Bulgarian history

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Primitive tribes were living on Bulgarian soil as far back as the Neolithic period (40,000-10,000 BC). Around 3000 BC the Thracian people arrived and settled in the area now known as the valley of Thrace. They lived by breeding cattle, making ceramics or working gold and copper. They carried on trade with the Dacians (Romanians), Mycennaen Greeks, Illyrians (Albanians) and the Macedonians.

About 300 BC, one of the tribes, called the Odrysses, laid the foundations for the Thracian state which flourished during two centuries, despite invasions from Scythians, Sarmatians and Celts. In 29 BC the Thracian hero Spartacus resisted a Roman invasion but in 45 AD the Romans finally managed to crush resistance and the Thracian state became part of the Roman Empire. By 300 AD the weakness of the Roman Empire led to invasions from the North of Visigoths, Huns and Ostrogoths, when Thracian villages were burned and plundered. When the Roman Empire was divided in 395 AD Thrace remained under the jurisdiction of Byzantium.

In the late 5th and early 6th centuries Slav tribes arrived from the North. Seven of these tribes invaded the Danube Plain which was called the Moesia Region at this time. When the Byzantines tried to reconquer this territory the Slav tribes united to resist and thus formed a Slavonic state. Around 650 AD the Bulgars, a Turkic-Tartar tribe, were forced to emigrate from the Russian Plains. One third moved South under the leadership of Tartar Khan Asparuh and settled on the Thracian plain.

First Bulgarian state

In 681 AD the Bulgars defeated the Byzantine army and united themselves with the Slavonic tribes against the Byzantines, founding the first Bulgarian state. This new state was governed by a khan with the help of Slavic and Bulgar princes. There was a period of assimilation for 200 years which created a nationality which took the name of the Bulgar but culturally was strongly influenced by Slavonic civilisation.

The 8th and 9th centuries were considered to be the Golden Age of Bulgaria. The state grew in size and strength and many of the khans (especially Kroum, 803-14, Boris, 852-89, Simeon, 893-927) enlarged the territory at the expense of the Serbs, Macedonians, Greeks and Romanians and drove back the Barbarians and Byzantines. A feudal nobility was formed and Christianity was introduced. Khan Boris was christened in 865 and set up the first self-governing Eastern church. Many churches were built and richly decorated. Bulgaria became the centre of Slavonic culture.

In 886 Khan Boris invited disciples of St Cyril and St Methodius including St Kliment to settle in Ohrid, which was at that time the second city in Bulgaria. St Kliment devised an alphabet for writing Bulgarian which he named Cyrillic after St Cyril. This alphabet was later adopted by the Russians.

Khan Simeon defeated the Byzantine army at Aheloi in 917 which led to the annexation of Macedonia and Thrace. The reigns of Petar 1 (927-69) and Boris II (969-71) were marked by increasingly violent conflicts among the nobility. Byzantium also posed a constant threat. Religious unrest was also evident. Bulgarians began to question Christian teachings as they heard them in their own language. The Bogomils of Bulgaria were a religious sect who practised a radical dualistic doctrine, severe asceticism and imitation of the apostles' lives. The Kathari sect which spread to France and Italy developed out of this doctrine. A full-scale onslaught by Byzantium reduced the Bulgarian Kingdom to a rump known as the Western Kingdom which was ruled from Ohrid. Khan Samil was responsible for partly restoring the old kingdom until he died after the battle of Strumnitsa in 1014. Ohrid was captured in 1018 and the whole of Bulgaria became a Byzantine province.

During the period of Byzantine domination the Orthodox church was largely Hellenised and Bulgarian architecture and art were influenced by Byzantine styles. The Bulgarians also suffered from the first and fourth Crusades which passed through the country.

1185-1393 2nd Bulgarian state

In 1185 a revolution led by the boyars (feudal lords) Petâr and Asen resulted in the Khans taking back territory and proclaiming the Second Kingdom with its capital in Veliko Târnovo.

Khan Kaloyan (1197-1207) recaptured Varna and parts of Macedonia and Thrace from Byzantium and won victory over the Latin Empire at Adrianople in 1205.

Ivan Asen II (1218-41) restored order following a period of anarchy during the reign of Khan Boril. In 1230 he defeated Epirus in the battle of Klokotnitsa. At this time Bulgaria's frontiers ranged from the Adriatic and Aegean to the Black Sea. This was the zenith of medieval Bulgarian development. Decoration from this period can be seen in churches such as Sveti Nikolas in Ohrid and monasteries such as Rila.

In 1235 a Bulgarian patriarchy was established. From 1242 there were Mongol incursions and in 1285 the Empire disintegrated into feudal territories, being revived briefly during the reign of Ivan Aleksander (1331-71). This feudal disorder meant that the threat from the Ottoman Turks could not be withstood and in 1393 two-thirds of Bulgaria was overrun and Veliko Târnovo destroyed. In 1396, despite desperate resistance by the town of Vidin, the rest of the country was conquered and Bulgaria became the province of Roumelia in the Ottoman Empire.

Ottoman rule

During the Ottoman rule the social and economic development of the Bulgarian people stood still. The Turks forbade any building that might rival their own constructions. New churches were not allowed to be taller than the Turkish mosques so churches were built half sunk into the ground and decorated in the simplest manner. A sizable Muslim population grew up among the Bulgarians as taxes were lower for Muslims. Some conversions were made at the point of a sword especially in the Rhodopes and some children were taken from their parents as a form of tax, brainwashed, and made fanatical Muslims. These Janissaries, as they were called, formed the backbone of the Turkish army.

National revival and the 3rd Bulgarian state

A movement for national and religious independence developed around the end of the 18th and early 19th centuries. There was also a Bulgarian economic and cultural renaissance as painters and craftsmen joined the revolutionaries. As the Turks reduced their hold a class of tradesmen grew up who traded with the West on behalf of the Ottoman Empire. Houses were built in a new style with two storeys and very ornate woodwork. Resistance against the Turks meant that many Bulgarians became Haiduks or outlaws who took refuge in the mountain regions. These men were honoured in many folk songs (for example the song which accompanies the dance Širto is "Sleznai Paule ot Balkana" - Sleznai Paule from the Balkans).

In 1870 the struggle for religious independence from the Greek Patriarchate was successful. After the Crimean War (1853-56) the Bulgarian national liberation movement gained force. Vasil Levsky went round the country setting up revolutionary committees to prepare for the uprising. In 1873 he was captured and hanged by the Ottoman authorities but the liberation movement continued.

The poet Kristov Botev (1848-76) carried on the political struggle against the Turks. He died in the Pirin mountains at the age of 28 while leading a group of soldiers.

In 1876 the April uprising was suppressed with much bloodshed which aroused indignation throughout Europe and in 1877 Russia declared war on the Ottoman Empire, thus helping to liberate Bulgaria from the Turks. Russians, Romanians and Bulgarians fought together in the War of Liberation 1877-78, and 1878 marked the end of Ottoman domination with the Peace of San Stefano. Bulgaria was split and the Turks regained control over Macedonia and Thrace and Eastern Roumelia. Sofia was named as capital of Bulgaria.

In 1885 Bulgaria acquired Eastern Roumelia against the wishes of Russia & Serbia. This acquisition was formally recognised in the Treaty of Bucharest in 1886.

Alexander von Battenburg, nephew of the Tsarina, was chosen to be the reigning Prince, but was later forced to resign due to his incompetence. He was succeeded by Prince Frederick of Saxe-Cobourg-Kohary.

The 1st and 2nd Balkan Wars were fought in 1912 and 1913. These wars began when Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece united to drive the Turks out of Eastern Roumelia (Lower Thrace and Macedonia) and then proceeded to squabble over the division of the spoils! In the Peace of Bucharest Bulgaria was forced to renounce claims on Macedonia and surrender Southern Dobrudža to Romania. Following the outbreak of the First World War Bulgaria was promised the return of both these territories if they formed an alliance with Germany. This alliance led to punishment in the Peace treaty signed at Neuilly in 1919, when Bulgaria was forced to cede South West Thrace to Greece and most of Macedonia to Serbia. This meant that Bulgaria lost access to the Aegean Sea.

Bulgaria was ruled by a government led by the Agrarian party under Alexander Stamboliiski. This government did not last very long. In June 1923 a military fascist coup d'état was carried out and in September the world's first anti-fascist uprising led by the Bulgarian Communist Party under Dimitâr Blagoev and Georgi Dimitrov broke out. This was brutally suppressed and was followed by a period of rule by the right wing "Peoples Alliance". The Communist party was banned.

Southern Dobrudža was regained from Romania in 1940.

In the 2nd World War Bulgaria again succumbed to alliance with Germany following the promise of the return of Macedonia. On September 8th 1944 the USSR declared war and crossed the Danube. Bulgarian army officers and partisan brigades joined forces with the Soviets and Sofia was taken. On the next day the rest of Bulgaria was taken. The 9th September was named as Liberation Day. The Fatherland Front took over the government and the Communist party increased from 15,000 members to 250,000 members during the following six months. In 1946, following a referendum the monarchy was abolished and on September 15th the Fatherland Front led by Georgi Dimitrov proclaimed the Peoples' Republic. In 1947 opposition by the "peasant party" was shattered, a new constitution was drawn up and 2273 enterprises were nationalised.

Dimitrov's successor Valko Chervenkov was nicknamed "Little Stalin". In 1956 Todor Zhivkov succeeded him as Party Leader.

In 1971 a new constitution entrusted leadership of society and state to the Communist Party with Zhivkov as Chairman of Council of State. In 1987 Zhivkov announced the Bulgarian equivalent of Perestroika and in 1989 Bulgaria underwent a bloodless revolution. The first open election took place in 1990 and this resulted in the return of the restructured "Communist" party (called the Socialist party") to power. Finally in 1991 the Communist party lost its hold and a coalition government was appointed.


© Eliznik2005, Last updated Aug-06