Bulgarian lands are among the oldest civilized territories in the world. They were inhabited in early days of history and since then many known and unknown tribes and peoples have crossed them. Some went further west, others stayed for a short period, and for still others these lands become part of their destiny. All of them leave traces of their presence and have a share in the rich Bulgarian cultural and historical heritage. Bulgaria has preserved many cultural strata and some of them – like the Thracian stratum – are unique. These cultural strata coexisted and interacted through the centuries in a special way offering remarkable examples of artifacts. Some of the peoples who have lived in Bulgarian territories: Thracians, Ancient Greeks, Romans, Slavs and Proto-Bulgarians, Turks, invasions of crusaders, Russian and Tartar tribes… Bulgarian antiquity is so rich that every year more and more proofs of ancient civilizations are discovered.
Bulgaria is situated in a sensitive geographic area on the Old Continent. For that reason its history is rich in stormy and dramatic periods, cataclysms and abrupt changes. Invasions of various religions follow one after the other and the relatively short periods of peace and calm are marked by political events and important regional and world conflicts. All this inevitably puts its stamp on the life of Bulgarians. Years of economic and cultural prosperity, of territorial integrity, are replaced by periods of foreign rule. One thing stays unchanged however – Bulgarians’ love of freedom and their tenacity in the preservation of national identity with sword and blood, with literacy and speech, which can be followed through the pages of history. What remains unchanged is Bulgarian creative optimism and the everlasting strive for self-perfection following the best examples in the world.
If you start a conversation with Bulgarians about their history you cannot miss their involvement and you will learn about the reasons for the pride as well as the sufferings of the Bulgarians. You are sure to learn about great victories on the battlefield, starting with the battle of Khan Kroum in the Vurbitza Passage, the victories of Simeon, Kaloyan, Ivan-Assen II, and finishing up with the victory of the young Bulgarian army over the Turks at Edirne in 1912. You will hear about the great deeds of the brothers Cyril and Methodius who set the foundations of a cultural development which is still alive today and about their numerous disciples. But you will inevitably also learn about the long periods of foreign oppression, the unrealized idea of national unification of all Bulgarians in a single state within their ethnic boundaries.
We hope that this information will arouse your interest in the fate of the Bulgarian people and acquaint you with the long historical development of Bulgaria.
We have also tried to be concise describing only the most important facts and events in the history of Bulgaria of many centuries. Our only goal has been to formulate a fundamental and most general concept of this history.
People come closer only when they know each other. After acquaintance comes friendship. In this sense we hope that you will become true friends of our country.
The land that gave birth to the legendary Orpheus and Spartacus, Bulgaria is a country with a long, tumultuous and fascinating history. It has been invaded, conquered and settled by Greeks, Scythians, Romans, Byzantines and Turks, all of whom left their indelible marks on the landscape. Bulgaria’s medieval ‘Golden Age’, when the Bulgar Khans ruled over one of the largest empires in Europe, was bright but brief, while 500 years of subsequent, brutal Turkish domination isolated the country from the rest of Europe. More recently, Bulgaria spent four decades as a totalitarian Soviet satellite, again leaving this small Balkan nation in the shadows as far as the Western world was concerned. It’s no wonder, then, that Bulgarians are so passionate about preserving their history and their culture, which has survived so often against the odds. In the last years of the 20th century Bulgaria began opening up, and is one of the newest members of the EU.
Excavations of caves near Pleven (in the Danubian plains in northern Bulgaria) and in the Balkan Mountains have indicated human habitation as far back as the Upper Palaeolithic Period around 40 000 BC. However, archaeologists now believe that the earliest permanent settlers, arriving around 6000 BC, were Neolithic people who lived in caves, such as at Yagodina in the southern Rodopi Mountains and later, between about 5500 BC and 4500 BC, in round mud huts.
The Greek historian Herodotus tells us that the population of Thrace was ‘greater than that of any country in the world except India, and that if the various tribes ever united under a single leader, then they would be the most powerful nation on earth; history, of course, tells us that they never did get their act together.
Remains of Thracian settlements can be found along the Black Sea coast near Burgas and at the town of Mesembria (Nesebâr), while other remnants can be found on Nebet Tepe in Plovdiv, where the Thracians built the fortress of Eumolpias in about 5000 BC. Other Thracian settlements grew into the modern-day towns of Stara Zagora, Sandanski, Melnik, Bansko, Smolyan, Shumen and Madara.
Arrival of the greeks…
From the 7th century BC onwards, enterprising Greeks sailed up the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria seeking out good harbours and trade opportunities, and founded settlements including Apollonia Pontica (modern-day Sozopol), Odessos (Varna), Mesembria (Nesebâr), Krounoi (Balchik) and Pirgos (Burgas). They established large ports for exporting wheat, fish and salt, and traded Greek pottery for Thracian metalwork and jewellery.
…and the romans
The Romans defeated the Macedonian Empire in 168 BC, but it wasn’t until the middle of the 1st century AD that they began making inroads into the territory of the Thracians, occupying major Greek ports such as Mesembria (Nesebâr). They set up a base at Odessos (Varna), where the largest Roman ruins in Bulgaria, the great Roman Thermae complex, can still be seen.
Byzantines & bulgars
In 330 the city of Constantinople (modern Istanbul) was founded by the Roman emperor Constantine the Great on the site of ancient Byzantium, and was declared the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. The division of the empire meant that the Bulgarian provinces were now ruled from that city. By the late 4th century, the Western Roman Empire fell apart, but the East continued for another thousand years, as the Byzantine Empire. The 6th-century rule of Emperor Justinian the Great was a relatively peaceful time for Bulgaria – Sofia’s original Church of Sveta Sofia was built at this time – but the following centuries saw growing numbers of Slavs, Avars and Bulgars breaching the empire’s borders.
The 9th century was Bulgaria’s apogee in many ways, with several tsars expanding the kingdom’s territory: Khan Omurtag (r 814–831) captured Hungary in 829, and by the end of Khan Presian’s reign (r 837–852) the Bulgarian state encompassed a huge swath of southeastern Europe, including modern-day Romania, Moldova and Macedonia.In 865 Tsar Boris I (r 852–889) tried to unify the fledgling Bulgar-Slav Empire by converting it to Christianity. At about this time, an independent church was established and a Slavonic alphabet devised by two monks, Kiril and Metodii, known in English as Cyril and Methodius.
Under the yoke
The Ottoman Turks swarmed into the northern Balkan Peninsula in 1362 and within the next 30 years they had conquered all of Bulgaria, which was subsumed into the Ottoman Empire where it remained for the next five centuries. Turkish rule meant the imposition of a harsh feudal system, and the isolation of Bulgaria from the rest of Christian Europe. Huge numbers of Bulgarians – some estimates say half the entire population – were either killed or carried off into slavery and many churches and monasteries were destroyed or closed. Numerous uprisings were put down with cruel ferocity, and many Bulgarians emigrated.
Bulgaria’s monasteries had done much to preserve the country’s history and traditions during the darkest days of Turkish rule, and nationalist sentiment had never been entirely subdued. However, the era that was to become known as the Bulgarian National Revival was prompted by the work of a monk, Paisii Hilendarski, who wrote the first complete history of the Slav-Bulgarian people in 1762.
Revolution & freedom
Rebel leaders, such as Georgi Rakovski, Hristo Botev and Bulgaria’s iconic hero Vasil Levski, had been preparing a revolution against the Turks for years before the rebellion, known as the 1876 April Uprising, prematurely started at Koprivshtitsa.The Turks brutally suppressed the uprising: an estimated 30,000 Bulgarians were massacred and 58 villages were destroyed. The largest massacre occurred in the town of Batak. These atrocities caused outrage in Western Europe and led Russia to declare war on the Ottomans in 1877 after the indecisive Constantinople Conference. Major battles were fought at Pleven and Shipka Pass and about 200,000 Russian soldiers were killed throughout Bulgaria during the year-long Russo-Turkish War. As the Russian army, and its Bulgarian volunteers, crushed the Turks and advanced to within 50km of Istanbul, the Ottomans accepted defeat. It ceded 60% of the Balkan Peninsula to Bulgaria in the Treaty of San Stefano, signed on 3 March 1878.
The nascent state
On 16 April 1879 the first Bulgarian national assembly was convened at Veliko Târnovo in order to adopt a constitution, and on 26 June of that year Alexander Battenberg, a German prince, was elected head of state. On 6 September 1885 the principality of Bulgaria and Eastern Rumelia were reunified after a bloodless coup. This contravention of the Treaty of Berlin angered the central European powers and Turkish troops advanced to the southern border of the reunified Bulgaria.
Serbia, supported by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, suddenly declared war on Bulgaria. Heroic Bulgarian border guards defied the odds and repelled advancing Serbian troops while the Bulgarian army hurriedly moved from the Turkish border to the western front. Eventually, the Bulgarians defeated the Serbs and advanced deep within Serbian territory. Austria intervened, calling for a ceasefire, and the Great Powers recognised the reunified Bulgaria.
Bulgaria entered WWI on the side of the Central Powers (which ironically included Turkey) in 1915. Facing widespread opposition to his pro-German policies, Ferdinand abdicated three years later in favour of his son, Boris III.
At the beginning of WWII Bulgaria declared its neutrality. However, by 1941 German troops advancing towards Greece were stationed along the Danube on Bulgaria’s northern border with Romania. To avoid a war it could not win, and tempted by Hitler’s offer of Macedonia in return for assistance, the militarily weak Bulgarian government decided to join the Axis. Bulgaria allowed the Nazis into the country and officially declared war on Britain and France, but it refused to accede to demands that it declare war on Russia. Spurred by public opinion, the Bulgarian government also held back from handing over the country’s 50,000 Jews to the Third Reich. Tsar Boris III died suddenly on 28 August 1943, one week after meeting Hitler, prompting the inevitable conspiracy theories about murder, through slow-acting poison, though current research has found no evidence of this. Boris’ infant son succeeded him as Tsar Simeon II.
The Fatherland Front won the November 1945 elections and the communists gained control of the new national assembly. Under leader Georgi Dimitrov, a new constitution, created on the Soviet model, proclaimed the People’s Republic of Bulgaria on 15 September 1946. The royal family was forced into exile.
The return of democracy
By 1989 perestroika was sending shock waves throughout Eastern Europe. On 10 November 1989 an internal Communist Party coup led to the resignation of the ageing Zhivkov, and the Communist Party agreed to relinquish its monopoly on power, changing its name to the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP). In opposition, a coalition of 16 different groups formed the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF).