History of Bulgaria – part 2 – the First Bulgarian kingdom
As mentioned in the previous post, modern Bulgaria was formed from the unity of two peoples – the Slouth Slavic tribes that migrated from North Europe and the Bulgars that came from Central Asia. The ancient homeland of these Slavic tribes is in North-west Europe (around the 1st century AD), in the lands starting from the Baltic sea and the territories of modern Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, reaching south to the Carpathian mountains. During the Migration period, they went along with the numerous nomadic tribes and got all the way to south to the Danube and the territories north from the Black sea. Some of the typical characteristics of a Slavic person are tallness, blond hair, blue eyes and the strong martial spirit. In the years before the coming of the Bulgars to the Balkans (491 – 681), Slavic tribes were frequently attacking and devastating the northern territories of Byzantium, but their settlements remained mostly north of the Danube.
In the meantime, the Bulgars were part of the attacking force of Hunnic empire. They were one of the nomadic tribes that came from Asia and conquered large territories in Europe. After the death of Atilla the Hun, his empire collapsed and the Bulgars started fighting for their own independence. Atilla has been often mentioned as the first legendary Khan (“king”, title for rules in turkic and mongolian languages) of the Bulgars.
Old Great Bulgaria north of the Black Sea
This is is the first Bulgarian state that was established in Europe and was officially recognized by the authorities in Constantinople. Old Great Bulgaria got the attention of Byzantium with its very establishment for two reasons: the new country was on former territories of the Eastern Roman Empire in Crimea and at the same time the Romans needed an ally against Persia and the new-coming nomadic tribes. For this reason, in 635 the Bulgarian Khan, Kubrat, was given the title Patrician and he was baptized in Christianity. During his rule Bulgaria has good relations with the Romans, but after his death in 660 and attacks by the Hazars, the state collapses. The sons of Khan Kubrat fought with the Hazars and were divided – Khan Asparukh moved south-west to the delta of the Danube with a part of the Bulgarian tribes, while Khan Kotrag led the tribes under his authority north-east to the steps of the river Volga, where he established Volga Bulgaria (at the territory of modern Tatarstan, who’s people are descendants of the Bulgars).
The first Bulgarian kingdom – Moving to the Balkans
When Khan Asparukh was moving towards the Balkans, the Bulgars were already familiar with the south Slavic peoples, their language and culture – this is a good reason why it was very easy win them as allies against Byzantium.
Byzantium at that time is attacked from all sides and incapable of defending itself adequately – the Arabs invaded the southern territories in Asia Minor and even got to the capital city – Constantinople, causing great damage. In the following years the Bulgars, together with the Slavic tribes, were invading without major resistance further south the territories Byzantium and this led to the peace contract of 681, which is considered as the official year of establishment of Danube Bulgaria. The peace, of course was not stable – there rarely were more than 20 years without fights between Bulgaria and Byzantium, because the Romans considered this contract with a barbaric people a shame for the Empire.
One of the notable battles between Bulgarians and Byzantium was during the reign of Khan Krum (803-814). At that time Bulgaria has expanded even further south on the Balkans, conquering large territories of Thrace (which refers to the land south from Stara Planina) and Macedonia (the historical region of Northern Greece. Because of this, Emperor Nikephoros made the decision to defeat and put an end to the Bulgarian Kingdom (Khannate). In the summer of 811 he started a massive military campaign against the capital city – Pliska. His forces managed to devastate the capital and the northern lands, but on the way back to Constantinople, which was through one of the narrow passage through the Balkan, the Varbishki passage, he fell into a Bulgarian ambush. The Byzantian army was defeated and the Emperor was killed. The Bulgarian Khan Krum used the scull of Emperor Nikephoros to make a bowl, which was plated with silver and used for toasts at celebrations.
Religion and Culture in the First Bulgarian Kingdom
The Slavic tribes and the Bulgars who established the Bulgarian state on the Balkans together formed the Bulgarian nation – only a few hundred years after they were speaking a unique Bulgaro-slavic language and a culture that combined their different traditions. Slavic paganism was a polytheistic belief system that had Perun as а main god and over 30 other deities, while the Bulgars followed a specific type of Shamanism and (probably) worshiped Tengri (pronouced Thangra in Bulgarian) as their only god.
In 864 the Bulgarian Khan Boris I (st. Tsar Boris I Michael) in order to further unite the two ethnic components of Bulgaria and establish better relations with Byzantium, made the hard decision to replace the pagan religions with Orthodox Christianity. The act of adopting Christianity is of significant political and educational importance – the Bulgarian language was declared as the 4th sacred language, (until that moment writing and worship was allowed only in Latin, Greek and Hebrew). For the needs of the church and education a new
alphabet was created by st. Cyrillus and st. Methodius – the Glagolitic, and later the Cyrillic. This was the first Slavic alphabet, designed to perfectly meet the needs of the Bulgarian language. Before the new script was made, Bulgarians used Runes and Greek letters for writing. The Glagolitic alphabet, which was originally created by st. Methodius and st. Cyrillus was not well accepted by the administration in the capital, which had gotten used to using Greek letters and because of this the Cyrillic was forged by adding specific letters to the Greek alphabet, making it easier to use. The Glagolitic script was used in the church and in other countries until the 14th century, when it was completely replaced by the Cyrillic.
Golden age of the First Bulgarian Kingdom
After Boris I adopted Christianity, all Bulgarian rulers bear the title Tsar (slavinized pronunciation of Caesar), this is also when the Bulgarian kingdom (khannate) was recognized by the western world and became a true empire. The reign of the inheritor of st. Boris I Michael, Tsar Simeon the Great (893-927) is referred to as the Golden age. During this period, Bulgaria is at its largest extent – covering the territories of almost the entire Balkans, including modern Macedonia, most of Greece and Romania and even got close to conquering Constantinople. Simeon was entitled “Emperor (Tsar) of all Bulgarians and Greeks”.
This period is also a Golden age of education – thousands of books were written and translated into the new sacred language and served not only Bulgaria, but were distributed to the entire Slavic world (leading to what is called in science “The first South Slavic influence”). There were two main educational centers – Pliska and Preslav (capital from 893 to 972 ) and the Ohrid Literary School (today in Macedonia) which can be considered as one of the first universities of Europe.
Decline and Byzantine Conquest
After the death of Tsar Simeon the Great, the Bulgarian army was exhausted, and his inheritor, Tsar Peter did not manage to keep the large new territories. Bulgaria started loosing the ongoing wars with Byzantium, while military campaign by the Magyars and attacks by the Pechenegs in 943, 948, 958 and 962 further weakened the country. In 968 the Russian Knyaz Svetoslav attacked devastated north-eastern Bulgaria with an army of 60.000 Russians and Normans. This all led to the loss of eastern territories and the capital – Preslav. The Bulgarian ruler’s last resort was Ohrid (today in Macedonia) which was the last capital of the kingdom. Bulgarians fought for their independence until 1018 when Ohrid was also conquered by Basil II – nicknamed “The killer of Bulgarians”, who was given this name because of the savage way he treated the last captured Bulgarian army – he blinded all Bulgarian soldiers, leaving one in every 100 with a single eye to lead them back to Ohrid. When Tsar Samuil saw his crippled army, he died of a heart-attack.
After loosing this last battle, the lands of the Bulgarian empire soon fall entirely under Byzantine rule. Read about the restoration of Bulgaria and the uprising of Asenevtsi of 1186 from the next article.