, as the papal desire to expand influence in the Balkans grew following Ottoman conquests.

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