Essential History of Bulgaria in Seven Pages

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Essential History of Bulgaria in Seven Pages
by Lyubomir Ivanov

Source First published in: L. Ivanov ed., Bulgaria: Bezmer and adjacent regions — Guide for American military, Multiprint Ltd., Sofia, 2007, ISBN 978-954-90437-8-5.


Dr. Lyubomir Ivanov
Institute of Mathematics and Informatics
Bulgarian Academy of Sciences
Sofia, March 2007

XLVI Century BC — I Century AD[edit]

Thracians inhabited what is now Bulgaria in antiquity. They were
divided in numerous tribes until, following a few decades of Persian
domination under Darius I the Great and Xerxes I of Persia, King
Teres united most of them around 480 BC in the Odrysian
Kingdom, which flourished under Sitalkes and Cotys I. Thrace was
conquered by Philip II of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great, but
regained independence under Seuthes III. A Celtic kingdom with capital Tylis
(present Tulovo near Kazanlak in central Bulgaria) existed on Thracian soil in
the 3rd century BC. The Romans invaded Thrace in the 2nd century BC, and the
ensuing wars continued until 46 AD when Thrace became a Roman province.

Dionysus, the god of wine worshiped by the Greeks and the Romans; Orpheus,
the great poet and musician of antiquity; and Spartacus, a distinguished Roman
military leader and folk hero – they are all among the mythical or historical
Thracian personalities.

While the Thracians left no written records, their legacy survives in numerous
tombs and treasures to reveal the amazing civilization of people rather more
sophisticated than the “savage, blood-thirsty warriors” described by Herodotus.
There are some 60,000 Thracian tumuli in the country, known to contain 2,000
undeveloped archeological sites. Most significant among the Thracian
monuments are the Tombs of Sveshtari and Kazanlak, the Starosel Mausoleum,
the capital town of Seuthopolis, and the Tatul and Perperikon Shrines. More
than 80 Thracian treasures have been unearthed in Bulgaria too, including the
famous Panagyurishte, Rogozen, and Valchitran treasures. Most of the gold is
dated to 5th-4th centuries BC, although the Valchitran treasure is eight centuries
older than that, while the pre-Thracian Varna gold is dated more than 4,500
years BC — the oldest gold in the world. A number of artifacts including the
golden mask of King Teres were found in the Rose Valley in central Bulgaria,
branded ‘Valley of the Thracian Kings’ for that. The Thracian gold is gaining
stunning popularity worldwide.

VII Century BC — VII Century AD[edit]

Old Great Bulgaria

During the early medieval Great Migration of peoples the Balkan
Peninsula was invaded by a number of Germanic, Bulgar, Hunnic
and Slavic tribes, with some of them staying for longer periods of
time or remaining permanently to blend into the local populace. In
particular, in the mid-4th century a group of Goths settled in the region of
Nikopolis ad Istrum (present Nikyup near Veliko Tarnovo in northern Bulgaria),
where their leader Bishop Wulfila (Ulfilas) invented the Gothic alphabet and
translated the Holy Bible into Gothic to produce the first book written in
Germanic language.

The ancient Bulgars are believed to have been of mixed stock themselves,
originally Eastern Iranian (and thus ‘cousins’ to present Afghanistan and Iranian
people), with later Ugric and Turkic influence. They came to Europe from their
old homeland, the Kingdom of Balhara situated in Mount Imeon area (present
Hindu Kush in northern Afghanistan), and built their cities of stone in Northern
Caucasus. According to the 7th century chronicle ‘Name List of Bulgarian
Khans’, the early European state of the Bulgars was established by Khan
Avitohol in 165 AD. However, even shortly BC some Bulgars migrated across
the Caucasus to establish the Principality of Vanand in Armenia, leaving a few
centuries of recorded presence in Armenian history. During the 4th-7th centuries
the Bulgars raided Central and Eastern Europe, and were known as fearsome
warriors respectful of law and justice. In the 7th century they settled in Italy,
Bavaria, Pannonia (present Hungary), Macedonia, and Volga Bulgaria (present
Chuvashia, Tatarstan, Samara, and adjacent territories in Russia). Bulgar golden
treasures were found at Nagyszentmiklós (Hungary), Vrap (Albania), and Mala
Pereshchepina (Ukraine), the latter being Khan Kubrat’s burial hoard.

In 632 AD Khan Kubrat united most Bulgar lands – by that time part of a wider
Avaro-Bulgar federation stretching to the Alps in the west – in the independent
state of Great Bulgaria (‘Old Great Bulgaria’ in Roman chronicles), situated
north of Black Sea and bounded by the Carpathian Mountains, the Caucasus,
and Volga River. The Eastern Roman Empire (called Byzantium by modern
historians) recognized the new state in 635 AD. Kubrat’s successor Khan
Asparuh expanded Great Bulgaria on the Balkan Peninsula, conquering the
Byzantine territories of Moesia and Scythia Minor (present Miziya and
Dobrudzha – the lands between the Balkan Mountains, the Danube, and Black
Sea). A 681 peace treaty with Byzantium, and the establishment of the new
capital Pliska south of the Danube River is considered the beginning of the First
Bulgarian Empire.

VII Century AD — XI Century AD[edit]

First Bulgarian Empire

In the early 8th century the Arabs tried to invade Europe via the
Balkans, but were defeated by the allied forces of Khan Tervel of
Bulgaria and Byzantine Emperor Leo III in 717-18 AD. That victory
was a milestone in European history that turned back the tide of
Muslim incursions from the east for more than 600 years, until the
14th century Ottoman invasion.

Khan Krum the Horrible conquered Serdica (present Sofia) and the Struma
Valley in 809 AD, enabling the Bulgarian state in Macedonia established by
Khan Kuber in 685 AD to merge with the First Bulgarian Empire. In Central
Europe, Khan Krum’s Bulgaria bordered the Frankish Empire of Charlemagne.
That territorial consolidation of Bulgaria as one of the principal European states
of the Middle Ages went in parallel with a process in which the Bulgars
amalgamated with the local Slavs, and Slavicized, Hellenized, and Romanized
Thracians and other indigenous people. The Bulgars contributed their
statesmen culture, while the common language of the country evolved from
Slavonic. (Slavonic had the unique lingua franca advantage of being familiar to
the native speakers of other major languages in the now dominant Balkan part
of the country – notably the Bulgars, who used to cohabitate with Slavs in Great
Bulgaria before, and the Romanized and Hellenized indigenous people.) The
formation of the new Bulgarian nation was completed by the Christianization of
Bulgaria in 865 AD, which provided a common state religion.

By creating Great Bulgaria and the First Bulgarian Empire, the Bulgars
introduced a new model of nation-state building in Eastern Europe. Until then,
the multiethnic Byzantine Empire claimed universality as a unique Earthly
projection of the Celestial Kingdom. Following their long tradition of statehood
however, the Bulgars denied that claim to establish a state of their own that
successfully survived all the ups and downs of history to follow.

Besides breaking the ‘political monopoly’ of Byzantium in Eastern Europe,
Bulgaria broke also the monopoly of Latin, Greek and Hebrew as the exclusive
‘holy languages’ of Christendom. Along with introducing Christianity as a
common religion shared with Byzantium and Rome, Knyaz Boris I the Baptist
ensured the approval by both the Pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople that
the Church language in Bulgaria would be the spoken language of the country.
In Western Europe the holy books became accessible to the common people
much later, with Martin Luther’s 1534 Bible in German, and the 1611 King
James Version of the Bible in English.

Boris commissioned the creation of the Cyrillic alphabet, together with setting
up schools of higher education in Preslav and Ohrid run by St. Naum and
St. Kliment respectively, where church books were rendered in Bulgarian, and
clergymen were educated for the country’s 20,000 churches. Thus in the
9th-10th centuries, and especially during the so called ‘Golden Age of Bulgarian
culture’ under Boris and his son Tsar Simeon I the Great, Bulgaria became the
cradle of Cyrillic alphabet and Bulgarian Slavonic culture that in the next
centuries spread to Byzantium, Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Transylvania, Walachia
and Moldavia, as well as to Kievan Rus and the Principality of Moscow
(predecessors of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus).

XI Century AD — XV Century AD[edit]

Second Bulgarian Empire

Following a period of Byzantine domination in 1018-1165, Bulgaria
regained her independence and role of major regional power in rivalry
with the Kingdom of Hungary and the Byzantine Empire, the latter
in turn overtaken by the Crusader Latin Empire of Constantinople in
1204-61. Bulgaria extended to Black Sea, Aegean Sea, Adriatic
Sea, Bosnia, Hungary, and the Carpathian Mountains. The Second Bulgarian
Empire prospered under Tsar Kaloyan and his successors Ivan Asen II and
Svetoslav Terter, to enjoy under Ivan Alexander a period of cultural renaissance
known as ‘the Second Golden Age of Bulgarian culture’. The capital Tarnovo
became a political, economic, cultural and religious center seen as ‘the Third
Rome’ in contrast to Constantinople’s decline after the Byzantine heartland in
Asia Minor was lost to the Turks during the late 11th century. A number of
monasteries and churches were built or renovated, literary activities flourished,
and Bulgarian artists started to create realistic images – as those of Boyana
Church in Sofia – already in the mid-13th century, well before Giotto and the early
Italian Renaissance.

The Balkan history took a new turn with the Ottoman conquest, which was
facilitated by a feudal fragmentation plaguing the region in the late
14th century. In particular, Bulgaria split into the Tsardoms of Tarnovo and
Vidin, the Principality of Dobrudzha, the vassal Principalities of Walachia and
Moldavia (which remained autonomous under the Ottomans), and several
smaller feudal possessions in Macedonia. The last Bulgarian state to fall was the
Vidin Tsardom in 1422.

XV Century AD — XIX Century AD[edit]

Bulgarian ethnic territory in the late 19th Century (1876 Constantinople Conference)

During more than four centuries of Ottoman domination the
Bulgarians fought back as guerilla fighters (‘haydut’, pl. ‘hayduti’)
and rebels. The liberation attempts included the Tarnovo Uprisings in
1598, 1686 and 1835; Chirpovtsi Uprising in 1688; Karposh Uprising
in 1689; Nish Uprisings in 1737 and 1835-41; Znepole Uprising in
1830; Vidin Uprising in 1850 etc.

The Bulgarians were treated as second-class citizens under the Ottoman system,
and forced to pay higher taxes than the Muslims. Nevertheless, despite the
oppression, and the Bulgarian aspirations for liberation, the ethnic Bulgarians
and the Bulgarian Turks developed a strong tradition of mutual ethnic and
religious tolerance that survived occasional deviations (most recently the
coercive renaming campaign carried out by the communist regime in the 1980s).
As the national hero and leader of the liberation movement Vasil Levski
preached, his struggle was for “a pure and sacred republic” in which
“Bulgarians, Turks, Jews and others will enjoy equal rights in every aspect”.

In the 18th-19th centuries the Bulgarian lands experienced a period of economic
and cultural boom known as ‘the Bulgarian Revival’. The Bulgarians were
enterprising and industrious, selling their handicraft and industrial products
throughout the Empire, and buying land to sustain the family owned farming
that formed the nation’s backbone. An autonomous Bulgarian education system
was developed too, first with church-sponsored ‘cellar schools’ providing basic
literacy, later with more advanced community-owned secular schools, along
with the uniquely Bulgarian community cultural centers (‘chitalishte’,
pl. ‘chitalishta’).

On the geopolitical side, the Bulgarians faced some disadvantages vis-à-vis other
Balkan nations seeking to overthrow the Ottoman rule. Occupying the central
area of the Peninsula, with their southeast extremity so close to the Imperial
capital Istanbul (former Constantinople), the Bulgarian lands were naturally the
last ones the Ottomans would be prepared to lose. Furthermore, the 19th-20th
century territorial appetites of certain major European countries had negative
repercussions on the Bulgarian interests. Britain took over Cyprus; Italy
annexed the Dodecanese Islands; Austria-Hungary possessed Transylvania and
annexed Bosnia; Russia annexed eastern Moldavia (Bessarabia and Budzhak) to
deprive Romania of her access to Black Sea north of the Danube, offering a sea
outlet in Bulgarian Dobrudzha instead. Thus Greece, Serbia, and Romania were
motivated to seek expansion in predominantly Bulgarian ethnic territories. In
addition, Britain and other West European powers disfavored the restoration of
a large Bulgarian state, fearing (quite wrongly, as the subsequent Bulgarian-
Russian relations would prove) that it may serve Russia’s ambition of taking over
the strategic Black Sea Straits.

The political emancipation of the Bulgarians within the Ottoman Empire started
by ridding the Bulgarian Church of its dependence to a Greek-dominated
Patriarchate of Constantinople. Namely, a Bulgarian Exarchate was decreed by
the Sultan in 1870 to include all the Bulgarian majority bishoprics in the
Empire; in particular, the bishoprics of Skopie and Ohrid joined after plebiscites
won with over 90% of the popular vote. The Exarchate played an important role
in fostering Bulgarian interest, national awareness and education.

XIX Century AD — XX Century AD[edit]

Kingdom of Bulgaria

A decisive step towards Bulgaria’s independence was the so
called ‘April Uprising’ of 1876, which provoked the 1876
Constantinople Conference of the then Great Powers of Europe:
Britain, Germany, Austria-Hungary, France, Italy, and Russia.
The conference determined that, as of the late 19th century, the
Bulgarian ethnic territory extended to Tulcha (present Tulcea in
Romania) and the Danube delta in the northeast, Ohrid and Kostur (present
Kastoria in Greece) in the southwest, Lozengrad and Odrin (present Kirklareli
and Edirne in Turkey) in the southeast, and Leskovets and Nish (now in Serbia)
in the northwest. Furthermore, the Great Powers elaborated in detail the form of
government for that territory, which was to be incorporated in two autonomous
Bulgarian provinces of the Ottoman Empire: Eastern, with capital Tarnovo, and
Western, with capital Sofia.

The Ottoman Government refused to implement the decisions of the
Constantinople Conference, triggering the 1877-78 Russo-Turkish War that
ended disastrously for Turkey. As a result, the preliminary Peace Treaty of San
Stefano signed on 3 March 1878 stipulated the restoration of Bulgaria’s
statehood (because of which 3 March is the country’s National Day). The
subsequent Berlin Congress however amended the San Stefano provisions to
postpone a comprehensive settlement, thus creating a Pandora box of future
conflicts. In particular, the Bulgarian populace was split in five: present
northern Bulgaria, and the region of Sofia formed an all but independent
Principality of Bulgaria; northern Thrace became the autonomous Ottoman
province of Eastern Rumelia with capital Plovdiv; the Bulgarian lands in
Macedonia and southern Thrace remained under direct Turkish rule; the valley
of Bulgarian (or South) Morava River went to Serbia; and Northern Dobrudzha
went to Romania.

The struggle for reunification of Bulgarian people remained the core of
Bulgaria’s national doctrine until the mid-20th century, involving diplomacy,
organized resistance, one major uprising, and no less than five wars in sixty
years. That struggle would prove successful, albeit partly, and at a high price.
Bulgaria lost 140,000 troops killed in the 1912-13 Balkan Wars and WWI alone.
A great many ethnic Bulgarian refugees fled their home places to settle in free
Bulgaria, especially after the 1903 Ilinden-Preobrazhenie Uprising in Turkish-
held Macedonia and Thrace (120,000 refugees), after the 1912-13 Balkan Wars
and WWI (350,000), and in 1940 (67,000 from Northern Dobrudzha). In the
opposite direction, ethnic Turks and Greeks emigrated to Turkey and Greece

After the unification with Eastern Rumelia and a victorious war with Serbia in
1885, the Principality of Bulgaria was proclaimed a fully independent Kingdom
in 1908, during the reign of Tsar Ferdinand I of Bulgaria. The unified country
became a leading military power on the Balkans in a series of three wars to

The First Balkan War took place in 1912-13, followed immediately by the 1913
Second Balkan (or Inter-Ally) War. In the former, Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece, and
Montenegro defeated Turkey. In the latter, Bulgaria lost against Greece, Serbia,
Montenegro, Turkey, and Romania. As a result, the Turkish territories of Pirin
Macedonia, the Rhodopes Mountains, and the Mediterranean coast of Thrace
between Mesta River and Maritsa River were ceded to Bulgaria, which in turn
ceded Southern Dobrudzha to Romania.

During World War I, Bulgaria sided with the Central Powers. The war effort
was enormous; having a population of 4.5 million people, Bulgaria fielded a
885,000 army. However, despite the generally superior performance of the
Bulgarian forces against those of Britain, France, Russia, Romania, Serbia and
Greece, the country could hardly succeed with her allies Germany and Austria-
Hungary lessening their effort on the Balkan Front in 1918. The defeat led to the
loss of Tsaribrod, Bosilegrad, and Strumitsa districts to Serbia, and the
Bulgarian Mediterranean coast to Greece. Those boundary changes were
followed in 1940 by the negotiated recuperation of Southern Dobrudzha from
Romania, which completed the formation of Bulgaria’s modern territory.

XX Century AD — XXI Century AD[edit]

Republic of Bulgaria

Bulgaria sided with Germany again during World War II, a
choice that had as much to do with telling the ‘lesser evil’
between Stalin and Hitler as with pursuing territorial ambitions.
The country sent no troops to the Russian Front but facilitated
the German invasion of Yugoslavia and Greece, and was
entrusted the administration of territories with an area of 42,466 sq. km
(16,396 sq. mi) and 1.9 million inhabitants comprising the Mediterranean coast
between Struma River and Enos Gulf; Vardar Macedonia (present Republic of
Macedonia), excepting the Albanian-populated western districts given to Italy;
and part of Morava Valley in Serbia. Bulgarian authorities functioned in those
territories in 1941-44, with citizenship granted to all ethnic Bulgarians (2/3 of
the population), and to others who wished so. Nowadays, that WWII status is
being used by tens of thousands of people from the Republic of Macedonia to
obtain Bulgarian citizenship.

The Jews were excluded though, being subject to German extermination
policies: 11,363 of them were deported. Moreover, Hitler put strong pressure on
Tsar Boris III of Bulgaria to send to Germany the 50,000 Jews of Bulgaria
proper. Tsar Boris refused, supported by the Parliament (Deputy Speaker
Dimitar Peshev played a leading role), the Orthodox Church, and the general
public. The Bulgarian Jews remained safe, and after the war were permitted to
emigrate to Israel, which most of them did.

Bulgaria provided several divisions for the occupation of Serbian and Greek
territory under direct German control, thus relieving German troops for the
front line. In December 1941 the country declared war on Britain and the USA
(but not Russia). The hostilities were confined to air combat, with 168
Bulgarian settlements bombed, 2,434 buildings destroyed, 1,290 Bulgarians
killed, and 117 Allied planes shot down. Near the end of WWII Bulgaria
changed sides to fight the German army all the way to Austria, losing 30,000
troops killed.

The Soviet troops entered Bulgaria in September 1944, prompting a regime
change that placed the country under Russian domination endorsed by a
Churchill-Stalin agreement on the division of the Balkans. Within few years the
country was transformed from monarchy into ‘people’s republic’, the industry
was nationalized, and the political power privatized by the Communist Party. In
1954 the party’s (and thus country’s) leadership was assumed by Todor Zhivkov,
who stayed in power until the end of the communist project in 1989.

Despite some initial progress in economy, health care and education, already by
the late 1970s the communist system had hit the limits of its sustainability,
within a decade went bankrupt, and collapsed in Bulgaria as it did throughout
Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

The last decade of the 20th century was the time of transition back to democracy
and free market, which took place in the framework of Atlantic and European
integration. Together with Romania, Bulgaria joined NATO in 2004 and EU in

NATO, the USA and the European Union provided guidance, support and
incentives for Bulgaria’s political and economic reforms; more than that, they
helped put the regional relations in an entirely new perspective. For the first
time in modern history the Balkan nations came to share common goals and
common vision. Traditionally negative attitudes among the Balkan people are
diminishing, and the Balkan identity is becoming a source of pride.

Nowadays Bulgaria is a vibrant liberal economy with robust public finances and
low unemployment. Having lost some 800,000 people in emigration since 1989,
today the country is increasingly attracting immigrants from Western Europe
and North America, the Balkans, ex-Soviet, Asian and African states.


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