18 Apr 2013

Bulgaria Through The Years - A Crossroad of Civilisations


Although Romans, Slavs, Byzantines and the Ottoman Turks have all ruled the region, no civilisation has had a greater influence on Bulgaria's history than the Proto-Bulgarians, whose leader Khan Asparuh founded the first Bulgarian Empire in the 7th Century (610-1018). His rule continued to expand until it encompassed the eastern part of the Balkan Peninsula and present day Macedonia (Macedonians are still considered Bulgarians by the Bulgarian nationalists).

Leader Khan Asparuh founded the first Bulgarian Empire

In 865, under Tsar Boris I, the Bulgarian's accepted Orthodox Christianity as the nations official religion. In 870, the Bulgarian Church became independent with its own patriarch, which encouraged Tsar Simeon (893-927) to expand his kingdom through Serbia to the Adriatic Sea. Simeon's kingdom shrank once again however when he overstretched his hands towards the Byzantine crown. This weakened Bulgaria, making it an easy target for the Byzantine emperor, Basill II, who successfully conquered Bulgaria a short time later in 1014. To celebrate his victory, Basill II ordered the eyes of over 15 000 Bulgarian soldiers to be removed. Within four years, Bulgaria was completely under Byzantine rule.

The second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396) was founded after two brothers, Asen and Peter, led a general uprising against the Byzantine rule. Surging with a renewed confidence, the new Bulgarian empire soon covered all of Thrace, Macedonia and Albania. However by the end of the 14th century, the Turks controlled all of Bulgaria, beginning five centuries of Ottoman rule.

By the end of the 14th century, all of Bulgaria was held by the Turks

As repressive regimes go, the Turks were not too bad, making no systematic attempts to convert the Bulgarians to Islam or to eradicate their language and customs. It was only as the Turkish power weakened in the 18th century that Bulgarians began to suffer rising taxes and inflation as the Turkish attempted to retain control of the country after a series of unsuccessful wars against the Austrians and Russians. Resentment brewed amongst the Bulgarian population and the Turks responded by introducing reforms aimed at assimilating the Bulgarians, but it was too late.

In the early 19th century, popular customs and folklore blossomed during this national revival period, while underground revolutionaries plotted to rid Bulgaria of the Turks once and for all. When a revolt broke out prematurely at the village of Koprivshtitsa in April 1876, the Turks suppressed it with unprecedented brutality.

Russian troops came to Bulgaria's rescue in the late 1870's and as the Russian army advanced within 50kms of Istanbul, Turkey conceded 60% of the Balkan Peninsula to Bulgaria. The modern history of Bulgaria and the Bulgarian “little brother” complex in relation to Russia dates back to this 1878 liberation. Bulgaria sided with Germany at the outbreak of WWII but Tsar Boris III refused to declare war on Russia.

Tsar Boris III refused to declare war on ally Russia during WWII

Under the communist Todor Zhivkov, Bulgaria's leader from 1954-1989, Bulgaria fell badly behind the other Eastern European countries. The collapse of communism in 1989 left industry exposed and the transition to democracy has been a troubled one. The renamed communist party (now the Bulgarian Socialist Party) managed to control the direction of a newly democratic Bulgaria. In June 2001, the Bulgarian monarchy made an unprecedented comeback when former King Simeon II was elected Prime Minister. Progress continues under the current government and Bulgaria has since qualified for membership of both NATO and the EU.

Communist Leader of Bulgaria from 1954-1989, Todor Zhivkov