Bulgarian history until the liberation from Ottoman rule in 1878

Bulgarian history is so rich that it cannot be described in just one article

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Bulgaria – Pretty much any modern society is multicultural and diverse, and Bulgaria is no exception – what’s actually exceptional is the fact that the country has been multicultural ever since its birth in 681 AD. The tribe of Bulgars, who are cousins to the huns and come from Central Asia, established a country between the lower Danube river and the Balkans. They merged with the Thracians and the Vlachs, and adopted many of the Slavic customs and traditions. Because of the sheer number of Slavs on the territory, it is generally thought that the modern Bulgarian nation is Slavic.

The First Bulgarian State had a centuries-long interaction with the Byzantines – sometimes friendly, as when the Bulgarian army crushed the Second Arab siege of Constantinople in 718, and often times hostile. So hostile that eventually the Byzantines conquered Bulgaria. Nevertheless, the Byzantine Empire had a huge influence on Bulgaria and that resulted in Bulgaria’s adoption of Christianity in 864.

About a century prior to the conquest of Bulgaria, the roles were quite reversed – Bulgarians, under the rule of tsar Simeon I, waged several successful wars on the Byzantines. The famous Battle of Anchialus in 917 saw the Byzantine army annihilated and tsar Simeon I was nicknamed ‘ruler of Bulgarians and Greeks’. Ironically, not even a full century later in 1014, the Byzantine emperor Basil II inflicted a crushing defeat on the Bulgarians in the battle of Kleidion. By 1018 the First Bulgarian Empire had ceased to exist.

Fast forward a century and a half, when in 1185 the Bulgarians made a comeback. Two aristocrat brothers from Tarnovo rebelled against the emperor and the elder one of them was soon crowned Peter IV of Bulgaria. He was succeeded by his young and ambitious brother Kaloyan in 1197 who led several wars which restored much of the previous territory of the First Bulgarian Empire. Kaloyan persuaded the Pope into recognizing him as an emperor. He boosted the country’s prestige furthermore by crushing the newly-found Latin state and restoring the Byzantine empire. His death was a warrior’s death – he died in battle. After his death in 1207 there was a decade of internal conflicts, which were resolved in 1218 when Ivan Asen II inherited the throne. Another capable and ambitious ruler, he restored and expanded the long-lost territory of the First Bulgarian Empire. Unlike Kaloyan, most of Ivan Asen’s conquests were the result of diplomatic actions.

After Ivan Asen II’s death in 1241 the Empire declined under constant invasions from neighbouring countries and internal conflicts. The beginning of the 14th century saw some recovery but the Bulgarian aristocrats were left too uncontrolled and eventually the country was split in three parts. This resulted in Ottoman conquest of all Bulgarian land by 1396.

The National awakening of Bulgaria began with the work of Paisius of Hilendar, who opposed Greek domination of Bulgaria’s culture and religion. His Istoria Slavyanobolgarskaya (History of the Slav-Bulgarians), which appeared in 1762, was the first work of Bulgarian historiography. In it, he criticized Bulgarians who were ashamed of their origin. The book became widely popular and began the movement for Bulgarian independence. Over a century, the nation became enlightened and better educated. It was the struggle to revive an independent Bulgarian church which first roused Bulgarian nationalist sentiment. In 1870 the Bulgarian Exarchate was formed. Six years later, in the April Uprising, large parts of the nation revolted against Ottoman rule. The rebellion was crushed, resulting in 30 000 Bulgarian deaths, which in turn got the attention of the Great Powers.

Russia waged a war on the Ottoman Empire in April 1877 and by January 1878, Bulgaria was liberated. The treaty of San Stefano created a large Bulgarian state, but the later treaty of Berlin revised it and scaled back the territory. Much of the Bulgarian territories were returned to the Empire, while others were given to Serbia and Romania. Thus, the politics and direction in which the young Bulgarian state would be going, is that of reunification of lost land. Every single subsequent war that Bulgaria participated in had one objective – restore Bulgaria as it had been created with the treaty of San Stefano.

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